Dozens of volunteers set the scene for Burns Park Players production

2011 production continues this weekend, benefits Ann Arbor students

View a slide show of some of the Burns Park Elementary students in this year’s production during rehearsal (photos by Myra Klarman)

By Casey Hans
AAPSNews Service

For those who live in the Burns Park neighborhood, the community musical produced each winter is a labor of love and a great way for neighbors to get to know one another.

The Burns Park Players has put on this annual extravaganza since 1984, after it morphed from a school talent show fundraiser at Burns Park Elementary into a community endeavor and nonprofit theater company. All involved are either Burns Park neighborhood residents or were so in the past, said Alan Dengiz, one of a dozen parents who helped to start the annual tradition.

Burns Park Players props
Jamie Phillips, a parent from Burns Park Elementary, volunteers her time cleaning up props that will be used in this year's production, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

It was the popular 1978 film adaptation of the Broadway musical “Grease” that launched the effort and was the first musical production. Dengiz said the group had so much fun, they continued it with “Bye Bye Birdie” the following year.

And so it has continued, to much acclaim.

“We got the point where we were raising more money than the camp fund we needed,” Dengiz said. “So we put the money toward Burns Park auditorium improvements. The show just continued to be bigger and bigger. More and more parents got involved.”

By the end of the 1980s, the group outgrew Burns Park and moved over to Tappan, now a middle school, where they still perform each year. The performance always features dozens of Burns Park Elementary students; this year there are 100 in the cast.

Susan Hutton, who did publicity for this year’s show, said that neighbors get to know each other as parents at nearby Burns Park Elementary, but there are many others involved from the neighborhood who no longer have children in the schools. “It’s really wonderful,” she said.

Dengiz, a physician with the University of Michigan Health System, was originally a theater major in college, but pursuing his medical degree did not deter his interest or passion for the stage.  This year, he’s part of the chorus and has been a cast member on and off over the past 10 years. His children also took part when they were in school.

“There’s a great camaraderie. I make a lot of friends,” Dengiz said. “It’s a huge group effort where everybody is equally important.”

The Burns Park Players annual production that took the stage last week and finishes up at Tappan Middle School this weekend is “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Burns Park Players painting
Parent Suzanne Ross puts some shading on the "desks" that will be used for this year's Burns Park Players production. Last year, she was part of the house crew.

A total of 170 people are taking part in the 27th annual musical, with proceeds benefiting the Ann Arbor Public Schools and its students. To date, the theater troupe has raised more than $245,000 to benefit Ann Arbor students with money given through the AAPS Educational Foundation, Rec & Ed scholarships and for private instrumental music lessons for students who cannot afford them.

Jeri Rosenberg and Mark Tucker tag team each year to coordinate the set design for the Burns Park Players. Rosenberg has been doing it since 1996 and Tucker came aboard about 11 years ago.

The sets are built in Tucker’s Ann Arbor studio starting in November and are trucked over to Tappan Middle School a couple of weeks before the production where volunteer crews come in and set things up over a weekend.

On a recent Sunday, the crew was literally learning the ropes: A variety of set items were being installed on bars where they could be lifted or lowered depending on the scene. Some last-minute painting, adjusting and manipulating of the set was taking place.

“All the bones (of the set) will be up,” said Tucker. “And we’ll spend two weeks refining it.”  Once dress rehearsals start, the set, lighting and props are all adjusted to ensure the production has just the right impact.

Tucker is the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program art director at the University of Michigan, known to many as Mr. FestiFools; his students make the life-size puppets that are the centerpiece of the annual street theater event in downtown Ann Arbor each spring. Some of his Lloyd Hall students – all non-art majors – also help with the set design for the Burns Park Players.

Kyle Shoeppner, a U-M freshman, is one of those students. He was at Tappan learning about the process and lending a hand with the setup. He said he got involved as part of his class, but didn’t have much experience with power tools.

Experience is helpful, but not critical, said Rosenberg. “In theory, this is community theater and everybody should be doing it,” she said. “Anyone should feel they can do this.”

The Burns Park production is huge: Lighting, producers and directors, costumes and props – all play their role to get the production ready.

But even the best-laid plans need adjusting. Rosenberg recalled a few years ago, a lead actress showed up in a costume that was the exact same color as the backdrop. “She just disappeared (onstage),” she said. “Obviously, we needed to make some changes.”

For this year’s show, a backdrop of New York City is used with an office building and elevator center stage. Although Tucker created the life-size backdrop, many volunteers helped to paint it, kind of a paint-by-numbers work, Rosenberg said.

Burns Park parent and volunteer Suzanne Ross has a second-grade daughter in this year’s show. Any parent with a child in the production must volunteer time in some way. Last year she was part of the house crew, helping to seat patrons and clean up the theater; this year, she chose to help with the set.

“It’s a blast,” she said. “They make it a lot of fun. There are parents who come back who don’t even have kids in school anymore. It’s a really talented community.”

Back in the prop room, Jamie Phillips is polishing up old typewriters and adding machines, and Jennifer Monk-Reising is working on a janitor’s cart that will be used in the production. Both have kindergarteners at Burns Park this year.

Monk-Reising is new to the Burns Park community, but has background in graphic design, theater and art and was recruited as props mistress.  She said her volunteers are either “hunters and gatherers” or “dressers” who set the stage.
“Props is the fun part,” she said. “if you don’t have it, you build it.”

“ A lot of the local businesses have been great,” she added. Wolverine Office Supply, for example, is helping her to find an authentic office chair for the set.

Phillips said she enjoyed theater in high school, so decided to take part with the Burns Park production. “I volunteered myself for pretty much anywhere there was a need,” she said. “It’s been a great experience.”

Dengiz said the Burns Park Players also spawned the Tappan Players, which involves middle school students who had so much fun with Burns Park productions that they wanted to continue the experience. The Tappan production begins rehearsals shortly after the Burns Park Players production is done.

He said it’s tough to know how the theater company has impacted lives, but he believes it has. “I have no statistics, but know an awful lot of kids who came up through the Burns Park Players and have chosen a related profession,” Dengiz added.

The fall-winter preparation for the Burns Park production has become a great way for families and neighbors to spend time together. “The whole point was to be doing something into the winter with the kids,” Dengiz said. “It seemed to be a great idea.”

Tucker added: “The winters are long here. This takes a bite out of the winter doldrums.”

Casey Hans writes and edits this newsletter for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Reach her at or call 734-994-2090.


‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’

What: The annual Burns Park Players 2011 musical production.
Where: Tappan Middle School Auditorium, 2251 E. Stadium Blvd.
When: Performances began last weekend; they continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, Friday, Feb. 11 and at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12.
Tickets: $15 at Morgan and York Market, 1928 Packard, Ann Arbor, or at the door one hour before the show. Proceeds benefit students in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.  Special:  $5 tickets are being offered to all AAPS employees for the Feb. 10 performance.
Featured: Performers Caroline Huntoon, Jeffrey Post, Ben Cohen, Lisa Harris, Fred Hall, Aviva Simonte, Talia Glass and Joel Swanson. Director is Mike Mosallam. Music director is Eric Lofstrom and choreographers are Mike Mosallam and Christie Schauder.  The musical is produced by Debi Haller, Kathy Koehler and Sara Meingast. A total of 170 persons are involved with the production, including 100 students from Burns Park Elementary.

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