By Diane Majeski
Alexandra Berneis smiles slightly. She leans back in her chair in her crowded office in the distinctive purple building on a quiet street in downtown Ann Arbor.
The executive director of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre ponders the question at hand: “The secret to our success? Let me think for a minute.”
She knows there is one — maybe more than one. After all, the community theater group has celebrated its 90th anniversary and is still going strong, producing mainstage productions, junior theater, workshops, new play readings, and improv every season.
“We’re always trying to build up,” says Berneis. “We’re always trying to incorporate more, offer more opportunities. I love it.”
Keeping community aspect strong
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is small but mighty. There’s a paid staff of two — Berneis, who goes by “Alix,” and her office assistant and volunteer coordinator, Theresa Gratsch. A wardrobe supervisor and scene shop supervisor, in charge of collections, are paid a stipend.
Administered through a board of directors, the nonprofit group produces an impressive portfolio of work each year: six mainstage productions, two smaller, “second stage” productions, two junior theater shows, two improv showcase weekends, and an assortment of workshops, readings, and educational opportunities for aspiring directors and playwrights.
The season’s selections are director-driven, Berneis says. Potential directors send in show choices, and a committee hones the options down to those that strike the best balance in terms of content and casting. Plays are usually performed in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre or Arthur Miller Theatre, both on the University of Michigan campus.
Berneis, a Washtenaw native, has been in her executive position for three years. She has impressive credentials — a BFA in Theatre Performance from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and a master’s degree in Historic Preservation from Eastern Michigan University — and an even more remarkable dedication to the theater she heads. “I developed a love of theater at a young age. My mom has a degree in theater, so my sister and I grew up around it,” she recalls. “My mom was doing stuff around here when I was in middle school, so I started tagging along and helping out and then I became even more active.”
After college, she returned to Ann Arbor, realizing she didn’t want to go into theater professionally, but finding herself drawn to the civic theater she enjoyed so much. Berneis says, “My mom and I were wardrobe supervisors together… and then this opened up and it seemed like the perfect fit. They joke about being bitten by the theater bug, but it’s true. My career path was different, but if you’re bitten, you’re bitten, and there’s no getting away from it.”
Now, with help from Gratsch, a former research scientist who now puts her skills to use matching volunteers to opportunities at the theater, she handles whatever needs to be done to kick-start each season. “That means basically everything from changing the toilet paper in the bathrooms to getting up on stage and giving a curtain speech… and anything and everything in between. I make sure rights and royalties are available, keep up on office management, and if I need to step in last-minute for an actor, I’ll do that, too.”
One of the most important parts of her job, she emphasizes, is keeping the community aspect strong in a theater group that’s been active since 1929.
“We have actors who have been with us for years, and we see them returning season after season. But we also get an influx of new people. With Ann Arbor being what it is, a university town, people come and go all the time, so we’re seeing new people all the time. And we encourage that. So it’s different every show, and that’s great.”
A joyful experience
Auditioning can be a bit nerve-wracking, particularly if you’re from a small town and you don’t know what to expect. But Vanessa Banister, who’d recently moved to the area from Marshall, was determined to try out for the lead part in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s musical Mystery of Edwin Drood in the summer of 2017. Banister had performed before, many times, but she still had butterflies. She says:
“If you do enough theater and you go enough places, you know that sometimes theaters can have certain preferences, and sometimes there’s precasting, and sometimes there’s politics in play that you know nothing about. At auditions, Civic made it very clear they don’t do any of that. But still, Ann Arbor is a wealth of talent … you could have knocked me over with a feather when they put the cast list up and I found out I got the part. It was really a dream come true.”
Banister rates her experience with the theater as amazing:
“I had never done anything with them before, and they were willing to look at a brand-new person and give them a shot, and I am so grateful for that. Everyone was so supportive, and so kind. The whole feeling behind Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is that being able to do shows is a gift, and it should be a joyful experience.”
She returned, in the cast of Heathers, the Musical, in the summer of 2018. Even with school and a job, Banister says it’s worth it. “Theater is transforming. You keep coming back. There’s real magic in creating a world and reality that you can live in for awhile and be someone other than yourself.
That magic, she says, isn’t just for the performers:
“If you’re doing your job right on stage, if you’re truly present and connecting with another person, you can open up people in the audience — open them up to emotions they maybe aren’t comfortable with in everyday life. But maybe in a darkened theater, they can have those moments where their heart is opened and it’s safe to be who they are.”
Live theater is powerful, she says, even in a world ruled by technology. “There’s something about having a group of human beings in the same space, at the same time, feeling the same thing at the same moment, that’s priceless,” she says. “It’s like everyone’s heartbeat is synchronized, and it does wonderful things to connect us.”
So many ways to get involved
Berneis has her final answer to my question about the secret to the civic theater’s success.
“I think I do,” she says, hedging her bets. “We have so many wonderful things, so many wonderful people, so many ways to get involved. But everyone is welcome here. Everyone. Anyone can audition for any role. You don’t need experience.”
“We take people with all levels of experience. If this is your first show and you want to audition for the lead, then go for it. Each director is looking for the best fit, the best audition. It’s an open policy. And I love that.… I love talking to people who’ve had a good experience and knowing we made a difference to them. I love hearing that we were welcoming. I love hearing that we’re a creative outlet. It makes us successful, I think. But it also makes me really happy.”
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, by the numbers —
150+ performed on stage
120+ designers, musicians, technicians and staff brought productions to life
50 + attended camps and classes
5,000 tickets were sold
Also, more than 200 roles were offered to actors in the community:
60 + in musicals
35 + in plays
60 + in junior theater
50 + in improv troupes
10+ in readings and workshops
(Source: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre)
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre has learning opportunities for aspiring performers of all age levels, including classes, workshops, and camps. It’s a creative outlet for volunteers, as well. For more information on getting involved, visit a2ct.org