Straight from Broadway, after roles in "Mamma Mia," "Bonnie and Clyde," "9 to 5," and "Les Misérables," Michigan native Dan Cooney wanted to put on his own show(s). He decided Dexter was the right place, and he opened The Encore Theatre. Hear his story when he joins Deb Polich of Creative Washtenaw and WEMU’s David Fair on this edition of "creative:impact."
Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
HISTORY OF THE ENCORE MUSICAL THEATRE:
The Encore Musical Theatre Company was founded by high school friends Broadway actor Dan Cooney and Anne Koch, along with her husband Paul Koch. All three shared a love for the area and a belief that what it needed was a theater. From the birth of an idea to an initial production; a search for space to renovating a 6000 square foot factory garage; from constructing a stage to building a successful theatre company, in 2008 that dream was realized: we have been a non-profit professional musical theatre company, recognized by the Actors’ Equity Association, located in the historic city of Dexter, Michigan since 2009. Our mission is to create quality, original theatrical productions with an emphasis on Musical Theatre, utilizing a unique mixture of Broadway and the finest Michigan talent while engaging and entertaining a wide spectrum of the surrounding communities.
After launching our inaugural production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in February 2009, the Encore has produced over 75 productions, including many Gold Age classics, dazzling contemporary musicals, and new works. In their 12-year history, they have played host to several Broadway and award-winning artists including Tony Walton (Tony, Emmy and Oscar Winner), Jeremy Jordan (Newsies, Supergirl), Kathie Lee Gifford (Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, Daytime Emmy Winner), John McDaniel (The Rosie O’Donnell Show), Telly Leung (Aladdin, Glee), Jessica Grové (The Wizard of Oz, Thoroughly Modern Millie), Erika Henningsen (Mean Girls), Gary Adler (Avenue Q, Alter Boyz), Sarah Litzsinger (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), Michael Lanning (Bonnie & Clyde, The Civil War), Aaron LaVigne (Jesus Christ Superstar), Janet Allard (Playwright, Fulbright Fellow), Niko Tsakalakos (Composer/Lyricist), Larry Gatlin (The Gatlin Brothers), Conor Ryan (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), and many others.
The Encore is home to a successful Summer Theatre Program that began in 2010, educating children ages 5-18 each summer. In 10 years, the program has grown from 18 to over 150 students yearly and provides a safe and creative space for children in the surrounding communities; and also founded the Encore Junior program in 2015, giving children in our community to perform on our main stage in full-scale productions each season.
In 2018, the Maas Conservatory at The Encore was established through generous funding from the Benard L. Maas Foundation. Focusing on an immersive educational opportunity for high school-aged children wishing to pursue musical theatre beyond high school, the Conservatory provides advanced training in core concepts for the musical theatre actor.
In 2020, The Encore was given the opportunity to purchase the old Copeland school building just up the road from their first home, at 7714 Ann Arbor Street in Dexter. Renovations began in September 2020.
ABOUT DAN COONEY:
Dan Cooney is a professional actor, a director, and the founder of The Encore, a musical theatre company in Dexter, Michigan.
Cooney has performed on Broadway and in touring theatre, as well as regional theater, including Encore. He was last seen in Secret Garden and Fun Home before that.
Cooney is in the midst of a capital campaign to expand Encore Musical Theatre, and is developing a performing arts academy connected with the theatre.
The Encore has done very well over its decade+ of work winning Wilde Awards for Best Actress, Best Musical, Best Costumes and Best Music Direction.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and welcome to another edition of creative:impact, it is our weekly look at the local creative sector. I'm David Fair, alongside my content partner and co-host, Deb Polich. And Deb, of course, is president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw. Welcome back, Deb.
Deb Polich: Thanks, David. Hey, you know, as a news guy, that perception is not always reality.
David Fair: Correct.
Deb Polich: Yeah, for sure. I was on a call yesterday, and one of the guests brought up the Michigan talent drain conversation. You know, the myth that a majority of our young people leave the States and never come back.
David Fair: Right. Right.
Deb Polich: But some do come back. And our guest this morning is one such person. Dan Cooney is a professional actor, a director, and the founder of Encore Theater in Dexter.
David Fair: Thank you so much for joining us here on creative:impact, Dan.
Dan Cooney: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Deb Polich: It's fun to get a little back story. You were raised in Michigan and cut your musical theater teeth at John Glenn High School in Westland. And a little side note: that's the same school where I was a theater geek and we were taught by the same teachers, even though a generation apart.
David Fair: That just makes it more exciting for you, doesn't it, Deb?
Deb Polich: Absolutely. Les Tobin rules! Dan, you head to the Yale School of Drama and then made your way to perform on Broadway--productions like Mamma Mia, Bonnie and Clyde, Nine to Five, and Les Miz.
David Fair: That's a resume.
Deb Polich: It is. And Broadway would be the ultimate destination for many, but not for you. You returned to Michigan. What brought you back home?
Dan Cooney: I was head of musical theater at Roosevelt University for three years. I did my 30 years on the ice and I thought, you know, there's this old saying: "Be done with New York City before New York City is done with you." So, we had the wonderful opportunity to go spend a few years in Chicago. I enjoyed academia. So then, we had this wonderful opportunity to come here and move Encore into its new home. So, we took advantage of that opportunity. And we have just had the best two years of our lives so far.
David Fair: I probably don't need to tell you, Dan, producing theater and musical theater in Washtenaw County or anywhere, for that matter, can be risky business. But there are a lot of startups. There are a lot of failures. You very soon became the 15th largest nonprofit arts organization in the county. So, what led you to Dexter and what on Earth is your secret to getting to that place?
Dan Cooney: Oh, my gosh, I wasn't even aware of that. That's wonderful. I'll have to tell my team. Well, you know, I think I've always let enthusiasm lead. So, I think that would be the secret. But I was invited in by and Anne and Paul Koch, my founding partners, and I went to...I was in choir with Anne at John Glenn and as well. And Anne called me. Oh, gosh, I don't know how many years later I sang at their wedding and maybe it was 15 years later. And she said, Paul and I would like to have a little musical theater company because as you know, Jeff Daniels has a theater.
David Fair: The Purple Rose. Right.
Dan Cooney: I do a lot of straight plays. So we would like produce musicals. What do you think I said? I think that sounds terrific. A few weeks later, I was home, and we started meeting. This is about 14 years ago, and that's all that was. It was that simple. I loved the idea. I'm an actor. I had time. I had the time between gigs, and we just had so much fun, and we truly, really just led with enthusiasm and just joy and excitement for the project. And, you know, Jessica, my wife Jessica and myself, you know, our friends are connected to Broadway probably didn't hurt--
David Fair: Right.
Dan Cooney: But I just really strived to do the best theater we could with what we had. And that makes me so happy to hear that. I wasn't aware of those numbers. How exciting.
David Fair: Well, you can think that Deb Polich for that. You are listening to creative:impact on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. And we're talking with Dan Cooney from the Encore Musical Theater troupe in Dexter. And lots of exciting things on the horizon. And, Deb, I know that you've been following along almost the entirety of its existence.
Deb Polich: Yeah, absolutely. And, Dan, no matter what city or town, even the most successful theater companies have been dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And Encore joined every other theater in Michigan, closing its door on March 13th of 2020. And it's been months since you've been able to reopen. But, you know, one of the bright outcomes of the pandemic is how theaters and performance venues from across the country banded together and implored Congress to create the Shuttered Venues Operating Grant. And you guys were one of nineteen businesses in Washtenaw to receive that grant. So, in addition to the fact that people worked together, what lessons do you think have been learned through this pandemic and how we can move forward?
Dan Cooney: Well, we've definitely learned that not doing theater doesn't cost anything, right?. So, we've had this...really there's some silver lining in here, I think we were going at such a pace, so fast and furious, just trying to keep up on putting up the shows, keep up on the art, and keep up on the grant writing and paying the bills. And it's just, for me, I can only speak for myself personally. It just gave me the opportunity to take a big, deep breath, back way up, slow down, and really, you know, kind of dig into what's important. And so, I hope as we rev back up, we can hold on to that idea that the most important thing is community and engagement. And we do this for fun as actors. But, really, it is a service to communities. I mean, a creative impact. I love your show. So that's what I'm pulling from. And I think everybody at the Encore would have their own version of that. But, yeah, just kind of refocus.
David Fair: Well, and that brings us to during the quarantine and when everything was shut down, we kind of all siloed ourselves away. How difficult was it to keep the troupe from scattering? And has there been attrition since we're starting to relaunch?
Dan Cooney: Oh, yeah. We basically went down to volunteers, so we went down to nothing, gave us the opportunity to become better grant writers, and that's all Anne Koch. She took on the Shuttered Grant and was successful at that. And, for us specifically, we bought and renovated the old Copeland Building--our new space. So, we stayed busy. But we did have to basically boil it down to a small group of us, and we had to volunteer for a while. But we got through and were, in many ways, stronger and better than ever.
David Fair: creative:impact continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. And we are talking with Dan Cooney, a professional actor, a director, and the founder of the Encore Theater in Dexter.
Deb Polich: So, Dan, you mentioned the Copeland Building in Dexter that you've renovated and has become your new permanent space. I got a sneak preview of it this summer, and it looks great. Your 2021 season's opening and just days with "Smokey Joe's Café" and wondering what you're looking forward to that and even how you're putting protocols in place to keep your artistic team and audience safe.
Dan Cooney: Yes, safety is obviously of the utmost importance. And we will follow the guidelines. You know, we will follow the experts. I am no expert in that field. So, we look to the experts, and we implement their recommendations. And Actors Equity Association has a whole other world of safety precautions. We also impliment those.
Deb Polich: The ticket sales. Are those going pretty well? Is the audience coming back for you?
Dan Cooney: They are going pretty well. You know, we're keeping at about 50 percent capacity. So it's not only actual safety, it's perceived, right? So we want to make sure that people feel comfortable. So we're staying spread out a bit. We're keeping it to under 150 seats in our new 250-seat venue. So, I think, you know, over the summer, we had a 100 percent sold out summer series, but people were still able to spread out in this new space, which is quite spacious. Our old space was 6,000 square feet, and our new auditorium within the theater space is, alone, just the theater itself is six thousand square feet. And that is named the Moss because of the Moss foundations, namely the very generous five hundred thousand dollar gift to name.
David Fair: That really makes a difference, doesn't it?
Dan Cooney: Oh my goodness. It's everything.
David Fair: You know, Dan, sometimes great art is created from hardship and adversity, and we have certainly faced that over the past almost two years now. Any interest in commissioning and original work, perhaps the "Pandemic Chronicles?"
Dan Cooney: Absolutely. Well, you know, part of being in a garage and just having some fun and whipping up musicals and becoming, you know, truly a professional regional company is commissioning new work. And one of the things I'm most excited about--it's almost like you set me up for this, David-- in the next season is "A Thousand Faces." We are doing the world premiere of a brand new musical called "A Thousand Faces." And this tells the incredible, true story of the pioneering silent film star Lon Chaney, who changed the face of film, born to deaf parents. They didn't speak. So, there's this wonderful element of access in theater. Yeah, I'm so excited about this piece. It's a gorgeous father and son story. I read the script and listened to the music and cried all the way through it because I was so excited to have it premiere at the Encore and the story itself was so powerful. I'm absolutely thrilled.
Deb Polich: We're really thrilled that you're here in Dexter and the greater Ann Arbor area, bringing your dream company, the Encore Theater, to life. And, you know, thanks for joining us to talk about musical theater business and everything else here on creative:impact.
David Fair: Yes, thank you, Dan.
Dan Cooney: Oh, and thank you both for all you do. It's really wonderful.
David Fair: That is Dan Cooney, co-founder of the Encore in Dexter, a musical theater company. Deb Polich, another great guest. Shall we meet again next week?
Deb Polich: Absolutely. With another creative Washtenaw guest.
David Fair: Deb is president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and my creative:impact co-host. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.
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