From Scratch: Neighborhood Theatre Group's "Dispatches From the Dumb Decade"
Neighborhood Theatre Group (NTG) is an Ypsilanti-based theater company that was founded by Kristin Danko and Aaron Dean, two transplants from the Chicago theater scene. And it’s not an accident that Danko and Dean are also the director and playwright, respectively, for NTG’s newest musical, Dispatches From the Dumb Decade, which runs June 2-4 at Bona Sera Underground.
“The ethos of the entire company is that everybody does a little piece of something,” says Dean. Which also explains why the NTG House Band arranged the music for Dispatches From the Dumb Decade. According to Danko, “Once we realized that we all had talents outside of theater -- we all play instruments, write music, and sing -- we decided to start a band. We’re called the NTG House Band, and it’s a great way for us to reach a more diverse audience, and the music scene here in Ypsi is outstanding.”
And as though founding a company, directing (Danko), writing (Dean), acting (Dean again), and playing instruments weren’t enough, Danko and Dean also work full time. “Time is the biggest challenge,” says Dean. “Writing a full-length musical in three months with maybe three or four writing hours a day is rough. Even getting yourself to do that four hours is a bear, especially when you get home and just want to sit around and drink beer.”
The Neighborhood Theatre Group specializes in creating accessible productions, something Danko likes to call “theater from scratch.” The ensemble's first show, a reading of another original musical entitled Beaver’s Long Strange Trip, “had a very NTG feel,” which is to say extremely fun and laid back. And Dispatches From the Dumb Decade, a fast-paced pop-rock musical that follows a student journalist at the start of the new millennium, promises to have a similarly laid-back flair.
Most NTG shows start with a concept and style and then build from there. As Danko describes it, the group's last sketch show, Sketchual Healing, “was centered around love and relationships. Lots of material there! I try to think of rich subjects and themes that we can find various points of view and develop scenarios around.”
“The idea for Dispatches From the Dumb Decade," says Dean, "came from observations I had been making that in the years 2000-2009 it was fashionable in the mainstream of the popular culture to lack curiosity. I think the chickens are coming to roost on that theory. The process of writing the show was trying. First of all, explaining the concept or central thesis is difficult because it’s about when something sorta leaks into the zeitgeist and people don't notice until they are actually wearing the Flock of Seagulls haircut.”
“This is a show Aaron has been thinking about for a while,” adds Danko. “When he first told me about the concept last year, I was super-excited. We are exploring the media and how reality TV and the 'infotainment' industry have helped create the political situation we are in today. We are both in our 30s and spent the whole of our 20s in the 2000s, so I find this script really relatable. I love the world and characters he's created. Especially the Bush and Cheney characters and our journalism student protagonist, Nick, played beautifully by Eric Hohnke.”
Despite their busy schedules, Dean and Danko have already planned Neighborhood Theatre Group's productions for the rest of the year. In September, NTG will produce a 10-minute musical called Paw Prints; in October, the troupe is reviving its Halloween cabaret; and then in the winter it's doing another play by Dean called Cryptic about a cryptozoology club.
To quote Danko, "I’m pretty stoked."
Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a building supervisor with the Ann Arbor District Library.
Neighborhood Theatre Group's "Dispatches From the Dumb Decade" runs June 2-4 at Bona Sera Underground, 200 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti. Visit dispatches.brownpapertickets.com for tickets and showtimes.