“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts …”
– Jaques, “As You Like It”
As “Jaques,” one of her most cherished roles performed with the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, Janet Haley was honored to deliver one of the most iconic speeches of The Bard’s literary career. “All the world’s a stage” it begins and for Haley, the line couldn’t be truer. For her, the stage is anywhere and everywhere there’s a story to tell. From childhood puppet shows in her garage to today’s historic places and iconic stages in the city of Flint that she has always called home, Haley finds purpose in the art of the show. “Theatre feeds my sense of imagination, storytelling and sharing and that’s what brings me a sense of joy,” she states. “For me, it was never about money or being famous. It was about telling stories together with people and for people.”
Through the years, Haley has had success in roles both onstage and off. As an actor, she has played countless roles here and throughout the country, winning four Encore Michigan Wilde Awards for best performance, as well as national recognition. As a director, Haley has received national attention for her storytelling at the Flint Youth Theatre, UM-Flint, and in the Flint community. As theatre-maker, she has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible through innovation and setting and as educator, Haley has helped to cultivate and develop the next generation of performance artists. “I am happy and feel very fortunate and grateful for what I get to do,” she says. “A number of people have contributed to my career, many supporters and advocates, and I am thankful for them all.”
“Theatre feeds my sense of imagination, storytelling and sharing and that’s what brings me a sense of joy.”
Her story opens at Summerfield Elementary in Flint nearly 40 years ago. “Back then, Flint was operating the “magnet” school program and Summerfield was one of the schools (along with Pierce) that focused on the arts,” Haley recalls. “I had drama, music and visual arts classes every week.” At home, she grew up in a family of storytellers and would put on plays and puppet shows of her own creation in her garage and at numerous other locations where a kid could find an audience. As she entered middle school, the first of many people showed up to guide her toward her future career. At Walker school, Haley’s drama teacher was Flint Youth Theatre (FYT) co-founder, Sue Wood. It was the start of her involvement with the FYT that transitioned to today as an associate artist at the Flint Repertory Theatre. Haley next attended Whittier and then Flint Central, where she got the push to keep her headed toward performance. “As a junior, I became very ill and as a result, I became fascinated with healing and the human body,” she recalls. “I decided that I wanted to be a nurse.” She intended to attend Northern Michigan University until Martin Jennings, her performing arts teacher, turned on the drama. “He asked if I was going to audition for the full-ride drama scholarship at UM-Flint and when I told him I was not, he got up, slammed his office door as dramatically as possible and made me promise that I would do it,” she states. “I did it just to shut him up and ended up winning the scholarship.” She graduated from UM-Flint with her degree and teaching certificate, and went on to the University of Texas at Austin where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree.
In 2005, after years of hunting acting jobs in Seattle, she made her way back to Flint. “I was very depressed in Seattle,” she remembers. “I had a year’s worth of work as an actor lined up when I made the decision to come home. I wasn’t needed there. I was needed here.” It was a decision that changed Haley’s life and she never looked back.
Today, Haley is Associate Professor of Theatre at UM-Flint and continues to challenge herself with new roles. She values her time as actor in productions for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival and the Flint Rep, winning Michigan Wilde awards for her performances in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, and as Jaques in “As You Like It”. It is as an actor that she feels most comfortable; but it is as an educator and theatre-maker that she feels the biggest sense of purpose. “Theatre-making is a relatively new term. A theatre-maker is one who finds a story with other people in unconventional ways. It is different from a playwright,” she explains. “An actor’s task is to ignite a character in a story. The director ignites the story for the audience, and the theatre-maker finds the story through a process of collaboration.”
In 2007, Haley devised a series of small vignettes with her students using the grand fountain in Downtown Flint as a setting and the project serves as a perfect example of theatre-making. Together, they uncovered and devised the stories in the location and presented them to the public. “Theatre without an audience is just rehearsal – it needs the witness and the performers feed off the energy,” she adds. After that, Haley continued to push the possibilities for theatre in Flint. Along with her students, she devised the nationally-recognized “Glen-wood: Restoration of the Spirit” performance project taking place at Glenwood Cemetery and, in 2014, the “9x Nourished” performance project at the Flint Farmers’ Market with FYT. “It was about coming together in an unconditional setting, finding and telling a story,” Haley states. “It’s about being in the 3D world and connecting to others.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Haley contemplated the future of her medium. “What does theatre need to do in the digital world to distinguish itself?” she asked. “Innovation and new ways of telling stories have always been important to me.” She and Flint Rep Artistic Director Michael Lluberes got together and created the Flint Mural Plays. “We came up with a way to tell stories during lockdown,” she recalls. “It was a by-and-for community endeavor on an epic scale. We partnered with neighborhoods, organizations, playwrights and actors to get it done.” Currently, Haley is working on producing another site-based performance project at a library in Flint.
In her own innovative style, on February 17, Haley will direct her students in the opening performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” at UM-Flint Theatre. With the help of projection designer Alison Dobbins, it will feature a reimagined setting in an effort to merge the 3D world with the digital world. “I am fascinated with immersive displays such as the recent Van Gogh exhibit,” she says. “We will be fusing the different worlds together.” The show will showcase nine students who each have their own level of experience from performance veterans to newcomers, and is open to the public.
“For me, it was never about money or being famous. It was about telling stories together with people and for people.”
Gleaned from decades of being in theatre, Haley’s insights and wisdom have made her the perfect oracle for students and others wishing to make a life in the performing arts and wondering how to be successful. “When I think about it, what stands out to me is something I heard from an instructor in Texas who asked me, ‘The world doesn’t need another actor. Why do you want to be one?’ That stuck with me. For sustainability,” she offers, “eventually, you have to identify why you want to be a performer and be rigorously honest with yourself. For some, it can be fame and fortune and that’s fine. That has motivated people to be very successful. For me, it was collaboration and storytelling. What do YOU value? What will keep YOU going through the lean times? The key to success is knowing who you are and being in touch with yourself. Make choices for you according to where your heart is.”
“The key to success is knowing who you are and being in touch with yourself. Make choices for you according to where your heart is.”
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” directed by Janet Haley will run February 17-19 and 24-26 at UM-Flint Theatre. For up-to-date performance and project info, visit @Janetehaley on Instagram or Facebook.com/JanetEHaley