What do Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peel, Parks & Recreation, Playing House), Sam Richardson (Veep) and Tim Robinson (Saturday Night Live) all have in common? Hamtramck: 2.09 square miles known for its Poles, Pączkis…and Planet Ant.
But for the few who don’t know, 2357 Caniff was home to Planet Ant — a non-profit theatre company that has been incubating professional actors and comedians — for over two decades. But 2017 marks the year when the theatre’s main stage did a little movin’ on up….and across the street…to a large banquet center (formerly the BHA Hall) at 2320 Caniff.
And to think it all started with coffee.
Planet Ant first opened its doors in 1993. Originally it was a coffee shop featuring live music and occasional poetry readings, but owner Hal Soper soon realized that serving $1 coffees and allowing people listen to music all night was not exactly profitable. At the same time, theatre students (most notably Keegan-Michael Key) at the University of Detroit and Wayne State University became regulars at the Coffeehouse, and in 1996 approached Soper about using Planet Ant as a location for their project Get the Hell Out of Hamtown (a film starring Key and Larry Joe Campbell). From there, Soper collaborated with Key to transform the coffee shop into a 50-seat black box theatre, featuring comedy acts. Key also helped him create a mission statement safeguarding future artists’ creative control over their material and the freedom to experiment.
Soon thereafter, the newly formed Planet Ant launched “Improv Mondays” (now Detroit’s longest running improv show), in which members of Planet Ant’s resident group of improvisers (the “Home Team”) perform with local guest improvisers, and famously cap off the evening with an open-audience session.
In 2016, following the resounding success of “Improv Mondays”, along with that of Planet Ant’s “Improv Training Center”, combined with the addition of Darren Shelton (local builder) to the LLC, and an IndieGoGo campaign (which raised $40,000 toward the $100,000 renovation costs), Ant Brothers LLC, purchased the BHA hall. Soper and Shelton also decided to purchase the restaurant next door, and together Ant Hall and the Ghost Light Hamtramck Bar were born.
“Now we have an awesome new space that will allow us to provide many more entertainment options from improv to scripted shows, live music, stand-up and other special events. We’ll be able to provide more opportunities for growing talent at our Improv Training Center as well,” says Managing Director, Michael Hovitch. The new venue currently has seating for 92, but the main performance space is zoned for 470 people, according to Shelton.
“Our challenge is to make the larger space feel as intimate as the original black box theatre and, of course, expand our patron base as well,” says Hovitch.
Long-time Home Team Member, Margaret Edwartowski (who began her illustrious improv career at The Second City, Detroit), says she and the other members of the Home Team were nervous for their first performance on January 23rd, because the space was much bigger and the stage was raised, but there was a full house, so the jitters quickly morphed into excitement.
“We like to put on lots of different kinds of shows,” Edwartowski says, “and this is just so much more versatile. The great thing about this organization is that members have always had a lot of creative control. We’re allowed to experiment and that has really made Planet Ant a rich creative atmosphere for performers. That’s why we call it the “incubator”, and that’s why so much great talent has come out of this place.”
And Edwartowski ain’t just whistling “incubator”: Two of Ant’s original cast members, Josh Funk and Nancy Hayden (also alums of The Second City, Detroit) are currently in Los Angeles performing with the Improv Troupe “313”, which was founded by six, and eventually grew to 11, native Detroiter improvisers. Funk is also the Artistic Director at The Second City, Hollywood. Finally, Hayden founded and performs in “Mama’s Boys”, a 5-woman Improv Troupe that performs regularly at The Second City, Hollywood, and features a different guest “Boy” every performance, including celebrity greats such as Wayne Brady and Key.
But wait – there’s more! The Detroiters, a “buddy-comedy” series that centers around two “Ad Men” who make low budget commercials in Detroit, debuts on Comedy Central on Tuesday, February 7. The series, which will be filmed single-camera style IN Detroit (despite the fateful elimination of Michigan’s film incentives Program), is the brainchild of two Planet Ant alums who are very vocal about their Detroit roots: Saturday Night Live writer/actor Tim Robinson (who hails from Clarkston, Michigan), and Detroit native Sam Richardson (who plays Jonah’s kowtowing executive assistant, Richard Splett, in the wildly successful Comedy Central series Veep). The Detroiters’ plot was partly inspired by the classic Detroit ads that both men grew up watching, including the Mel Farr Superstar (Ford Dealerships) and Gordy Hartunian (ABC Warehouse) campaigns. In fact, (Planet Ant alum) Nancy Hayden is also a writer on the series, and was thrilled to point out that it features Detroit’s iconic Broadcast Journalist, Mort Crim (in seven of the 10 episodes), along with a rich bevy of other Detroit favorites such as the Slow Roll, Detroit’s Temple Bar, and The Handlebar Pedal Pub. Both Richardson and Robinson (who also star in the series) were passionate advocates of filming the series in Detroit, which they describe as “almost a character in the series”.
Just as the renovations of Ant Hall got underway last year, the Seven Brothers Bar’s long-time (and much beloved) owner, George Cvetanovski (known for regaling colorful stories of his Macedonia homeland…and his unwavering support of Planet Ant), decided to retire. The bar had been a favorite watering hole for Planet Ant performers since inception, so it seemed fitting to buy the bar and transfer the liquor license. The Ghost Light Hamtramck Bar will be open from 7pm-2am every day except Sundays; and the original Seven Brother’s Bar itself (which still features the original Seven Brother’s Neon Sign as well as its iconic pool table), while it will now only serve at special events, will always be available to patrons (new and nostalgic alike). Finally, Planet Ant Brothers LLC is also holding onto the original (three-story) location across the street (at 2357 Caniff), where Improv Classes, “Planet Ant Process” (wherein improv is used to generate scripted shows), small theatrical productions, Saturday Night Improv, and live music will continue.
According to Edwartowski, paying homage to their favorite bar and preserving the original Planet Ant site will ensure that when Planet Ant “babies” (such as Key) return to Detroit, they will always feel at home.
Because it is, after all, where they “grew up”.
In addition to improv shows, the Planet Ant has produced more than 130 plays and musicals, comprised of nearly 100 original works that were written by (primarily) local artists.
This year’s regular theater season includes Macdeath (runs February 17 – March 11). Set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, this punk rock musical is a unique adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.
The Detroit Musical (a reprise and expansion of Detroit Be Damned) follows (March 24-April 17).
The Hamtramck Music Festival will also be held at Ant Hall this year (March 2-5).
Tickets for “Monday Night Improv” are $5. The show runs from 8-10pm.
See: http://www.planetant.com/ for more information.