Great Lakes Ghosts: Roustabout Theatre Troupe Haunts Ypsi With New Zettelmaier Play
Joseph Zettelmaier’s Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project. which closes the Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s season at the Ypsilanti Experimental Space (YES) this month, might never have been written if the founder of another Washtenaw County theater hadn’t encouraged him to write. After studying acting at Shorter University in Georgia, he returned to his family in Michigan and secured an acting apprenticeship at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
Playwriting? That wasn’t Zettelmaier’s plan.
Apprentices at the Rose often perform on nights when the theater doesn’t have public performances. Sometimes they do original pieces, so Zettelmaier tried his hand at a few pages. “The night we did it, Jeff [Daniels] came up to me and said, ‘Give me 100 pages.’ I had an interest in playwriting, but it was Jeff’s interest in my interest that got me started,” Zettelmaier recalls.
Zettelmaier has continued to perform and direct, but he’s best known for plays that have been produced throughout the state and beyond. His oeuvre includes comedies and dramas, westerns and mysteries -- just about every genre, including horror. When he’s writing about Dracula or Frankenstein or ghost towns, he’s in his element. In fact, when he was resident playwright at the shuttered Performance Network Theatre (PNT), directors Carla Milarch and David Wolber challenged him to write plays without supernatural elements.
So, it didn’t surprise anyone when, in the summer of 2016, Zettelmaier decided to take a tour of ghost towns of the U.P. “I was disappointed,” he recalls. “Most were not ghost towns at all. Some were poor towns. Two were prospering vacation spots. I did find two that were legitimate ghost towns.”
The trip spurred Haunted, vignettes about supernatural events that had occurred in Michigan (if they had occurred at all). When he created an online form for people to send stories, eerie reports came from all over the state.
The result? Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project, about a man who just happens to have traveled to ghost towns before posting an online submission form for ghost stories.
Some of the scenes in Haunted are infused with humor and are fun to watch. A couple don’t work, especially one that ends the show after much build-up. Under the able direction of Roustabout’s managing director, Anna Simmons, the engaging cast -- Julia Garlotte, Alysia Kolascz, Dan Johnson, and Allison Megroet -- plays multiple roles. The versatile set and props by Jennifer Maiseloff are lit by Dustin Miller. Much of the ghostly effects are left to sound and projection designer Will Myers, with appropriate costumes by Josie Lapczynski.
It could be said that the Roustabout would never have opened had it not been for events at two local theaters. Zettelmaier met Roustabout’s artistic director, Joey Albright, at the Purple Rose, when Zettelmaier was apprenticing and Albright was an actor there. “Joe got me my first directing job,” Albright recalls.
Fast forward to 2014. Albright, now an established director and an actor on stage and screen, is slated to direct a new Zettelmaier at PNT. Simmons, who met Zettelmaier and Albright when she was an apprentice at PNT in 2010, was to stage-manage.
And then came the news. Just as work was getting underway, the board closed the financially beleaguered theater.
It takes a good deal of optimism and courage to start a theater as you watch another one fold, but that’s just what they did. Zettelmaier and Albright, who had entertained the idea before, decided it was a go and invited Simmons to join them.
The three were determined to be fiscally responsible. “We would never do an event if we didn’t have the money already locked in,” Simmons says. They would not commit to a permanent space with monthly rent and utility bills. So, they became something like a circus troupe, bringing shows where people wanted to see them.
The city of Milan and its business community gave them an early boost by providing spaces for the Crooked Tree Play Festival, staged readings of new plays, in August 2016.
Soon, they were mounting full productions in small spaces in Livonia, Ypsi, and Milan. In April 2019, they began their first full season in a single space in Ypsi. There’s talk of staying put next season.
Anyone know of a haunted house for rent in Ypsi?
Davi Napoleon is a freelance journalist and theater historian. Her book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of American Theatre, explores the onstage triumphs and offstage turmoil of a theater dealing with cuts to arts funding.
“Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project” continues at the Ypsi Experimental Space (YES), 8 N. Washington St., Ypsilanti, at 7:30 pm on Thursdays, 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 pm on Sundays through October 20. For more information, please visit roustabouttheatre.com.