All the Town's a Stage: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary

THEATER & DANCE INTERVIEW

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre cast member rehearses for Voice of the Turtle, October 1948

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre cast member rehearses for Voice of the Turtle, October 1948. Photo donated by © The Ann Arbor News.

On Broadway in 1929, the Marx Brothers had them rolling in the aisles with Animal Crackers, Louis Armstrong was singing and playing a driving trumpet in “Hot Chocolates,” William Gillette was back for another turn at Sherlock Holmes, and Cole Porter had his first big hit with “Fifty Million Frenchmen.”

On a more serious note, Porgy by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward debuted and Eugene O’Neill Strange Interlude starring Lynn Fontanne was a big draw.

In Ann Arbor, a group with a passion for theater started a private club that began meeting to study and perform script readings. That passion is still glowing as the club that became the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary.

“That was sort of an outlet for people who wanted to get involved in theater but weren’t part of the university, because there wasn’t a community outlet at that time,” said Alexandra Berneis, Civic Theatre executive director. “They met at homes and in basements and things like that. They read plays, thinking about what they would do about creating an artistic outlet for people.”

Paul Bernstein’s debut book of poetry, "What the Owls Know," chronicles a fully lived life

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Paul Bernstein and his book of poetry, What the Owls Know

A blurb on the back of What the Owls Know, Paul Bernstein’s book of poetry, says that the reader is guided through the “ground of a fully lived life.” There is no question that Bernstein’s life, like his poems, is fully realized.

Born in New York, Bernstein came to Ann Arbor in 1959 and returned to the city in the late 1960s seeking a Ph.D. in History. “I first published my writing while an undergraduate,” Bernstein says. “But then I got involved in politics. … I was involved with anti-war politics and at some point thought that I should give it up to focus on writing poetry but then protests heated up, the Weathermen began … and I realized it was not the time to get out.”

Great Lakes Ghosts: Roustabout Theatre Troupe Haunts Ypsi With New Zettelmaier Play 

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW INTERVIEW

Julia Garlotte and Dan Johnson in Roustabout Theatre Troupe's production of Haunted.

Julia Garlotte and Dan Johnson are two of the actors who play multiple roles in Roustabout Theatre Troupe's production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project.

Joseph Zettelmaier’s Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project. which closes the Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s season at the Ypsilanti Experimental Space (YES) this month, might never have been written if the founder of another Washtenaw County theater hadn’t encouraged him to write. After studying acting at Shorter University in Georgia, he returned to his family in Michigan and secured an acting apprenticeship at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea. 

Playwriting? That wasn’t Zettelmaier’s plan. 

Apprentices at the Rose often perform on nights when the theater doesn’t have public performances. Sometimes they do original pieces, so Zettelmaier tried his hand at a few pages. “The night we did it, Jeff [Daniels] came up to me and said, ‘Give me 100 pages.’ I had an interest in playwriting, but it was Jeff’s interest in my interest that got me started,” Zettelmaier recalls.

Eileen Pollack's "The Professor of Immortality" novel explores science, tech, grief, motherhood, whether we can truly know another person -- and the Unabomber's time in Ann Arbor

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Eileen Pollack and her book The Professor of Immortality

Author photo by Michele McDonald.

The Professor of Immortality by Eileen Pollack is preoccupied with how well people can know each other and how they deal with flaws and surprises in relationships when they care about the other person. The book raises questions about whether it is better to be together despite challenges and what the costs are either way. The ending seems to point strongly to an answer yet still lets the reader wrestle with this matter.

Main character Professor Maxine Sayers has an energizing job, loving husband, quirky child, and comfortable home -- until she doesn’t. Her husband dies unexpectedly, and then she experiences issues with her existing family members as her son becomes inaccessible and her mother’s health deteriorates. Through all of these changes and problems, the novel delves into Maxine’s thoughts and feelings about the goings-on. She must contend with whether what she believed and worked for is right and if it is what she still wants.

As Maxine takes action to figure out is transpiring with her son and a former student, she reflects deeply on her life and connections to people. At one point while talking with a friend and colleague, Rosa, Maxine wonders how to cope with her concerns, and she experiences some relief from Rosa:           

[Rosa] settles beside Maxine and rubs her back until Maxine is crying in her arms. That’s all anyone wants, isn’t it? To be held? Isn’t that the best Terror Management System any of us has devised?

This passage feels poignant in and of itself and becomes even more weighty with the fact that the book draws inspiration from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Another character, Angelina, provides further insight, noting that for many, “‘…their troubles are because of what is missing in their lives. And there is no way you could make up for that.’” These insights buoy Maxine when she faces what she fears is true and makes difficult decisions as a mother.

Pollack previously directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan (U-M), and she has written numerous books, including the recent novel, The Bible of Dirty Jokes. Now she lives in New York City. Ann Arbor welcomes her back Friday, October 11, at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore, where she’ll be in conversation with author Natalie Bakopoulos. I asked her some questions beforehand.

Milestones: The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates its 50th Anniversary at Rackham

PULP MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Clockwise from the upper left: David Finckel by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco; Gloria Chien by Tristan Cook; Kristin Lee and David Shifrin by Tristan Cook; Matthew Lipman by Tristan Cook.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a milestone. So, co-artistic director and cellist David Finckel says it was fitting that CMS begins this season with milestones in the art of chamber music. “We identified pieces of music that have somehow influenced the way chamber music evolved,” he says.

The program CMS will bring to Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor on October 11 includes four of these works: Harry Burleigh’s Southland Sketches (1916), Antonin Dvořák’s Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (1893), Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941), and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), originally called Ballet for Martha (Graham). 

“The story of Dvořák in America is colorful and entertaining,” says Finckel.

Turns out, it is Burleigh’s story, too. 

Seeing Clearly: Singer-songwriter May Erlewine's new album, "Second Sight," is filled with political fire

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Mae Erlewine by Michael Poehlman

Photo by Michael Poehlman.

The much-loved singer-songwriter May Erlewine begins a fall tour this week in support of her powerful and poignant new album, Second Sight, and one of the first shows she has scheduled is on Friday, October 4 at The Ark

Interviewed by phone last week for Pulp, the Michigan native was already psyched about coming back to Ann Arbor's premier venue for acoustic music. "Oh my gosh, The Ark is my favorite!" Erlewine said. "It feels the most like a homecoming show and I did spend time living in Ann Arbor a lot of my life so there’s truth to that. Every time I play there I put so much intention and thought into it because it’s a big deal to me. It’s just one of the best venues in the whole country."

Erlewine will be bringing a five-piece band and two backup singers to The Ark, with one set devoted to the entire Second Sight album and another set to other songs. "It’s a reflective time but we’re also infusing it with a lot of catharsis and levity," said Erlewine. "I want people to reengage and to feel connected to their home and their community and their heart."

May Erlewine's music truly has a special way of touching the listener's heart and soul with its message of hope and unity, and positivity is something we can never get enough of these days.

Brittney Morris' "Slay" imagines Black Panther's Wakanda as a VR video game beset by trolls

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Brittney Morris and her book Slay

A lot can happen in 11 days. One of the original Apollo missions could have gone to the moon and back. The Pony Express could have delivered one piece of mail from Missouri to California. A turtle can walk from New York to Ohio. And the most anticipated YA novel of the fall can be written!

After seeing Black Panther, Brittney Morris penned her debut book, Slay, a story about a young African-American woman who battles a real-life internet troll intent on ruining the video game she created, also called Slay.

“After I saw the movie, I was hoping someone would make a Wakanda simulator video game," Morris says, "because I immediately wanted to go back to Wakanda, and then I got to thinking about how controversial an all-Nubian VR MMO would be. I realized how much responsibility would be on the shoulders of someone managing such a game. And thus, the idea for Slay was born.”

Sonic Cinema: Hydropark's "Circuit 2" features 18 songs to score your imaginary movie

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Hydropark at the Blind Pig, Fuzzfest 2018

Hydropark at Fuzzfest 2018 at The Blind Pig. Photo by Christopher Porter.

Hydropark's second album, Circuit 2, works like one of those vintage British or Italian library-music albums that feature short songs written to set moods in films and TV shows -- tunes with titles like "Creepy Street," "Misty Canyon," and "Blue Veils and Golden Sands."

Those compositions weren't concerned with key-changing bridges or clean denouements. They parachuted people into the middle of a groove and then extracted them before the mood was exhausted.

"The majority of both our [self-titled] first album and Circuit 2 is loosely structured jams, first takes, experiments, or songs we liked but weren't stylistically consistent with each other," said Hydropark guitarist Fred Thomas, who is joined in the band by drummer Chad Pratt, keyboardist Chuck Sipperley, and bassist Jason Lymangrover. "We looked to J Dilla's beat tapes as inspiration for this record. Collections of fragments and the best parts taken from longer recordings that switch to the next song at the first signs of boredom or disinterest."

Beer captivates and divides a family in J. Ryan Stradal's new Midwestern saga, "The Lager Queen of Minnesota"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

J. Ryan Stradal and his book The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Author photo by Franco P. Tettamanti

Beer and pie remain constant for characters through rifts, tragedies, and changes in J. Ryan Stradal’s new book, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. The novel follows two sisters, Helen and Edith, as they come of age and make lives for themselves. Yet their paths diverge when Helen taps their father for all the money from the sale of the family farm, which divides the family. Edith becomes known for her pies, hops between service industry jobs, and endures several major losses, all while bottling her feelings about the uneven inheritance. Helen pores over chemistry and learns to make beer in college, and then she grows a large, successful brewery with the help of the farm proceeds. When Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, inadvertently enters the beer business, their paths head toward each other again.

Chapters in this plot-driven yet poignant novel alternate the focus between characters and are titled by various sums of money exchanged within them. The backstory and present lives of the three female main characters are blended throughout the chapters as Diana’s story parallels Helen’s in some ways. It is not only about what is happening or has happened, though. The novel also lingers on nostalgic or emotional moments. When Edith loses her husband, Stanley, the narrator describes that:

Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places. For half a century, she had seen or spoken with this man almost every day, so his life didn’t end when he died; it found its way into cereal aisles and intersections and post office lines and conversations she didn’t intend.

It’s clear that Edith cares deeply about those around her even as she struggles to get by.

The characters don’t succumb to bitterness despite challenges to support themselves, and they celebrate their successes in an industry that fluctuates based on consumers’ preferences. Beer aficionados and foodies might appreciate the well-crafted descriptions of brewing methods and tasting notes. One passage describes “Grandma Edith’s Rhubarb-Pie-In-A-Bottle” ale as such:

The beer has a fluffy pink two-finger head and smells like malty rhubarb, so it’s certainly not out to fool anybody. ... This beer is flawed, wonderful, and strange in a way only a certain individual could devise, and it renders every other beer on the shelf a faceless SKU.

This review of her beer illustrates Edith’s and other characters’ work ethics and distinct Midwestern traits.

Stradal has first-hand knowledge of the setting, as he grew up in Minnesota. He now lives in Los Angeles and is a contributing editor at TASTE, an online magazine about food and cooking. His first novel is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. He reads at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 24, at 7 pm, and I interviewed him ahead of time.

Retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth co-authored the definitive biography of blues legend Robert Johnson

MUSIC WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Bruce Conforth and his book Up Jumped the Devil

Decades of painstaking research and meticulous attention to detail have led to the 2019 book Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, which aims to rewrite and correct the story about the legendary bluesman. Co-authored by retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, this book entertains with facts, cut through myths, and lets readers learn about a man who has for too long been reduced to a single (and impossible) anecdote about trading his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to play the blues.

“When Columbia released its Thesaurus of Classic Jazz [in 1959], it was the first chance for most country-blues artists to have their recordings on a major label," Conforth says. "Most people didn’t even know that these folks existed. And on this record was Robert Johnson. … The liner notes said that he was the greatest blues musician there ever was, but we had nothing to compare him to and didn’t know anything about him. Almost immediately this mystique formed around Johnson while at the same time people were saying, ‘Oh, we’ll never know anything about him.’”

Conforth, who grew up in and around New York City during the 1960s folk revival, took that as a challenge.