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University Musical Society heralds new era of socially conscious theater in Ann Arbor

Sep 26, 2017

Editor's note (Oct. 2): A quote from VanBiesen's interview has been expanded below in order to clarify a point the guest was making about the role of the arts in society. 

The University Musical Society recently welcomed its 7th president, and he’s already contributing to a season of what he calls socially conscious theater.

Matthew VanBesien, formerly the director of the New York Philharmonic, says he wants the UMS “to help spark dialogue and help move it forward around sometimes very difficult issues.”

“The historical knock on the arts, if you will, is that we're too precious, that we’ve put ourselves in the ivory tower, and we don’t like engaging with people in a real way around societal or substantive issues. And I actually believe that our role is exactly that. It is, yes, to present great performing arts, but to do it in a very mindful way and to do it in a way that says we are part of the fabric of the community in direct and indirect ways,” he said.

Accordingly, VanBesien has planned a three-week theater festival for the beginning of the arts non-profit's 2017-2018 season called “No Safety Net.” Four original productions will explore themes of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, addiction, and even terrorism. The festival’s kickoff will be a Penny Stamps Speaker Series lecture given by Claudia Rankine and P. Carl called “Theater Matters: Activism, Imagination, Citizenship.”

“We’re not necessarily here with a political point of view or a societal point of view, but we’re here to present work that’s socially relevant, that’s socially conscious and to do it in a thoughtful way that helps engage people on multiple levels around the work and to not be too prescriptive about what we want them to take away,” VanBesien said.

The four productions in order of appearance will include:

  • Underground Railroad Game, a drama by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard with Lightening Rod Special. Two teachers at fictional Hanover Middle School teach the audience in tragi-comic ways about our nation’s history.  
  • Us/Them, a drama by the Belgian BRONKS Theater. Children narrate the story of the 2004 shooting spree at a school in Beslan that killed 300 students, exploring how young people respond to terrorism and trauma.
  • They, Themself and Schrerm, written and performed by Becca Blackwell. The autobiographical work, part stand-up comedy, part diary, explores how we define our gender and identity.
  • (I Could Go On Singing) Over the Rainbow, performed by FK Alexander. Alexander sings Judy Garland’s hit song individually to each audience member, over a noise band and soundscape of Garland’s final performance meant to evoke both performers' struggles with addiction.

“The arts have something to say and theater is the arts medium that can respond most quickly,” VanBesien said.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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