Artist in Residence Spotlight: Making Art and Making a Point
This post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence. Artists come from various disciples and attend several UMS performances throughout the season as another source of inspiration for their work. In this post, UMS Artist in Residence Morgan Breon reflects on the UMS presentation of Us/Them.
Morgan Breon is a performing and literary artist. She’s an ensemble member of Shakespeare in Detroit and the Detroit Repertory Theater. Morgan’s play “A Kiss of the Sun for Pardon,” which she wrote at the age of 13 and reprised 13 years later, received the award for “Audience Favorite” at the 2015 Two Muses Women’s Playwriting Festival and the “Jury Award” at the 2015 Detroit Fringe Festival. Morgan received a dual Bachelor of Arts and dual Masters from the University of Michigan, none of which are in theatre. Her degrees reflect her passion for youth, social justice, as well as individual and community healing. These principles influence Morgan’s work as an artist, and guide her use of the arts to impact community. Morgan credits Jesus Christ with her gift of anything creative.
Walking into the Arthur Miller Theatre, the ambiance alone put me in a good mood. The quaint yet majestic theatre provided an additional element in setting the tone of: safety and intimacy. Which is often equally as desirable for young school-aged children. I was intrigued by the set! All of the pieces of the set were reminiscent of child’s play and/ or child mentality: chalkboard painted with a blue sky, sidewalk chalk lined up against the backboard, coat hooks, seatbelts extended from the sky, and a unique bouquet of black balloons. Yes, I was definitely intrigued. And no action had happened yet! But once the play started, the audience was immediately thrusted into the lives of two characters: a boy and a girl, who on thinking about it, I don’t think we ever got their names. Hmmm. (This may be intentional. But it may not. I could see arguments for both.)
During the play, I found myself engaging with the piece on multiple levels. As an actor, I thought both actors did a great job of using movement and their interpretation of the words to depict “child-like mentality.” There were very few moments where the characters weren’t in competition with each other, doing whatever was necessary — refreshing and familiar ways — to outdo the next one. (Which I loved!) This component imprinted a permanent smile on my heart, as I tend to thrive on authenticity and acute richness in my own work. My obsession was piqued by many more of these moments, such as the characters engaging in extra dialogue that often took them “out of the character” and added to their humanness.
As an artist, in general, I found myself especially inspired by the “minor details.” At one point the male actor wiped ketchup off of his face and flicked it. (Imaginary ketchup, mind you.) And guess what? The female actor responded to it! It was so subtle, but a reminder to me as an artist to challenge myself in the “details” of my artistry. Often times, I can get so caught up on the “general objective” of a project that I lose sight of basking in the details. Even the sporadic and simplistic “countdown” of the characters: “149…147…136,” indicating the number of people dying during the story was a powerful “detail” that, if left out, wouldn’t have been noticed but, being put in, provided a device that enhanced the overall impact of the play.
Yes, I was very pleased with the performance, but my “dilemma” arose after the performance when my social worker lens was applied and I started thinking about what I had just seen…and what it meant exactly. As of today, I’m still not sure. Don’t get me wrong, the performance was moving, but upon learning that it was created for nine-year-old children, my follow-up question was: to do what? During the discussion afterward, someone commented that a piece as “edgy” as Us/Them would never be shown to American nine-year-olds. I agree. But ignorance would be the culprit behind that decision — mistakenly thinking that a play inspired by violence would automatically be violent. So, this is a moot point.
As a creative, I would want nine-year-olds and above to see this because it would lead to questions, which could turn into discussion…but this may be a far reach. The reason I wouldn’t want to show it to nine-year-olds is because, in my opinion, the play sends a miscue about how to cope with trauma — especially for American children (who look like me) who experience trauma at multiple levels. As a social worker, this piece would set a young person’s treatment backward because the main message I saw was: “don’t show emotion” and/or “talk about what’s happening…without actually talking about it.” And in all honesty, too many Americans do too much of this already. The “emotionalism” that underscored the performance was provided by the audience’s foreknowledge of what the play was about. The characters never addressed how they felt. Which, may be an argument that kids rarely know how they feel (especially nine-year-olds).
But isn’t that the point? Don’t we want to get better at helping our children identify their emotions, so they won’t have to use yellow-faced and electronic emojis to express it for them? Don’t we want to aid them in identifying the root of their reactions, instead of unproductively addressing the actions themselves? I think the answer that Us/Them provides to this question is: “Ummm” (shrugging emoji). Overall, I think the artistry of the play itself motivated me to be a more responsibly detailed artist. The intended goal of the piece, however, reminded me of how important it is to either make art, or make a point. And if you aim to do both, make sure one feeds the other.
Follow this blog for more updates from Morgan throughout this season. Learn more about Renegade this season.