Setting the Scene

We turn the spotlight on Travis Walter, Meadow Brook Theatre’s new artistic director, who talks about his plans for the 45th season — and beyond
Photograph by David Lewinski

Meadow Brook Theatre, Michigan’s largest non-profit professional theater, opens its 45th anniversary season on Oct. 6 with Dracula: A Rock Opera. The musical will be the first show directed by 31-year-old Travis Walter in his official capacity as artistic director. Walter recently spoke with Hour Detroit about his plans for Meadow Brook audiences.

How does it feel to be the head honcho?

Since I graduated from Oakland University in 2002, I’ve been with the theater in various positions — actor, stage manager [for which I got my Actor’s Equity union card], and group sales. I had been interim artistic director for all of last season, but you don’t want to count your chickens until it happens, so it was pretty amazing to get a unanimous vote from the board, saying that they’re behind you every step of the way.

In 2003, Oakland University withdrew its financial support from Meadow Brook and the curtain almost came down permanently.

In the past, the theater was supported as an auxiliary to Oakland University. Now, it’s a self-sustaining entity operated by [The Theatre Ensemble] that’s independent of the university.

You were there at that time as an intern. What happened?

There was a grass-roots campaign of a core group of 10 theater artists, some of whom had been with the theater for 25 years at the time and are still a part of our team today, including Terry W. Carpenter, Kitty Gentile, Reid Johnson, and Cheryl Marshall [now the managing director]. Our production manager, Sarah Warren, chaired the committee.

How did that affect your budget?

We lost all of our corporate funding. Our budget is $1.7 million, and we’re keeping it almost identical to last season. For the 2009-10 season, we saw 76 percent of the budget from ticket sales and 24 percent from individual contributions. That’s huge. What we need to do is ramp up those donations and get bigger sponsors.

You have a bachelor’s degree in performing arts, but you’ll be busy directing five out of six shows this season at your alma mater. Do you miss acting?

I’m so thrilled that I get to do what I actually have a degree in.  I’ve been onstage and backstage. Directing comes with the position of artistic director and part of it is financial, too, because it saves union costs when we don’t have to hire outside directors. Do I miss the other stuff? Of course, you always miss it. I’m just channeling it differently now.

But you’d love to be in The 39 Steps, playing Jan. 5-30.

When I go to New York to check out shows, I’m watching them with an artistic director’s eye, wondering if our audience would like it, how it’s going to play on our stage. When we got [the rights to] 39 Steps, it wasn’t, ‘I can’t wait to be in that show and play that character.’ It was, ‘I can’t wait to do it in my space and hear their feedback. It’s just that exciting. I filled that hole with something else. I want to be there watching their every action. I love taking them on that journey.

Meadow Brook typically puts on one or two musicals a season. This year, you’re going to produce three.

They’re all completely different. Dracula is going to blow the minds of people at Meadow Brook. It ends on Halloween, so we always try to do a theme-related show during that time slot.  We’ve done The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Murder by Poe [both of which Walter directed]. This is the third version of Dracula that we’ve done in more than 30 years. When I found the rock opera of it, it was my ‘eureka’ moment.
Reunion is kind of a docu-musical. It’s a traditional retelling of the Civil War, with classic folk songs woven into the drama.

We’re trying to reach out to another audience who may not typically come to the theater or who were dragged along begrudgingly. We want to surprise them with something new and memorable. All of our shows this season are making their Michigan premiere, with the exception of Shout! The Mod Musical, featuring fantastic ’60s music.  People are into having fun right now. Last season’s Breaking Up is Hard to Do [with music by Neil Sedaka] was Meadow Brook’s highest-grossing show in seven years. You have to vie with everyone else for their entertainment dollar, so we’re trying to bring in more nostalgia.

So what’s your vision for the future?

It’s really about that sense of community. It’s about making it a special event that makes them want to come back. I want to raise attendance and donations while continuing to give our audience new and inventive works — that don’t offend old audiences — but bring in new ones. The future is about getting more families and youngsters in the door, because they are our next generation of our theatergoers. We keep looking to raise the stakes. Meadow Brook Theatre is the cultural gem of Oakland County.

Yolles is a Birmingham-based freelancer and actress. She was last seen on Meadow Brook’s stage as Aunt Gert in Lost in Yonkers in 1998.

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