On a splendidly sunny Sunday afternoon in a flowery backyard in Hamtramck, Hal Soper and Eric Maher are idly sipping coffee, their feet up on chairs. Colorful bowling balls poke through the ground, creating a bizarrely alluring walkway; the barbecue sits nearby, awaiting ignition.
This isn’t exactly the typical setting for a theater — and just as well, as there’s nothing typical about Planet Ant.
For 10 years, this purple-hued house on Caniff has been a hotbed of creative activity. It has spawned national comedic stars (Larry Joe Campbell of ABC’s According to Jim, Keegan-Michael Key of Fox’s Mad TV), hosted countless original productions by local playwrights and directors, and created both a film festival and record label. And Planet Ant shows no signs of slowing down.
The theater, a nonprofit organization, has had a colorful and varied history. When Planet Ant first opened its doors 1993, it was a coffeehouse with live entertainment and art openings once a month. After using the venue as a shooting location for the original film Get the Hell Out of Hamtown, owner and executive producer Soper decided to turn the venue into a theater in 1996. The theater went on to present the original film Garage: A Rock Saga (with a cameo from George Wendt — Norm from “Cheers”), form an improv team in 1999, offer classes on improv technique, form a record label that offers distribution and promotion, and create the Planet Ant Film Festival last year.
Hamtramck is well-known for its bars, not for its thriving cultural scene, and Soper struggled to draw audiences during Planet Ant’s infancy.
“It was a constant struggle, and it still is,” says Soper. “I think it’s that way in general. There’s only a few cities that have a vibrant theater community.”
And while the theater community in Detroit may be smaller than New York or Chicago, Soper says it is tremendously supportive.
“There’s been a real renaissance in theater here,” he says. “This community is incredibly close knit. It’s more like a family.”
“We start with the people instead of building the season around specific shows,” says Maher, the theater’s executive director. Planet Ant’s artistic director, York Griffith, often picks directors first, and then lets them choose the plays they’d like to present.
Planet Ant is a black box theatre, which is essentially just what it sounds like: a big black box, where the seating and staging are rearranged and rebuilt for each show.
In addition to the traditional plays, Planet Ant’s improv “colony” performs each Monday night. Many of the colony’s actors have been involved with Second City as well. Is there a competition?
“In the theater world there’s no such thing as competition,” Soper smiles, “because the more great theater you have, the better. But Second City has always been a Chicago thing, in origin, and we’re always going to be a Detroit thing.”
Shawn Handlon has performed and taught improv at Planet Ant, and joined the main-stage cast of Second City in 2003.
“The difference is that it’s such a grassroots effort,” Handlon says of Planet Ant. “The people in the audience are really pulling for you. Hal gives you that freedom to more thoroughly explore your creative side, and it’s a great place to learn because of that. I never could have made it to Second City without Planet Ant.”
“I think Hal’s a hero,” adds Handlon. “He basically opened up his house to people and said, ‘Hey, I believe in you guys and I think we can make something special here.’ And I think he’s well on his way to something spectacular.”
Planet Ant is located at 2357 Caniff in Hamtramck. Call 313-365-4948 or visit planetant.com for more information.Sarah Klein is Metro Times associate arts editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org