Keeping Theatre Unscathed in Washtenaw

Ann Arbor’s rich art scene is often thought of in terms of physical art: paintings, sculpture, photography, with the art fair and University presence  focusing attention on the artist as an individual. At the same time, a vibrant culture of collaboration exists in the local theatre community. Though New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are regarded as “To-Be” places for professional actors, many theatrical artists are turning their attentions to Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County as a whole.

Controversy in Chicago

Smaller cities offer a close-knit network and sense of safety not easily found in other areas. In June, an exposé uncovered a system of appalling practices — the dangers of stage violence and abuse that can go unchecked in the name of another actor’s “process” or “method” — at the award-winning Profiles Theatre of Chicago, resulting in its closure. For two decades, the staged violence evolved from choreography to leaving real bruises, leaving many actors trapped between the high praise of good reviews and reality of an unsafe work environment, as well as reaffirming their accountability to their employees. Because the theatre was known for edginess in its work, Profiles continued on what appeared to be a remarkable fabrication of an ugly actuality.

Many Michigan theatrical companies used that revelation to reexamine their structure and production environment,  reaffirming that art flourishes in a culture of openness.

Lynn Lammers, a founder and the artistic director of the local Kickshaw Theatre Company, is one of the community members making sure Ann Arbor remains a positive working city for theatre artists. Founded by Lammers, Jane Griffith, and Heidi Bennett, Kickshaw tells uncommon stories that stray from realism. Beyond their Michigan roots, Kickshaw’s creative team had many reasons for choosing Ann Arbor.

“I have been wanting to get back to Ann Arbor for a long time. I think it’s a special place,” Lammers said. “I’ve been talking to friends for years about the kind of professional theatre that we want to see, and that we weren’t seeing much of it across the State of Michigan. Work that plays with form, content, language, scale. Something that requires imagination. When we asked ourselves whether there was a market for this kind of adventurous theatre. We all agreed that it would work in Ann Arbor.”

Managing emotional investment

And it has worked.  Kickshaw’s first fully-staged production, The Electric Baby by Stefanie Zadravec was as dark as it was adventurous, requiring a large emotional investment from the actors. Lammers explains, “I made sure that we took the time to bond and build trust in the rehearsal room, as well as talk about what grief does to us. The actors spoke from personal experiences about the psychological and physical toll that grief can take.” This was a delicate process. “I made it a very flexible, open space where people could share as much as they wanted to, and they were welcome to step out of the room at any time. We also had a great stage manager, Paige Conway, who is a true professional [and] was always on top of the actors’ needs.” The care extended beyond the cast, as Kickshaw formed relationships over the production with area partners The Kite Network and Lamaze Family Center of Ann Arbor. By connecting with these agencies, the actors were able to examine their characters’ grieving process with counselors who handle real grief every day.

Supporting more than an Act

Actors also feel the welcoming spirit of Ann Arbor theatre. Ann Dilworth, recently seen with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s Touring Company and the new Roustabout Theatre Troupe, will star this fall as Desdemona in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Othello. “This area is special because there is truly something theatrical for everyone,” Dilworth related. “There are youth shows, Shakespearean performances, new plays, staged readings, musicals, and operas. The number of theatres in and around the city continues to grow!” This type of sustained variety welcomes a multitude of actors to the area.

This community of theatrical devotees is a support network. Professional theatre demands intense work from actors, so in addition to the environment directors aim to create, casts work together for the health of the company.  Dilworth expands on the ideas of supporting each other, “The most important things to keep in mind as an actor while working with sensitive/difficult material are communication, consent and trust between you and your scene partner and the director. It’s helpful to talk about those moments in the script during rehearsal and make sure all involved are on the same page and agree with the blocking and line delivery, and solidify those choices so when you are in performances the actors know and trust, there is respect and comfort.” More than many other careers, theatre is built on trust. “Theatre is a collaborative art. It takes quite a number a people to work on a show, both onstage and off, and it’s important for that space to remain positive and supportive,” Dilworth continued.

Washtenaw County hosts a vibrant, friendly theatre scene. Artists come for the opportunities, but that sense of safety and community is what makes Ann Arbor a special place for theatre. Lammers holds her, and every, theatre to a high standard. “Oversight is important. A theatre’s staff and board have every right to ask how these situations are handled. They should work together to create a transparent process for reporting unsafe incidences. The truth matters. Integrity matters.”

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