Much Ado About Something New: Detroit Public Theatre’s Performance Space in Midtown October 26, 2022

In a Nutshell

What: With a loan from IFF, Detroit Public Theatre (DPT) completed renovations to a former factory to create a high-quality performance space that will enable larger audiences and new revenue streams, facilitate a new residency program that offers emerging arts organizations affordable rehearsal and performance space, and contribute to ongoing revitalization in the neighborhood.    
Sector: Arts and Culture
Location: Detroit, MI (Midtown)
Size: 7,500 square feet
Cost: $2.8 million
Funding & Financing Sources: IFF, leaseholder improvement allowance from landlord, agency equity, capital campaign
IFF Support: $1 million loan closed in July 2022
IFF Staff Lead: Beverley Loyd, Managing Director of Lending – Michigan and Ohio
Design: Dash Marshall
General Contractor: G. Fisher Construction
Owner’s Representative: Scott Collins (BDC Consulting)
Impact: Creation of 10 FTE permanent jobs and 17 FTE construction jobs; increased seating capacity for ticket sales; diversification of revenue streams to support organizational growth

If the walls could talk in a 7,500-square-foot building in Detroit’s bustling Midtown neighborhood, they’d have quite a story to tell. Built in 1919, the Third Avenue Garage facility was first used as an auto repair shop, once served as a factory producing English muffins, and, as of this September, began its next act as a gleaming new performing arts space for the Detroit Public Theatre (DPT).

For the nonprofit theatre company, the Third Avenue Garage represents the achievement of a long-held goal to secure a space of its own after spending its first seven years staging performances in a shared facility. Beyond providing DPT with full control of its operations and schedule for the first time, the Third Avenue Garage will enable the organization to increase audience sizes for each of its shows from 150 people to 250, launch a residency program to help incubate other arts groups in Detroit, tap into new revenue streams as the organization nearly doubles its staff, and contribute to a thriving cultural district in the city.

IFF provided a $1 million loan for the $2.8 million renovation project, which DPT is funding through a $5 million comprehensive campaign it expects to complete by the end of its fiscal year in July 2023. Scroll down to take a photo tour of the completed facility and to learn more about how DPT will leverage the space for the benefit of the organization, the neighborhood, and the arts community in Detroit.

A citywide search for the perfect location

Exterior of Detroit's Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage Exterior of Detroit's Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage Exterior of Detroit's Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage

Founded by Sarah Clare Corporandy, Courtney Burkett, and Sarah Winkler, Detroit Public Theatre launched in 2015 with assistance from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), which generously agreed to share its rehearsal space with the start-up organization. Though the space was affordable, functional, and provided DPT with exactly what it needed in its first few years, the theatre’s success created the need for more space solely devoted to supporting DPT’s operations.

“DSO welcomed us into their space after hearing about what we were trying to accomplish, which was to create a major regional theatre that provides affordable cultural experiences to diverse audiences,” says DPT Co-founder and Executive Director Sarah Clare Corporandy. “There were many benefits for us in using the space, but, every time we produced a show, we created a theatre out of a rehearsal room that was still being used. That meant taking entire sets down and re-building them three to five times during every production, often within extremely tight timeframes.”

After producing 12 shows in the space, the organization’s co-founders began looking for a long-term facility solution that could accommodate growth while harnessing the momentum established during its first three years. Exploring neighborhoods across Detroit, DPT’s leadership considered roughly 35 potential facilities before settling on the building that would become the Third Avenue Garage – just three blocks from its former home.

“We spent a lot of time talking about what different locations would mean for our existing audiences, how they would affect our ability to attract new audiences, and what we believed our responsibilities would be in any neighborhood we decided to settle in,” says Corporandy. “We knew that we weren’t yet well-established enough to open a new facility in any location and to expect thousands of people to come to our shows. We wanted a balance between what we could give a community and the support we needed from the neighborhood to continue to grow the organization.”

The future Third Avenue Garage offered that balance, and the building’s owner – 3MISSION – shared DPT’s enthusiasm for how the space could be transformed to support the nonprofit’s work while contributing to the ongoing revitalization of the Midtown neighborhood. After DPT and 3MISSION agreed to a long-term lease that will provide the theatre company with an option to purchase the facility as it continues to scale up, the building owner completed façade improvements, upgraded the electrical service, repaired the roof, updated the gutter system, and upgraded the water supply system and meter, sewer system, and fire protection features.

A welcoming, flexible multi-use space

The lobby of Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage The lobby of Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage, a flexible multi-purpose space that the nonprofit will rent out for events The lobby of Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage, a flexible multi-purpose space that the nonprofit will rent out for events A donor wall in the lobby of Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage The bar in the lobby of Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage, which will generate revenue to support the nonprofit's operations

Taking control of the property in white-box condition at the beginning of 2022, DPT set about transforming the space by adding a stage, lighting, sound system, flexible seating, box office, bar, and more. The building’s lobby, where the bar and box office are located, makes the first impression on visitors, and it will also play an important role in DPT’s continued growth by providing the organization with a venue it can rent out for paid events and community gatherings.

“It’s a beautiful, classy, open space that’s very warm and welcoming, and it’s exactly what we wanted,” says Corporandy. “Our goal is to have something going on every night in the space between our shows, performances through our residency program, and outside events. We weren’t planning to do any rentals during the first few months after opening, but we’ve already pivoted on that because of the demand for a space like this in the neighborhood. The revenue from rental fees and the bar are important, but it’s also a way to provide space in the community for things we care about while bringing people through the doors who may never have heard about Detroit Public Theatre before.”

A box office that doubles as a staff workspace

The box office, which doubles as staff workspace, at Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage The box office, which doubles as staff workspace, at Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage

Within the lobby of the Third Avenue Garage is a dedicated box office that also provides workspace for DPT’s staff. It’s one of several areas in the building that offers the organization administrative flexibility as it increases in size to a staff of 13 people. Among the new positions possible because of DPT’s expanded capacity in the new facility is a community and connectivity engagement manager whose role is to build bridges for DPT with other organizations, local businesses, and patrons.

With increased capacity, DPT also plans to find new ways to integrate its “Shakespeare in Prison” program with day-to-day operations in the new facility. The program offers a creative outlet to those incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, MI, who help DPT produce Shakespeare’s productions within the institution by serving as facilitators, actors and stagehands. DPT has hired several participants in the program after their release from the prison, providing the training necessary to succeed in jobs at the theatre.

“Sacred energy” in a custom-built performance space

Going beyond the lobby of the Third Avenue Garage, visitors enter a darkened hallway before making their way into the 250-seat theatre that serves as the centerpiece of the renovated building. Like much of the facility, the entryway to the theatre is a carefully designed space meant to maximize the quality of performance art in the building. That’s because the hallway is actually a “light and sound lock” room with doorways at each end to keep light and noise pollution out of the theatre during performances.

“When you walk into the theatre, you can actually physically feel the way it’s protected from sound,” explains Corporandy. “That creates a sacred energy in the space, and it’s because of how it was built.”

The theatre is currently set up for DPT’s first production in the new space – a play called Mud Row written by Dominique Morisseau, a multiple Tony-award nominated, MacArthur Genius Award-winning native of Detroit. Morisseau was a founding board member for DPT who now serves as the organization’s executive artistic producer.

The production is providing DPT with the opportunity to put the theatre’s new systems to work, including a custom-built sound system optimized for the space and LED lighting that drastically cuts down on the manual labor needed to stage shows.

A "light and sound lock" room leading into the black-box performance space in Detroit Pubic Avenue's Third Avenue Garage The black-box performance space in Detroit Pubic Avenue's Third Avenue Garage The black-box performance space in Detroit Pubic Avenue's Third Avenue Garage The black-box performance space in Detroit Pubic Avenue's Third Avenue Garage The black-box performance space in Detroit Pubic Avenue's Third Avenue Garage A custom-built grid with LED lighting in the black-box theatre at Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage

Aside from its own productions, DPT will also use the theatre to help incubate arts organizations in Detroit in the same way the DSO did for them through a new residency program. Prior to opening the space, DPT spent a year in conversation with other arts organizations and community members about what the residency program should provide, determining that the goal of the program should be to provide partially or fully subsidized workshop and performance space to emerging arts organizations, as well as marketing, box office, and technical support. The group then reviewed applications for the program’s first cohort before collaboratively selecting organizations to participate.

“Being able to use DSO’s space at a discounted rate immediately gave us credibility and provided us with a leg up that helped us get to where we are now,” says Corporandy. “We want to pay that forward with the residency program, but it was important to us to bring other perspectives into the process. It’s really a community effort to provide space to voices that aren’t always heard or don’t always have access to a space like the Third Avenue Garage. You don’t know what someone can do until you take the weight off their back so that they can focus on the art.”

Vibrant, unexpected design choices

Throughout the Third Avenue Garage, DPT has cultivated a unique design aesthetic that revels in the unexpected. In the bathrooms, for example, a wallpaper design that features DPT’s logo lines the ceiling. According to Corporandy, DPT “wants visitors to be a little bit surprised when they visit for the first time.”

A bathroom in Detroit Public Theatre's Third Avenue Garage, where the nonprofit's logo is incorporated in a custom wallpaper on the ceiling Detroit Public Theatre-branded wallpaper lines the ceiling of the bathroom at the nonprofit's Third Avenue Garage

Comfortable back-of-house spaces for performers and staff

With limited space in its previous facility, DPT prioritized offering an exceptional experience to audiences – requiring significant sacrifices for the organization, its staff, and performers.

“At the DSO, we turned a storage closet into a dressing room, and so it was a big deal for us when we started planning for the new building and had the opportunity to focus on the spaces in the building that support the productions,” recalls Corporandy. “We have dressing rooms with oversized light bulbs, and those were one of the design choices we made at the very beginning of the process. It seems like such a small detail when you’re dealing with structural engineering and HVAC systems, but it’s a big deal for us to have a space that actually feels like a dressing room.”

On the second floor of the facility, DPT has created a bright orange loft that will meet multiple needs. Envisioned as a “clubhouse” for DPT staff and performers, the functional space will provide the organization with a green room, rehearsal space, a scene shop, and additional workspace for administrative tasks.

A dressing room for performers in Detroit Public Theatre's new Third Avenue Garage A multi-purpose space in Detroit Public Theatre's new Third Avenue Garage that offers flexible rehearsal space, staff workspace, and more.

Learn about additional projects in Michigan financed by IFF