Imagine a professional theater venue tucked into an average apartment unit, and you’ve essentially visualized the Abreact Performance Space.
The 1,000-square-foot space in a refurbished room of the Lafayette Lofts in Corktown provides what may be metro Detroit’s most intimate theater experience. With seating for about 50 patrons in mismatched plastic chairs and loveseats, audience members in the front row often find actors nearly sitting in their laps.
Abreact’s location has changed multiple times since its debut in Greektown’s Boydell Building. What hasn’t changed is the pay-as-you-can model. Donations are accepted, but performances are free.
“If you’re breaking even, you’re making money,” says Chuck Reynolds, who founded Abreact in 2000 and now serves as its artistic director. “It worked out better for us not charging at all. You might get $5, you might get $50.”
Among the contributors is Phil Bolden, a true Abreact actor-in-residence. He pays rent on the space as well as his adjacent apartment. When you visit Abreact’s “lounge” for a drink (also free), you’re in Bolden’s kitchen. When actors prepare themselves in the “green room,” they’re in Bolden’s living room. And the “theater cats,” Rufus and Junior, are Bolden’s own felines.
“We lack the pretense of what theater should be,” Bolden says. “We’re very relaxed about it, but at the same time, we’re very serious about what we do.”
Reynolds received his B.A. in theater from Wayne State. In addition to the many Abreact productions he’s been involved in, he’s appeared in shows at the Detroit Repertory Theatre and Hamtramck’s Planet Ant. According to him, the majority of Abreact actors have a B.A. in theater from either WSU, Oakland University, or University of Detroit Mercy.
Actor Adam Barnowski says that approach to theater has kept him participating in Abreact shows since 2004. “I come back to the Abreact every year,” Barnowski says. “We want to work here.” Barnowski has also directed several shows for the company.
“Every time I do a show, I come out of it feeling like I’ve gotten better,” he says. “And I’ve done 15 or 20 shows here. It’s about getting better as an artist.”
The Abreact has also consistently attracted what Barnowski describes as a “devoted niche audience.” Reynolds estimates that each show draws about 300 people, including a group of about 200 “regulars” over the course of its run. The company favors the more unconventional works of Samuel Beckett, David Mamet, and Edward Albee over the classics.
“I like to do shows that aren’t usually done around here,” Reynolds says. “It does create a very, very fun, diverse crowd.” And when the company does take on a better-known production, they do it their way. In 2007, for example, they produced Stephen Sondheim’s murder musical Sweeney Todd with a one-man band.
Occasionally, that freewheeling approach to theater has led to mishaps, particularly when the company was without a proper home.
From 2006 to 2008, Reynolds says the team operated as “gypsies,” rehearsing and doing shows wherever they could: the Majestic Theatre, the Park Bar, and Corktown’s Zeitgeist Gallery.
Barnowski recalls a particularly nightmarish rehearsal period when Abreact was working out of the Zeitgeist in 2008. While rehearsing Mamet’s American Buffalo that February, the company was not allowed to turn on the building’s heat. Barnowski says this was bad enough in February temperatures, but even worse when rehearsing scenes that required actors to be drenched in water.
“There were moments when you had steam coming off your head,” Barnowski says. “We spent six weeks in there, essentially in a meat locker.”
Despite such trials, the Abreact crew has persevered with an attitude summed up by Bolden’s assertion that “There is no quit.” Barnowski says a democratic spirit has been key to the project’s success to date. “The idea of the Abreact is bigger than any of the people who are involved in it,” he says. “It will continue, hopefully, forever.”
The theater’s 11th season opens this fall with two one-act plays: one by Shel Silverstein and one by Abreact staple Mamet, collectively titled Oh, Hell! Reynolds says he’s pleased to have passed the decade mark. “I don’t know if that’s a landmark or a milestone, but it’s very difficult to produce theater in this city, especially with our resources,” he says.
But with the dedication that has characterized the company, it seems almost impossible for the Abreact to do anything but keep on going.
“It would be an extremely weird world for me if September came and I wasn’t doing a theater project,” Reynolds says. “I don’t think I could go a year without doing a show. There are people who do this just because it’s what we do, and that’s who we are.”
They also do it for reasons explained by the theater’s name, a derivative of the psychological term “abreaction,” which Reynolds defines as “catharsis through movement and sound.”