Considering the works of William Shakespeare have been performed everywhere from Central Park to American prisons, the production of "The Tempest" entering its final weekend at Detroit's Park Bar doesn't qualify as particularly strange. But the story of how it came to be is one that anyone interested in economic development or the nurturance of the city's creative class should enjoy. Jerry Belanger's path from corporate achiever to midlife theatrical producer and director is one to strike joy (or envy) in the heart.
Belanger spent his early adulthood in territory development for a carwash equipment manufacturer, and by his own description was successful at it, although he always knew it wasn't a job he wanted to spend his life doing. He saved like a miser, enough that at 40, not long after seeing a "lousy" production of "King Lear" at Stratford, he went back to school and took a second bachelor's degree at Wayne State University, this time in theater. He was accepted into a graduate program in England, but after his wife vetoed moving the family overseas -- yes, he had a wife and three kids to support -- started thinking about what he could do in Detroit.
"There's a problem with theater in Detroit," he said. "Everybody who graduates (from local programs) goes to Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. Everybody leaves." The city's history is rich with great stage productions, but by 2000, when Belanger decided to take his chances on hometown theater, those days were long past. He used the last of his money to buy a vacant building at the corner of Elizabeth and Park streets in the city's Foxtown neighborhood, and went to work rehabbing two ground-floor tavern spaces within. One became the new Cliff Bell's, now a jazz club and restaurant. The other was the Park Bar, so understated it opened without a sign and still doesn't have one. But its long craft-beer menu, prime location near the Fillmore, Fox and Comerica Park, and comfortable vibe made it popular among Midtown Detroiters and suburbanites alike. After the real-estate collapse, Belanger couldn't borrow money to finish an upstairs space into a theater, so he went to work with "whatever was left in the till at the end of the night," and "nail by nail," the theater began to take form.
Rehearsals for "The Tempest," directed by Belanger, started while risers were still being built in the intimate space, which seats well under 100. The play had a $24,000 budget and everyone got paid, but the production was expected to lose money and has. Still, Belanger couldn't be more pleased with the result, which is polished, professional and, he hopes, the beginning of a small repertory company he'd like to build around the Park's new stage.
Saturday night, when my husband and I watched Prospero weave his magical web on his haunted isle, occasional cheers invaded from the bar below, where patrons were watching the Lions battle the Saints in the NFC wild-card matchup. And if had been a quieter night downstairs, surely the raucous shipwreck that starts the play would have been heard there, as well.
As for its founder, Belanger, now 52, might be called a true Renaissance man. His business acumen is well-used as proprietor of one bar and landlord of another. He's doing the theater work he finds so fulfilling. And by doing all the physical labor of restoration and construction himself, he finds satisfaction on that front as well, he says:
"I'm enjoying myself so much, it's stupid."
"The Tempest" plays again Jan. 13, 20 and 21. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased by phone at 313-444-2294. And the beer selection can't be beat.