Birthday Candles was the first play commissioned by Detroit Public Theatre (DPT), a company founded in 2015 with a mission to “produce nationally recognized plays and programs with world-class writers, directors, actors, and designers in the heart of Midtown Detroit’s thriving cultural district.” The company’s founding Producing Artistic Directors—Courtney Burkett, Sarah Clare Corporandy and Sarah Winkler—all had ties to Detroit and wanted to create an institution that could serve as a theatrical hub for the city. Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with Courtney Burkett about Birthday Candles’s journey from Detroit to Broadway.
LEAH REDDY: Birthday Candles was your first commission. Why did you decide to commission a play and commit to a production, and why Noah Haidle specifically?
COURTNEY BURKETT: Detroit Public Theatre was founded in 2015. Noah Haidle was living in Detroit at the time, and he attended our inaugural production. After the show, Noah reached out with a charming and witty note in support of our work, and lunch was scheduled with DPT's founding producing artistic directors. At that lunch I reminded Noah that we had worked together in New York 14 years earlier on a play he had written called Women and Criminals. Noah quickly became a friend of DPT and joined DPT’s board of directors.
The idea to commission Noah to write a play came from Sarah Clare Corporandy who, in addition to being a founding producing artistic director of DPT, was also the managing director at Chautauqua Theatre Company (CTC). It stemmed from a conversation she and Noah had about what playwrights want and need from a new play development process. Haidle told Corporandy, "Playwrights just want someone to produce their play." She proposed that DPT could commission Noah to write a play that would be part of CTC’s New Play Workshop series in the summer and DPT would commit to producing the world premiere in 2018, the spring of DPT's third season.
DPT made the commitment to produce the play before Noah had written one word.
We were a very young theatre company, and Noah was a playwright with an impressive track record. We felt lucky to have the opportunity to work with him on this piece, but it was a leap of faith to commit to produce a play that was not yet written.
The commitment paid off, because Noah wrote a very beautiful play. After the May 2018 world premiere production in Detroit, Roundabout announced in June of 2019 that they would bring Birthday Candles to Broadway. The Broadway production was in rehearsals when the pandemic hit in 2020, and the opening was delayed.
Even with the devastating pandemic delay, the unlikely journey of this play from Detroit to Broadway has been a surprisingly swift and joyous one for our young theatre company.
LR: What has been the response, either from you or from the larger Detroit arts community, to finding out about the Broadway production?
CB: The Broadway production of Birthday Candles is a dream come true for DPT, and the response from our local community and the national community to the play and its journey has been tremendous.
We are thrilled to report that, despite the difficult circumstances of the past few years, DPT is building a new permanent home for professional theatre in the heart of Detroit's cultural district, Midtown Detroit. Construction is underway, and DPT plans to open our eighth season in the new space in fall 2022. It is hard to imagine how this would have been possible without the success of Birthday Candles.
When Detroit Public Theatre was founded, we hoped professional theatre in Detroit would become a source of local pride and connect Detroit artists more deeply to the national theatre community. The success of Birthday Candles is having just that impact: creating opportunities for collaborators, making their work and the work of DPT visible.
Ernestine lives in the hearts of all who saw the world premiere of Birthday Candles at Detroit Public Theatre. We are so proud to be the home of this beautiful play, born in Detroit, now on Broadway.