Two local theater festivals are coming to a living room near you

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Photo by Adrien Olichon from Pexels

Photo by Adrien Olichon from Pexels

Area stages have gone dim to protect audiences, actors, and theater workers during these uncertain times.

But that doesn’t mean the show can’t go on.

Ann Arbor's Theatre NOVA and Ypsilanti’s Neighborhood Theatre Group are Zooming theater festivals to audiences online in October, but each is taking a different approach.

Author and A2 Pioneer Instructor Jeff Kass Contemplates the Working Life in "Teacher/Pizza Guy"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jeff Kass, Teacher/Pizza Guy

This story originally ran September 3, 2019. Kass is also author of the Fifth Avenue Press book "Takedown," a murder mystery. AADL cardholders can download the novel in PDF format here.

What do you do?

It’s what people ask when they first meet as a way to identify each other, yet our jobs do not have to define us.

When I asked Jeff Kass this question, he answered with three jobs: a full-time English teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, part-time pizza delivery person, and part-time director of literary programs at the Neutral Zone for a year in 2016-2017. During that time, he also worked on drafting the autobiographical poems about this experience that form his new collection, Teacher/Pizza Guy (Wayne State University Press).

Teacher/Pizza Guy reveals Kass’ experiences in the classroom and pizza place, including issues with service industry jobs, challenges of aging, and relationships with colleagues, youth, and family. Despite the possible mundanity of work, Kass offers poetic insights on the situations. The first poem in the collection, “Oh, Splotch of Blue Paint,” not only addresses the paint on the sidewalk outside of the school where Kass teaches but also ruminates about its origins:

…were you trying to paint the sea? A place 

for you to float in? The breeze a lovely, reassuring

friend who brings you cookies and iced tea

and listens to you without judging…? 

This speculative question, in turn, raises a question for me: Isn’t that what we’d all like, a pleasant place, a friend who shares treats, and good conversation? Another poem depicts colleagues crossing paths in the night as Kass returns to home from his pizza-slinging job to see a fellow pizza slinger working his other job of delivering newspapers.

Amidst dishwashing, disastrous delivery runs, and the grind of teaching students in class after class how to write essays, Kass pulls out moments of clarity that describe the working life. One poem describes a break during which he makes a pizza for himself, one that’s not on the menu, and writes, “Believe / for a moment / your time / belongs / to you. / Savor. / Chew.”

Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.

Kass, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Karen Smyte, and their children, Sam and Julius, will read from his collection at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him about his poetry and work.

Diane Cook's novel "The New Wilderness" envisions a world after extreme climate change

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Diane Cook and her book The New Wilderness

Author photo by Katherine Rondina.

Imagine being dropped off in the wilderness, uninhabited except for 19 people with you and rangers who patrol the land. Modern amenities are nonexistent, but the upside is that the air quality is much better than the polluted city. You live nomadically and hunt, fish, and gather to survive. This is not an extended camping trip. It is your new way of life. 

This intense scenario forms the premise of Diane Cook’s new book, The New Wilderness, a speculative novel involving relationships and the environment—and how the latter influences the former. The novel has landed on the long list for the Booker Prize. Cook has taught for the University of Michigan, is a U-M alum, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

In a joint virtual event, both Cook and Karolina Waclawiak, whose new novel Life Events was just published, will read and discuss their new books through the At Home with Literati series Monday, August 31, at 7 pm.

The characters of The New Wilderness, including Agnes, her mother Bea, and her mother’s husband Glen, go to the wilderness as part of a research experiment to determine whether this lifestyle is sustainable. Bea joined to save Agnes’ life. Agnes was five years old when they arrived and gravely ill from the effects of pollution. Despite learning how to stay alive in the wild and improving Agnes’ health, the characters’ memories of their former life, their love for one another in all its forms, and the burden of subsisting clash and inform their individual choices. 

Early on, Bea’s concerns emerge when considering their next journey to a ranger post farther than they’ve had to go before: 

Glen hooked his arm around her neck and pulled her close. “Now, now,” he murmured. “This will be fun.”

She knew that a big part of Glen believed this. But no part of Bea did. She pictured the map in her head again and saw all that unknown land, that beige parchment, all that nothing. They would be changed on the other side of it, that much she knew. Not knowing how was only one of the things that scared her.

The New Wilderness calls into question what the natural world is and should be, while also showing how vast the wilderness within and between people can be. 

I interviewed Cook about this book and her writing.

Jazz From Ann Arbor by Mark Stryker

MUSIC PREVIEW

Bassist Robert Hurst - Jazz From Ann Arbor

Bassist and U-M professor Robert Hurst makes the case for being the cover star of a future book.

This story originally ran September 16, 2019.

Mark Stryker will talk about his new book "Jazz From Detroit" at AADL's downtown location on Thursday, September 19, at 6:30 pm. We asked him to recommend some jazz from Tree Town.

Ann Arbor makes a number of cameo appearances in my book Jazz From Detroit. Several recordings highlighted in the text were taped live in Ann Arbor, and a number of the musicians featured in the book have ties to the University of Michigan. (The book itself was published by U-M Press.) Here’s a playlist that takes its inspiration from the Detroit-Ann Arbor jazz connection.

The Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti (IFFY) moves online Aug. 20-22

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW

IFFY 2020 graphic

Back in January when the inaugural Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti (IFFY) was announced, the plan was to hold it at the Riverside Art Center, April 16-18.

We all know what happened next.

But rather than cancel the event, filmmaker Donald Harrison, who runs 7 Cylinders Studio, and multimedia artist Martin Thoburn did what so many others have had to do: moved the festival online.

Between August 20-22, numerous short films curated by Juliet Hinely and Hafsah Mijinyawa will stream each evening at iffypsi.com, though the kick-off evening will be free on Facebook or your can go to the the Normal St. parking lot at Cross by the Ypsi water tower for a drive-in screening.

Here's the schedule and links to trailers for the films in IFFY 2020:

Innovation & Education: "Welcome to Commie High" documents the history and influence of Ann Arbor's legendary school

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Welcome to Commie High

This article originally ran March 25, 2020.

We're rerunning the story to highlight the launch of the "Commie High" archive at aadl.org/commiehigh

This site serves as a supplement to the independent, feature-length documentary about Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI—produced by 7 Cylinders Studio—providing extensive extra content available for public viewing and research. Additional materials and development are anticipated in future editions.

There are video extras, historical and making-of-the-film photos, a music database documenting the school's numerous bands and musicians, digitized yearbooks, and news articles.

 

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing teachers and administrators to improvise ways to serve their pupils academically, mostly through virtual learning and online academies. Other imaginative approaches will be introduced as the pandemic drags on, spotlighting the skills of educators and showing how resourceful they can be when not stuck on a treadmill of prepping kids for standardized tests.

But one school in Ann Arbor has been using innovative educational approaches for nearly 50 years.

Ann Arbor's Community High School started in 1972 with a "school without walls" concept. A handful of other schools across the country adopted similar approaches, where structured curricula were abandoned in favor of flexible programs that best fit individual students' needs, with a focus on real-world education.

But the Community model never expanded deeply into the mainstream. 

Until now. (Kinda.)

A heavily modified variation of Community's wall-free education approach is being tested during the coronavirus pandemic, and it seems inevitable that some of these outside-the-box ideas will be incorporated into schools once this over and society deals with our new normal.

Welcome to Commie Higha new documentary by Ypsilanti-based filmmaker Donald Harrison, shows the school's unique approach to education, from its hippie-era beginnings to its place in the modern landscape, talking to students and teachers from the past and present about what makes Community special -- and effective.

The movie was to premiere as part of the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF). But with the entire event being moved to a livestream on Vimeo due to the lockdown, Harrison and the AAFF are are offering Welcome to Commie High as fundraising rental. The movie will be available to rent for $9.99 from 10 am, March 30 to 10 am, April 1; each rental will be active for 48 hours. The rental fee will be split two ways: 50 percent of the proceeds will go to the AAFF to help offset costs and the rest will be put toward the distribution of the documentary. Click here to pre-order the rental.

Harrison answered some questions via email about Welcome to Commie High.

Jesse Kramer's "Antinous as Osiris" interprets Roman passion and New York jazz through the lens of a Washtenaw County upbringing

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jesse Kramer by Jeff Dunn

Jesse Kramer photo by Jeff Dunn.

This story originally ran June 12, 2019.

For roughly half a decade, the Roman emperor Hadrian was in love with a man who was not his spouse. Between 125 CE and 130 CE, the Greek youth Antinous became a favorite of Hadrian, and for the final two years of the latter's life they were side by side touring the Roman empire.

After Antinous' surprise death on the Nile, Hadrian was devastated and, in his grief, proclaimed his lover a deity, In turn, priests connected Antinous to the Egyptian god Osiris, lord of the underworld, afterworld, and rebirth.

Et voilà:

Nearly 2,000 years later we have Antinous as Osiris, the latest album by Ann Arbor jazz drummer Jesse Kramer.

Theaters Still in the Absurd: An update on the Washtenaw County stage scene

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

tragic masks

When Pulp published this article on May 4 about how area theater companies were dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, all had lost their current seasons and canceled most of the next ones.

But in the two-plus months since then, theater companies -- like the rest of us -- have had time to navigate this plague and try to make plans for what they can offer creatively knowing this pandemic isn't ending soon. 

So we decided to check in with the Washtenaw County theater world and see how their plans may have changed.

While all the info for The Purple Rose Theatre, Eastern Michigan University theater, and UMGASS remains the same from the May 4 article, here are updates for 12 other companies:

Female protagonists populate U-M MFA graduate Sara Schaff's new collection of short stories

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Sara Schaff, The Invention of Love

What you have. What you want. What you hang on to. What you give up. 

Jeans. A house. A spouse. Drawings. Places. Jobs. A fantasy. 

Sara Schaff’s second collection of short stories, The Invention of Love, invests in these questions of possession and ownership, of affiliation and surprising loss. The best way to understand the characters’ distinct circumstances and the fine lines between one version of their life or another that they choose, or that gets chosen for them, is by looking at the plots themselves. For example, two half-sisters lose their mother, and both covet her pair of jeans used for dancing in “Our Lady of Guazá.” In another story called “Noreen O’Malley at the Sunset Pool,” Noreen must let go of the narratives about her friends and lovers that she hoped for as she cares for her new baby. 

Still, a character may make a delightful discovery amidst a seemingly unbearable situation, such as a woman eventually becoming enthralled by Anna Karenina despite the fact that her ex-husband’s new wife (and their family friend) had been the one who recommended the book. These observant views of these women show their realizations and complicated hardships as they navigate life and its turns. 

Schaff will speak with Greg Schutz, writer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, in an At Home with Literati virtual event on Tuesday, July 21, at 7 pm. Schaff and Schutz are friends and fellow graduates of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Information to join via Zoom is on the event webpage. We corresponded via email beforehand, and here are my questions and Schaff’s responses. 

Nevertheless Film Festival persists during the pandemic, goes virtual for 2020

FILM & VIDEO PREVIEW

Nevertheless Film Festival 2020

Stills from three 2020 Nevertheless Film Festival features, clockwise from top: Asking for ItWaging Change, and First Vote.

This time last summer, Meredith Finch was in the final stages of debuting her Nevertheless Film Festival, held at the Michigan Theater July 11-14.

"I have my fair share of stories of being the only woman or underrepresented person on a film crew," Finch told Pulp last year. "To combat this lack of representation, film festivals around the world have announced their own initiatives to increase representation in their programming within the next few years, but what I found myself thinking a little over a year ago was, 'Why not now?'"

The inaugural Nevertheless Film Festival featured 26 movies -- narratives, documentaries, shorts -- and the 2020 edition, which runs July 9-12, will include a similar mix by womxn creatives. But you'll have to imagine sitting at the Michigan Theater while at home viewing the films.