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June 16, 2010

An interview with Michael Kondziolka, UMS Director of Programming

By Sara Fink

UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka is a man brimming with enthusiasm for the performing arts, and that enthusiasm is infectious.  Once you start a conversation with him about UMS performances, or about the history of UMS, or about the UMS Advisory Committee – a subject he knows more about than most AC members (more about that below) – you don’t want to stop!

But before I dive into the pleasures of our conversation, let me mention the pronunciation of Michael’s last name, so it sounds right in your mind as you read this.  In Polish, dz sounds like j in the word judge or joke.  The rest of the pronunciation is straightforward.  So: Kon-jolk’-a (The i in dzio just happens.  Try saying his name without it.  You can’t.)

Since my enthusiasm is theater, we started our discussion with that – the excitement we both feel about the companies coming next season:  Druid Theatre, based in Galway, Ireland; and Propeller Theatre, based in West Berkshire, England.  Druid will bring one of Martin McDonagh’s famous darkly comic plays about life on the Aran Islands, The Cripple of Inishmaan.  (If you don’t know anything about McDonagh, here’s an inducement to find out more:  according to the Internet Movie Database, McDonagh is the first playwright to have four plays running simultaneously in London since Shakespeare.)  The Druid Theatre has premiered all of McDonagh’s plays, which include the smash hit, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Propeller will bring its unique take on Shakespeare with productions of Shakespeare’s Richard III (itself darkly comic at times) and The Comedy of Errors.  Michael reminded me that UMS has presented theater for only about a decade.  We reminisced about Dublin’s Gate Theatre’s two Beckett plays during the 2000-01 season: the marvelous David Kelly (from Waking Ned Devine) performing in Krapp’s Last Tape; and the revelatory quality of the Gate’s Waiting for Godot, which blended in perfect proportions Beckett’s hallmark mix of comedy, pathos, and absurdity.  Both plays brought out the vaudeville-type humor Beckett is known for (Krapp’s Last Tape memorably features a pratfall with a banana peel).

Then two years later, the Gate brought Fiona Shaw in its shattering production of Euripides’ Medea. Familiar to all of us are the capstone theater experiences of the past decade: the three Royal Shakespeare Company residencies, which engaged audiences, students, educators, and the general southeast Michigan communities through public talks, exhibits, the Sonnet Slam, and so much more.

This expansion of UMS’s range of programming into theater followed a similar expansion in the 1990s, into dance.  Michael recounted the time someone asked him what dance events UMS had presented in the 1950s – a question easily answered: None!  In the 80s and earlier, UMS was still presenting only music, largely classical.  And the programs received at performances?  A folded 8½ X 11” sheet of paper.  The expansion into more kinds of programming and education, plus expanding the funds available to support those efforts, has formed a core part of Michael’s professional work for UMS.

The reason he knew doing this kind of work for UMS was what he really wanted to do is that he had already been a work-study intern at UMS for a year, while finishing a graduate fellowship in clarinet performance at the U-M School of Music, Theater & Dance.  In fact, during his internship, he met every day with Advisory Committee members.   He helped stuff envelopes, develop mailing lists, and other tasks associated with AC’s early fundraising efforts, which were focused mostly on the first night dinners before the annual May Festival, and on Encore, the early name for UMS’s annual donor fund program.  At that time, fundraising for the ever-increasing costs of bringing outstanding performers to Ann Arbor was undertaken in a social rather than a business context.  Advertising and corporate sponsorship were deemed slightly unseemly.

That began to change in 1988, through Michael’s and Ken Fischer’s efforts.  Before arriving in Ann Arbor to pursue his musical studies (he has a liberal arts degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota), Michael spent a year as the operations manager for a subsidiary of Merrill Lynch in Minneapolis.  He came from a family of successful business men and women, who were mystified by his interest in being a musician.  When he came to the realization that bringing artists to the stage, rather than performing on stage, was his passion, he stopped classes and began working for UMS in marketing, production, group sales, and educational outreach.

The first educational programs were for adults and university students, and were also early collaborative projects with other parts of the university.  One example is the symposium which was part of the Michigan Mozart Festival in 1989.  Another early collaborative project, the American Contemporary Dance Festival, was followed by Shostakovich: The Man and His Age; In the American Grain: The Martha Graham Centenary Festival (both 1994); and the Cleveland Orchestra Residency (1995).  In addition, Michael developed and implemented, with Ken Fischer, the first youth education performances, which were produced in conjunction with the New York City Opera.

After four years helping to develop these new and varied avenues of performance, education, and collaborative productions, Michael was ready to move on to New York and apply his skills there.  But when he was offered the position of Artistic Administrator, he happily cancelled plans to move. That position, which developed into his current position of Director of Programming and Production, offered a perfect marriage of his business skills with his love for bringing great performances to the stage.  He has been here ever since, and UMS programs have been the better for it!

Click here for a fascinating interview with Michael conducted by Living Music, put out by the U-M School of Music, Theater & Dance and the American Music Institute.


Sara is a member of the volunteer UMS Advisory Committee. In the past, I've been a scientific illustrator, published on the evolutionary history of fishes, edited the U of M Museum of Zoology publications, and gotten a higher degree in English Renaissance literature. These days, when I'm not attending great theater, you can find me practicing tai chi, swimming, or teaching a fitness class at the Y.