Community invests in Performance Network Theatre

Courtesy of Performance Network Theatre

By Tehreem Sajjad, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 17, 2013

In the heart of Ann Arbor, amid the hustle and bustle of restaurants, shops and cafes, Performance Network Theatre is the perfect centerpiece for an elegant night in town. Founded in 1981, PNT has grown from a fledgling company to Ann Arbor’s resident professional theater. Over the years, it has won a wide variety of awards and nominations, garnering national recognition and leading the artistic quality and play selection in Michigan.

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Currently celebrating its 32nd year, PNT showcases seven shows each season that range from world-premier plays by both local and national playwrights to Broadway musicals.

The company’s performances have been recognized in all aspects of theater, including best acting, design and new script. In 2009 and 2011, PNT was nationally acclaimed for attaining the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award for performances of “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “It Came From Mars.”

“Performance Network has transformed from a number of performers and organizations that brought dance companies, musicians, clowning and theater to the organization and turned it into what is now a theater,” said Logan Ricket, associate development director at PNT.

In addition to its year-round professional productions, PNT runs the Children’s Theatre Network to provide original shows to entertain and educate Ann Arbor’s younger audience. Through Children’s Theatre Network, PNT also arranges theater workshops that teach students creativity, problem-solving skills and healthy self-expression.

The Fireside New Play Festival is another means through which PNT diversifies Ann Arbor’s entertainment palette. The festival is a live stage reading done by professional actors and directors. The audience is then allowed to provide feedback after the production. Presented three times each year, the festival showcases the works of new playwrights, providing them with the opportunity to have their work performed in front of a real-life audience.

PNT also immerses itself into the Ann Arbor community by giving emerging and established playwrights the opportunity to work closely with actors and directors through its Submit-A-Script program. Through this program, PNT not only serves the role of a stepping stool for new playwrights but also provides local playwrights the chance to have their work examined on a professional level.

“We need new voices in contemporary American theater,” said Erin Sabo, PNT’s managing director. “The reason why we are a member of the National New Play Network is so that we can nurture new playwrights and nurture the craft of American theater.” Sabo said the submission program provides writers feedback and, occasionally, a reading at the Fireside festival.

As a Commonweal Theatre, PNT reaches out to more than 40,000 patrons every year in order to keep a balanced budget. As Sabo explained, under 50 percent of the non-profit PNT’s income comes from ticket sales. The rest comes from individual donors and grants.

“Some of it is through personal appeals made through letters to some of our patrons, our subscribers and community members,” Sabo said. “We gather it by going to businesses who we appreciate in the area and ask them to either be an in-kind sponsor — which means providing food donations at an opening night — or a monetary sponsor, which is actually helping to underwrite some of our productions.”

Sabo said the theater’s “creative and capable” staff serves a crucial role in its success as a theater organization.

As a non-profit, PNT is affiliated with the Actors’ Equity Association of professional Actors and Stage Managers. Therefore, its primary purpose is not necessarily to make a profit. Rather, the money PNT earns is used to develop the theater in order to bring Broadway-quality performances to Ann Arbor’s doorstep. Nevertheless, the more support PNT gets from the community, the more it’s able do with the art, and the more it’s able to give back.

For instance, PNT’s partnership with Ann Arbor’s Elmo’s T-Shirts allows them to get discounted rates on printing services.

PNT relies on volunteer ushers throughout the season for all of its main stage productions and special events, as well as volunteers for administrative tasks and assisting other aspects of production. Individuals in the community, Sabo said, have donated costumes and props to shows in addition to monetary donations.

“In any way we can get support, we take it,” Sabo said.

That support can be attributed to PNT’s ability to provide unyielding aesthetic leadership in southeast Michigan over the past 32 years.

“A lot of it begins with word of mouth. We’ve been around Ann Arbor since 1981 — we’ve been around for 32 years. So, it’s been 32 years of people coming to our theater shows and loving what we do and 32 years of somebody telling their friend to tell their friend, and it’s also been 32 years of us learning — learning what grants are out there and where we can get support from,” Sabo said.

As a leader of PNT, Sabo is a member of the Cultural Leaders Forum, which brings together theater organizations once every month to provide support and offer ideas and advice to each other. PNT is also a member of the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance, which offers a similar service to theater companies.

“Theater is a funny, competitive business,” Sabo said, “where, yes, you want to compete, you want to have the better shows, but we are also — at the end of the day — doing something that we love. So we are all very supportive of each other in wanting the other to succeed.”

As a non-profit theater organization struggling through the economic recession, PNT is fortunate enough to have a very strong donor base that keeps it alive and functioning well. However, it’s also through the talent of PNT’s board members and staff that the organization is able to deliver high-caliber entertainment to Ann Arbor audiences.

“It’s more important for us to make sure that we are supporting the local artists in Michigan and helping them have a career in theater and not having to leave the state,” Sabo said. “That balance is a fine line that sometimes keeps me up at night.”