For a 20-year-old theater that revolves around comedy, it’s funny how little Planet Ant has changed … until now. In March, the theater will hold a grand opening for Ant Hall — a performance space across from its current location on Caniff Street in Hamtramck.
The theater, whose alumni include comedian Keegan Michael-Key of Key & Peele and Detroiters stars Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson, had long been eyeing the place for expansion.
“For years and years, the thought had been to potentially buy this place, but as things grew it became a more realistic option,” says Michael Hovitch, Planet Ant managing director.
Opened as a coffeehouse in 1993, Planet Ant was featured in the 1996 film Get The Hell Out of Hamtown. Key, who’d starred in the film, suggested the place convert to a theater. Other than little gradual changes, it remained relatively unchanged for 15 years, says Shawn Handlon, Planet Ant artistic director.
But within the past five years, the Ant’s popularity has grown. Lines for improv shows are routinely out the door, thanks in part to a stronger social media presence, community events, and more structured improv training classes.
“With our training center and Go! Comedy’s training center [in Ferndale], we’ve really started to grow the ranks again,” Handlon says. “In 20 years of being a part of it, I think the community’s stronger now than I’ve ever seen it.”
Fans, alumni, and other backers helped Planet Ant raise over $40,000 through an IndieGoGo campaign to transform the building from its past life as a banquet hall and Indian restaurant. Improvements include a new stage, sound booth, lobby, and two bars: the Ghost Light and the Seven Brothers Bar, the latter of which was a beloved Hamtramck hangout for local actors until it closed last July. Patrons can soon expect to find offerings from a small bar menu.
Planet Ant also plans more diverse entertainment, including stand-up comedy, live music, film festivals, and boozy movie nights. The theater will showcase national and local talent, with an emphasis on the latter. But with the move comes a shift in perspective.
“We don’t really think of ourselves as a little space anymore,” Handlon says. “We don’t even think of ourselves as the biggest of the little spaces. We almost think of ourselves as the little of the big spaces.”
The Ant aims to preserve its role as a community theater rooted in creative freedom. “The Ant’s always been a place where artists can try things out, and this allows us to do even more,” Hovitch says.
“This space offers the ability to facilitate the same basic thing — creative expression, creative exploration — but on a bigger scale,” adds Darren Shelton, technical director. “We can latch onto some weird stuff, and if it’s cool, we can do it.”
Ant Hall already opened its doors for the group’s improv Mondays, along with several scripted shows, a Nicholas Cage film festival, and a storytelling event á la National Public Radio’s Snap Judgment. For the grand opening, the theater will bring back its original show Detroit: The Musical — a comedy that follows a fictional family over 300 years of living in Detroit.
Regardless of what’s playing, Handlon says the primary draw for the “new” Planet Ant is the same as it’s always been: good content. “If it’s a comedy, you laugh, if it’s a drama, you’re moved, if it’s music, you tap your foot,” Handlon says. “It’s quality entertainment in a cool space in a great Detroit neighborhood for a reasonable price.”
“And the bars don’t hurt getting people in,” Shelton says.
Some things truly never change.