Arts-Related Nostalgia and Goodbyes

It’s the last day that I will be taking classes at the University of Michigan.  This called for some grade-A, mascara-running, life-pondering, empty-feeling nostalgia and sadness.  Instead, I have decided to blog about just how lucky I was to experience this university, this town, and all of the art is has to offer.

So, here it is.  A list of the things I am glad to have experienced and sad to leave behind (in no particular order):


UMS is a truly unique program for the University of Michigan.  Through UMS, we are able to see some of the best performers in the world for as little as $10.  That is just cool.  Some of my personal favorite UMS performances have included: Bill T. Jones’ Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray- I think this was my first UMS experience and it turned my expectations of dance and dance theatre upside down; The Cripple of Inishmaan, which showed me how simply great theatre can be done and proved to me yet again the power of good writing; Audra McDonald who I had been wanting to see perform live for at least 10 years and was not the least let down by; and Einstein on the Beach because I had never before seen something of such wide scope, innovation, or ambition.  My only regret is that I did not take more advantage of these wonderful opportunities.

The Ark.

I first went to The Ark my sophomore year to see one of my favorite bands, Blind Pilot.  The Ark is one of the most genuine spaces to see live music.  If you don’t know what I mean by that, you haven’t been there.  There is something so personal about having a staff made up of volunteers who have themselves been going to the concerts for years.  The space is intimate and bands seem to really feel at home there.  Additionally, one of the more Ann Arbor-y events I have attended in my time here was last year’s Folk Festival.  Getting to experience that classic model of folk shows that goes on for hours, ended by an out of this world set by The Avett Brothers was an experience I will never forget.

The Blind Pig.

While the atmosphere at this venue is very different from The Ark, the intimate, honest performances remain the same.  The Blind Pig feels like a space from a different era.  It’s like a safer CBGB’s- there’s a grittiness and friendliness that permeates the air.  And also, on my own nerdy level, I feel way cooler when I’m at the Pig.  And that’s always a good thing.

Porch music.

I was reminded of this in the best way possible the other night when walking back from The Rude Mechanicals’ aesthetically amazing production of Machinal.  It was a beautiful night, and as I walked down my street, I heard some really skillful bluegrass coming from the porch of one of the co-ops.  In that one moment, I felt like I was fully experiencing spring in Ann Arbor.  I am not a musician myself, so being able to just walk by really talented people playing because they feel like it and love what they’re doing is comforting and purely joyful.

Basement Arts.

I’ve expressed my undying love for Basement Arts on this blog too many times to subject the readers to that lecture of adoration again.  I will just say that Basement was my gateway into the theatre world on campus, I have made some of the best friends I have ever known through Basement, and I admire the daring spirit of all hands on deck free theatre that is present in Basement.

The Michigan Theatre.

The Michigan is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever entered.  When you walk in, you feel as if you’ve been transported through time.  The sounds of the organ floating through the air, the buzzing audience awaiting a really great lecture, movie, or concert, the brilliant tapestries and paintings filling the space– there’s really nothing like it.  I’ve seen some great movies and invigorating talks in The Michigan and the combined intellectual and visual stimulation with the beauty around me made me feel, “This is how it’s supposed to be.”

The music and dance departments.

I put both of these departments in one category, because, unfortunately, I have not experienced them as much as I would have liked.  But I have deep admiration for the students and professors in these departments who consistently turn out professional products. They explore a beauty and vulnerability that has really touched me.  I can’t wait to see what they’ll go on to do .

Witt’s End.

Now we’re getting to the personal part of the blog.  I just joined the improv group Witt’s End, and it was one of the smartest decisions I have made.  Being surrounded by these funny and smart people has made me a better and more interesting person.  I have become a more spontaneous and gut-driven person.  I am more quick on my feet.  I have learned to trust myself, and I happened to make some really great friends in the process.

The Theatres- Mendelssohn, Power Center, Arthur Miller, and Hill.

I feel so lucky to have been able to both be an audience member and somehow involved in a show in each of these spaces.  There is something incredible and otherworldly about standing on these stages.  During my time here, I have also had increased respect for the audience.  I really enjoy being an audience member.  There’s something so communally beautiful about going on a journey with complete strangers.  These theatres have become my home away from home the past 3 years, and I will really miss that safe space to explore and shape my artistic sensibilities.

The Department of Theatre & Drama.

My family.  My companions through this coming of age stage.  My collaborators.  My teachers. My friends.  I do not know how I can possibly leave all of this behind.  I have learned so much from every single person who has passed through this department in my time here.  I know that I will have the opportunity to work with some brilliant people in my career but I cannot fathom how any experience can match the emotional and intellectual depths of the personal and professional relationships I have made in this department.  I have undying gratitude.  I have learned so much from my successes and failures in the Walgreen and around campus.

It’s going to be very hard to leave all this behind.  In tough moments like these, I always return to the incomparable Tony Kushner and his words from Angels in America: “Nothing’s lost forever.  In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress.  Longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.”

New and Exciting

I spend a lot of time on this blog geeking out about new plays and their development.  This is partially because I find something so incredibly out of this world exciting about new works.  This is also because I feel like new works are often overlooked by the general public, and I hope that I can make one person out there reading this blog see a poster for a new play and be willing to take a chance on it.  Passion and advocacy, that is where I stand.

There are generally three stages of new works.  I’ve touched on this in previous posts, so I’ll just give a quick review.  Remember, no two plays are alike in their developmental processes.  These three steps can come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors.

The reading: This can happen many different ways, usually either within a close group of friends or collaborators, door closed, or on a stage with actors sitting the whole time with a small audience.  This is usually the first time the playwright has heard his work read aloud.  He has another critical eye or two in the room (director, dramaturg, possible producer, etc) to help him use the reading to the best of his ability.  In this setting, the actors have the script in hand.  There is no blocking- they are usually at music stands or sitting, depending on the setting.  For audiences who are not text-oriented or used to really focusing on the writing, this type of production can feel a bit mundane or confusing because they cannot see the full picture.  This is mostly for the writer, although sometimes it can help potential investors or collaborators decide if they want to work on the production.  From this stage, the playwright usually makes tons of revisions to get to…

The staged reading/developmental production: Again, this stage can take two different forms.  The staged reading is similar to the initial reading in that actors still have scripts in hand, but it is closer to a full production.  There is blocking, which means there is also a director attached to the production.  Sometimes there are a couple furniture pieces, minimal lighting, and the suggestions of costumes as well.  There is a small audience for this production.  This gives everyone an idea of what the piece looks like on its feet, how it moves theatrically.  The other way this stage can work is called a developmental production.  If done as a developmental production, the piece generally looks the same– the blocking and design elements aren’t too complex– but the  actors are off-book and can give themselves over to the material more fully because of this.  In this stage, the playwright usually has more rehearsal time with the cast and is revising throughout the process.  That is why things are kept simple– they could change at any moment.  Of course, the hope is that this will lead to the end goal…

Full production: This is what most people are used to seeing in a theatre.  Impressive lighting, sets, costumes, actors running all of the stage, impeccable direction, a show (usually) that will look exactly the same from night to night.  For the first full production, the playwright might be involved, but after that (unless you’re Edward Albee) the playwright is out of the picture, entrusting his work to the capable hands of theatre professionals worldwide.

This weekend, we have the opportunity to see a play that has traversed all three of these steps at this very university.  This is an opportunity that only happens once every few years, so I would suggest that we all take advantage of it.  Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Emma Jeszke, a senior in the theatre school, will be presented in Studio 1 at the Walgreen Drama Center Thursday-Sunday.  Information can be found here:  This production is a part of a re-emerging initiative called Plays-in-Process, in which SMTD faculty will take student work and give it a full production.

I think this is an incredible thing both for student writers as well as audiences at the university.  As a new works nerd, this of course, is my cup of tea because it is both allowing students to cultivate their own passion for new works and advocating for a theatre community in which new works are valued.  We can do Shakespeare over and over, and I do think there is great value in that, but what good is Shakespeare if we don’t learn from him and write something that speaks to the current moment?  I have had the privilege to see Manic Pixie in its staged reading incarnation, last year at the University-sponsored Playfest, and I can say with absolute certainty that it speaks to the current moment in a way that students and community members alike should understand and encourage them to truly think.

It’s That Time of the Year….

Everything is creeping up on us.  We thought there was so much more time left in the semester.  Suddenly, they’re telling us classes are over in two weeks and just about everything is due between now and then.  And then for some of us, graduation is coming up right after.  Job applications must be turned in, flights must be arranged, papers must be written, goodbyes must be said.  AH!  Too much stress.

So what do we do?  I know it’s bad.  It’s not a good habit to get into, and it only prolongs our work time, but we tend to play on Facebook, go out for “one quick drink,” or…we go to YouTube.  Or even worse, we go on Facebook and see that it has happened again.  “15 of your friends posted about “Call Me Maybe.””  A video has gone viral.

I don’t think it is any coincidence that the great Rebecca Black/”Friday” explosion of 2011 and the Carly Rae Jepsen/”Call Me Maybe” viral video of 2012 reached their peaks at almost exactly the same time.  Each of these videos that started as, more or less, jokes and grew into cultural phenomena debuted in early March and gained their multi-million following in mid-March.  There is something fascinating about the mocking-turned-anthem turn that each of these tunes took.  I don’t think “Call Me Maybe” suffered quite as much derision as “Friday” did, but there is still an awareness of the quality, or lack thereof, present in each fan’s sing-a-long that makes one wonder where the line between genuine appreciation and irony lies.

After the initial, “Oh my God, this song is so bad, but it’s so funny, so I guess we’ll listen to it at every party!” experience that “Friday” endured, there was a concession by many that the song was catchy.  For all of the auto-tune in the world and the strangest lyrics, the song’s redeeming quality was its beat.  The same response seems to be following “Call Me Maybe,” although people seem more apt to like Carly than Rebecca.  They appreciate the song as a whole, until they examine the lyrics closer and begin to question what it is about the song that really grabs their attention.  Then the conclusion is reached: it’s the beat.

But is it?  There is still the question of the unique timing coincidence.  I have a theory.  Each of these songs is sung by a teenage girl about her specifically teenage experiences.  Rebecca Black basically takes us through her journey on an average Friday.  She shows herself waking up at her parents’ home, going to school, going to a party with her friends.  Carly’s song, though not through the lyrical narrative, shows us in the video that it also takes place at her parent’s home.  Each of these girls interact with a boy in a way that is strictly adolescent– innocent flirting, waiting for him to make the move, barely touching.  They each have a group of friends they joke around with during the day and a band they rock out with later.

Assuming that the hike in view counts and instant popularity is due primarily to college students, as the prominence of the songs on campus would suggest, I think the appeal is obvious.  At this time in the semester, the stress is beginning to mount and we are searching for an escape.  Our teenage years were not so long ago.  So we fall back into this celebration of adolescent play, and jump up and down to the mundane lyrics and pubescent voices as a way to recall that carefree time in our lives, when our biggest concern was which seat to take or if the boy who cut our parents’ lawn was gay.

Granted, most music videos don’t feature pop stars paying bills or studying for exams, but there is something extra relaxed and responsibility-free about a teen sensation.  They don’t even have to make their own breakfasts.  They still have their parents to take care of them.  And though none of us will ever admit it and would never give up our independence for mom’s cooking, when the stress really piles up, there is something comforting in the idea of your childhood home and high school friends.  There was something wholly unique and idealized about that time in our lives.  Perhaps in four years we will look back on college in the same way, but for the time being, high school is our Neverland.

I wouldn’t call this a regression; it is merely a 3-minute break from the over-committed, research-ridden, paper-writing mess that March and April can be.  So yes, we might laugh at the constant refrain of “Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday,” or question the sentiment that, “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad,” but we revel in the simplicity.  And if we must mask it in irony or perform a close-reading of the narrative at a party to justify our enjoyment, so be it.  But for the time, I say, do what you can to have “fun fun fun fun.”

Art Accessibility

This is my third year at the University.  It is also my third year working for an incredible organization called FestiFools.  FestiFools is, put most simply, a giant puppet parade that takes place in downtown Ann Arbor each year on or near April 1st.  It is a celebration of April Fool’s Day and all of the foolishness that comes along with it.

Since I have been with FestiFools it has expanded into an entire foolish weekend.  We are entering our second year of the Friday night event called FoolMoon, which is a beautiful brilliant procession of illuminated lantern sculptures that culminates in a raucous street party in downtown Ann Arbor.

FestiFools is stringing together the two days with a benefit concert at the Blind Pig.  So we now have a whole weekend to ourselves to party and witness some truly beautiful and creative pieces of art.  My favorite part about FestiFools and FoolMoon is watching the faces in the crowd.  I spend months around these ten-foot tall puppets and luminaries, so I can sometimes forget just how awe-inspiring they are.  But when you see a puppet give a five-year-old in the crowd a high five and see the pure joy and surprise on the kid’s face, well, it sticks with you.

When I first began working for FestiFools I was a research student with UROP.  I worked on ways to make FestiFools more marketable and gain larger audiences for the big day.  I was pretty successful.  Between FestiFools’ growing name (it was the 4th annual parade my first year) and my increased publicity, we reached about 5,000 Ann Arborites and friends that year.  When I found FestiFools in the UROP catalog it was under the name START Project or Street Theater Art Project.  As a theatre major, I thought that sounded pretty cool.  Little did I know that I would be suddenly thrust into the world of public art and learn just how important free and accessible art can be to a community.

I’ve always been an arts advocate, but a lot of my enthusiasm came from wanting there to be a job for me when I graduated.  I still think that is an important thing, but my mission when promoting the arts has become much more altruistic.  Once I saw the effects of public art firsthand it became easier to drop my own selfish motives and rely on the important purpose public art serves as my soapbox.

In an article by Jack Becker entitled “Public Art: An Essential Component of Creating Communities” he identifies four main purposes for public art: 1.  To engage civic dialogue and community.  2.  Attract attention and economic benefit.  3.  Connect artists with communities.  4.  Enhance public appreciation of art.

Standing on the street at FestiFools or FoolMoon, I can see all four of these in play.  As a student, I don’t see Ann Arbor as its own town very often, or at least I didn’t before FestiFools.  I sort of thought of it as the land that holds U of M and not much else.  Seeing the community interact and attend these events with neighbors and friends is really inspiring.  It gets them talking about something other than Michigan football.  Sometimes the puppets are political or controversial and a dialogue starts about why someone may have made that and what they are trying to say.

Especially after FoolMoon, it is impossible to ignore the economic benefit to the community.  Everyone is downtown at nighttime and they will probably get hungry or wander into shops they may not otherwise be inclined to stop by.  The same can be said of a sculpture or mural.  The public is attracted to aesthetic beauty and that will make them more likely to stop and observe what else is nearby.

My first year with FestiFools part of my UROP assignment was to create a puppet.  I did this willingly, although not with the splendor I may have hoped.  I’m just not super talented in that type of art.  It was still a blast to make and I really did become more connected with both the University students who were also creating their own puppets and the community supporters at the event who wanted to know more about what we had created.  There is a bond in public art that is wholly unique: the viewer appreciates what you have done for them and thus wants to talk to you and hear more about it, and the artist gains appreciation for the community for whom she is creating because she sees that enthusiasm and often has sought the beauty in the community as inspiration.

Number four is pretty self-explanatory.  The more one is exposed to art, the more likely they are to appreciate it.  And maybe I have just been reading too many dystopian novels recently, but try to imagine life without art.  It is bleak.  Imagine life without beauty.  It is depressing.  Art in everyday life enhances that everyday life.

FestiFools has another mission of arts education.  Detroit has cut arts funding in its public schools.  FestiFools goes in and teaches these kids about art and tries to foster that appreciation that is gained from exposure to art.  I know that it will always be an uphill battle to get funding for the arts, but the arts are so necessary.  They have been proven time and again to improve students’ overall experiences at school along with intelligence and test scores.

And I cannot stress enough, it has to be worth it just for the look on those kids’ faces.  If you have time this weekend, stop by FoolMoon or FestiFools.  Look at a sculpture.  Take a long look at the mural on the side of Potbelly’s.  Stop for a second and listen to the guy playing the washboard and harmonica on the Diag.  Appreciate accessible art in everyday life.

One man, one stage

This year I have seen three one-man shows through UMS– The Infernal Comedy starring John Malkovich, Watt by the Gate Theatre of Dublin, and The Andersen Project this past weekend starring Yves Jacques.

When I saw my first one-man show, years ago, I was first amazed by the amount of work that one performer would have to do by themselves and the number of lines they would learn.  Invariably, at any of these shows, there is a group of people astounded by the number of lines they heard the performer speak.  That is just the surface level though.  When you begin to think of the way conventional theatre operates and the way a one-person show works, there are noticeable differences.

The first thing I think of is the interaction between characters is a central part of conventional theatre.  When there is a solitary figure onstage, they are either playing all the characters by themselves or interacting with people unseen by the audience.  Each of these three performances handled this construct differently: in The Infernal Comedy, Malkovich was actually onstage with two other women, opera singers, who acted as his victims.  Outside of his interaction with the women, the concept was that he was writing a novel and was addressing the audience as an author.  In Watt, Barry McGovern was telling the audience a story the whole time and when, in his story, he spoke to other characters, the characters were spots onstage.  In The Andersen Project, most interestingly, had Yves playing three different characters throughout the show, with a few cameo appearances as other characters.  When he spoke, he usually spoke toward the audience or to someone offstage, although he did have interactions with an invisible dog, represented by a leash and bell onstage.

The second thing I think about is how one actor will fill a space usually filled by many actors and intricate sets.  It is easy for an actor to be swallowed up by the space, but again these three shows took three vastly different approaches to fixing this problem.  The Infernal Comedy was performed at Hill Auditorium, so there was less space to occupy, and the performers shared the stage with the orchestra, who acted as their own sort of set.  In Watt, The Gate took a minimalist approach, and Mr. McGovern was just sort of framed by the set and called upon all of his power as an actor to fill the space.  The lighting highlighted some key moments and took us through his journey, but it was mostly a traditional one actor, one audience set up.  The Andersen Project, by contrast, used projections to suggest settings and fill out the space.  In seeing this piece, I realized I had never seen projections done extremely well.  That production changed my mind on projections entirely.  It made the one-man show a fully realized production.  I never felt like I was missing out because it was only one man, there was so much happening and it all contributed to the story in the way that more actors or a more elaborate set would usually.

Each show had a very different story, but I think The Andersen Project most successfully emobied the spirit of a one-man show.  There was something inherently lonely within each of Jacques’ characters.  And through his solitude onstage, the audience was both reminded of the loneliness of the 21st century world and distancing effect technology has had but also aware of themselves and their own experiences.  By doing such, I think Jacques showed us that we are not all one-man shows.

Ode to the Local Bookstore

Now that the sun has decided to show its face in Ann Arbor again, State Street has been reanimated.  Everyone is back– all of the people eating ice cream on the sidewalk, the guy playing guitar on the corner, and my personal favorite, the man who sells books outside of Amer’s.  This man and I have a very complicated relationship.  I love his prices and the books he has on display (sometimes with the sign “Good Books $5, Bad Books $10), but I also hate him, because I cannot walk by that table without buying a book.  And just like that, another bit of my non-disposable income has been spent on A Prayer for Owen Meany.

The sidewalk bookseller makes me undeniably happy not just because he has great prices and reminds me of the best parts of Ann Arbor but also because he is like my local bookseller.  Yes, I go to and adore Dawn Treader, but the sidewalk bookseller is directly on my way to and from home, and he becomes a part of my day just as much as a trip to the grocery store or CVS.  That’s how reading should be.  Digesting good literature should be just as important as digesting a turkey sandwich.

I love local bookstores.  I do miss Borders, in all its corporate accessibility, but there is something so personal and beautiful about searching for and eventually finding the exact book you’re looking for.  There’s a history in a dog-eared paperback that you don’t get with a clean, crisp first edition.  I think there is a place on my bookshelf for both shiny books with their binding in tact as well as well-worn, well-read books that have passed from person to person.  And without that search for the book you want, you might never accidentally stumble upon another treasure.  You might find something you never knew you were looking for.

One thing I’ve noticed about the sidewalk bookseller, the cashier at Dawn Treader, and the workers at nearly every other local bookstore I’ve visited, is that they love books.  And they love to talk about books too.  That is what we lose by ordering from Amazon or going into Barnes and Noble.  Sure, you can go online and engage in discussion in some forum or on a fansite, but you won’t get that same spontaneous gut reaction that you get when the person ringing you up notices that you bought their favorite book and they can’t help but gush about it.

The simple beauty of the local bookstore is unmatched.Locally-owned bookstores can be a vital part of a community.  I am obsessed with the website McSweeney’s, and they are often advertising readings and tours that take place exclusively in small, local bookstores.  By integrating a bookstore into the community, it becomes uniquely specific to that community’s needs and feel.  A bookstore you find in Ann Arbor won’t look the same as a bookstore you find in rural Pennsylvania won’t look the same as a bookstore you find in Southern California.  That’sjust the nature of book buying and selling.  The store’s tone and focus depends on the seller, the buyer, and their relationship with one another.

I understand why Amazon is taking over the world.  I do.  It’s convenient, it’s cheap, and you have pretty much anything you could ever want right at your fingertips.  But Amazon can never replace the physical bookstore.  At least not spiritually,emotionally, whatever you want to call it.  I know this is an argument that has been beaten to death a million times over.  If you search “Amazon vs bookstores” you get six million results.  But I think it is an important thing to think about.

When you go shopping for clothes, you want to try the clothes on, right?  That’s how I feel about shopping for books.  I want the one that feels right.  You probably have a certain brand of electronics you trust.  The same holds for books for me.  There are certain booksellers who I know I can turn to to find what I need, at a price that fits my needs, and I will enjoy my entireexperience when purchasing said book.  Bookstores are about books.  That is obvious.  But that’s not all.  Bookstores are about the experience.  I am convinced that having local bookstores inspires lifetime readers.  I know that I am a more avid reader because of the experiences I had picking out books at the local stores growing up.  When a child sees the passion that a group of people have for reading, they want to understand what that is about and hopefully become a part of it.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, thank you sidewalk bookseller, thank you Dawn Treader, thank you Olympia Books in Dowagiac, Michigan, for reminding me why I fell in love with books in the first place.