By Annelyse Miller, August 10th, 2016
Writing the history of Planet Ant in a brief article is like trying to explain what made a Home Team’s set so hilarious. No matter how detailed the article may be, very important contributions will be left out. Such is the nature of the Planet Ant beast or rather insect. Its history, as well as its Monday Night Shows, are the perfect example of an improvisational ensemble. The Planet Ant has become the unique theatre that it is because of many intelligent, passionate folks working together. Countless hands have helped to create each of its incarnations. As the theatre embarks on its expansion, now is the perfect time to investigate how a little coffee house became a theatre with its own unique improvisational style.
Hal Soper, along with the Shelton family, decided to open a coffee shop in 1993. According to Shelton family lore, even their participation in the start up involved a good deal of collaboration. As it has been explained to Darren Shelton, who was only three at the time, their participation came down to a family vote. “My mom and my younger sister said no, my dad and my older sister voted yeah and I guess I was the deciding vote for yes. Shortly after, my dad and Hal were looking for a name. My older sister, Alissa Shelton, suggested the name Ant Planet, because she had just gotten an ant farm and I guess that turned into Planet Ant.”
So how did they decide to start a coffee shop in Hamtramck well before the coffee house craze hit the nation? “It was a crazy time for Hamtramck, a magazine wrote an article on the 10 turn-around neighborhoods and Hamtramck was one of them. We thought we’d capitalize on that wave,” Soper shares. Although the owners worked together as CPAs downtown and were not musicians themselves, they were motivated to open the coffee shop as a place to hear good Detroit based music. “We wanted a place where there was no cover entertainment. For the price of a dollar coffee, people could come in for great music,” Soper explains. They achieved just that and were even named in Metro Times as a Best-of for “No‑Cover Entertainment.” “So we ran it for three years and made no money.”
In addition to being a great place to see bands play, the coffee house’s location attracted college students from University of Detroit, and Wayne State, along with local actors and musicians. Mikey Brown, the coffee shop’s first manager, wrote a film set in Hamtramck with Yasmine Jaffri. “Mikey Brown and Keegan Michael Key were undergraduates together and in the summer of 1996 Keegan joined them on the film project. Keegan talked to me about using the shop for a film location.” Soper shares.
The coffee house closed temporarily as filming for Get the Hell out of Hamtown began that summer. This film project included a number of folks that continued to be involved in the evolution of Planet Ant. Joshua Funk was working at Second City Detroit and was asked by Larry Joe Campbell if he wanted a part in the movie. “I said yeah and met Hal, Keegan, Mikey Brown, Ryan and so many people. I then formed great relationships with Hal and Keegan.”
After the filming ended, Hal recalled having a conversation at Seven Brothers with Key. “Keegan had just graduated from Pen with an MFA, and I asked him what he planed to do.” Through the course of the conversation about starting up a theatre, Soper asked if he wanted to start a theatre here in Detroit, suggesting that he had the space available. As Soper recalls, “Probably the next conversation I had with him was when he pulled up outside with his packed moving truck ready to start a theatre.”
Having been told this story and knowing that Hal Soper, literally and figuratively, lives his life in and around the theatre, (I’ve personally witnessed him finishing a load of laundry between shows), I was still puzzled how he could be so invested and yet not be a performer himself. How did his investment in a coffee shop turn into not only a theatrical space but a home base for so many? He shrugged the question off. Maybe I failed to phrase the question in a way that would elicit more than his humble, factual responses. It certainly isn’t to make a personal monetary profit. The theatre is a not‑for‑profit organization. So why? The best response I could get was that “It’s an evolving thing, it is not my full time job but it is my full time focus.”
His commitment to Home Team members has even created a bi-coastal life for Mr. Soper. “We have a huge contingent in Los Angeles.” In addition to being an extended family to each other, there is also a performing presence with a Planet Ant West night at Second City and the large list of Home Team members working in LA. Supporting Home Team members pursuing acting careers in Los Angeles is also a part of Soper’s mission.
In the beginning the theatre had very late start times to accommodate the working schedules of its performers. “Most shows started as late as 11 or 11:30 when everyone finished whatever show they were preforming in,” Soper explains. Planet Ant attracted theatre students as well as performers working at Second City in Detroit. This space became a perfect environment for testing new material.
Joshua Funk recounts that cast members of Second City often sat around their apartments working on scripts and sketches. This was also a time when Second City itself was under going changes to their shows. “This was an experimental era for Second City, this was the time when the show Piñata Full of Bees was being produced” confirms Margaret Edwartowski. Piñata Full of Bees helped to revolutionize the format for Second City shows, tying together each sketch thematically and bringing characters back from previous scenes through out the show.
Edwartowski explained how this time at Second City influenced and shaped the Ant. “Planet Ant was founded by Second City alum, so the good improv foundation and 7-show-a-week/5-sets-a-week work ethic and experience was there. But because Planet Ant was a traditional theatre that produced plays, we melded the sketch/improv background with our theatre training (many of us had undergrad theatre degrees)- and created a style that focused on character, a focus on honest acting in hopes of creating scenes and characters with more depth than traditional sketch improv.”
It was really a “tweaking of the Second City process and reframing it in order to create a narrative comedy show. While the show felt like a play more than unrelated sketches. The first incarnation had 8 actors and was character driven. Characters showing their unique points of view,” Funk shares.
That first show, as Edwartowski recalls was Sardines and included Shawn Handlon, the Planet Ant’s Artistic Director, in the cast.
As the characters developed they flushed out how they would interact together. “It was really kind of fun creating a show that way. It is exciting to think that this process continues today, —that it is still how they create shows at the Ant today.” Together with Margaret Edwartowski and Nancy Hayden, Joshua Funk honed these ideas to create the Ant Process. Planet Ant is a “theatre, theatre. It is subscriber based. We took the Second City process and applied it but made it more palatable for the theatre crowed. It is theatre but the process remains in using an improv collaboration in the writing and rehearsal process” Funk explains.
Planet Ant’s yearly runs include buying scripts for production and producing original plays and sketch shows, as well as producing a number of theatre festivals and improv events. Early on Edwartowski got Soper’s word that Monday nights would be reserved for improv. This agreement remains as Planet Ant is home to the Detroit area’s longest running improv show. Each Monday in the introduction this is explained, often with different embellished details.
The purchase and renovation of the hall across the street will now create additional space for larger productions and performances. This larger space is set to include 200 seats and an adjacent bar. It seems the Shelton family will again have a presence, as Darren Shelton is involved in this project.
This additional space may prove useful for the expanding training center as well. Just within the last few years that training center has really grown. Each session the number of participants increases. Michael Hovitch, the Managing Director of Planet Ant, has worked the last four years to not only maintain its great start but to expand it. When asked what made the classes at Planet Ant different from other places, he explained; “We focus on long form from the very start and on acting skills.” It is a focus not just on character development but also on honing acting and improvisational skills. There is a desire to “address bad habits right away before they develop. We kind of try to be more critical right away,” Hovitch explains.
Knowing the philosophy behind the theatre and its improv process, doesn’t give you the full picture of what makes the Planet Ant, the Planet Ant though. There is so much more to this theatre, including strangely enough, a sense of home.
Part of the Monday Night improv tradition is a nightly contest to name the Home Team and receive a “fabulous prize.” When asked, Edwartowski admits that she started this tradition as a lark, “I thought of the name the Home Team thingie at my secretary job at WSU and stopped at CVS for the very first Fabulous prize on the way to the Ant. The fabulous thing just came from goofing around during the intro. It’s funny how if you do something long enough it can become a tradition.” Adding to the lovable quirkiness of the game and its tradition, a long time patron and regular, Tim Weeks took it upon himself to make the ballot box for the game. He fashioned a model replica of the theatre complete with its signature purple paint.
When Michael Hovitch was pressed for a unique memory of the Planet Ant, he shares that one of the best things about the theatre is that most people have a memorable first experience there. “It is a very different vibe, it being a house, they don’t know what they are in for‑ it seems everyone has a story about their first visit. That is a unique thing about Planet Ant. It has a very unique vibe compared to other theatres.” Maybe it is a familial vibe, like each patron feels like they have “the inside scoop.”
As for Hovitch’s first visit many years ago, he remembers being surprised by a two‑man musical duo performing and “thinking it was unexpected” and then there was the theatre’s cat. “There used to be a theatre cat named Louie that randomly wondered onto the stage and would some how be worked into the scene or even become the focus of the set.” His initial surprise at the cat’s participation became part of what he grew to expect. As a theatre it fully accepts and elaborates on whatever is thrown at it. The collaborative, “yes and” mentality of improv, is steeped in its DNA.
This has made the theatre a creative incubator. “If Second City was my work, then Planet Ant was my playground” Funk shares. “When Second City decided to leave, Planet Ant definitely became the new permanent home in Detroit for so many of us.” Funk even credits his time at Planet Ant for helping to shape his very successful career in Los Angeles, “I think that Planet Ant had a monumental impact on my career, Planet Ant and Second City equally. At Planet Ant I was able to be an independent artist. Planet Ant helped me learn how to create something out of nothing and find a way to put it out there.” Planet Ant allowed him to combine his music, improv and theatre backgrounds into one career using all of those creative elements. In addition to being the Artistic Director for Second City Hollywood, Funk is an actor, writer, director and an Emmy nominated composer.
For many on the Home Team, the theatre is also a second family. Its name “became sort of meaningful as we all bonded like a family over the years. There’s real meaning to home with us,” adds Edwartowski.
But this sense of home is not limited to the Home Team, the theatre itself is a very welcoming and open environment. It doesn’t take long for that “weird vibe” to feel familiar. There are few, if any other theatres, that share a catered Polish Dinner on opening nights or where the cast members provide a home‑made buffet to a packed audience during their annual Holiday Blowout. At one time a home team member, Jamen Spitzer, even canvased the neighborhood on his bike, offering a free barbeque meal before Monday Night shows. And then there is the final portion of each Monday night, the Ant Jam, in which everyone is encouraged to come up and “play.” This portion of the evening is devoted to students and aficionados to practice their own improvisational skills. Each evening everyone is repeatedly reminded that it is a “safe space” and to have fun.
With the continued support of its founding members, as well as over twenty years’ worth of loyal patrons it seems inevitable that the Planet Ant’s family will comfortably fill the additional square footage. And like the best large families, it is steeped in fun traditions, honors its ancestors and has a great deal of love for each of its members. You can check out it’s Improv Mondays for only $5. Visit their website for this years original and intriguing productions. You’ll see that it won’t take long for that darkened theatre to feel like home to you too.
If you are looking for a chance to share in this Ant’s familial love as it expands check out their fundraising campaign for the expansion at: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/planet-ant-hall#/