Big dreams, hard work spawn new professional theater

Northville's Tipping Point Theater to open with 'Don't Dress for Dinner'

By Donald V. Calamia

NORTHVILLE - Christina Johnson carefully steps through the dust and debris of what was until recently a light industrial warehouse. A section of the building's outer wall is missing. There's no working air conditioning or plumbing. And with only four weeks until opening night, the lobby of the Tipping Point Theatre is nothing more than a series of recently framed walls with no working lights, no carpeting and barely a box office.

Yet the theater's executive director couldn't be happier. A few steps later, sitting in the parking lot on one of the hottest days of the year, she explains why. "Within six months we went from an idea into Michigan's newest Equity theater."

The building, situated in a hidden corner of downtown Northville, will officially open Sept. 8 as the home of Michigan's newest professional theater - a dream the 1997 Albion College graduate and onetime apprentice at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea has had for years, but never expected to attain quite so soon. Or so fast. But fate - and a newspaper story in the Northville Record - intervened last October after Johnson staged two small, but well-received productions at rented venues in Northville and nearby Livonia. "The article said this is who we are, but we can't keep doing this. We need something that's permanent," she recalled.

At the very least, Johnson hoped that the article would spur someone to donate use of a banquet room somewhere that could be turned into a theater a few times a year. Instead, what she got was a hardworking and deeply involved partner, WDIV TV's Emmy Award-winning director of meteorology Chuck Gaidica, who read the story and immediately contacted her by e-mail. The two met for lunch the following week, "and it's been an absolute whirlwind ever since."

The Philosophy

Born, raised and living in Northville, Johnson knows her hometown well. And that knowledge has helped shape the theater's philosophy. So much so, that with more than 1,000 season tickets already sold - and almost every other seat taken, as well - Johnson has that pretty much figured out: Nearly half of her customers are 65 and older, and most are Northville residents.

So, for now, that means Tipping Point will eschew producing some of the edgier, more avant-garde works staged by other area theaters. Plus, the shows will contain no offensive language, nudity or blatant sexuality. "(Why) have (customers) leave so distracted by what they've heard that they missed the art and they missed the message?" she asked.

Instead, Johnson said, the theater will stage classics - but "with a twist" - and "fresh pieces they haven't seen before."

One such play is the theater's opening production, "Don't Dress for Dinner." A farce, direction is provided by Gillian Eaton, who starred as Jacqueline in the original West End production and its London national tour. "It's a perfect match," Johnson said. "Why not have one of the best talents in metro Detroit kick off your season? The same with the cast; they're phenomenal."

Cast members include Loren Bass, Sarab Kamoo, Dave Davies, Michelle Hooks-Stackpoole and Aaron Moore. And for 2007 Wilde Award nominee Laurel Hufano, it's an awesome feeling to be in the theater's first-ever show. "Just to be one of the first people on stage in a new theater is so exciting," she said. "The promise, the thrill of watching the theater go up, and knowing it will be finished in a just a few weeks is mind-boggling. I love it!"

Stage manager Tracy L. Spada couldn't agree more. "I'm excited. To know where we're all starting from and watching it grow - it gives me a sense of pride."

The Tipping Point

Already, the intimate, 105-seat theater has sparked interest in the area that is becoming known locally as Cady Town. (The theater is located on Cady Street.) "What we didn't anticipate is that we are creating a tipping point for this community," Johnson said. "Suddenly there's a real interest in the land around us, the buildings around us. It speaks to the power of theater, especially the way the economy is today."

Northville's mayor has been extremely supportive, Johnson said. "I think he sees the bigger picture and what this can do for the community."

So, too, do many local business owners - especially the bars, restaurants, cafes and coffee houses. "They're really excited about bringing more traffic into Northville, and extending the nightlife downtown a little bit. What we can do (for them) goes without explanation."

It's all about big dreams, Johnson concluded. "This was a dream I had for 15 years that I thought would never come to fruition. I hope that everyone who comes into the theater feels a little piece of that dream and knows that they can dream bigger and do more with their lives, too."

PREVIEW:

'Tipping Point Theatre'

361 E. Cady Street, Northville. "Don't Dress for Dinner" previews Sept. 6-7; opens Sept. 8 and runs Thu.-Sun., through Sept. 29. Tickets: $18-$35. For information: 248-347-0003 or http://www.tippingpointtheatre.org

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