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February 17, 2016

Artist in Residence Update: Being Weird in Flint

By Andrew Morton

Editor’s note: Andrew Morton is a theater maker and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Andrew saw Taylor Mac’s performance. Below is his response to the show and to an artist-led workshop with his students at Flint Youth Theatre.

flint youth theatre students with machine dazzle
Flint Youth Theatre students with their creations, also with Andrew Morton and Machine Dazzle. Photo by Annick Odom.

While Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was in Ann Arbor earlier this month, Machine Dazzle (Taylor Mac’s Costume Designer) came to do a workshop with some of my students at the Flint Youth Theatre. In preparation for the workshop with Machine, the students and I watched a couple of videos of excerpts from the 24-Decade project. During one of the videos, I was struck by what Taylor said about his interest in “imperfection fostering community.” Since the workshop with Machine and after seeing Act VII of the 24-Decade project a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of imperfection.

When I first heard these words, naturally I immediately connected them to what is still happening in Flint with the ongoing saga of our water crisis.

Yes, we have some severe challenges ahead of us, but once again the resilience of this incredibly “imperfect” community continues to inspire me.

When Machine and some of the UMS team came to Flint to work with my students, it was just a couple of days after Snoop Dogg was handing out water in my friend’s neighborhood. The day before the workshop, I had a call from a friend who had just received a call from Macklemore’s people. They were looking for a space as he was also coming to Flint and wanted to meet with some young people. Now I hear Beyoncé is raising money for Flint during her next tour. That’s great. We need money, and a lot of it. But that’s not all we need.

Machine didn’t hand out water (or money) to the kids in my class, and we didn’t really talk about how the water crisis is affecting them. It is, and we already do talk about it, a lot. Instead, we made beautifully weird and wonderful costume pieces together. We talked about what inspired us to create, and how we can use our personal stories and experiences to create a piece of art.

Being weird

One of the things I love most about working at a place like Flint Youth Theatre is that it’s one of those places that attract the weird kids, the kids who probably have a horrible time at school and feel like they don’t have many places where they can truly be themselves. At our theatre, being weird is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be embraced. For the two hours Machine worked with us, we were reminded of how great it is to be weird, and how it’s even better when you have a community of people to be weird with, and to create with.

Later that week I attended Taylor Mac’s performance of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1956-1986. I was already familiar with judy’s work (judy is Taylor’s preferred gender pronoun), but this was the first time I was able to see judy perform live, and I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

taylor mac
Taylor Mac performs. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I had been looking forward to this performance since late last year when I saw a production of judy’s play Hir at Playwrights Horizon in New York, arguably one of the best productions I saw in 2015. While very much a traditional play in its structure and form, it was unlike anything I had seen in a long time. The play celebrated the shift that is happening (albeit it very slowly) as we move away from the old world order (straight, conservative, hetero-normative) to a new one that is increasingly queer, progressive, and gender-fluid. Hir was about “smashing the patriarchy” and celebrating the formation of new communities based on shared ideas and experiences, and in many ways the 24-Decade project is doing the same thing. While I experienced Hir much like we experience the majority of western theater (as a mostly passive audience member sitting in the dark) the 24-Decade performance created an entirely different experience for its audience.

At the start of the evening, judy made it pretty clear that it was no surprise that a large portion of the audience was made up of people presumed to be mostly wealthy, privileged “Ann-Arbor types.” Judy even made some of those types stand up and move to either side of the theater, in an attempt to demonstrate the concept of white-flight. In a welcome act of solidarity with the community of Flint, judy also made a point to mention the water crisis and encouraged people to tweet or email our “tough nerd” governor about it. Naturally I did this with glee, and was pleased to see the reaction of many in the audience echoed mine.

Smashing patriarchy

Despite notable differences in the audience (the queers and the straights, the Flint or Detroit types and the Ann Arbor types, the rich and the not-so rich), community was formed during the shared experience that Taylor curated over those three fabulous hours. There was laughter, joy, probably a lot of confusion, and perhaps embarrassment on the part of some members of the audience who were roped into participating. I however was more than willing to help carry out a fellow audience member who represented a dead Judy Garland as Taylor sang Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

I’m impressed by the ambitious nature of the 24 Decade project, and how judy is using performance and storytelling to build a new community, and to “smash the patriarchy” in American theater and in our culture at large.

This experience was a welcome reminder of how important it is to encourage weirdness, embrace imperfection, and help create community, and I’m thankful I get to do all of these things in a wonderfully weird and imperfect place like Flint.

Interested in more? Follow the adventures and process of other UMS Artists in Residence.


Andrew Morton’s plays include Bloom (a winner at the 2013 Write Now Festival and winner of the 2013 Aurand Harris Memorial Playwriting Award), which received its world premiere at Flint Youth Theatre in May 2014 and was subsequently published by Dramatic Publishing, Inc. Other works include: February (shortlisted for the 2007 Royal Court Young Writers Festival), Drive-Thru Nativity, and the collaborative projects State of Emergency, EMBERS: The Flint Fires Verbatim Theatre Project, and the upcoming The Most [Blank] City in America, premiering at Flint Youth Theatre in April 2016. As a community artist and educator, Morton has worked with a range of organizations across the globe, including working alongside Salvation Army community counselors in Kenya to incorporate participatory theatre into their work with people living with HIV/AIDS. While based in the UK, he worked with several educational theatre companies and was the Education Officer at the Blue Elephant Theatre where he ran the Young People’s Theatre and the Speak Out! Forum Theatre projects. Morton is currently based in Flint, Michigan where he teaches at the University of Michigan-Flint and is Playwright-in-Residence at Flint Youth Theatre.