A residency for emerging artists: this week on The Green Room

Sep 22, 2016

What’s one of the biggest challenges for emerging artists today?

A lot of them will tell you, it’s about getting their new work noticed. Think about, a playwright for example. Their work has to be compelling enough for a theater company just to notice it.

But even then, it’s not enough to just be compelling. The work has to be so good that the theater decides to take a chance and invest in the production of the show. If the playwright doesn't have much of a track record, it’s a huge gamble for the theater company.


Emilio Rodriguez knows this. He’s a 27 year old playwright from Detroit.

“The fact that not a lot of theaters in the area where I live do new work period," he says. "And if they do, they’re going to do new work from people that they have a personal relationship with.”

Emilio says for theater companies in Detroit, the overriding focus is not about showing new work, it’s all about return on investment.

“Definitely in Detroit, I would say it’s more focused on what’s going to get butts in seats and sell tickets," Emilio explains. "I mean that’s a phrase I’ve heard so many artistic directors use, ‘You know, we need butts in seats, and we gotta sell tickets.’”

For the past week, Emilio Rodriguez and two other artists from New York have lived in a home on the outskirts of Traverse City. 

They’re part of a brand new Michigan residency program called The MITTEN Lab. It’s aimed at helping emerging artists.

The residency is the brainchild of Rachel Sussman and Katherine Carter. The MITTEN Lab stands for, ‘A Michigan Incubator for Theater Talent Emerging Now. 

Rachel Sussman (left) and Katherine Carter are the co-founders of The MITTEN Lab. Their goal is to empower emerging artists.
Credit Dan Wanschura

Both Rachel and Katherine grew up in downstate Michigan, doing community theater together. Now, Rachel is a creative producer in New York City. Katherine is a director for a theater company, also in New York City.

Rachel says they both began to ask themselves, “How are we cultivating, as an industry, the next generation theater artists?”

What they noticed, was that there was an over saturation of new work in places like New York, Chicago, and other bigger cities— there was no possible way to weed through all of it.

And that makes it even harder for an emerging artist to get noticed.

But when Rachel and Katherine would return home to Detroit, they noticed something different.

“There is an appreciation and passion for theater in Michigan, but no new work being made here, versus in places that are like the major theater cities,” Rachel says.

They both began to think about how they could balance that discrepancy. They decided to begin by taking artists who are making new work, and putting them in a place where there is more of a need for it.

Instead of having to choose to live in a place like New York, or Los Angeles, just in order to pursue an artistic career, Katherine Carter says she’d love to see the next generation of artists have a career in the state of their choosing.

“Having the empowerment and the resources to create art in the place they already are and and in their community,” she says.

Another goal of The MITTEN Lab is to make it less risky for a theater company to invest in somebody, or something they are unfamiliar with. Throughout the residency, each artist will get input from Rachel and Katherine. At the end of the week, each artist will also workshop their piece in the community. That’s one less step required to take by the theater company.

“The MITTEN Lab will help pay for and sponsor that ‘gray space,’ says Katherine. “To help the production get from reading, baby stages, up to it’s adulthood and get ready for that full production. Taking that weight off the theater producing it.”

The three MITTEN Lab artists in residence will workshop excerpts from their pieces Friday evening at The Parlor in Traverse City.