My Time at the Fringe
written by Isabel K. Olson, 2019/20 UMS 21st Century Artist Intern
From its very origin, theater was designed to be political. In Ancient Greece, theater was used to tackle local issues onstage and influence the democracy and social tide. However, today, particularly in America, we are accustomed to thinking of theater as entertainment. We might even be a bit peeved if after our long work week we go to the theater and find the show provocative rather than fun and rejuvenating. Yet, at its core, theater is a form designed to activate a debate that might be more uncomfortable than enjoyable and might raise more questions than answers.
This season, No Safety Net 2.0 offers a diverse group of artists whose works use a variety of artistic mediums to tackle vastly different political topics. These unconventional shows risk a great deal in their creation, not only juggling sensitive subject matters but also using forms of art that are not all that common in mainstream American works. By the very definition of “no safety net,” these artists are not here to give us reassurance, security, or even entertainment. They are here to challenge our views.
Through the UMS 21st Century Artist Internship, I had the life-altering opportunity to travel to the UK and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to work with No Safety Net artist and activist Javaad Alipoor on The Believers are But Brothers and Rich Kids: The History of Shopping Malls in Tehran. Alipoor is a bold artist who is unafraid to assume the audience’s highest intelligence when tackling a stream of political topics. Alipoor crafts his work by devising, a form of creating theater in a collaborative environment with no finalized script or preordained result.
For me, Alipoor’s rehearsal room was unlike any I’d experienced in America; it was a space for creative thinking and trial and error without the constraint of the “perfect outcome.” I’d grown accustomed to the “time is money” mindset of much American commercial work where the result is known before the collaborators walk in the door. However, in my experience working with Alipoor, I remembered that art is about creation — the literal act of molding and experimenting with endless possible consequences. And, it was a reminder that with certain limitations comes opportunity. No amount of money thrown at art will make it innovative or meaningful. Great political theater comes from bold artists willing to fail and try again, attempting to connect pathos to activism, making large-scale issues heartfelt, and forcing us to think.
With the backdrop of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, my life in Edinburgh resulted in seeing 56 productions that ranged from music to dance, circus to comedy, and street performance to pub theater. Over the course of the month, the world opened up to me as I saw art forms collide in ways I’d never seen before. Everything I’d known felt stale in comparison to these new risk-taking artists who were giving up everything to perform. Over the course of one month, I was reminded why I loved art in the first place and how art is absolutely a vehicle for political and social change.
If I had it my way, every single person would be given the opportunity to go to the Fringe. And though we can’t all go to Scotland, we can embrace how lucky we are to have an organization like UMS deliver bold work from around the world to our Ann Arbor doorstep. Political theater attempts to create a dialogue with new groups of people, and we are fortunate to have these works invite us to continue the dialogue.
My time at the Fringe taught me two very important lessons: first, that independent artists who take risks onstage, such as those that you will be seeing in No Safety Net, give themselves over to give you a show. You don’t have to like the show, but you owe it to the artist to consider their work and respect their risk. Second, there are no rules to art, and in my opinion, any art worth watching is the kind that redefines what we thought art could be or say.
I challenge you to embrace the uncomfortable and put your thoughts into words after the performance. Talk to those sitting next to you. Ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Continue the dialogue and continue to support the art that pushes boundaries.
Isabel Olson is a UMS 21st Century Artist Intern and a U-M senior majoring in theatre arts/directing and history.