JET Theatre begins its 30th season on June 10 in its new Walled Lake location with a lively celebration and Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
By Suzanne Chessler
Featured photo courtesy of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre
A new home and a new home away from home will be part of the Grand Opening celebration as the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET) begins its 30th season Monday evening, June 10, with a strolling dinner and presentation of this year’s first main-stage play.
The new home is at 1124 E. Maple, just east of Pontiac Trail, in Walled Lake, where a three-year lease has allowed the transformation of a vacated bank into a space with movable structures so stage and seating can allow for diverse audience experiences.
The new home away from home is in Arizona, where plans are in the works to bring the JET production of The Diary of Anne Frank to middle school students on a continuing basis.
“We are very excited to have our Grand Opening with a production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, my favorite Neil Simon comedy,” says Christopher Bremer, executive director, who also is pleased Annabel Cohen is catering the event.
“We wanted to honor this high-powered Jewish playwright who passed away last year, and we wanted to launch our new theater with a light-hearted play that we’ve never done before.”
After the opening night celebration, the regular schedule of The Odd Couple runs June 14-July 14, featuring a cast that includes Greg Trzaskoma, Fred Buchalter, Wendy Katz Hiller, Meredith Deighton, Todd St. George, Charles Van Hoose, Alex Macksoud and David Gram under the direction of Mary Bremer.
Because the interior of the new space was not expected to be ready until May 31, rehearsals have been taking place at Henry Ford College in Dearborn. Construction has been delayed a bit but will not change plans for the June 10 celebration.
“Those attending our first play will be seated in chairs borrowed from Monster Box Theatre in Waterford as we wait for the new ones,” Bremer says. “The marquee also will not be finished in time for the opening, but we’ll have a big, temporary sign welcoming our theatergoers.”
Stuart Fine was the architect who worked closely with JET to develop the new site.
“I’ve met with the contractors to make sure the space turned out the way the people at JET wanted it to be,” says Fine, a theater fan who has worked on educational auditoriums.
Fine had to make sure the staging and seating would be flexible while paying special attention to the lighting. The walls, carpeting and chairs will be in dark tones to keep the attention on the performers as the stage lights up.
Depending on the production, seating can be arranged in three configurations — in a traditional plan with the entire audience facing the stage, in a way that winds the audience around three sides of the stage and in an immersive form that puts the audience in the middle of the action.
“We will have platforms and risers to add to our flexibility,” says Bremer, who is also arranging for a concession stand. “We can accommodate 100 people regardless of the setup.”
Contributions of about $150,000 went into financing the move and the new lease with a three-year option after that as the fundraising continues.
The three plays filling the rest of the season include Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Luther Henderson, Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz (Aug. 2-25); On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson (Sept. 6-28); and Cabaret by Joe Masteroff with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Oct. 10-Nov. 3).
Anne Frank in Arizona
Over the winter months, JET will continue to produce its programs for young people — The Diary of Anne Frank at the Detroit Institute of Arts and a series of anti-bullying shows on tour. The outreach programs have served almost a million students. Additionally, JET is developing programs for young people that include classes and performances.
Sally Ginn, a longtime JET board member and enthusiast for young audiences, has been thinking about ways to extend the reach for The Diary of Anne Frank. When she noticed that an Arizona school district was building a new arts and entertainment center, she started promoting the play.
With a grant from the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Phoenix and the support of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, she has been at the helm of setting up plans to bring the play to Arizona in 2020. It is anticipated that the first presentation will include a cast from Michigan with later productions performed by Arizona actors.
“With the rise of anti-Semitism, this is an important time to bring this play to students, many who can’t afford theater,” Ginn says. “We want them to learn about the Holocaust before they might hear the wrong messages.
“We are making an effort to reach all ethnic groups about the horrors of anti-Semitism, and I’ve been fortunate to know people who could help us get over the hurdles of starting this program.”
Bremer anticipates that the new locale in Walled Lake and the shift to a warm-weather season will widen programming and draw additional audiences.
“We greatly appreciate all the community help in bringing this move about,” says Bremer, who has been keeping a photo diary of facility remodeling. “Our board and volunteers have really been at work to bring this together.”
JET’s Grand Opening celebration begins at 6 p.m. Monday, June 10, in the new theater, 1124 E. Maple, Walled Lake. $125. The new season runs June 14-Nov. 3. Season tickets, at $148, include four shows, The Diary of Anne Frank and the Seymour J. and Ethel S. Frank Festival of New Plays. Single tickets are $44 with discounts for seniors, students, military/veterans and groups of 10 or more. (248) 788-2900. jettheatre.org.
Read more: Hard Love at the JET