UMS's "No Safety Net" festival digs into deep issues through play(s)

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UMS's Underground Railroad Game. Photo by Ben Arons.

Underground Railroad Game is one of four provacative plays presented in the No Safety Net festival. Photo by Ben Arons.

The three-week-long theater festival No Safety Net presented by the University Musical Society (UMS) will showcase four productions that focus on important and divisive social issues in modern society, from slavery and terrorism to transgender identity, radical wellness, and healing.

So, what do the four pieces in No Safety Net have in common?

Change & Growth: "Violet" at U-M's Arthur Miller Theatre

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Violet at U-M's Arthur Miller Theater

U-M's production of Violet doesn't shy away from looking at the play's themes of racism and acceptance in the context of today's socio-political troubles.

[https://smtd.umich.edu/performances_events/event.php?&id=11323|Violet] is a musical that’s known both for its soaring gospel- and blues-infused score and for its social commentary about race relations. Originally written for Off-Broadway back in 1997, the show follows a young, facially disfigured Caucasian woman in 1964 who travels across the United States in the hopes of having her outward scars healed by a TV evangelist. Over the course of her journey, she meets and falls in love with an African-American man. “It’s about finding out who you are, accepting who you are, appreciating who you, and loving who you are. And then being able to navigate this world,” says Mark Madama, who is directing a production of Violet this weekend through the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance department.

Brass Tacks nails Shakespeare's dense & difficult "Measure for Measure"

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Brass Tacks Ensemble, Measure for Measure

Brass Tacks Ensemble has workshopped Measure for Measure for 10 months. Photos by Aaron C. Wade.

Nearly every play that is performed for an audience is a culmination of many people’s collective time and effort. A play is often a culmination of countless hours of rehearsals; of actors having learned the basics of their blocking and memorizing their lines, only to then attempt the feat of embodying becoming other people; of a director grappling with ideas and how to bring their artistic vision to a stage.

But rarely is a play a culmination of almost 10 months of other workshops and productions. [https://www.facebook.com/events/1693293527400745|Measure for Measure], a [http://btensemble.org|Brass Tacks Ensemble] show that runs Nov. 10-19, is precisely that.

The comedy "Nice Girl" is Redbud Productions' latest family affair

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Redbud Productions' Nice Girl

Nice Girl breaks the mold for Redbud Productions: "We have a reputation in Ann Arbor of doing these darker, heavier dramas,” said director Loretta Grimes. “This one is funny."

[https://www.facebook.com/Redbud-Productions-227460685594|Redbud Productions] shows are truly a family affair. My interview with Loretta Grimes -- who is directing [https://www.facebook.com/events/115813302392688|Nice Girl] at Kerrytown Concert House, Oct. 26-28 -- along with her husband and Redbud collaborator, Tim Grimes, was one of the warmest interviews I've conducted. Like the archetype of a loving married couple, Loretta and Tim -- who is the Events Manager at AADL -- finished many of each other's sentences during out chat in their rehearsal space, which is the basement of their home. It has been converted into an acting space complete with spike tape (to signify where the boundaries of the stage are), the set for their new show, and framed posters from their 19 years of previous productions.

PencilPoint TheatreWorks' Ypsi THRIVE highlights new one-act plays

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Ypsi THRIVE

Four of Ypsi THRIVE's seven plays are by women, as are five of the directors, and the majority of the roles are for females.

Brian Cox returned to creating theater about five years ago when he began writing his first full-length play, [http://pulp.aadl.org/node/357697|Clutter], based on one of his short stories. Since then, he has written multiple one-act plays, directed, produced, and devised many more shows and storytelling nights, and started his own theater company, [https://www.facebook.com/PencilPointTheatreWorks|PencilPoint Theatreworks] in Ypsilanti. He’s an accomplished director, producer, and artistic director, and earlier this year Cox won Encore Theatre's [http://www.encoremichigan.com/2017/08/winners-2016-wilde-awards-winners|Wilde Award] for Best New Script with Clutter.

After offhandedly mentioning this during the interview, Cox pauses, glancing down and blushing slightly. “But I don’t act. No acting.”

So what is Cox’s newest project? On Sept. 28 he’s opening [https://www.facebook.com/events/302604126822030|Ypsi THRIVE], a three-day, new-play festival at Riverside Arts Center that features seven short plays.

Brass Tacks' take on "Merchant of Venice" lets you decide who's a hero or villain

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Brass Tacks Ensemble, The Merchant of Venice

The 2017 Brass Tacks ensemble is taking on three Shakespeare plays this season and stripping them down to their essence.

The [http://btensemble.org|Brass Tacks Ensemble] has been performing shows in Ann Arbor since 1999. The company is known for stripping down its productions to the most basic elements of theater -- the text of a script and actors acting -- and eliminating as many distractions as possible so the audience's attention is focused on universal themes.

According to artistic director James Ingagiola, “The more you add to a production in terms of costumes, props, sets, etc., the more you lock it into a specific story about very specific people in a very specific time.” Put another way, Brass Tacks prides itself on being the antithesis of spectacle theater.

Serious sentiments in "Spring Awakening" flip the script for A2 in Concert

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Ann Arbor in Concert, Spring Awakening

In the musical [http://www.aadl.org/node/362781|Spring Awakening], a group of teenagers collectively face suicide, rape, homelessness, parental incest, and depression, all while they struggle to understand their burgeoning sexuality over the course of a school year. Adapted from a German play written in the 1890s, the musical hasn’t made many changes to the storyline, it just added some rock music.

This will be [http://www.a2ic.org|Ann Arbor in Concert]’s fifth production since the organization began in 2012, and this is a very different show than anything else they’ve produced. Over the past few years, [https://www.facebook.com/AnnArborInConcert|Ann Arbor in Concert]’s credits have included Ragtime, 42nd Street, West Side Story, and, most recently, Hairspray.

Double, Double, Fun and Trouble: Penny Seats Theatre Company's "The Renaissance Man"

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Penny Seats Theatre Company, The Renaissance Man

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Renaissance Man is modern rewrite of Macbeth.

[http://www.pennyseats.org|Penny Seats Theatre Company]'s [http://www.pennyseats.org/event/679cefa08bab2c2a134ca896cbbeffd8|The Renaissance Man] is a lot of fun, but that’s to be expected. After all, this is a play about a Renaissance festival, with actors traipsing about Ann Arbor's West Park dressed as pirate knights and gypsy elves. And if you’ve ever seen any [https://www.facebook.com/pg/pennyseats|Penny Seats] show, you know before reading this that you’re in for a good time.

“First and foremost, I want people to walk away having had fun,” said Joseph Zettelmaier, playwright and director of [https://www.facebook.com/events/1894051887535917|The Renaissance Man], which is a modern comedy based on Macbeth. “I said from the jump that I want people to watch the play, and even if a Renaissance faire isn't their thing, I want them to get why people would want to do it. There are other themes throughout, but I'd rather people see it and decide what they are for themselves.”

What comes as a bit of a surprise, though, is that The Renaissance Man is overtly a play about the importance of fun. It bounces nimbly between wit and philosophy, but that fun is tempered just a touch by something more melancholy and far more beautiful. (Full disclosure: I have worked with the Penny Seats on its past couple of shows, including The Renaissance Man, in minor capacities.)

From Scratch: Neighborhood Theatre Group's "Dispatches From the Dumb Decade"

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Neighborhood Theatre Group, Dispatches From the Dumb Decade

Neighborhood Theatre Group's Dispatches From the Dumb Decade is an all-original everything, from the script to the music.

[https://www.facebook.com/neighborhoodtheatregroup|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, [https://www.facebook.com/events/1364423216983145|Dispatches From the Dumb Decade], which runs June 2-4 at [https://www.facebook.com/bona.sera.7|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.”

Kickshaw Theatre and AADL team up for a staged reading of the award-winning "Lungs"

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Lungs, Kickshaw Theatre

Kickshaw Theatre actors Dani Cochrane and Bryan Lark will participate in a reading of Lungs at AADL's west branch on May 19.

On Friday, May 19, the [https://www.facebook.com/KickshawTheatre|Kickshaw Theatre] is collaborating with the Ann Arbor District Library to put on a [https://www.facebook.com/events/420696814966125|staged reading] of Lungs, a new play by Duncan Macmillan. Lungs tells the story of a couple weighing the pros and cons of deciding whether or not to have a child in modern America, knowing all the current societal and political problems in the world.

Lungs premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre and has since been performed around the world. It was nominated for a Charles MacArthur Award for Best New Play or Musical and the British production won the Off West End Award for Best New Play. This reading will feature the actors Dani Cochrane and Bryan Lark.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to ask the [http://www.kickshawtheatre.org|Kickshaw Theatre]’s artistic director and founder Lynn Lammers a couple of questions about the upcoming performance.