Profile: Carla Milarch Was Perfectly Cast In Theatre NOVA’s Most Important Role

It’s perfect – right out of central casting.

Carla Milarch says one of the things you consider when choosing a play is whether you can cast that play. “There are some plays where if you don’t have the right person you shouldn’t do the play,” says Milarch.

One thing is clear, Theatre NOVA found the right person to be its director, leader and visionary. Theatre NOVA is successful and growing because it first cast the most important part.

The concept and blueprint for Theatre NOVA began while Milarch was the artistic director of the award-winning Performance Network Theatre.

“Performance Network Theatre was a member of a group called National New Play Network and I started going to those annual meetings and traveled to see new plays and really got into new-play development and working with playwrights on world premier plays and directing world premier plays,” Milarch says. “The more I did the more I felt like I had a knack for it. I really enjoyed it.”

Sitting in the third row of the tiny Theatre NOVA, Milarch talks while her actors go over some final details of a play that is opening in just a few days. They are dotting their I’s, crossing their T’s and drawing open the curtain on another exciting new play on Huron Street.

There is something new about doing something new. It has a different kind of energy, a different feel. There is nothing to compare it to or copy from. An original idea is, well, original and that’s exciting.

Milarch said “it just made sense to specialize in new plays” at Theatre NOVA.

“We wanted to take artistic risks,” she says. “Doing new plays is inherently risky because they don’t have a reputation. It’s really the diehard theater goers who come and see the new plays that we do.”

And Ann Arbor was the perfect place to stage new works.

“Luckily, Ann Arbor is a pretty sophisticated theater crowd,” Milarch says. “It’s a small space and that allows us to keep things small and to do the kind of plays that we like and develop new work.”

Theatre NOVA has shown steady growth over the years and the response to these new pieces of work has been favorable at the box office, with critics and with actors.

“In the second year we grew our attendance by 50 percent,” Milarch said. “Last year we grew our attendance by more than 75 percent. We have almost tripled our audience in the first three years and have gained a strong reputation artistically and have been nominated for a bunch of awards.

“We have a 4.9 star rating on our Google account and the only reason it’s not 5.0 is because someone accidentally put two stars and it wouldn’t let her change it.”

Theatre NOVA, however, keeps changing. Improving, in big and small ways. Some behind the scenes and others on center stage.

“There are always things we can do better,” Milarch says. “We have identified many areas where we want to do better. And we’ll get there.”

As a dramaturge, director and artistic director, Milarch has brought over 25 brand new plays to world premieres, as well as hundreds to staged readings, including those at the Michigan Playwrights Festival, the Fireside New Play Festival, the National New Play Network (NNPN) National Showcase of New Plays, and the Kennedy Center’s MFA playwright’s showcase.

She started her career as an actress in her own backyard, literally. Growing up in Port Sanilac, she knew in eighth grade that she wanted to go to New York and be on Broadway.

“There was a place in my town called the Barn Theater and it was my dad’s barn,” she said. “When I was 9 years old, one of the guys in the town who was on the arts council approached my dad about doing summer theatre and asked if they could use our barn. It was right on Highway 25.

“The first summer came around and we rolled the tractors out and the stage and the chairs in. I did my first play that summer. I really got into it. I was hooked.”

Barn Theater is still around and just celebrated its 35th year. But Milarch quickly outgrew the Barn, and Port Sanilac.

“I was in the theatre guild in seventh and eighth grade and we had a great guy who ran the program there and he took some of us up to Interlochen to see ‘Pippin’ and from that moment on I had stars in my eyes,” she said. “I knew right then that Interlochen was a place I had to be and I had to be learning about theater and it’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

She attended Interlochen Arts Academy, a performing arts high school in northern Michigan and then went on to college at the State University of New York – Purchase (near White Plains, NY), considered one of the top 10 theater schools in the country.

“I was living in New York City for a while until my mom got ill so I came home to be with her during her last six months and that’s when I met my first husband when I was living in Ann Arbor,” she said. “I always intended to go back to New York but I fell in love with my husband and I fell in love with Ann Arbor.”

And that’s when she got involved with Performance Network. In 1997, she started as an actor and also sold some ads on the side which became a full-time job as a development director.

Milarch was the artistic director at Performance Network from 2003 to 2014, when she founded Theatre NOVA.

She also has served as a board member of the NNPN for 10 years and co-founded the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance, on which she served as Board President from 2011-2014.

Her call sheet is filled with honors and awards including “Best Overall Season/Artistic Direction” from the Oakland Press, “Outstanding Contributions to an Ensemble” from The Detroit Free Press, “Most Valuable Performer” from the Oakland Press, and the Between the Lines “Angel” award for outstanding contributions to the LGBT community, as well as numerous awards for acting and direction.

But Milarch’s biggest honor is what she’s doing right now. Creating new plays are not only needed, but they are important. New voices, new visions, new ways of doing things helps keep the stage fresh, meaningful and vibrant.

She also is a proud resident of Ann Arbor, where she lives with her husband Phil Powers and son, William Tyrone. She also is a proud producer of regional theatre, and a proud advocate of the American New Play.

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