Star Power Lights a Michigan Stage

Actor Jeff Daniels, of `Dumb and Dumber,' founded the Purple Rose Theater Company

FILM star Jeff Daniels grew up in the rural Michigan village of Chelsea performing in plays about life in New York City. This always struck him as silly, and now he's doing something about it.

Never comfortable in New York or Hollywood, Mr. Daniels moved back to this village of 4,000 in 1989 with his wife, Kathleen, to raise their three children. Two years later, he founded the Purple Rose Theater Company.

With a budget of $500,000 and a staff of 15, the Purple Rose stages four plays a year in a 119-seat theater whose building has been everything from a bus garage, to a pizzeria, to a plumbing-parts store.

But what makes this small professional theater unique from other such outfits is its mission: to produce plays written, directed, deigned, and performed solely by Michigan residents.

The objective, explains artistic director Newell Kring, is not only to develop local talent, but to chip away at the influence that New York and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, hold over the theater world.

``Only 6 percent of the American public attends the theater,'' Mr. Kring says. ``We need to find a way to reach out to the other 94, to speak to them in their own language, to put people on stage that they can relate to.''

Many of the new plays coming out of New York, Kring argues, are aimed at the world's most sophisticated theatergoers. He says such ``snobbery'' threatens to turn American theater into an ``elitist forum.''

Besides, it's hard for people in the heartland to appreciate plays set in densely packed urban areas. ``New York themes serve New York's needs,'' he says, ``but we're in a rural setting where the personality of the people is different. We need to develop a middle American voice that speaks to a middle American sensibility.''

Daniels, who once worked as a stage actor in New York, says he patterned the Purple Rose after Circle Rep, the legendary Off-Broadway theater company, which he describes as ``an assembly line of creativity,'' rife with tormented playwrights and eager young thespians.

While Daniels has never performed here, he pens one play for the company every year, including ``The Vast Difference'' the story of a male flight attendant, which garnered strong reviews and later showed at Detroit's Gem Theater.

During a week of previews for the current Purple Rose production ``Only Me and You,'' the theater's commitment to developing talent was much in evidence. After the show, Kring, along with playwright Kim Carney and director Guy Sanville, took the stage to hear feedback from the audience.

``Only Me and You'' is the story of an actress from Detroit who asks a schizophrenic woman to help her prepare for a role in which she portrays someone diagnosed with this condition.

Most of the audience questions centered around abstractions in the show: three hooded figures meant to represent ``the furies,'' a telephone conversation between the characters that occurs without telephones, and a simulated bomb blast.

``How many of you thought that the bomb went off?'' Kring asks the audience. ``OK,'' he continues, ``how many of you knew Connie was building a bomb?''

``They have something very unusual here,'' theatergoer Rita Friedman says after the show. ``The theater is very cozy and intimate, and you feel as though you get to know the actors. You never know what to expect.''

While Daniels is not involved in the day-to-day operation of the theater, his star power is certainly its strongest draw. Daniels, whose movie credits include ``Terms of Endearment,'' ``Something Wild,'' ``Arachnophobia,'' ``Gettysburg,'' ``Speed,'' and the Woody Allen film ``The Purple Rose of Cairo'' for which the theater is named, currently stars with Jim Carrey in the hit ``Dumb and Dumber.''

Always looking for a way to plug his pet project, Daniels has arranged for separate Detroit premieres of his movies and has donated all proceeds to the Purple Rose. He has also lined up hundreds of patrons, including Woody Allen.

While Kring admits that curiosity about Daniels draws many people to the Purple Rose, he insists that ``we only get them in here once because of the big boy. After that, we have to give them a reason to come back.''

According to Alan Ribant, managing director of the Purple Rose, the company makes $300,000 a year on ticket sales, concessions, and T-shirts during its 42-week season, and requires another $200,000 in private gifts.

While the theater receives no government money, Mr. Ribant says the Purple Rose is drafting an application for a grant from the embattled National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

While the Purple Rose seems like a good candidate for federal funding, Kring explains that winning NEA money usually requires four of five tries and a proven ability to balance the budget. The lure of NEA funding is not so much the cash itself, he says, but the recognition.

``Once we get NEA support, then we can go to the major patrons in the area like Ford and General Motors and get the kind of serious funding we need.''

Nationally, theaters like the Purple Rose are not a rarity. According to Barbara Janowitz of the Theater Communications Group in New York, a crop of small professional theaters has blossomed across the nation in the last 15 years. These theaters hire only a limited number of paid actors, she says, and rely heavily on amateur talent.

This trend has created what Kring considers an excellent market for theater companies that develop original works for small settings. ``Obviously I can't do `Camelot' on this stage,'' he says.

If Chelsea's experience is any indication, this proliferation of small theaters can only mean good things for their host communities.

``It used to be that nobody knew where Chelsea was, now everybody knows,'' says Ann Feeney, executive director of the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce. ``That has a lot to do with the Purple Rose.''

While she says the Purple Rose is not the only force behind Chelsea's current prosperity, Ms. Feeney credits it with helping to attract tourists - who in turn help to support a cadre of new restaurants, boutiques, and bed and breakfasts.

``People come to the theater from all over the state,'' she says. ``I profess to know everybody in town, but when I go to the theater, I don't know anybody.''

Apparently, she adds, some people are so enchanted with Chelsea, they're coming back in moving trucks.

``You used to be able to shoot a cannon through my church on Sunday,'' Feeney says, ``Now you can't get a seat.''

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