Review: The Chieftains’ UMS Show at Hill Thrills Fans

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE MUSIC

The Chieftains support local artists, even letting them join in the fun.

The Chieftains support local artists, even letting them join in the fun.

Just a wee bit in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, the University Musical Society brought the Chieftains to Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium on Saturday, March 5th. And if this charming, 90-minute show failed to get you in the mood for the holiday, nothing would.

The Chieftains have been torch-bearers, and set the gold standard, for Irish music for more than half a century now. One of the group’s founding members, Paddy Moloney, still sings and plays the pipes and tin whistle at center stage. The band’s current roster also includes Tara Breen (violin, saxophone, dance), Jon Pilatzke (fiddle and stepdance), Kevin Conneff (bodhran and vocals), Matt Molloy (flute), Triona Marshall (harp and piano), and Tim Edey (guitar and accordian), with featured stepdancer Nathan Pilatzke, and featured vocalist and dancer Alyth McCormack.

The Chieftains – perhaps not surprisingly, given their longevity – have a pitch-perfect sense of balancing up-tempo, foot-stomping reels with more delicate numbers. Following a spirited fiddle solo (and dance) by Breen early in the show, Conneff sang “The Flower of Magherally,” largely without any musical accompaniment, letting us focus entirely on the melody and story. Then a quick take on “Cotton Eyed Joe” played out before McCormack appeared on stage to sing the moving ballad, “The Foggy Dew” (previously recorded by the Chieftains with Sinead O’Connor).

With such a vast catalog of music from which to choose, the Chieftains inevitably venture beyond the songs most familiar to fans. Among “new to me” offerings were: the Chinese tune “Full of Joy” (not my favorite, but a clear demonstration of the group’s commitment to sharing not just their own culture’s music); an inspired, gorgeous harp solo, masterfully delivered by Marshall; a song for Nelson Mandela titled, “The Troublemaker’s Jig”; and a musical reading of W. B. Yeats' poem, “Never Give All the Heart.”

But the Chieftains also offered tunes from the documentary television series The Long Journey Home (about Irish migration to the United States), including the American standard “Oh Shenandoah,” accompanied by the Ann Arbor Grail Singers. Indeed, several local groups were integrated into Saturday evening’s show, including Lansing’s Glen Erin Pipe Band (featured most prominently in “San Patricio”), and young students from Plymouth’s O’Hare School of Irish Dance.

This leads me to mention the electrifying role dance played in Saturday’s show. Though Breen was the first to put down her violin, various combinations of dancers performed throughout the show, and the consequence was consistently thrilling.

Most breathtaking of all were the Pilatzke brothers, whose percussive, perfectly synced, wildly complex dances conveyed a palpable sense of joy. I cheered every time they made their way back to the stage’s dance space. Something about their connection to each other amped the energy even higher, and in one instance, as they danced without music, they reminded us that, sometimes, the dance and the music are one and the same.

As the show neared its end, Moloney thanked the crowd and said, “This is one of our very favorite venues,” then played an encore and invited people from the crowd to join in a traveling dance line that moved through the aisles before heading back to the stage. Several fans rushed across their rows to take part, demonstrating the crowd’s unbridled enthusiasm for the show. With everyone’s hands joined, raising and lowering in time together, the moment seemed a wholly fitting conclusion to a night that felt so heartwarming and hopeful.


Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Preview: Voices of the Middle West Literary Festival

PREVIEW WRITTEN WORD

Voices of the Middle West brings the writing community together for the third year in a row.

Voices of the Middle West brings the writing community together for the third year in a row.

Now in its third year, the Voices of the Middle West literary festival will take place on Saturday, March 12 at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. It’s free and open to the public.

The event includes a book fair, panels with authors and publishers, an open mic, and a keynote by poet and 2015 National Book Award finalist Ross Gay. On Friday, March 11, there’ll be a kick-off reading at Literati Bookstore, featuring Ross Gay along with Fred Arroyo, Peter Geye, Emily Schultz, and Amber Sparks.

The festival was founded by Robert James Russell and Jeff Pfaller, having worked together on the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. To make Voices of the Middle West happen, they work together with co-organizer and co-curator Laura Thomas at the Residential College.

As an editor at Joyland Magazine, I've participated in the book fair, and this year, you can also find me at the festival chatting up the UMS Artists in Residence program. I gave Rob a call to chat about the festival.

Q: I want to get your founder/curator view of things. Can you tell me how the festival first came together?
A: Yes, so, Jeff Pfaller and I were always looking to do more with Midwestern Gothic. We always wanted to do more, and legitimately, we love the writing community. So we tossed around ideas for a long time, and we came up with Voices.

It’s a totally free event, and we’re doing it purely as a way to get the community together. Personally, I don’t really view writing as a solitary thing. I mean, the actual writing itself is a very small part of the writing process. I think most writers really are social. They want to be together, talk about books and talk about writing.

I go to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference every year, and I really like it, but it’s really expensive, and I recognize that not everyone can do that. We wanted to make Voices accessible to those who can’t go to bigger, expensive conferences and festivals.

At the time we already had a working relationship with U-M’s Residential College, where I also teach, and we kind of approached them and said, hey, we have this idea for this, would you be interested? It turned out they were looking to do something like the festival already, and it worked out well.

The RC’s Laura Thomas, our co-organizer and co-curator, she’s fantastic. You know, there a lot of moving parts to this, and let’s just say that with Laura’s help, it’s been easier to put together than it should be.

Q: I like that. How big has the festival been?
A: So, last year our foot traffic was about 2,500 throughout the day. We’re hoping for at least a 10% increase in that.

Q: How has the festival changed year to year for you?
A: I would say coverage, and you know, awareness that we exist now. Quite frankly, we have put on two pretty awesome festivals. Our first year keynote was Curtis Sittenfeld. She is great. Last year we had Stuart Dybek. And this year we have the poet Ross Gay.

This year we have some people driving up from Missouri, people who are driving over from Minnesota, to experience the festival. That's the biggest honor I could ever have.

Q: What would you recommend to a newbie to the festival?
A: I would say, spend the whole day, because we have panels all day with really fantastic, captivating, exciting authors.

But I would also recommend spending a lot of time in the book fair, which I think is unique in that we do get a good crowd, but you can also actually have one-on-one time with the authors and the publishers, and they actually want this to happen. I think at bigger festivals like AWP, it’s very hard to do that.

Q: So, this is maybe like a pick your favorite child question?
A: Yes. I guess my final answer is: Pick a couple panels that you're really excited about, and then spend the rest of the time at the book fair.

Q: And is there anything you are particularly looking forward to yourself this year?
A: Ross Gay's keynote I think is going to be incredible. He was just shortlisted for a National Book Award for poetry last year. I had the pleasure of being on faculty alongside him at a writing retreat last year, and I had read some of his work before, but I had never seen him read in person. When I saw him read, I said, "We have to get this guy". Because he is the most dynamic, the most electric reader I have ever seen. That is not hyperbole, he is fantastic.

People will be utterly transfixed. We are having a kick-off reading Friday night at Literati, and he is going to be reading there. Saturday’s keynote will really be about the craft of writing. I would say both of those things you can’t miss.

Q: Awesome. Anything else you want to make sure is in this preview?
A: That it’s free. [laughs] My own official motto this year has been: If you are remotely in the area and you are a writer or a reader, you should come to this.


Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


The Voices of the Middle West Festival is on Saturday, March 12. The event schedule, presenters, and list of exhibitors are available at www.midwestgothic.com.

Review: Folk Musician Chris Buhalis - New Album Release Show

PREVIEW MUSIC REVIEW


Buhalis's music has taken him all over the country, but he’s always returned home to Michigan.

Local folk musician Chris Buhalis says that his newest album Big Car Town, coming out March 11, is very Detroit-focused. “You’re never sure how well that’s going to go over in some places,” he joked to attendees at a small concert in an Ypsilanti home last month. Buhalis was born on the east side of Detroit in 1969 and, though his music has taken him all over the country, he’s always returned home to Michigan.

Buhalis is a master of evoking the feel of a place in his songs, and those familiar with Michigan will connect deeply with many of the tracks on his new record. The title track talks of Buhalis’s experiences growing up in Detroit. I loved the line in the chorus “Jesus saves, and Gordie Howe gets the rebound,” which Buhalis remembers seeing spray painted in giant letters on the backside of Olympia Stadium before it was demolished.

Buhalis doesn’t just sing about Michigan, though. One of the privileges of seeing him in such a small and casual venue was that he was able to talk intimately and at length with the audience. He talked after every song, sharing stories about his life now and about experiences he had in the past, tying it all back in eventually to the next song that he was going to play. For example, when he was driving to the Boundary Waters between Minnesota and Canada years ago, Buhalis said that he saw the same truck pass him three times on a long stretch of lonely road. That truck driver was the inspiration for one of the songs. Buhalis also told us the story behind the song “Whiskey Six,” which he performed as well. He read about the men who, during the Prohibition Era, would drive their Model Ts back and forth across the frozen Detroit River, transporting alcohol from Canada to the United States. These cars were known as “whiskey sixes,” and Buhalis was so fascinated by the concept that he had to write a song about it.

Buhalis also covered three Woody Guthrie songs, the last one—“This Land is Your Land”—by request from the audience. I was thrilled to hear him cover Bruce Springsteen, too; he played “Two Hearts” and told us that he couldn’t wait to see Bruce on his upcoming The River tour -Buhalis has already seen him multiple times, and said he wouldn’t miss it.

The Big Car Town release will be accompanied by a show at The Ark on March 11. Buhalis will be joined at the show by Jeff Plankenhorm, Dominic John Davis, and Michael Shimmin, all of whom played on the record.


Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at AADL and shares Buhalis' love of The Boss.


The March 11 show at The Ark starts at 8 pm and doors are at 7:30. Tickets are $15. Visit The Ark’s website for more information.

PREVIEW: The 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival

PREVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Each program is different at AAFF54, from Dead Slow Ahead to News from Home.

Each program is different at AAFF54, from Dead Slow Ahead to News from Home.

Let’s get this out of the way before we dive into some movie recommendations. The Ann Arbor Film Festival, started in 1963, is one of the longest-running film festivals in the world. In my opinion (and many others), it’s also America’s original independent film festival.

The AAFF is a forum for films made by independent artists, not commercial studios. The festival’s focus is on shorter pieces that strongly showcase what’s possible within the art form of film. The range of what you can experience over six days of cinema is extraordinary. And there’s truly something for everyone. So let’s get to it!

This year’s AAFF brings back a handful of audience favorite themed programs, including the Family-Friendly screening, Out Night with LGBTQ-oriented films, Animated Short Films, a Regional showcase, and Music Videos. There’s also an Interactive Cinema program added this year, 78 Letters, with pioneering artist Grahame Weinbren presenting a series of 1-minute shorts with the sequence determined by the audience.

The heart of the AAFF is the Films in Competition programs, which are usually an assortment of newly created shorts including animation, documentary, adventurous narratives and experimental (not plot-driven). These often contain the most memorable, confounding, polarizing pieces of the week, so if you’re feeling open-minded, I recommend choosing ones that work within your schedule.

If you’re new to the AAFF or only have time to attend one program, I recommend the Opening Night Screening of short films. Better yet, show up earlier (6 pm), pay a bit extra, and make a great evening of it by attending the Opening Night Reception. It's a stylish scene that includes food, drink, and music in the Michigan Theater’s grand foyer.

If you’re an AAFF regular, you’re likely debating how you’re going to choose from the new films in competition vs. the special programs. Highlights this year include Chantal Ackerman tribute programs (AADL has some of her works on DVD, btw), the Jem Cohen feature and shorts program (he’ll be making a rare festival appearance), a program of restored 16mm prints by underground film legend and provocateur Curt McDowell, and Northern Lights, a live cinema performance with five 16mm projectors.

Stills from Caspar Stracke's time/OUT OF JOINT, Chantal Ackerman's From the East, Jem Cohen's Counting, and Curt McDowell's Beaver Fever.

Stills from Caspar Stracke's time/OUT OF JOINT, Chantal Ackerman's From the East, Jem Cohen's Counting, and Curt McDowell's Beaver Fever.

For fans of feature documentary and story-based films, The Host will provide a powerful examination that cuts across a century of personal and political history. Also screening on Saturday, two other feature films, time/OUT OF JOINT and Dead Slow Ahead, take the viewer on unexpected journeys through the time and space of unexplored territories.

The week of the AAFF additionally includes a number of excellent free events, including animator David OReilly giving a Penny Stamps lecture, sound artist Ernst Karel’s collaborative Work Gallery installation, the Expanding Frames student-oriented programs, performances (including a dual 16mm projector showing of Light Music by Lis Rhodes!), and lively afterparties every night.

“Each program is different.” You will find this simple statement on this year’s schedule. It’s also appeared on many AAFF programs dating back to the 1960s (including the original from 1963, which can be viewed in the AADL’s digital AAFF archive). And it couldn’t be more apropos for this festival of independent, artist-driven, experimental film. For one week of the year, the AAFF gives us an opportunity to explore just how vastly different cinema can be. See you there!


Donald Harrison was AAFF Executive Director 2008 - 2012 and currently runs 7 Cylinders Studio, producing compelling, content-driven videos.


The 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival runs from March 15-20, 2016 and tickets are available now. The full schedule and calendar are available at aafilmfest.org.

Team Laith Al-Saadi!

MUSIC

Ann Arbor favorite Laith Al-Saadi appeared in a blind audition episode of NBC's The Voice on March 1st, earning interest from two of the show's four judges. His powerful rendition of Joe Cocker's own blues-rock cover of "The Letter," complete with a Pharrell-wowing guitar solo, grabbed the interest of judges Blake Shelton and Adam Levine. Al-Saadi noted his near-constant performance schedule, which is already well-known here in his hometown.

In fact, you can catch him performing at Weber's Habitat Lounge or the Arena Sports Bar a few nights this week and next, and probably beyond! Go Team Laith!


Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at AADL and thinks Team Adam was probably the right call.


The Voice airs on NBC on Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 pm.

Preview: Stratford Festival Offers Variety at a Good Exchange Rate

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

A small sampling of the many plays that will be performed at this year's Stratford Festival.

A small sampling of the many plays that will be performed at this year's Stratford Festival.

The Stratford Festival, an annual, Canadian theatre festival, is set to begin in April and this year's lineup is typically wide ranging, with 13 plays at four venues.

As always, Shakespeare is the heart of the festival. This year, the Bard is represented with productions of Macbeth, As You Like It and a reworking of Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, and Henry V into two plays under the title Breath of Kings. The presentation was conceived and adapted by Stratford veteran Graham Abbey.

Shakespeare, himself, is the lead character in a new stage version of the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love. The comedy sets the young playwright in an Elizabethan setting that is not too different from our own.

The two musicals both have theatrical themes. A Chorus Line is a tribute to modern troupers and Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, with the hit song "Send in the Clowns."

Every year, Stratford presents a production geared for families. This year it's a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis's popular fantasy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Arthur Miller's All My Sons is a modern Shakespearean tragedy of blind betrayal in the story of an airplane manufacturer who cuts corners to save money during World War II.

Other works are Moliere's comedy The Hypochondriac, Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, and the world premiere of two contemporary plays, Aeneid, a modern take on Virgil's epic poem, and a comedy, Bunny.

This is a good year to check out the festival at bargain prices. The value of the Canadian dollar has been falling. Recently the U.S. dollar was worth $1.40 Canadian. That's good news for thrifty theatergoers for tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurants.

The season begins in April and runs through the end of October.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


For more information, check out the Stratford Festival website or call 1-800-567-1600.

Preview: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern watch Hamlet talking nonsense not to herself in A2CT's new production.

Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern watch Hamlet talking nonsense not to herself in A2CT's new production.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, who began their season with an excellent staging of Julius Caesar, again salutes the famous playwright with a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the masterpiece of tragi-comic absurdity highlighting the misadventures of several characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Using two of the tragedy’s minor characters, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as its centerpiece, the play premiered in London in 1967 before becoming a critical hit on Broadway, winning the Tony Award and Drama Critics Circle awards for Best Play. New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote that the play was “very funny, very brilliant, very chilling” and stated that, “in one bound Mr. Stoppard is asking to be considered as among the finest English-speaking writers of our stage, for this is a work of fascinating distinction.”

Civic Theatre first tackled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern twenty years ago in its 1996-97 season. David Widmayer directs the current production, and, in addition to his fondness for the play and love of absurdist theater, is particularly excited about the original music created for the production and how it fits each character.

Local audiences will recognize veteran actors Isaac Ellis and James Ingagiola who portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Other famous characters include Hamlet (Suzy Culbertson), Horatio (Chris Grimm), Claudius (Greg Kovas), Ophelia (Amanda Photenhauer), Gertrude (Christina Sauer), and Polonius (Elizabeth Wagner). Music direction is by Michael Edwards and the fight sequences are choreographed by Melissa Freilich.


Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.


Performances of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead run Thursday – Sunday, March 10-13 at the University of Michigan’s Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at www.a2ct.org, by calling the office at 734-971-2228, at the A2CT office at 322 W. Ann St., or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting www.a2ct.org.

Review: Live from London: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

McNulty lets his cruel intentions show in National Theatre Live's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

McNulty lets his cruel intentions show in National Theatre Live's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

On Wednesday, February 17th, the Michigan Theater broadcast a stage performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses through Britain's National Theatre Live. Directed by Josie Rourke, the production marks the 30th anniversary of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the original novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

Set in pre-revolutionary France, Les Liaisons Dangereuses tells the story of the beautiful Marquise de Merteuil, played by Janet McTeer, and the dashing Vicomte de Valmont, played by Dominic West, former lovers who now amuse themselves in a friendly competition of seduction and manipulation. The two are having a grand old time toying with their peers when the Vicomte unexpectedly falls in love with his newest mark, the virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy).

The Marquise was the real standout in this performance. We so rarely get to see female characters like her: intelligent and witty, but also deeply flawed, scarred by her fight for independence. The Marquise is a woman who ruins the lives of others for petty revenge or jealousy, but who also fights ferociously to secure and defend her own freedom. Her ability to carry out her schemes in a world where the cards are so deeply stacked against women is a testament to her more admirable qualities. McTeer’s performance as the Marquise was incredible, bringing true range of emotion to a character that could easily have been played as a pure villain. West and McTeer had a definite rapport that underlined an unspoken jealousy between the characters that motivates many of the actions later in the play, as the personal stakes for the pair are quietly pushed higher and higher.

The sumptuous costumes and candle-lit scenes created a feeling of unsustainable decadence completely taken for granted by the French nobility. Within this splendor, the manipulative games played by the Marquise and Vicomte can almost seem frivolous. Their machinations ultimately boil down to trivialities, except that the emotions and lives of those involved, including the supposed masterminds, are so deeply affected. This production did an excellent job of laying out the emotional field of the characters, ensuring that each betrayal and revelation was felt like a twist of the knife, drawing the audience into a world where reputation and appearances are everything.

I entered this viewing with zero background for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I now understand why the play has been so successful. The story is well balanced, the events spooling out in a way that keeps you entirely engaged with the action. I think the secret of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the attraction of watching a scandal develop before you, with no threat to your own reputation, almost like a guilty pleasure. Part of the reason the play is so effective is that you want to see what happens next, and so the audience is in some ways implicated in the games of the Marquise and Vicomte.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL and agrees with Dominic West that people look much more attractive by candlelight.

Review: Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room

REVIEW VISUAL ART MUSIC

Alvin Lucier sitting in a room.

Alvin Lucier sitting in a room.

Some might say Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room is not art by any means. But it is certainly right to say that it’s art by other means.

The Connecticut-based Lucier’s uncanny project—in the cutting-edge UMMA Irving Stenn, Jr., Family Project Gallery at the University of Michigan Museum of Art—is likely to be as underwhelming in its appearance as it is overwhelming in its accumulative cacophony.

The Stenn Project Gallery space has been stripped of everything except a few panels of soundproof insulation against its walls and armless couches for listeners to sit upon. Standing aside in the dimly lit gallery—and standing alone on a strategically placed black pedestal—is a single audio speaker. The only other thing left—as is sometimes said—is art.

Well, that’s to say, what’s left is a particular application of 20th century modernism because I am sitting in a room is as much creativity for the mind as it is an increasingly out-of-tune artful melody for the ear.

Lucier’s artistry—as minimalist in its execution as it is complex in its single-minded commitment—is analogous in spirit (though differing in execution) from the ambient replication of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young. It’s an enigmatic industrial drone that has as much of an equal footing in proto-electronica as it does abstract conceptualism.

Originally crafted in 1969 at Brandeis University’s Electronic Music Studio as an experimental echo installation, Lucier’s intent was— and still is through its systematized multiplication—to scramble the physical property of soundwaves through the interrelationship of automated media and our human ear.

Composed in such a way as to make stumbling upon it a matter of chance, Lucier’s words unfold repeatedly upon themselves until their recurrence becomes indistinct. Increasingly incomprehensible as a verbal congruence steadily replicating itself, the result is a sonic environment whose totality is the aggregate of its texture.

Lucier narrates the following text:

“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”

That’s it, folks. Could anything be any simpler than this?

Well … the difference is in the details. After all, the Brandeis’ Music Studio in 1969 is not the same place as the UMMA Stenn Project Gallery today. And this means the work’s resonance will differ from the recording’s original acoustic setting.

Just as likewise, the sound of the recording will differ ever so slightly from the center and corners of the gallery depending on where you listen. There will therefore always be a subtle differentiation between each recipient of the source, the source of the transmission, and the transmission of the text itself.

An existential soundscape conditioned by its increasingly blurred repetition, the milieu plays a major part in the art itself. Lucier’s fragile reading—he has a discernible stutter—becomes progressively indistinct as his utterances are gradually blurred beyond recognition. But the cadence of his discourse also creates a peculiarly boisterous harmony through its replicated duplication.

It’ll admittedly take a bit of patience to sit through this masterwork, yet the experience is also going to be singular. Hovering uneasily somewhere between real-time and canned reiteration, I am sitting in a room is phenomenology as art gone nearly amok.


John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.


University of Michigan Museum of Art: “Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room” will run through May 22, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.

Preview: The Ark's 29th Annual Storytelling Festival

PREVIEW WRITTEN WORD THEATER & DANCE

Storytellers Kevin Kling (left) and Yvonne Healy (right).

Storytellers Kevin Kling (left) and Yvonne Healy (right).

Humankind’s oldest art form is also the basis of one of The Ark’s longest running events. This year marks the 29th Anniversary of The Ark’s Annual Storytelling Festival, a two-night event that brings the oral tradition from the primordial bonfires of yore to The Ark’s warm and welcoming concert hall. Saturday night this year’s featured storytellers will spin yarns geared toward a mature adult audience, and Sunday afternoon they’ll switch gears to entertain an all ages crowd.

Over the years the festival has welcomed a bountiful mix of perspectives and storytelling styles, and this year is no exception. This weekend’s three featured storytellers -- author, playwright, storyteller, and NPR correspondent Kevin Kling; acclaimed musician and children’s entertainer Bill Harley; and local Irish performer Yvonne Healy -- spoke to me about what kinds of stories they will tell each night, and how their work has changed with the rise of radio storytelling shows like The Moth and Snap Judgement.

Headliner Kevin Kling is known for his humorous personal stories about his Midwestern upbringing and his experience with physical disability. Though he has been featured regularly on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Kling says he prefers performing in front of a live audience.

“Garrison Keillor really put us on the map, and somebody said, I thought very accurately, that he plays a microphone like a Stradivarius,” Kling says of his distinctly Midwestern colleague. “He's so wonderful on the radio. He really has found that medium. I'm a bit different in that I love a live audience. There's something visceral and chemical, something that happens on stage that neither sound waves nor lightwaves can quite fill. That to me is the magic of a live performance. You don't see a lot of standing ovations in front of the radio.”

Kling says he always knew he wanted to be a performer, but early on he had no idea he would get paid to simply stand on stage and talk about his life. He says his professional career as a storyteller began in that most fabled of artistic proving grounds: the dinner party.

“I was in the kitchen at a party, you know that's always the best place, and I was just blabbing away,” he says. “Little did I know there was a theater producer in the kitchen and she said, ‘Do you want to be in our season next year?’ And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And she said, ‘Just what you did in the kitchen.’ Before I knew it, before I knew what I was, I was on stage telling stories in a theater in Minneapolis. And then I went to Seattle, and then off-Broadway, doing pretty much what I did in that kitchen.”

Kling says he doesn’t know exactly which of his two-hundred-plus stories he will tell this weekend. He likes to show up to a venue with a good chunk of his repertoire in mind and read the crowd before deciding where to take the audience for the evening. One topic he is certain he will touch on, though, is disability, something he’s an expert on. Kling was born with a deformed left arm, and he lost the use of his right one after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Still, he assures us he’ll keep things as light as possible no matter how serious the subject matter he chooses to delve into might be.

“It will be done with humor,” he says. “That's the best way for me to get through that because you can laugh at something that doesn't control you anymore. Everybody in the audience knows loss. People say, ‘What's the difference between stand-up comedy and storytelling? You close a door with a joke with comedy, but with storytelling you open a door with a joke. It's like you're saying, ‘Now that we're all here, let's get to it.’’

Joining Kling on stage this weekend is another nationally renowned storyteller, Bill Harley. Dubbed “The Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music,” Harley pairs wit, humor, and song to embellish tales of his childhood, coming-of-age, and family life.

When asked why he is drawn primarily to telling stories from his youth, Harley responds, “I find that if I talk seriously about childhood, then everybody usually comes along. That's the birthplace of our disaster, so that's pretty fertile territory.”

Harley says he probably won’t tailor the topics of the tales he chooses for the adult and family sessions this weekend, but rather the manner in which he tells them.

“It's not so much structure as it is language, nuance and subtext,” he says. “If you talk about childhood or coming-of-age seriously, those experiences we carry with us through our whole lives, everytime we touch on those experiences it brings up something that touches us, that reaches adults just as much as it does younger kids. Obviously with the family show, I'm less likely do to do a 40-minute story. With a family show you can't mess around. You've got to keep your pedals moving and your foot to the floor and be very aware of what`s going on. With adult performances, there's a lot more nuance, and there's a lot more chance for discovery.”

Harley’s performances will ensure the melodic comfort The Ark typically traffics in won’t be entirely lost for the weekend. He says audiences are often surprised and delighted by the way he flirts with the intersection between song and spoken word.

“When you sing a song, people go, ‘Okay, we know that,’” he says. “And then you put your guitar down or you're holding your guitar and you start to talk, and all of a sudden people are kind of waiting for the talking to end and the music to begin again. And slowly, they realize this is something other. I always have people come up to me and say, ‘I haven't been to something like this for years. I can't remember the last time I sat and listened to something like that.’ It's an amazing experience.”

Local Irish storyteller Yvonne Healy rounds out this weekend’s bill with a rollicking blend of traditional Irish folklore and mythology and flamboyant tales of her own personal experience. Healy, now a resident of Howell, was born in Ireland and raised in the U.S. She says her upbringing straddled the cultural mores and traditions of both countries and gave her a master class in the art of storytelling.

“Inside the house was Ireland, and outside the house was the United States,” she says. “So inside the house we spoke Irish, and we danced Irish dances and sang to Irish music. We behaved in an Irish way, and part of that is learning to tell stories properly, with proper accent and proper detail. I learned by rote, phrase by phrase.”

Healy’s father had a profound influence on her interest in telling stories. She describes him as an alternately charming and argumentative contrarian who could worm his way out of any situation with a good yarn.

“I asked him one time, ‘How is it that you never get beat up?’ And he said, ‘Well I got beat up once. Now, whenever I get to that point, and I like getting them to that point, then I tell them a story and confuse them. And then they let me go.’ So really, talking is a martial art.”

Like this weekend’s other two storytellers, Healy says she doesn’t yet know exactly what stories she’ll bring to the stage. She says Sunday she will stick to traditional folklore and mythology because she believes children, who are are developing their perspective on life, need the neatness of literary devices and literary structure. For Saturday night, she says she will cull stories from her own life. With more and more people being introduced to live storytelling via NPR, she says that seems to be what people want to hear these days.

“I think it’s because we have such an educated populace,” she says. “We can figure out where stories are going to go, but real life is not neat like a fictional story is. Real life is messy and doesn't have those kind of fictional constructs, and so that's very interesting to us. We spend a lot of time alone or with screens in our contemporary society, and I think having deep, real conversations with other people face-to-face is very moving for everybody.”

Healy elaborates on that last remark. Live storytelling, she says, is a conversation between the performer and the audience.

“The story changes depending on how the audience reacts,” she says. “If you're losing some people in some place, you kind of come back and go back into the thread and go off on another digression, but only if the audience is responding to it. A story is really co-created by everybody in the room.”


Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer, and he would love to tell you the story about the time he saw a UFO.


The Ark’s 29th Annual Storytelling Festival runs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, at 1 p.m. The Ark is located at 316 S. Main St. Tickets are on sale now through the Michigan Union Ticket Office and at The Ark's website. Tickets are priced at $20 for the Saturday evening show and $10 for the kids’ show on Sunday afternoon.