Dear Most Valued Customers…
Dear Most Valued Customers:
It’s almost impossible for me to try to explain what it is you are about to experience and the journey it took to get here. I started working on The Plastic Bag Store in 2015 after watching someone bag and double bag all my groceries that were already bags inside of bags inside of boxes. I wanted to highlight the absurd amount of packaging we are using and throwing away by making something even more absurd: a grocery store that only sold packaging.
Over time the project evolved into an elaborate live immersive puppet play with transforming sets and hidden rooms. For several years, my amazing team and I slowly pieced together this epic beast of a project. Sometimes that meant working with the support of prestigious residencies at architectural firms and fellowships at Universities. But more often it meant grueling rehearsals, endless schlepping and hours spent sifting through NYC garbage.
With all the pieces finally in place and a venue to die for, The Plastic Bag Store was set to open in the heart of Times Square on March 18, 2020…ya know… the day the whole world shut down? We did one amazing dress rehearsal and locked the doors and walked away.
I think part of me wanted to give up after that. Thankfully, with the persistence of vision of the team at Pomegranate Arts and the generous support of CAP UCLA, we were able to create a filmed version of the project. I was relieved that there would be a record of what we created (we didn’t film that last rehearsal), but I never imagined how beautiful the film would turn out, and how perfectly it would capture the story as I see it in my head.
We then found a way to integrate the film into the installation for a truly unique live experience which we opened in Times Square, and have since taken to Australia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin! I couldn’t be more excited to share it now with the lovely people of Ann Arbor.
Robin Frohardt: The Magic of the Mundane
The Plastic Bag Store creator Robin Frohardt joined U-M’s Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series on January 12, 2023.
UMS Connect: Rachel Mars
Welcome to UMS Connect, a new digital series that invites audiences to dive deeper into the season’s performances in casual conversations with artists and creators.
In this Episode
Programming Manager Mary Roeder speaks with writer and performer Rachel Mars, in advance of her two shows coming to UMS’s No Safety Net 3.0 Festival:
Our Carnal Hearts
Feb 1 – 4, 2023 // Arthur Miller Theatre
Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters
Feb 4 – 5, 2023 // Arthur Miller Theatre
Growing a Long-Lasting Tomato 🍅
Robin Frohardt shares how a tomato is “grown” for The Plastic Bag Store, coming to Ann Arbor January 17 – February 5, 2023.
From Audience to Action: Making Connections in our Community
Thank you to all who participated in No Safety Net 2.0! Below is a directory of regional organizations whose work intersects with the themes encountered in the festival. The listing here is by no means comprehensive, but we hope it will provide a starting point for learning more about our local, national, and international communities.
As Far As My Fingertips Take Me
Arab American, Refugee, and Migration Resources
The Arab Student Association (ASA) aims to unite and serve the Arab community on campus by organizing educational workshops, cultural events, and service opportunities. ASA represents all Arabs on campus, regardless of nationality.
As one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the state, Samaritas has resettled thousands of people from dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America. Samaritas has been the Michigan affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service since the 1950s.
The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through authoritative research and analysis, opportunities for learning and dialogue, and the development of new ideas to address complex policy questions.
UNICEF works in over 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives, to defend their rights, and to help them fulfill their potential, from early childhood through adolescence. And we never give up.
The Believers Are But Brothers
Internet Safety and Cyber Security Resources
A CALL TO MEN educates men all over the world on healthy, respectful manhood. Embracing and promoting healthy, respectful manhood prevents violence against women, sexual assault and harassment, bullying, and many other social ills.
Enough Is Enough (EIE), a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, emerged in 1994 as the national leader on the front lines of making the Internet safer for children and families. Since then, EIE has pioneered and led the effort to confront online pornography, child pornography, child stalking, and sexual predation with innovative initiatives and effective communications.
The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) builds strong public/private partnerships to create and implement broad-reaching education and awareness efforts to empower users at home, work, and school with the information they need to keep themselves, their organizations, their systems, and their sensitive information safe and secure online and encourage a culture of cybersecurity.
The Internet Education Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization supported by public interest groups, corporations, and associations representative of the diversity of the Internet community. Their mission is to assure informed policymaking on Internet-related issues within both government and the private sector; promote the Internet as a valuable medium for democratic participation, communications, and commerce; educate the public about the challenges and problems presented by the Internet medium and offer potential solutions; raise the awareness and effectiveness of the Internet Caucus Advisory Committee as an educational tool for Congress; encourage coalitions of corporations, industry associations, and public interest groups to work together on addressing important Internet-related policy issues and engaging in educational outreach projects.
WISE KIDS is a not-for-profit company, founded in Oct 2002 by Sangeet Bhullar. WISE KIDS provides innovative training programs and consultancy in new media, Internet and mobile technologies, Internet proficiency, literacy, and safety. WISE KIDS believes that individuals and communities need the knowledge, skills, and tools to understand and harness the power of the Internet and mobile technologies. This includes media literacy skills, which include an understanding of how the Internet works, effective and proficient use of the Internet, and the ability to use these technologies to access information, learning, participate online, create and share content and services, and network online.
Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription
International Data and Civil Liberties
The Center for Computer Security and Society (C2S2) is an interdisciplinary center based at the University of Michigan. The center is dedicated to the investigation of emerging threats to critical embedded systems and networks, and on the impact of cybersecurity attacks on critical infrastructure, governments, and sensitive data.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded in 1920 and is our nation’s guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.
Gender Equity Resources
Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) is an intergenerational organization committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women. Through education, organizing, and physical fitness, GGE encourages communities to remove barriers and create opportunities for girls and women to live self-determined lives.
American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) policy work connects and rallies advocates at the local, state, national, and global levels to empower women and girls. With the member-voted Public Policy Priorities as their guide, AAUW uses lobbying and grassroots efforts to push forward policies that break through educational and economic barriers for women.
National Organization for Women focuses on a broad range of women’s rights issues, including economic justice, pay equity, racial discrimination, women’s health and body image, women with disabilities, reproductive rights and justice, family law, marriage and family formation rights of same-sex couples, representation of women in the media, and global feminist issues.
Michigan National Organization for Women (NOW) is a chapter of the National Organization for Women. It was established to provide coordination of local chapters and statewide advocacy to advance women’s rights in Michigan. Michigan NOW’s purpose is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men. NOW is the largest multi-issue feminist advocacy group in the US and Michigan.
A Conversation with No Safety Net Theater-Makers
UMS’s Michael Kondziolka (VP, Programming and Production) and Mary Roeder (Programming Manager) joined No Safety Net artists Javaad Alipoor, Lee Minora, and Tina Satter at the Trotter Multicultural Center at the University of Michigan, for a discussion of theater as an artistic medium for social change.
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.
Wonder and Woe: The Challenges of Internet
U-M School of Information professor Cliff Lampe explores bad internet behaviors in a free workshop, How to Become an Internet Troll, in accompaniment to UMS’s presentation of The Believers Are But Brothers.
The internet is filled with wonders. Really. It is filled with beauty. Tools like social media have helped people find love, reconnect with long-lost relatives, and maintain distant relationships. People have found others like themselves when their physical neighbors had excluded them, have built massive works of collaborative art, and have learned about people and places outside of their immediate experiences.
However, the internet is also filled with horrors. It is filled with monsters. Computer tools can’t differentiate whether a person is finding someone with the same medical problem to share emotional support, or whether a person is finding someone with a shared hatred of a group of people. Interactions on the internet take place within an architecture where several different specific design features “afford” a variety of actions. For example, the feature that allows you to share your photo on a social media site affords control over how you express your identity. You can show your face, or share a picture that is intended to deceive others. These features of computer-mediated communication mean that we have new opportunities for benefits, as well as harms, that happen via online interactions.
There is a dizzying array of bad behaviors that happen online, usually with colorful labels that only the internet could generate. Trolling, flaming, brigading, spamming, redpilling, doxxing, and more are all bad behaviors in which people engage. Some of these have been with us since the beginning of online social interaction. For example, “trolling” is saying something (usually deceptively naïve or aggressive) to elicit angry responses from an audience. The term itself relates to the fishing method — not the mythical creature — and the behavior has been around since the early 1980s, when Usenet was a primary mode by which people interacted in online communities.
In my work, I typically break adversarial online interactions into two main categories: those that target individuals, and those that target a group. The bad behaviors targeted at a specific individual can be devastating. Cyber-bullying has caused emotional distress, trauma, and death in adolescents. Women and people of color have been especially vulnerable to threats and intimidation from online harassers — in the same way they are more likely targets of harassment in every context. Actor Leslie Jones had to leave social media after a coordinated effort was made to harass her on Twitter. This type of coordinated action is known as “brigading,” where many harassers plan an assault on a person, using multiple channels and multiple types of attack. One common attack that harassers use online is “doxxing.” This is where documents ranging from home addresses and phone numbers to financial records and personal intimate photos are obtained both legally and illegally and shared with a broad audience. There are hundreds of variations of targeted harassment like this. While it is tempting to blame this type of attack on a small group of bad actors or “trolls,” the research has shown that almost anyone can become a harasser online. When triggered to anger, people often lash out, and that lashing out often becomes some form of harassment.
Adversarial online interactions that target groups are just as harmful as individual attacks, but the goals are often very different. Where an individual may be harassed for revenge, to prove a point, or to signal a virtue, group harassment often has a more specific goal in mind. A familiar example is how ISIS used social media to recruit sympathizers and convert them into active supporters. There, the message was sent to a large audience with the anticipation that most people would be hostile to their goals. But they weren’t trying to win over most people, they were trying to speak to a few folks who harbored similar resentments and fears, and to catch them in the net. This strategy is also common among hate groups in the US. They use social media to plan, create, and launch sophisticated recruitment campaigns. Whether the group’s goals be around misogyny, white nationalism, or religious extremism, the methods remain the same. Creating content that mocks the opposition forms strong group affinity in sympathizers, and establishes a trail of media sites that lead to even more extreme beliefs. This process is known as “redpilling,” named after the scene in the Matrix where the protagonist takes the red pill to learn the harsh truth about a false reality. It’s really just radicalization that takes advantage of the features of social media that hide identity, allow for creativity, and avoid suppression.
Another attack against groups is in the misinformation and disinformation campaigns currently seen surrounding global elections. Different groups that share the goals of disrupting free and fair democratic elections are using online tools to create false identities, news sources, and online groups with the goal of sowing dissension and getting us to question the nature of a shared truth.
Most of these behaviors are not new. They have been occurring in online spaces for decades — and with humans broadly — for thousands of years. What’s new is how important mediated interactions have become for us as a whole, and how unprepared we are for people who break the rules using features of online environments. However, I still think the juice is worth the squeeze when it comes to the internet. If we work on solving these problems of adversarial interactions, we can increase the wonders we experience. We will never entirely get rid of adversarial interactions, but we can support people who suffer from them and do our best to improve the internet overall.
Cliff Lampe is a professor in the U-M School of Information. His research is on how computing environments interact with social processes. For that work, he’s looked at how social motivations affect participation in online communities like Wikipedia, the psychosocial value people get from social media platforms like Facebook, and how features can be used to regulate social behavior on sites like Reddit. While much of his work has focused on the positive aspects of online interaction, recently he has been studying how the features of online systems propel hate speech, disinformation, partisanship, and harassment. He publishes in the fields of computer science and communication.
Glossary of Internet Slang Terms
4chan / An online chat room from which many popular memes emerge
Cuck / A term popular on the alt-right corners of the internet used to describe a man who is weak, effeminate, or submissive
Dabiq / an online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for Islamic radicalization and recruitment
Doge / A comically misspelled word for “dog” associated with photos of a dog that went viral in 2010
Doxxing / Searching for or publishing private material about another person on the internet with malicious intent
Gamergate / A 2014 harassment campaign that targeted sexism in video game culture, through which 4chan came to the attention of the mainstream media
KEK / A picture of an ancient Egyptian god with a frog’s head, which was dubbed the god of chaos on 4chan
Pepe / An anthropomorphic cartoon frog popular in memes which has become associated with the alt-right movement
Red Pill / A metaphor emerging from the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which the red pill represents the harsh truths of reality
Troll / A person who instigates quarrels on the internet by posting inflammatory or digressive statements, content, or material
Reality Winner: Espionage or Whistle-Blowing?
In advance of UMS’s presentations of Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, Brian Willen, lawyer and member of the UMS Board of Directors, sat down with Barbara McQuade, law professor at the University of Michigan and a legal analyst for NBC News/ MSNBC, and Greg Stejskal, former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They discussed aspects of Reality Winner’s case, including her interview with the FBI and the Espionage Act. The below transcription has been edited and condensed from their original November 2019 conversation.
Brian Willen: Is This A Room documents and dramatizes a particular moment in the Reality Winner story — her June 3, 2017 interview with the FBI, which ended with her arrest and ultimately a fairly long prison sentence. The show puts us in the room with Reality and the FBI agents, but we don’t see the rest of the story. So, I thought we could examine a little bit of that bigger picture and provide a context and information for people who are seeing the play.
The law that Reality violated is called the Espionage Act, which is a pretty evocative name for a statute. Can you tell us what it is, where it comes from, and what it does?
Barbara McQuade: The Espionage Act is a rather clumsy statute, and it gets used for a lot of purposes. It was passed during World War I as an effort to deter and punish people who disclosed secrets to the enemy. It covers both people who have clearances and obtain the information in the course of their employment, and has certain prohibitions for those people…as well as anybody who receives the information. That’s the piece that can be controversial, because in theory even the news media could be prosecuted for even having or publishing it.
Typically, the justice department has not done that, but has focused on those who have a sworn duty to protect secrets through their employment. And those people are prosecuted. The Espionage Act includes prosecution for people who give secrets to foreign adversaries — hostile foreign adversaries — and those crimes would then be punished more severely. But it also applies to people like Reality Winner, who disclose it to someone who doesn’t have permission to receive it, including the news media.
BW: Many people might think there’s a pretty big difference between those scenarios…between sharing classified information with a foreign government, and sharing it with a journalist. So why do you think the Espionage Act doesn’t make a distinction?
BMcQ: I agree with you, I think those are two very different harms, to very different degrees. When the statute was first passed, it was probably intended to address just the situation of someone who had access to military secrets sharing it with a hostile foreign adversary.
And then, a famous example of its use in a media sense came in the case known as the Pentagon Papers, when Daniel Elsberg shared a long study about the Vietnam War that was classified that he had worked on with the New York Times. The Justice Department sent a letter to the effect of “if you keep this or publish it, it will be a violation of the Espionage Act…be warned, you should return this right away.” And they filed a civil case to get a restraining order against them further publishing (they already published one or two days of stories about the Pentagon Papers). So it may have simply been a creative use of the statute, because there’s no other statute that addresses it.
BW: That’s an interesting point. Here, Reality Winner disclosed classified information to The Intercept. Do you think it would have been possible to bring a case against The Intercept for publishing this document?
BMcQ: Under the Espionage Act as it currently exists, yes, but the Justice Department has restrained itself from doing that. During the Obama administration, I know that there was concern about leak investigations including search warrants to reporters, and even referring to a reporter as a co-conspirator even though that reporter wasn’t charged.
After the Justice Department’s internal review of how to handle these types of situations, Attorney General Holder announced that he didn’t want to do anything that would interfere with the legitimate news gathering functions of the media. That’s a good goal, but it could be difficult to achieve in practice, when you think about how difficult it is nowadays to define who is the media. Certainly most people would agree with traditional media outlets like the New York Times, but how about something like The Intercept, or WikiLeaks, or just Greg in his basement on his blog. Is that media? So that’s where it becomes difficult.
BW: Let’s bring Greg into the conversation. As a former FBI agent, how do you think about this differentiation between spying and leaking? Should it matter to the FBI or to the justice system that someone like Reality Winner did what she did not for money or for some desire to harm national security, but because she thought she was doing the right thing for the country?
Gregory Stejskal: I do think it makes a difference. But, you have to realize that there can be substantial harm to national security, whether it’s given to a foreign power or ends up in the media. And I would cite the Snowden thing as a good example of the damage that can be done. Presumably, at least according to him, he thought he was doing the right thing. You don’t get to have that kind of discretion when you have the federal government’s trust to not violate classified regulations that you’re working under.
On the other hand, a whistle-blower who decides to speak up has certain procedures and things that they follow, and the first stop isn’t the media.
BW: In Reality Winner’s case, this is a document that reveals certain efforts that the Russian government and intelligence services were making to interfere with US election machinery in the run-up to the 2016 election. Reality’s lawyers argued that the disclosure of this information, rather than harming national security, actually helped national security because it alerted state and local officials to threats to the integrity of the election system that they might not have otherwise been aware of. What do you make of that argument?
GS: If the material is classified, that individual is not given discretion to determine the harm done or anything like that. Again, there are things that you can do, under the whistle-blower statute, or just talk to your supervisor. But you don’t have the right to say, “Oh, you know, this is something that the public should be aware of,” or, “These are things that we’re doing that I don’t agree with.”
BW: Gregory makes an important point. This is why we have whistle-blower laws. If someone thinks that there is an abuse, waste, fraud, some sort of issue…we want to deter people from taking it upon themselves to share the secret with the world, and instead, encourage them to follow this whistle-blower track, where you can go to an inspector general.
As we saw recently in the current case involving Ukraine — the process there is that the inspector general first makes a determination as to whether the claim is frivolous. If not, he’ll go investigate and talk to people. We have intelligence committees in Congress, in the house, and senate, so that they can exercise oversight and investigate if things are being done improperly. We want to encourage people like Reality Winner to go that route, and not taking it upon themselves to share information with the world.
One concern I have about what we’re currently seeing is, when President Trump is, I believe, intimidating the whistle-blower to identify him and out him, and keep demanding that he testify. We are going to push people into the Reality Winner channel, and I worry that President Trump’s conduct is diminishing faith in the system by people who are public servants who want to do things the right way.
BW: I want to shift gears a little bit. I want to go back to Reality’s interview with the FBI agents. I think people have a particular intuition about the way that the FBI might question suspects, and what we see in this show is something more informal, more meandering, more conversational. So it’d be interesting I think for you, Greg, to talk about how the FBI approaches interviews like this and the strategies that you use to try to get people to talk when you think they’ve done something wrong but you don’t necessarily have all the evidence.
GS: It’s dependent on the agent, and you do receive training, but, you know there are certain things I would do to try to develop rapport. What I found early on is that threatening people and doing the classic “third-degree kind of thing” — the light in the face and all of that — generally is not very productive. I wanted to be able to convince the person, if possible, that it would be in their best interest to be cooperative.
When I would interview somebody, I would never have a table or anything else in between me and the person I’m interviewing. I would actually sit on the same side of the table as he or she did, or she did. And I would spend time, before I would ever ask them a question, and even if I was going to Mirandize him, and talk to him, explain to him the situation, and try to develop that rapport. It would not be in a threatening manner. There have been times I arrested people where I might’ve been a bit more forceful, but that was only because of exigent circumstances.
BMcQ: What Greg is describing is common among all the agencies that we worked with at the US Attorney’s office. I, as a prosecutor, was really gratified when we began recording the interviews, because I think there’s a perception from TV and movies that agents are really tough on people, that they’re beating them up, that they’re intimidating. And in fact it’s usually, perhaps because it is more effective, that the agents are usually very nice to the person. Being able to show that in the courtroom to a jury could usually cut off any suggestion that the person was brow beaten or something, to confess.
BW: What about Miranda Warnings? One of the interesting things about this case is that Reality Winner was never told during her interview that she had “the right to remain silent or the right to a lawyer. Why wouldn’t the FBI have given Miranda Warnings here, and what would you have done if she had said, “I want to talk to my lawyer?”
GS: Well, once she says that, then that’s it. You’re done. That’s again one of the reasons why you want to have an opportunity to talk to them before you specifically ask them a question or you Mirandize, because you want them to understand why it’s in their best interest to talk.
The whole Miranda Warning thing was developed almost word-for-word by the FBI. Our policy was that unless they’re in custody (which means if a reasonable person would believe they’re in custody), you don’t have to provide them with their Miranda Rights. In Reality’s case, they didn’t even have an arrest warrant…they arrested her after the fact, after the surge, and after they spoke to her.
BMcQ: The legal test is looking at the totality of the circumstances: would a reasonable person have felt that they were either free to leave or free not to answer the questions? Miranda requires both being in custody and being interrogated. So if either of those are not true, then there’s not a requirement for a Miranda Warning. And as I read the transcription here, at least twice the agent said to Reality: “Talking to us is completely voluntary, right, just want you to understand that.” I’m sure it was very deliberate…it’s probably part of their training to make that statement known. And so by saying that twice, they alerted her that even if you don’t feel like you’re free to go, you also don’t have to answer our questions.
BW: Let me just ask you one final question. The three of us are joining the post-performance artist Q&A right after opening night of Is This A Room on January 29, and I’m just curious what each of you will be looking for when you see the show. Are there particular things that you are going to be paying attention to or looking for?
BMcQ: I suppose I will be looking for things that ring true or that seem unusual. I mean, this is a real scenario, so it’s not fictional. This really happened. But, to what extent is it typical, and to what extent is it aberrational? I think that would be useful for an audience to know if this is the way it goes down most of the time, all the time, or, if this was a really unusual, outlier-type situation. I’ll be looking for that, and then maybe just opportunities to explain how the law works in these situations, for better or worse. Most laws make sense — there’s a reason we came up with them — but others have flaws, and sometimes things evolve in society and a law is not caught up with that yet. So I’ll be looking for any areas like that that I might be able to flag for the audience after the show.
GS: I’m going to be interested in seeing how the agents handled it and be sort of critiquing it…I might find myself going “hey that’s an interesting technique,” or “boy, that’s not the way to do it guys.” So, I look for that, whether you see it in the media, like on TV or in movies, and then in real life. The other thing I think, and given the opportunity to talk about after the show it is what we’ve said…you know you have to understand that as an FBI agent, or as a US attorney, you have to enforce the laws. We don’t have discretion either. But, irrespective of what this person’s motive is — and that she’s a wonderful person and all of that — there is a reason for these laws being there. And in our job, we’re sworn to uphold the constitution, and with that goes the laws that are passed in pursuit of the constitution. It’s not our job to question that. It’s our job to enforce the laws.
Barbara L. McQuade is a law professor at the University of Michigan, where she teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, and national security law. She is also a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. From 2010 to 2017, Ms. McQuade served as the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Ms. McQuade was appointed by President Barack Obama, and was the first woman to serve in her position. Ms. McQuade also served as vice chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and co-chaired the Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee. Before becoming US Attorney, Ms. McQuade was an Assistant US Attorney in Detroit for 12 years, serving as Deputy Chief of the National Security Unit.
Greg Stejskal, SA/FBI (1975–2006), was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. He attended and graduated from the University of Nebraska and received a bachelor and juris doctorate (‘74) degrees. In 1975 he entered on duty as special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Following new agent training, he was assigned to the Detroit field office which covers all of Michigan. In 1981 he was assigned to the Ann Arbor resident agency (a satellite office of Detroit). During his career, he was involved in numerous and varied cases within the FBI’s jurisdiction including foreign counterintelligence (espionage). In 2006, he retired from the FBI with over 31 years of service. He resides in Ann Arbor with his wife, Pat, who is a retired Ann Arbor Public Schools teacher. They have two grown children, Taryn and Andrew; both are graduates of the University of Michigan.
Brian Willen is a partner at the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He litigates cases on behalf of leading technology and Internet companies (including Google, Twitter, Dropbox, and Pinterest) focusing on intellectual property, online content-regulation, the First Amendment, national security, and privacy. Mr. Willen is also an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School where he teaches classes on Internet law, and is a member of the UMS Board of Directors.
“Believers” by Javaad Alipoor
Artist statement from Javaad Alipoor, writer and performer of The Believers Are But Brothers, Jan 22-26, 2020.
When UMS programming manager Mary Roeder and her colleagues asked me to write a contribution to the No Safety Net program book, it felt like a really good opportunity to look back over the genesis and development of The Believers Are But Brothers and set out a little bit of the story of its development and its journey to the stage here in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor feels like a very different place to the location in which I began to make the show, but in some ways, this leg of the international tour has really brought something out for me when I think about what it means to make political theater for an international audience.
By background and by inclination I’m a very political animal. I grew up in a mixed-race family in Bradford, a working-class city in northern England. My family and my early experiences have helped to shape my world view and the kind of art I think needs to be made in the 21st century.
Bradford is a city with two kinds of reputations. In the first and largest sense, it doesn’t have one. It doesn’t pop internationally with the same reputation as Manchester or Liverpool for a variety of reasons. But it’s also known visually as a poorer city with a large Muslim population, and it is often used as a kind of visual cliché to illustrate new stories or dramas about supposedly “problematic” European cities with alleged “racial troubles.”
Before I began my artistic career, I was a community worker and a political and social activist. Now, as an artist, I feel like those parts of my practice, although sometimes less to the fore, are a crucial part of my work. I’m often told that we are living through a renaissance of political theater. But the problem is that a lot of it isn’t very good theater, and it doesn’t really have very deep politics.
For me a lot of that is because it’s made by artists whose only real political commitment comes through the work they make. As a result, it’s built on bad faith; the assumption that the artist has something to say that that will somehow teach an audience something about the world. But here is the rub: audiences are more politically savvy than ever; we live in a world where people are clear that they need to know more about what’s going on than ever before. This is especially true in the self-selecting sample of the population that makes up theater audiences.
For me, political theater isn’t about that at all. It’s about taking a problem — in the case of The Believers Are But Brothers, the relationship between extreme politics, masculinity, and the internet, and sharing that with an audience. So, I hope what might once have been a question that felt intellectual feels visceral, emotional, and centered in the gut.
Throughout the making of Believers, as well as my more recent work, I have tried to stay true to these ideas. As a community worker, I had first-hand experience of the racist and Islamophobic “anti-extremism” policies that were delivered throughout the UK in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London attacks. Artistically, it felt to me like the most important reframing for me to make of this discourse, as a young Muslim man, was to point out that we don’t live in a society where there is some sort of problem with young Muslim men, we live in one where increasingly there is a problem with young men.
Aside from that, the other big influence on Believers was the community of Syrian refugees and my links to the Syrian Solidarity Campaign. When I was making the very first iteration of the show, I shared it with some refugees and Syrian activists. They spoke eloquently to me about how the West’s focus on ISIS seemed to them to be part of the constellation that buried that country’s revolution in barrel bombs, inaction, and empty geopolitical discourse.
The Believers Are But Brothers is the first part of a trilogy of plays. I have just opened the second part, Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, where it also won a Fringe First Award (it transferred to London in early spring 2019). I want the trilogy to explore the relationship between emerging technologies and the great shifts in political reality we are seeing as the second act of the 21st century opens. That’s why it has felt important to me to experiment with using technology like WhatsApp and Instagram theatrically.
Over the past two years, The Believers Are But Brothers has really found its audience from its first award-winning run at the Edinburgh Fringe, through its London transfer, and international touring. It’s been seen across Europe, Australia, Canada, and now premieres in the US in Ann Arbor. In each city we have been to, it has felt like the work has reverberated with a community of people who look at the dynamics of contemporary politics with the same mixture of confusion and resolve that I, and the team that made it, do.
In some ways, it’s the kind of show that stands in an uncelebrated tradition of formally experimental political theater and art from my hometown. Artists like Albert Hunt and Noel Greig led different waves of radicalism in the 1960s and late 1970s, respectively, Hunt from the local art college, and Greig through his company Gay Sweatshop. In the 1990s and early 2000s the city became the home of radical south Asian artists and musicians like Fun-Da-Mental and Aki Nawaz.
I think, whether we consider Brexit, the 2016 American presidential election, or any of a host of other political events, we see the breakdown of the traditional “national” level of politics. People will talk about a feeling of living within two different countries, for instance. At the same time, digital communities and global migration patterns are connecting people and places in ways never seen before. When I think about what it means to make international theater or art, I want it to be that apparent contradiction.
That means, I think, that we have to make work that speaks authentically to place, but that finds the universal. Work that gives up the “state of the nation,” and seeks instead the new networks of power, resentment, and identity that criss-cross the whole world.
Hear a full interview with Javaad Alipoor on our No Safety Net Podcast.