A desire to create a Downriver theater company, to produce well-written, intelligent plays, with interesting characters, provided the spark that led to the creation of the Open Book Theatre Company.
Six years ago, when OBTC creative director Krista Schafer Ewbank heard that a small theater in Eastpointe was closing, she briefly entertained the idea of purchasing the building and starting a new theater company in the space. However, the Downriver resident felt it was too far from home, and she wanted to be more familiar with any community in which she launched a creative venture.
“I would need to know my audience,” Ewbank said. “Then I started looking into what it would take to start a theater Downriver. I wanted to run the kind of company that I wanted to work for.”
She said she wanted to create an environment which fostered collaboration as well as allowed room for mistakes as it grew.
“I wanted to work with people I liked and respected,” Ewbank said. “I wanted to produce theater that made people think and feel and care about things outside of themselves.”
She said she decided early on that the OBTC would be a non-profit arts organization. She incorporated in December 2013, and in 2014, gathered a board of directors, created its founding documents, selected the theater’s first season and obtained the group’s 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.
Ewbank said she originally wanted OBTC to be a repertory company, with a core group of actors, but she said she didn’t find enough actors interested in that model.
She said she chose the name “Open Book Theatre Company” after rejecting a long list of other ideas.
“Storytelling is so integral to what we do, and who we are, not only in theater, but as human beings,” she said. “It is how we get to know each other, and how our values are passed down from generation to generation.”
Ewbank said the idea also sprang from the thought that our lives are an “open book,” and we are all a work in progress.
“It’s how we question authority, and examine our place in the world,” she said. “We are, all of us, storytellers. I love that the original spark of the name is there as a daily reminder to me of what we do.”
The first home for the OBTC, from September 2014 to May 2016, was at Penelope’s Venue, 12219 Dix Toledo Road, in Southgate, a resale shop which supports local artists.
“The first time I walked in there, I loved the funky, artsy vibe,” Ewbank said. “Donna (Neuman) was excited to get some more performances in the space, and it just worked out.”
She knew, however, that her eventual goal was to find their own space for the OBTC.
“Having complete control over our calendar and access to the building for rehearsals, set builds and storage is such a gift,” Ewbank said.
She said another drawback of Penelope’s Venue was the theater’s lack of visibility from the street.
“We put a sandwich board with our logo and name out front, and still people couldn’t find us,” Ewbank said.
At the group’s new location, which it owns, at 1621 West Road, in Trenton, where they launched their third season in September, 2016, she said people find them just by seeing the group’s name on the awning and being curious about the building.
“I have to do all the things with a building – maintenance, bills, snow shoveling and toilet plunging – and that can be exhausting,” she said. “But it also means that if something needs doing, like a heater needs fixing, I can just get it done.”
Ewbank said she also likes being in control of the theater’s atmosphere from the moment a guest steps into the building.
“The lobby is your first introduction to the theater, and it feels welcoming and inviting,” she said. “The chairs are comfortable and sturdy. The bathrooms are clean and well-stocked. We control all of that, and we did not when we were leasing a space.”
Creating an environment that would draw talented actors to perform at OBTC was also important to Ewbank, who chose shows in which actors would want to perform, at a venue where they felt safe as artists.
“They know we take their physical and emotional safety seriously,” she said. “We are all doing pretty vulnerable work, and we need a safe place to do that.
“We also need to be allowed to take risks, to float an idea, or try a new acting choice. That requires space and a supportive environment. I think we’ve created that, and that’s where the best work happens.”
Ewbank said she selects shows to inspire thought, conversation and to inspire audiences. She said live theater is meant to create a connection between the artists and the audience.
She said she hopes to attract more playgoers in their twenties and early thirties.
“I think, for many people, theater just isn’t on their radar,” Ewbank said. “But the audience we do have in this age range love what we’re doing. I think, ‘If we can just get you through our doors, you’ll want to come back.’”
While the OBTC board has discussed ways to connect with its artists and audiences during the pandemic, Ewbank isn’t leaning toward offering virtual theater.
“Live theater is what we do, and it’s pretty hard to make a sudden shift in gears from our entire model,” she said. “So, we are not really talking about online readings right now. We do have some fun, smaller, scrappier projects we are working on.”
With forgone ticket revenue, and building bills ongoing, Ewbank said donations to the 501(c)(3) are welcome, and gift certificates are available for purchase, at openbooktheatrecompany.net.
“Gift certificates can be used for any upcoming shows, and helps us with that income at a time when we don’t have any,” she said. “It guarantees you a great show when we are able to open up again.”
Ewbank said she misses the creative energy that OBTC creates.
“Whether it’s rehearsal or a production meeting, or a performance where an audience is feeding the energy with their laughter and presence, there’s nothing like it,” she said. “I can’t wait to share energy in the same space with others.”
Ewbank said she has learned a lot over the past six years of running a theater, and while her role has become more natural, she still continues to learn from the process.
“In the early years, I used to say that starting a theater is like having a baby, only nobody brings you casseroles,” she said. “It was an exhausting, around-the-clock job. It’s still a lot of work, but it has definitely gotten easier and more comfortable.”
She said the “giant pause” caused by COVID-19 is frustrating.
“We will be around when this is over, but our growth is taking a hit,” Ewbank said. “But we are not stopping. If there’s one thing artists know how to do, it’s to take a challenge and make good art out of it.”
She said she is optimistic about OBTC’s future.
“Things may look different for a while,” she said. “But this is just a few chapters of our story.”