Arts & Entertainment Lifestyle

Divine Theater Secrets of the Mama Sisterhood

May 3, 2019

How friendship and a love for the stage led three women to start Detroit Public Theatre.

By Julie Yolles

Featured photo by Jennie Warren

Theater grad Frannie Shepherd-Bates was thrilled when her son, Miles, started reciting Shakespeare at 19 months. By the time he was 4, he could quote the entire “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue from “Macbeth.” But alas, the mini Bard has remained steadfast in a Shakespeare boycott due to “artistic differences” over a mom/son film adaptation of “Macbeth” gone awry last year.

And while Miles may not appreciate his mother’s love and expertise for The Bard of Avon, hundreds of incarcerated adults, students at youth treatment centers and over a dozen professional theaters and its artists certainly do.

In February 2012, Shepherd-Bates became the founder, director and lead facilitator of the Shakespeare in Prison program, part of the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company in Detroit, which she co-founded four years earlier. Shepherd-Bates was the sole volunteer for the initial 10-woman ensemble she mentored and creatively facilitated at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

Miles was born nearly a year-and-a-half later.

Detroit Public Theatre Jennie Warren for SEEN

Co-producing Artistic Directors Sarah Clare Corporandy, Sarah Winkler and Courtney Burkett at the Detroit Public Theatre inside the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Hall at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

“By that point, I realized that we needed a team of facilitators, not just me,” recalls Shepherd-Bates, 34, of Huntington Woods. “Coincidentally, Sarah Winkler was looking for theaters here in Michigan that were doing work with themes of social justice and, luckily, she found us.”

So Shepherd-Bates and Winkler would drive together to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility twice a week from September to June and talk all things theater, parenting and more on their car rides. Winkler just had relocated to Michigan with her husband and their three children who are now 10, 12 and 16.

Over the next two years, Winkler met Courtney Burkett, 43, of Grosse Pointe, and Sarah Clare Corporandy, 41, of Detroit, good friends and fellow working moms who both earned their MFAs from Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre Graduate Training Program. The three strategized about founding a professional theater in Detroit and being co-producing artistic directors.

“In the meantime, becoming a mother had made running Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company unsustainable. I’ve always been proud of what we achieved artistically and, of course, of Shakespeare in Prison, but we had never made any money and we just weren’t growing,” says Shepherd-Bates of MGTC, which folded in 2014.

Detroit Public Theatre Shakespeare in Prison programCourtesy Chuck Nowak

Frannie Shepherd-Bates rehearses “Twelfth Night” at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

In September 2015, Detroit Public Theatre launched its inaugural production as a professional theater, “American Hero,” directed by Burkett, who directs at least one show per DPT season. Burkett, Corporandy and Winkler brought on Shepherd-Bates to be DPT’s director of programs as well as make Shakespeare in Prison the DPT’s signature community program. Beside the women’s prison, SIP began a men’s ensemble at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson in 2017. In April, SIP completed its first full 40-week season with “King Lear” at Parnall. The women ensemble will conclude its SIP season with “Twelfth Night” next month.

“It can be quite a roller coaster creating a theater and creating an incredible program like Shakespeare in Prison from the ground up,” says Winkler, 51, of Birmingham. “I am personally so proud of how we all believe in each other and admire each other’s talents. And I’m really proud of how we show our kids that it’s OK to risk and strive and be afraid and keep going through ups and downs. Our kids get to see, up close, their moms working in partnerships where we lift each other up and fiercely respect, trust and support each other.”

Detroit Public Theatre Shakespeare in Prison programCourtesy Chuck Nowak

Frannie Shepherd-Bates, director of DPT’s Shakespeare in Prison Program, rehearses “King Lear” at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson.

So much so that all three left successful theater jobs to launch DPT. Before relocating to Michigan, Winkler was a producing artist with the award-winning Off-Broadway Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York City. Corporandy and her husband, Chris, an actor — whom she met at WSU — were living in NYC where she served, and still does during the summers, as the managing director of the Chautauqua Theater Company. Their son, also named Miles, had just turned 1 when they came home to Michigan for the holidays, and she had lunch with Burkett.

“We took the plunge. We were going to spend the first year going back and forth from NYC to Detroit, but when we got here in the fall of 2015 to get the theater up and running, we found a house that we fell in love with and decided to move back in January 2016,” Corporandy says. “We took a big risk, but we believed it paid off. I now have a job that is a perfect fit of my artistic, leadership and management talents, in a city that I love that’s close to family, and I am finally getting back on stage this month.”

Corporandy was last on stage 11 years ago, ironically, in “Wit,” a show directed by Burkett when she was the co-founder of the Breathe Art Theatre Project in Detroit. Corporandy is looking forward to being featured as Maureen in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” running May 2-26 at DPT located inside Orchestra Hall in Detroit.

Detroit Public TheatreCourtesy Chuck Nowak

Sarah Winkler performs in “Cry It Out” by Molly Smith Metzler at Detroit Public Theatre.

Courtney Burkett performs in “Pipeline” by Dominique Morisseau.Courtesy Chuck Nowak

Courtney Burkett performs in “Pipeline” by Dominique Morisseau.

“Our mission is to bring world-class theater and artistic excellence to Detroit’s cultural district,” says Burkett, who was the director of theatre programs at the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit before starting DPT. Burkett met her husband, Adam, when they were understudies at Second City Detroit. Their son was born in 2005.

“We opened Detroit Public Theatre as three leaders and working moms who were on salary from the very beginning,” Burkett says. “It was very important that we were creating an organization run by experienced professional artists and that this wasn’t going to be a scrappy startup. We have a collaborative partnership, and we always have each other’s backs.”

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” 

Presented by Detroit Public Theatre

May 2-26.

For tickets, visit detroitpublictheatre.org.

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