One of the most auspicious benefits of having a professional theater company in Ann Arbor is an event such as the Fireside Festival of New York. The Fireside Festival is an annual gathering of various professional theater companies such as the Jewish Ensemble Theatre of West Bloomfield and the Purple Rose Theatre Company of Chelsea to exchange ideas and scripts to present to the Midwestern community.

Paul Wong
Stacey Cole as Picket Pie handcuffed to Robyn Heller as Nola.<br><br>Courtesy of Performance Network

“Our goal is to draw theater enthusiasts from Chicago, Toledo and other midwestern cities,” said Johanna Braughton, director and executive director of the Performance Network. “We have even had a busload of kids from Bowling Green,” she said.

The Fireside Festival includes a 12-hour marathon of 24 plays, which includes several staged readings and the original play, “Cherchez Dave Robicheaux” by Nancy Wright, which is the crowning glory of the occasion. “Cherchez” is the story of a seemingly ordinary woman from Indiana who has recently been beleaguered by a tragedy and finds solace in fiction. Perhaps too much solace, as she soon finds herself smitten with the fictional character, Dave Robicheaux and embarks on a mission to find him.

Braughton describes it as “neither a comedy, nor a drama,” but rather as “both.” She maintains that the Network is hoping to attract a diverse audience, not necessarily gung-ho theater enthusiasts, but also those who are interested in intellectual stimulus.

“We have a pretty broad market, but it is not really defined by any age. The same people who go to see “Austin Powers” may not want to see this,” Braughton said. “It”s a play about how to find magic in our everyday life and embracing the higher power of fiction,” she said.

“In typical performances, the actors have about 120-140 hours of rehearsal,” Braughton said. “But we scaled down the rehearsal process considerably for this performance.” Unlike most theatrical organizations, the Performance Network does not have different scenes within a production. Instead, one “universal set” is used throughout a performance. “The audience will be required to use their imagination,” she said.

A few of the works included in the “Staged Readings of New Plays” are Joanna Hastings” “Leaning Tower of Babel” and Rachel Urist”s “Clowns on Ice.” One of the most intrepid endeavors braved by the Festival has been the inclusion of feedback from the audience. The Festival wishes that by receiving community input after the readings, it will by the same token contribute to the growth of the theater community by “fostering the growth and development of original work.”

The performances produced by the Performance Network are undoubtedly by the Ann Arbor community and for the community. This is most evident in the commitment of all of the actors and actresses employed by the company who have made a definite commitment to theatre as a lifelong vocation.

“One of the things that we as theatre professionals really take to heart, especially after Sept. 11, is the philosophy that theater at it”s heart is an a examination and celebration of the human spirit as well as a coming together of a community,” Braughton said.

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