Behind the Scenes: How Oxford Companies Helped Bring ‘The Plastic Bag Store’ To Life
More and more theater makers are creating site-specific work and work for unconventional spaces. So what do you do when one of the most poignant and impactful works on the season needs a custom-designed space? You turn to the community for help.
On a warm September evening in 2022, Oxford Companies President and CEO Jeff Hauptman (LSA ’92) and his wife, Melissa, were sitting in the back row of an event at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). University of Michigan Vice President for Development Tom Baird interviewed UMS President Matthew VanBesien and UMMA Director Christina Olsen about upcoming performances and exhibitions. The two had been talking about a fascinating project on which UMS, UMMA, the U-M Graham Sustainability Institute, and the U-M Arts Initiative were collaborating as part of UMS’s No Safety Net 3.0 festival, which was also sponsored by the U-M College of Literature, Science & the Arts: Robin Frohardt’s The Plastic Bag Store, an art installation and immersive film experience that uses humor and craft to question the enduring effects of single-use plastics. At the end of their remarks, with the audience leaning in and wanting to learn more, Baird asked where the installation and performance would take place. VanBesien admitted we didn’t yet have a venue, because of the unique needs of the project. Hauptman raised his hand and said, “I can help.”
Robin Frohardt, the Brooklyn-based creator of The Plastic Bag Store, came out to Ann Arbor in October to tour several possible sites for the installation. Oxford’s flagship 777 Building happened to have a vacant space on the main floor that fit the bill. UMS Production Director Ryan Graves and Oxford Companies’ Chief Real Estate Officer Wonwoo Lee immediately got to work on plans to build out what was essentially a raw construction site and load in the art installation in time for the show’s Ann Arbor premiere on January 17. However, the logistical challenges in bringing the installation to fruition were profound.
As Graves explained, “Moving a production from one theatrical venue to another typically requires adapting measurements and scale within the new structure. Moving and adapting a site-specific, storefront theatrical experience required the management of significantly more variables. In this case, we were converting a raw, non-theatrical restaurant space into a grocery store – and we would only have one week in which to do it once Robin and her team landed in Ann Arbor. Lighting, audio, power, video, and overall scenic designs all had to be customized to preserve the artistic direction of the performance, while following multiple safety measures and the physical parameters of the space.”
Right after Thanksgiving, Oxford learned from the Fire Marshall that the art installation itself used certain materials in such a way that would require significant fire safety upgrades as well as modifications to the sets. It was unexpected news for both the presenting partners and Oxford, and ripples travel fast in this city. Almost immediately, many parties from across the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan sprang into action to bring this project to life.
As Mayor Christopher Taylor stated, “The City of Ann Arbor has long recognized the harmful effects of single-use plastics on our environment. In fact, our A2ZERO initiative to be Carbon Neutral by 2030 includes a goal of moving toward a circular economy by changing the way we use, reuse, and dispose of materials – including single-use plastics. The Plastic Bag Store was an incredibly clever, unique way to raise awareness among our citizens of just how much plastic is used in packaged foods, and how long it will linger on our planet. We all wanted to do everything we could to see this installation come to life for the educational benefits it provided to our residents.”
Now, all parties were locked in a delicate balancing act of maintaining artistic intent while meeting code and flammability requirements.
Lee acted quickly, assembled the team of architects and contractors at Oxford, and contacted colleagues at the City of Ann Arbor. Architect Caleb Marquard worked with the Ann Arbor plan review team who dropped what they were doing to move the project forward with tremendous patience and poise. Marquard also worked with the City’s Building Department to secure permits in less than one week.
The Oxford team provided architectural services, modified sprinkler heads, pull-station alarms, emergency lighting, fireproofing, installation of electrical panels and access controls, Unistrut beam systems to hang theatrical lighting and sound for the show, floor repairs, HVAC zoning and duct modifications for the space, clean-up, and general maintenance – in all, about $90,000 of improvements to the raw space. Typically, this takes at least several months to execute. Oxford’s team completed everything in just nine days during the holiday season.
Graves elaborated, noting “Creativity was essential to satisfy Robin’s vision while working in tandem with inspectors, contractors, stagehands, and non-theatrical experienced stakeholders. This was a complex orchestration that required many to work in sync and mutually learn and flex along the way. I have to give immense credit to my supportive and creative partner at Oxford, Wonwoo Lee. We spoke daily and creatively shifted our planning with every curveball to bring this production to Ann Arbor audiences. Without his commitment and passion, this project would not have been possible.”
The City’s building inspectors came out on a moment’s notice, as soon as we were ready and at the last possible minute, to keep things on track – which is a testament to the City’s understanding of the importance of this project to all parties.
As U-M President Santa Ono explained, “The arts have a unique ability to make us see our world in new and different ways. The Plastic Bag Store installation was a great example of that, a fantastic opportunity for multiple areas of expertise across the University of Michigan to collaborate in opening eyes and finding solutions for the climate crisis, one of the greatest challenges of our time.”
From meeting delivery requirements on weekends and evenings, to working with city officials and inspectors to comply and exceed safety standards, Oxford demonstrated its commitment to the arts as a key driver of quality of life in our community through exceptional efforts to bring The Plastic Bag Store to Ann Arbor.
“Bringing The Plastic Bag Store event/exhibit to the 777 Building and working closely with the world-class UMS team was an honor, and we were thrilled to host it in our headquarters building.” Jeff Hauptman, President and CEO, Oxford Companies. “We believe that the State and Eisenhower Corridor is a currently under-utilized, high-potential area of our city that can and should be home to more cultural and artistic events and organizations.”
VanBesien noted, “There really is a certain magic to creating live performing arts experiences. If all goes well, nobody notices, or even thinks about, what it took to get a show onto the stage. In this case, it took nothing short of herculean efforts by a huge team of experts from across the University, the City of Ann Arbor, and our amazing community partners at Oxford – and not least because of our project partners at UMMA, the Graham Institute for Sustainability, and the U-M Arts Initiative. This was a true town-gown effort for which we are immensely grateful. We couldn’t be more proud of the results.”
The Plastic Bag Store was funded in part by many sponsors, including the College of Literature, Science & the Arts, Rachel and Mark Bernstein, Max Wicha and Sheila Crowley, the University of Michigan Credit Union’s Arts Adventures program, Destination Ann Arbor, the Ilene H. Forsyth Theater Endowment Fund, and an anonymous gift supporting programming focused on a sustainable environment.