“Birthday Candles” – the Detroit Public Theatre’s first commissioned play – was supposed to open on Broadway and then COVID-19 blew out its premiere

The play, Birthday Candles, had its world-premiere at the Detroit Public Theatre in 2018, and was set to open on Broadway this month. However, when the pandemic hit, those plans all changed. Christy talks with the Detroit Public Theatre producers, Courtney Burkett, Sarah Clare Corporandy, and Sarah Winkler, director Vivienne Benesch, and playwright, Noah Haidle, about the play’s origins, the collaboration that helped it come together, and the future of its Broadway debut.


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Courtney Burkett, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre We’re most proud of the audience that is the feel seen and feels, you know, it loves come into the theater. So to give people a place where they can come and experience world class art in their own community and understand that we are here for them.

Actress, Birthday Candles I wasted my life.  

Actress 2, Birthday Candles You’re 17, Goose.

Actress, Birthday Candles In a career of my soul. How many times have I turned from wonder? How many moments of grace have I left unnoticed? How much love have I left unsaid?

Christy McDonald All right. Joining me now, the three producing artistic directors of the Detroit Public Theatre, Sara Winkler, Sara, Clare Corporandy and Courtney Burkett. Ladies, it’s great to see you. We’re having so bad. You must be all missing your crew, your theater, your actors. Courtney, what has this what has this been like so far?

Courtney Burkett, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre I think we miss the, well we miss the artists a lot, but we really miss the audience. It’s really hard to not have the opportunity to invite people in and gather and tell these stories and have these profound experiences that people have in the theater. This kind of exploration of our shared humanity is what we try to really do and just to know that we can’t do that right now and we don’t know exactly when we’re gonna be able to do that again. We had a really exciting spring planned in Detroit Public Theatre. We know that we’re gonna come through this and we will be able to invite people back in. But it’s hard to do without.

Christy McDonald And Sarah Clare, I think people are just looking for any kind of shared experience online, using technology, listening to people read their poetry, streaming music. What have you been kind of gravitating towards?

Sarah Clare Corporandy, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre I’ve been reading plays solo, but it’s always great to peek in and see what’s out there. And I think it’s a great opportunity for a lot of artists that don’t get a lot of visibility to all have a platform to share their work. And so that’s been fun to investigate across the nation and the world really.

Christy McDonald Yeah. And Sarah, have. Has it been hard to not look ahead and say, oh, gosh, we could do that down the road or start exploring some new things, too?

Sarah Winkler, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre It has been. But at the same time, we’ve been looking down the road. So, we have a couple of really exciting ideas for when it is safe to gather again that that will hopefully take into account a new reality and a changed reality and we’re really looking forward to down the road. Our play, Birthday Candles opening on Broadway in the fall.

Christy McDonald And that really was what the celebration was supposed to be this month of birthday candles. You had the world premiere in the spring of 2018. The Detroit Public Theatre did. And it was supposed to open this month right around this time, right. On Broadway, starring Debra Messing. Courtney, let me start with you. Talk to us a little bit about Birthday Candles and everything that kind of ramped up to what the performance was supposed to be. This spring.

Courtney Burkett, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre We commissioned Noah Haidle. He is a very accomplished playwright who’s had multiple plays, produced off-Broadway and across the country. He was living in Detroit and he became a fan of Detroit Public Theatre early on and joined our board of directors. And so we commissioned him to write a play. We did a workshop and spent a few weeks with the That Great Company and really developed the play. And then we did the world premiere at Detroit Public Theatre in our third season. And Vivienne Benesch came in and directed it. And it was just a really beautiful production.

Actress, Birthday Candles I wish you so many beautiful hours risk your heart finding your place in the universe. You do that for me.

Actress 2, Birthday Candles I promise.

Christy McDonald And with me now is Vivienne Benesch. She is the director of Birthday Candles. Vivienne, it’s good to see you. How are you doing in New York?

Vivienne Benesch, Director, Birthday Candles Lovely to see you and, you know, doing OK.

Christy McDonald Let’s talk about the extraordinary journey of “Birthday Candles” and how you first came to directed at the Detroit Public Theatre where it had its world premiere.

Vivienne Benesch, Director, Birthday Candles Well, it goes back even before that in terms of my connection. Sarah Clare Corporandy is and was under my time at the Chautauqua Theater Company. I was the artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company. And she was the managing director there before going to Detroit. And so she actually came to me and said, Detroit Public Theatre wants to commission our first work. Love what they were committing to for a young theater, like to public theater to commit to a new work like that and to have to see it through is rare and I was honored to be part of that act. And so we then started to sort of get to dream about it as a as a production for Detroit Public Theatre. When I talk about the play as as a poetic souffle, I constantly talk about Birthday Candles as in terms of its buoyancy. You have to get the right consistency for it. All the recipe method metaphors are so apt in it. It is delicate. It is sweet. But it’s got savory in it. It’s got comedy. It’s got tragedy.

Christy McDonald Learned to be able to take it to Broadway. And in the path that you were able to go on is not an easy one. And it doesn’t happen for every playwright. And it doesn’t happen for every director. Describe what that experience is, then, taking it from the intimacy of the Detroit Public Theatre and then bringing it to a larger level.

Vivienne Benesch, Director, Birthday Candles So you’re so right. We feel so blessed at every level. Even in this pause right now, there’s such belief in the project that it will, it will out. It will out to its large to its large debut at whatever point that happens. But believing in the product so much that that was created at DPT, we knew I know Noah and his representation, his agents sort of sent it out broadly and people, unsurprisingly, were excited. But we know that that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Actually, getting to production is so rare. And first there there’s so many things that have to come together. We had the very smart idea what Noah and I were talking. It was actually him. He said, you’re good friends with Debra Messing, aren’t you? And I was like, yes, she was my classmate at graduate school, but for acting. And I literally went, I can’t believe I haven’t thought of that. That’s brilliant. She is this woman, Ernestine. Like, so I called her up and we had lunch. And in the middle of lunch, I was like, I know you get thousands of scripts. I know everyone pitches you.

Christy McDonald Here comes the pitch.

Vivienne Benesch, Director, Birthday Candles Here comes the pitch. There’s this project that I think you just have to read it. Tell me what you think. And then I expected not to hear from her for many months, but actually within a week she texted me and said, oh, my God, what a beautiful play. If they’ll have me, I’d love to do it. So all of those things sort of fitting together and going in like this. You know, the germ of an idea from an ambitious and gutsy theater company like Detroit Public Theatre to Broadway is where I believe this play’s gonna go on to touch people in every language and become sort of a new classic for us. But that it’s story and it’s heart started in Detroit and takes place in Michigan is just like a wonderful detail.

Actress, Birthday Candles Lift my gaze towards the infinite. Not so much instead. It’s like, well, I have my physics test. Do people think I’m funny or do they laugh out of pity?  All the time a quiet voice in my mind whispering you’re not good enough. You’re not good enough.

Sarah Clare Corporandy, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre You visit Ernestine at many of her birthdays throughout her life? Every single human can find something in this play that relates to their family or themselves or some sort of personal emotional triumph or tragedy that they’ve dealt with. And one of the treasures, I think, for us was to watch our audience watch the show. Even when we went to the Goodman to hear the readings and they’re about five hundred people in the audience and it was the first time they were hearing it and they their reactions were boisterous and loving. The belief that the three of us had with Noah and that and the relationship that we had with Noah and with Vivian and how we take care of each other in the works to watch that and to the thought that so many more people are going to be able to see that play, makes us so joyful on the thought that that play was born in Detroit is even more special.

Actress, Birthday Candles Stay. Stay.

Christy McDonald What do you think it is specifically that resonated with a lot of people at this play? Let’s be honest. Not every play that someone writes makes it to Broadway.

Noah Haidle, Director, Birthday Candles The details and specifics of the characters aren’t so intense that– there are more of a generalized there, like a character in quotes, like a dad or son or something like that, rather than the intense nitty gritty autobiographical back story stuff that has it most places. This one, though, I think in that way, because it is a little more general that people can see themselves in it a little easier than some of the other plays.

Christy McDonald Is there anything else that you want to share about this, this production and, you know, kind of set the nature of when we all come out of this?

Noah Haidle, Director, Birthday Candles The neat, neatest thing about doing theater maybe as an adult is that you’re getting together with a bunch of talented people and playing like you would as a child. And so you literally you have. Like summer camp type friendships immediately. And having done this, you know, higher and low levels, different levels of exposure. The things that matter and I think we find this now in all of our lives and the things that matter are the connections that we make and emotions and love that we’ve shared between people. So, if this play, this is it. You know, I’ve had I’ve gotten to be around my friends and I’ve gotten to be and help out Detroit Public Theatre, which was my aim in the beginning. So, in summary. I have no regrets.

Actress, Birthday Candles I’m denying human nature.

Actor, Birthday Candles I’m confused.

Actress, Birthday Candles That’s obvious.

Actor, Birthday Candles I’m not asking you to travel through this world. I’m just asking you to the prom.

Christy McDonald Sarah, kind of explain for people the lightning in a bottle to be able to have a production like this and to then see it go forward.

Sarah Winkler, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre It is. It is beyond anything we had ever dreamed or imagined. And to have and to have the director who directed our production of it also be experiencing her Broadway premiere and to have it to be Noah’s Broadway premiere. And our composer from Detroit Public Theatre’s production is composing the music for Broadway.

Courtney Burkett, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre So it’s really important to us that the plays and the work that we do at Detroit Public Theatre is representative of our community and the people who live in Detroit and work in Detroit. And our Detroiters see themselves reflected on our stage.

Sarah Winkler, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre To watch all these beautiful artists around the same piece have the same experience of that. The pinnacle of theatrical excitement and joy is beyond anything.

Courtney Burkett, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre And just giving artists the opportunity to connect nationally. So that’s a big part of what we wanted to do was kind of cross-pollinate and make sure that Detroit artists were getting exposed to national directors and designers and other artists and create opportunities for artists to work. We’re really proud of the artists and the opportunities that we have been able to connect and create, but we’re most proud of the audience that feels seen and feels, you know, it loves coming to the theater. So to give people a place where they can come and experience world class art in their own community and understand that we are here for them, it’s a privilege to be able to be creating for our community and be in conversation with our community.

Courtney Burkett, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre Courtney, how would you describe the arts and culture scene in Detroit right now? And obviously we’re in a very strange and bizarre time not being able to connect with live performance, whether it be music, whether it be plays.

Courtney Burkett, Producing Artistic Director, Detroit Public Theatre Yeah, it’s tremendous. I mean, I think we have a lot of really incredible artists who work here and who want to work here and passionate audiences. I think that, you know, that there are institutions in the city that are giants and then there’s tiny little companies and art individual artists doing really incredible work. So we want to expose the other theater artists who are here as well. The city has embraced us and we are really lucky to be in the position that we’re in and want to make sure that that that is shared.

Actress, Birthday Candles A witness. The only thing that stays the same in the ever-changing tumble of the world.

Actor, Birthday Candles Hell of a name for a goldfish.

Actress, Birthday Candles, Go big or go home.