The excitement oozing off Beverly Meyer is electric as she steps on The Ark’s stage with her acoustic guitar. But before she plays, the evening’s last performer has something to say.

“I’ve watched my musical heroes on this stage,” she tells the crowd before starting her eight-minute set. “I’m honored to be doing this.” 

Then she starts strumming her guitar and singing with talent that would feel just as at home on a national tour in a sold-out venue as it does in The Ark’s Ford Listening Room at their monthly Open Stage night in downtown Ann Arbor. What’s left of the crowd cheers when she’s done as she shouts, “Holy moly, that was fun!” 

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The Ark’s Open Stage nights have been letting performers have fun and experiment for over 50 years. Started in the late 1960s by singer Bob White, the Wednesday evening Hootenannies, as they used to be known, began when he was traveling through the country and playing at coffee houses. One of his stops was The Ark in Ann Arbor, and he didn’t want to leave. The Hootenannies became so popular that when he did eventually leave, they kept going. And going and going.

“It was an interesting mix of people,” said Linda Siglin, who along with her husband Dave, the long-time program director at The Ark, ran the Open Stage nights from 1969 through the '80s, and on and off until 1996. “There were townies, people from the surrounding area...it became kind of a mecca.”

During their tenure, that mecca attracted some people who would go on to become pretty famous, including then-University of Michigan students David Allen Grier and Gilda Radner. Beverly D’Angelo used to come over and perform as well. Linda Siglin is pretty sure Kris Kristofferson performed one time. Other Ark alumni include Mary Chapin Carpenter.

“She was at The Ark a couple of years ago and told the story about playing at an Open Stage, which was her very first performance,” said Steve Johgart, who runs the sound for the Open Stage nights now.

While those are probably the most well-known names to perform at an Open Stage, there are a lot of former amateur night performers who would go on to share their passion for music in ways other than performing.

There’s Stan Werbin, an amateur night performer who would start Elderly Instruments in Lansing, one of the largest music stores in the country. There’s also Dennis Lake, who has a world-renowned ukulele-making factory in Southern California and is considered one of the greatest ukulele makers in the world. And there’s Steve Mason, a former Open Stage performer who opened a club and guitar shop in Kansas City. 

“The Ark has reunions, and people keep telling us that The Ark changed their lives,” Dave Siglin said. “And all you can say is that we provided a forum for you, we provided a place for you to develop. That’s all we did. We just provided the space.”

They did much more than just provide a space. They provided a positive environment for people to perform for the first time or test out a new song. It’s why there’s always been so many regulars.

Johgart said about one-third to one-half of the performers they get every month are regulars. And when you enter The Ark on an Open Stage night, it’s easy to see why performers want to keep coming back; it’s like walking into a warm hug from an old friend. The enthusiasm and support of the volunteers—who are mostly an older crowd—greets you the minute you walk up the stairs. 

“You get people who want to try being on stage, who have never been on a stage before, or have only done it once before somewhere else,” Johgart said. “They are not always that good, but it’s fun to have them play because you gotta start somewhere.”

“Even the people who aren’t very good always get a very nice applause when they are done,” Johgart continued. (He also noted that it’s very rare that they get a performance that is really bad.)

EricEric BoellnerThe audience, and fellow performers, cheer each other on like they are all on the same sports team, as opposed to a bunch of strangers who have just met. That was on full-display the night of August 30th. There was one moment when the audience started chanting “one more” after Erik Alan’s set had finished. Alan hadn’t been to The Ark in years, but was treated like he played there every month. Then there was Eric Boellner, who told the audience that he was “a little tired, a little hungry, and a little nervous,” before he began. This was followed by an audience member shouting, “You’re in a good place!”

Then there’s the evening’s MC, Michael Shelata, who had nothing but glowing things to say about the performances, making comments after almost every one of them.

“What a great deal for all the talent we get to hear,” he said in reference to the $3 ticket to get in.

At least a quarter of the night’s performers made sure that they thanked The Ark for letting them play, and encouraged yet another round of applause for their fellow artists, many of whom played original songs.

Most of them just seemed grateful to be one of the 16 selected for the evening, which is done at the top of the show by Shelata for the first eight performers, with the rest selected around 8:30pm (Most nights are limited to 15 acts, but there was room to add one more that night.) Today, the shows last about two-and-a-half hours. During Dave and Linda’s time, the shows could go as late as 2am because they let everyone perform, which could range from 12-25 people on any given week. 

“It was always a gamble to let everybody go on stage because you never knew what you were going to get,” Linda said.

Performances range from singer/songwriters to those trying really hard to imitate a famous singer to bluegrass and jazz. Amidst all that, there is still variety, with a comedian doing a set a few weeks ago. And while no song is off limits, most of the performances tend to stay true to The Ark’s roots and are folky singer/songwriters. 

Johgart said that part of The Ark’s mission is to encourage new performers like they do at the Open Stage nights. 

“I always point out if I’m MC-ing, which happens when Michael isn’t there, that all the people you see on The Ark calendar all started out just like this,” Johgart said. “So good for you coming out here. Who knows? Maybe you’ll become one of those people others are paying to come see some day.”

The next Open Stage is October 25th at 8pm. For The Ark's full concert schedule, with more than 300 shows per year, click here

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