A Jill of All Trades: Julia Garlotte takes the helm of The Penny Seats Theatre Company


A headshot of Julia Garlotte.

Photo courtesy of Julia Garlotte.

A theater's artistic director has to oversee everything on stage. She also has to check in with financial managers so the production stays on budget, and she has to understand acting, directing, and design—the whole deal.

Julia Garlotte, the new artistic director (AD) of The Penny Seats Theatre Company, is the whole deal.

Garlotte has acted for The Purple Rose in Chelsea, The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, and Penny Seats in Ann Arbor as well as at some of the town's lost theaters: The Performance Network, The Blackbird, and The New Theatre Project. Audiences have seen her at other theaters throughout Southeast and Central Michigan, too. 

She has also designed sound for several theaters, recorded audiobooks, and recently she’s been directing.

Oh, and Garlotte managed the box office at The Purple Rose for 12 years.

The “sheer volume of her professional experiences” is one of the things that impresses Penny Seat’s outgoing AD, Joseph Zettelmaier. 

In addition to working with Penny Seats as an actor, she's also been a sound designer, sound engineer, assistant director, and director for the company.

When the Penny Seats job became available, Garlotte knew she wanted to work with the theater’s executive director, Lauren London.

“Lauren's passion for the Penny Seats is palpable, and she's really built the company into what it is today," Garlotte says. "She's so smart, creative, ethical, and an absolute joy to work with."

“I was very excited to see Julia's hat in the ring for our AD position,” says London. “She is aware of our tight budget and of our unique structure, footprint, and the challenges that make us who we are as a company.

It isn’t just the folks at Penny Seats who admire Garlotte. Tobin Hissong, who directed her in shows that include Noises Off at Encore, has also appeared in shows she’s sound designed. He says “her drive and professionalism have been beyond compare. She has an incredible creative instinct, which no doubt will serve her well in her new position.”

Despite the praise from her peers, Garlotte wondered if she had what it takes to run a theater. It took her a while to realize she’d been “unknowingly preparing for this job for a really long time.” and conclude she could handle it.  

"Throughout the interview process, she suggested careful strategic moves and solutions that match us well," London says. "Julia’s cool head and practicality also serve her well. She's eminently reliable and tackles each challenge as a realist. She's a doer. I'm confident that she'll lead us toward growth in ways that will both broaden our appeal and keep us the funky, feisty company we are.”

Julia Garlotte acting in Winter Wolf.

Julia Garlotte acting with Amanda Buchalter in Penny Seats' December 2021 production of Winter Wolf. Photo by Lauren London.

Zettelmaier met Garlotte several years ago during an audition at Tipping Point Theatre. They read for roles together and talked, discovering a similar sense of humor. “It was one of those great scenarios where you just know you're gonna be great friends for life," Zettelmaier says. 

“I have learned an incredible amount working with Joe and watching him create the AD role at Penny Seats," Garlotte says. "When we get started talking about a script we like, we can go on for hours about what it would look like on stage. I think I've learned the most about what makes a good story from Joe."

Last year, Garlotte directed Zettelmaier’s The Man Beast at Penny Seats. 

“The show was amazing, meticulously directed, and everyone involved had an absolutely joyous experience,” says Zettlemaier. “That's Julia; that's the environment she creates. The show required a couple really specific prop [and] set pieces that we had to borrow from the Know Theatre of Cincinnati. Julia didn't even blink and immediately volunteered to drive down with a truck and get them. She's positive, thoroughly creative, and gets the job done.” 

An only child with supportive parents, Garlotte became involved in theater in middle school, appearing as a porcupine in Wind in the Willows—it was her mom who made her porcupine costume. She continued acting at Sparta High School in Western Michigan and a community theater there. Whenever she has acted, designed, or directed since, her folks drive up from Indiana where they now live to see what she’s done. 

Julia Garlotte acting in Noises Off.

Julia Garlotte acting with Rusty Mewha in Encore Musical Theatre's February 2017 production of Noises Off. Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

A drama major at the University of Michigan Residential College, Garlotte says she “always knew that I wanted to work in theater,” but it wasn’t the possibility of fame or fortune that attracted her. “I would be happy working in any little theater anywhere.” A big budget, she explains, “doesn’t mean the show will be better. When you have few resources, it forces you to be more creative. That’s something we really excel at the Penny Seats.”

From college, Garlotte went into a sought-after apprenticeship at The Purple Rose, studying acting, voice, and movement with Michelle Mountain and Guy Sanville. Before she knew it, she was running the box office. “Pretty quickly, I started acting and designing also,” Garlotte says. 

When Quintessa Gallinat, The Purple Rose's apprentice chief and resident sound designer then, asked Garlotte to design Lady With All the Answers at Tipping Point in 2010, a new aspect of her career began. Garlotte had never done sound design. “Tessa helped me through it,” she says. 

The last few years have been a whirlwind. Garlotte hadn’t directed since college until Penny Seats gave her the chance to do her first full-length production, Zettelmaier's The Man Beast.

And less than two years ago, she married Ben Benedict, a musician with a day job in contract management that makes it financially possible for her to work at a small nonprofit theater. Zettlemaier says he was the “dude of honor” at the wedding. 

The couple met at a bluegrass festival and hit it off at once. A few years later, they started dating. “My dad is a banjo player, and my parents knew him first,” she says. 

Garlotte started as Penny Seats' AD on January 1. The theater started 13 years ago by staging shows outdoors and doing one musical each season. It has grown over the years, adding indoor productions and a Halloween-appropriate play each October. “We try to do stuff that not everybody else is doing, new plays or a fun twist on a story you’ve heard before,” Garlotte says. 

The theater continues to evolve, too. Penny Seats is moving into Cahoots, a coworking space on Huron and Fourth Avenue, across the street from the old Performance Network Theatre. The venue, with an accessible stage and flexible seating, will accommodate rehearsals, auditions, and other administrative operations as well as performances of Beehive: The '60s Musical by Larry Gallagher in August, Usher by John Sousanis in October, and The Men of Sherwood by Joseph Zettelmaier in November.

“Julia comes at a critical time for the company, as our lease at Stone Chalet came to an end in December,” London says. “We're taking a big leap this year, with an exciting new performance home, and we needed a grounded, cool head in the room who knows the company inside and out. Julia is that person.” 

Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.

The Penny Seats will have a fundraising gala on April 19 at Cobblestone Farm, 2781 Packard Road, Ann Arbor. Zettelmaier will introduce Garlotte, attendees can bid at a silent auction, and Penny Seats actors will perform musical numbers from previous shows.