Theatre Nova co-founder Carla Milarch has hopped through every level of theatrical life


Carla Milarch in a black Theatre Nova T-shirt.

Photo courtesy of Carla Milarch.

When Ann Arbor audiences think about Carla Milarch—co-founder of Theatre Nova and former artistic/executive director of the Performance Network Theatre (PNT)—they may recall a performance she gave, a production she directed, a theater she ran, or more recently, a play she wrote.

Chances are, they will not imagine her changing a litter box—for rabbits.

Milarch and her husband, actor/director Phil Powers, share a home on Ann Arbor’s West side with their son, William Tyrone Powers, a senior at Skyline High, and four rabbits. The family had tried adopting kittens, but William broke out in hives, and they had to give them up. They tested him for dog allergies. No dice.

Now there are rabbits—four of them.

”Rabbits are misunderstood pets,” says Milarch, who at first kept them in cages. Now they are free to roam the house. She finds them similar to other pets: like cats, they sometimes want to be left alone (and can be litter-trained); like dogs, they sometimes demand attention. Sometimes high maintenance, one rabbit with poor balance required a ramp to get onto the bed and watch TV with her. Milarch built one. 

As it happens, Milarch was trying to create an environmentally friendly landscape for her home and was studying permaculture, a mix of urban planning, gardening, and homesteading, when the pet crisis occurred. Rabbits made a lot of sense. “We grow things in a regenerative way, using compost. I like being outside a lot. It must be in my blood,” she reflects. “I grew up on a farm.”

Not that she wanted to spend her life on the farm. 

Milarch grew up in the village of Port Sanilac, about 130 miles northeast of Ann Arbor. She says her hometown is a small farming community, with a population of about 500 when she was growing up and not much more today. It was too small to contain the budding theater artist, who quickly outgrew her father’s barn, where she staged her first play when she was nine. She took the first train out. 

At 14, Milarch enrolled in the Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school where she could study theater, dance, and other related arts while completing basic academic courses. Musicals were her first love, but her experience was wide, extending to working behind the scenes and in contact with the audience. “In the summertime, I would work on tech crews and at the box office,” she recalls. 

Culture shock followed in 1987 when Milarch continued her education at the State University of New York-Purchase in White Plains, near New York City. For starters, the focus now was on dramatic works, not musicals. And the approach to acting was different, more personal than the technical training she’d had at Interlochen. Students were asked to search their memories for emotional experiences that paralleled those of the characters they would play. (This American Method, as the approach is called, has engendered controversy: Does an actor have to commit murder to be able to portray a murderer? Milarch feels “some of the methods employed by teachers border on emotional abuse.”)

But most of all, she encountered people unlike any she had met in Michigan.

“I sort of feel like it wasn’t quite the right place for me," Milarch says. "There were a lot of East Coast intellectual types from New York, and I was a little naïve Midwestern girl from Michigan. They were smoking cigarettes and talking about Sam Shepard. It was a little overwhelming.” 

One of her classmates, Parker Posey, "was a real hoot." Another classmate was Jerry Orbach’s son, Chris. 

Still, this self-described “naïve Midwestern girl” has developed a sophisticated appreciation of theater. Milarch had no difficulty joining with some classmates to start a theater in Amarillo, Texas. Later, she did odd jobs at a theater in Chicago, and in 1994, she moved to New York City, where she worked for Miramax films. Milarch began as a receptionist, then moved to the publicity department, where in pre-computer times, she combed through magazines and newspapers each morning to find press related to the company’s films. 

Her mother’s death brought her back to the Midwest. Milarch returned to be involved in family plans, expecting to move back to New York City and go to Scotland with her boyfriend at the time. She wound up waitressing at the Ann Arbor Brewing Company. 

Phil Powers and Carla Milarch

Phil Powers and Carla Milarch in 2006 before they got married. Photo courtesy of Carla Milarch.

Before long, Milarch was acting in town and setting up roots. In 1996, she appeared in Noises Off at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and then in Inverted Pyramid at PNT. She met Powers in 1997, when both were enrolled in an actor-director lab at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Milarch was married at the time—a marriage that lasted five years—so nothing developed between them. By the time they played the leads in the PNT production of A Doll’s House in 2006, she was single, and they married in 2007. 

From 1998, Milarch acted, directed, and worked behind the scenes at PNT. By 2003, she was the theater’s artistic director. 

Carla Milarch in 2005 starring in David Mamet's Boston Marriage at the Performance Network Theatre. Photo by Peter Smith.

Carla Milarch in 2005 starring in David Mamet's Boston Marriage at the Performance Network Theatre. Photo by Peter Smith.

In 1998, Milarch also wrote her first play, for children; it was staged at PNT. Soon, Becky Zarna Fox asked her to teach an acting class. Fox wanted the students, second- to fifth-graders, to write actable stories. She initiated these projects with fables and poems. Milarch decided to try something new.

“She brings in a pile of costumes on the first day and lets the students pick out their costumes first," Fox says. "From their costumes, she has them develop a character, and together they craft a whole short play. The students feel ownership of the performance. Along the way, I believe she figured out she was good at this. And she is! I love witnessing the growth."

Milarch started writing pantos as well as children’s plays in 2015, creating some of those with Ryan Lewis. Then she started doing non-musicals. One was picked up by the National New Playwrights Network, an alliance of professional theaters committed to doing new work, and will be produced at the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City in 2025 after a run at Theatre Nova this summer. 

Carla Milarch and Monica Spencer goofing around on set during tech rehearsals for 2023's The Year Without a Panto Claus. Photo courtesy of Carla Milarch.

Carla Milarch and Monica Spencer goofing around on set during tech rehearsals for 2023's The Year Without a Panto Claus. Photo courtesy of Carla Milarch.

Theatre Nova has performed 17 world premieres of full-length plays and musicals, including five on Zoom during the COVID crisis; three premieres of one-act site-specific plays; 29 Michigan premieres of plays that began outside the state, and it has done seven Michigan Playwrights Festival, which is a play development project. [Milarch's sci-fi drama Doctor Moloch will be Nova's next world premiere, running ​July 12 to August 4; you can read Pulp's preview here.]

Carla Milarch and Scott Crownover in 2003's I in Sin, her first show as artistic director at Performance Network Theatre. Photo by Peter Smith.

Carla Milarch and Scott Crownover in 2003's I in Sin, her first show as artistic director at Performance Network Theatre. Photo by Peter Smith.

She also produced many more new plays in Ann Arbor when she co-directed PNT with David Wolber. Milarch's tenure there ended in 2014 after financial woes and personnel conflicts resulted in closing the theater temporarily, reopening it with new management, and then closing it again.

Milarch was devastated. She knew that a lot of people lose jobs and get through it, but at the time, it was hard to deal with the shock. “I had invested a lot of my identity in my position running the Performance Network," Milarch says. "It was so ensconced in my personhood that when I lost it, I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. It took me a few years.” 

She had not just been artistic and executive director of PNT at different times. With Wolber, Milarch had turned the theater from an amateur operation into a professional house that did some fine productions and had developed a loyal audience. She was playing the title role in Shakespeare's Richard 111 when the PNT board halted the show mid-run, closing the theater for a time, and reorganizing before a short-lived reopening. Milarch hasn’t appeared on stage since.

The loss was hard on her family financially, too. “We stripped everything away and got down to basics,” she recalls. But there was an upside: “I’ve been able to spend a lot more time with my son, who is a miraculous human being,” Milarch says. William sings in an a cappella group at Skyline High School and acts, too.

With amazing resilience and the help of a few friends, Milarch set out to create a new theater in 2014. “We had put it out there that we were thinking of getting something going,” Milarch recalls. Actor and songwriter Scott Crownover runs a church at the Yellow Barn on Monday nights, and he told Milarch that a group the church shared the space with was moving. “It came like a bolt out of the blue," she says. "We were thinking we would do pop-up theater for a couple of years.”

A pop-up theater moves from space to space as opportunities arise. The space at 410 West Huron Street in Ann Arbor was a home. 

This home needed some remodeling before it could become a theater. So Theatre Nova's founders—Milarch, Fox, Daniel Walker, Emilio Rodriguez, and David Wells—went to work.

“It started as a completely empty room,” Milarch recalls. “We installed the theater floor, lights, walls, ADA ramp, new doors, new paint job, and most recently, new theater seats.” 

Monica Spencer, who has acted and designed at Nova, has collaborated with many directors, including some who have worked on Broadway. “Carla is one of the most brilliant collaborators I have ever worked with,” she says. “She has a way of making her entire team feel valued, and that they have a say in the creative process.”

“I have had the pleasure of performing and reading many of her plays,” adds Spencer, “ They are smart and relatable, but also wildly creative. She has incredible comedic brilliance with her storytelling, and she is one heck of a writer. I have spent numerous rehearsals laughing until there are tears. ... She has been a mentor, confidant, and someone who has made an impact on my life in ways I will never be able to fully express.” 

“It's been a journey putting theater together. We decided to try out some things that were radically different than a typical theater model,” she says, explaining that a small staff of five—Fox, David Wolber, Briana O'Neal, Shelby R. Seeley, and Milarch—makes all decisions together. 

On an annual budget of about $200,000, which comes from tickets, individual donors, and grants, Nova “tends to do things that are very smart, sometimes topical stuff that you can engage with on a thinking basis as well as on an entertainment basis,” says the actor, director, playwright, rabbit mama, and socially conscious producer.

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.

"Doctor Moloch" by Carla Milarch will run at Theatre Nova, 410 West Huron Street, Ann Arbor, from ​July 12 to August 4. Visit for tickets and showtimes.

➥ "Can An Actress Teach a Robot to Feel? 'Doctor Moloch' grapples with the question at Theatre Nova" [July 5, 2024]