Of the many community theatres that the Great Lakes Bay area is fortunate to have populating the region, the recently formed Center Stage theatrical component at the Midland Center for the Arts is impressive not only for the resources that it garners to stage its productions, but for the amount of volunteers, which number over 1000, that help deliver dynamic, varied, and quality productions to the patrons of community theatre.
Overseeing much of the new vision and fresh direction at Center Stage, which was formed when the Midland Music Society and Theatre Guild merged into combined entities, is Managing Director Dexter Brigham, who has been at the helm of Center Stage pulling together the details for its 2013-14 season. And Brigham’s story is fascinating in itself.
At the age of nine Brigham left home to attend an all-boys private school called the American Boy Choir School in Princeton, New Jersey, which he cut his chops with touring extensively. “I did a lot of singing when I was a youngster, which led me naturally into Community Theatre during my high school years and led me to major in Music when in college,” he explains. “I wanted to become an opera singer, which I did when I moved to New York City after college, singing opera for two years. But unless you’re 50 and weigh 300 pounds and have a 3 foot beard, it’s hard for a 24-year old to be taken seriously in the world of opera,” he laughs. “Plus it was hard to pay the bills.”
Subsequently, Dexter started doing auditions in musical theatre to fill in the gaps of his work schedule and much to his amazement started getting offers for ‘leading man’ roles. “I never thought of myself as one, but basically when the theatrical roles started opening to me the choice I had was do I make $100.00 a week as the third spear carrier for the left in a production of Aida, or do I get to be the guy in the spotlight with 3 solos and all the applause in a Broadway show.”
Needless to say, the choice was a no-brainer for Brigham. After meeting his wife, who was also a performer in New York City, the couple lived in New York for six years only spent little time in the city, as they were mostly on the road in touring shows. “The highlight of my Broadway touring career was playing the lead role in the first national tour of the revival of Kiss Me Kate,” he explains, “which I toured with in 2003 and 2004.”
Yet interestingly enough, by that point, Dexter and a group of friends that he toured with decided to start their own company. “We did this so when we were gainfully unemployed we would have side projects to work on, so would take these small revue shows to towns that normally didn’t have theatre to attend.”
Eventually, in his hometown of Princeton, Brigham found a renovated church that he brought a pair of shows to, and demand started to grow for a local theatre festival, which he helped launch through a Summer Theatre Festival in 2004 called Festival 56. It was during this period that Brigham became a Theatrical Producer and started shifting to more executive duties and capacities, delivering top-notch theatrical productions across the country.
After working with Festival 56 for 10 years building that organization into the largest summer theatre festival in the State of Illinois, Dexter heard about a job opening at the Midland Center for the Arts for his current position thanks to a former technical director that built sets for Festival 56 and had recently obtained employment at the Center.
“When this position for Managing Director opened, he sent the job description to me, and in the back of my head I was open to the idea that it’s a big world out there,” continues Dexter. “I wondered if there was something out there that might allow me to grow my world even more, so I put my resume out earlier in 2013 and in February of 2013 came up for a couple of interviews and to tour the facilities. The town of Midland is amazing and everything has been a great fit. I believe in everything that Midland Center for the Arts is all about,” he states.
“I felt that the theatre portion of the Center was something that I could really contribute to help nurture and develop, so I started in April of 2013 and moved my family up here. The rest, as they say, is history in the making.”
In terms of his vision and goals for Center Stage, coupled with what he feels distinguishes it from other community theatres that he has involved himself with, Brigham points to the level of community resources available. “Midland Center for the Arts is unparalleled and I’ve never been in a place with such an incredible range of offerings,” he enthuses. “If you love theatre and love being involved with it, this is an unparalleled resource of professionalism. I’ve worked with so many community theatres that are struggling and working in old movie theatres, gyms, and conference halls; but here the facilities are incredible. Alden Dow built an incredible series of spaces with the theatre and the auditorium that I feel provide one of the best community theatre outlets in Michigan, and possibly in the Midwest and beyond. The production qualities are fantastic.”
“But what truly distinguishes the MCFTA is the combination of volunteers and staff that provides so much of the resources,” he continues. “Something must be in the water around here because the talent base is amazing. In a given season we will see over 1000 volunteers at Center Stage, which includes people coming in and donating their time, which is just shy of a million dollars last year in terms of donated volunteer hours. This is a very volunteer driven organization. We provide the skeletal structure, but the onstage talent is what makes it work; and these people work at banks and newspapers and are fully mature performing artists. They have skills.”
Halfway through their current season, Brigham is excited about the remaining productions that are set to be staged at the Center. And he especially enthusiastic about the upcoming production of Wait Until Dark, which is set to run from January 17 – 26th.
Wait Until Dark •
A Nuanced Balance of Suspense & Structure
Written by Frederick Knott and first performed in 1966, Wait Until Dark is one of those rare theatrical plays that are perhaps better known to mass audiences through the landmark film version that appeared one year later in 1967, starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin.
The tale of Susy Hendrix, a blind Greenwich Village housewife who becomes the target of three con-men searching for heroin that is hidden in a doll, which her husband Sam innocently transported from Canada as a favor to a woman who has since been murdered, the ending of Wait Until Dark is ranked in the Top 10 Scariest Film Moments by Bravo.
“The author of Wait Until Dark is Frederick Knott, who also wrote 12 Angry Men,” explains Dexter, “and the first thing that strikes you about this work is how well it is written. Knott is a great playwright who writes these wonderful nuanced subtle and detailed characters that fly a little below the radar. His characters are always a little unsettling and you can see similarities between his villains. The original Broadway production starred Lee Remick, who won a Tony Award for her role; and a young Robert Duvall.”
“The film is basically a recorded version of the stage play,” continues Dexter, “and even the scene design is almost identical. Knott writes very tight shows and if you take one piece out of the puzzle he constructs, things will start to crumble. In this case movement is so tightly interwoven into the basic footprint of the show itself that you can’t really change the shape of the apartment, as this is how the character of Susy interacts with the familiarity of her surroundings. It’s a very tightly constructed package.”
For the Center Stage production, Director Peter Brooks is a great admirer of the original source material and signed on to the project because he sees the strong merit in the original material and believes in staying faithful to the script. After all, why fix what isn’t broken?
The character of Susy Hendrix is being performed by Trena Williams-Bagnall, with Kevin Kendrick playing the Alan Arkin film version role of villain Harry Roat; and Chris Krause performing the role of Mike Talman. Williams has recently performed in the Center’s production of Peter Pan and earlier this year in Parallel Lives. “She is a great talent and represents the Center well,” notes Dexter. “Kevin recently played the Morgan Freeman role in Driving Miss Daisy, so we do have some veterans in the cast along with some new folks.”
“I believe this story is a contemporary classic,” continues Brigham. “Within the theatre world it folds into a unique place because it is truly a ‘Thriller’, which is not an established genre within theatre. There are plenty of mysteries out there, but a thriller is something that really takes a tremendous sense of tension and danger and involvement. The audience needs to be brought along on the journey and this play s unique in that only a handful of successful thrillers have been built for the stage. This story has landed solidly in the public imagination.”
From the perspective of staging, Brigham feels the final scene is the most challenging to stage. “It takes serious chops because staging a play is all about telling the audience where to look. How they say their lines, whether they are moving or still, it’s almost like music and it takes focus and weaving elements together.”
“With Wait Until Dark, theatre is a visual medium and the audience is all pointed in the same direction towards the stage, so dramatically what this does is put the audience in the same situation as Susy. She is blind and she fights back in that final scene by making everybody else blind. She does the same thing to the audience as she is doing to her attackers, so when the lights go out the audience is staring at a dark stage and then they hear a bump and noises and are trying to figure out what’s happening and shat Susy is doing. Then you get these little glimpses – a match flaring on the stage, or the refrigerator door opening – so you have to be able to time all of that and cast it. This takes some serious coordination and attention to detail. They say that the ‘play within the play’ in Hamlet is the most difficult scene to stage and block in theatre, but I think this scene ranks right up there.”
“But honestly, another interesting fact about Wait Until Dark is that this is basically a play about a blind woman that is not a victim,” concludes Dexter. “What’s great about her character is that she refuses to be a victim. She engages her enemy on her own terms and is victorious, which is empowering.”
“I think that is an important point to note, because so often we see blind characters portrayed as victims and this character of Susy Hendrix is exactly the opposite of that.”
Wait Until Dark will run at the Midland Center for the Arts on January 17, 18, 24 & 25 at 8 PM and January 19 & 26 at 3 PM. Tickets are available by going to mcfta.org or phoning 989-631-8250.