Rhino as Participant
Utilizing the expertise and enthusiasm of odd-toed herbivores in the family Rhinocerotidae to invite participatory experiences with the performing arts.
We all have work heroes. Someone our career-selves aspire to be, someone whose philosophies resonate with us on a personal and a professional level. My work hero happens to be Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum.
Nina’s philosophy, paraphrased Truly-style, is this: if a cultural institution wants to maintain relevancy, it has to stop treating audience members as passive faces in the crowd and start inviting and utilizing community collaboration, participation, and expertise.
Every community member has something special to bring to the table — be it a doctoral thesis or a really great Netflix recommendation — and thanks to social media, we’ve all grown accustomed to sharing. Simply put: cultural experiences that “stick” for many of us are those that allow us to do something hands-on.
In order to understand the Rhino Project, you’ve got to get to know the UMS Student Committee. An official University of Michigan Student Organization, this committee works tirelessly to promote student engagement in the performing arts on campus. Comprised of roughly 30 student volunteers, UMS works closely with this group to plan and execute our student Arts & Eats events, design and create UMS advertisements and represent UMS to the student population in a variety of other ways.
This October (11-13), UMS presented the Parisian theater company, Théâtre de la Ville, performing Ionesco’s Rhinocéros. If you didn’t have the pleasure of seeing this production at the Power Center while it was in town, the play was influenced by Ionesco’s time in Romania as a young man, when nearly everyone around him converted to fascism. Being the theater of the absurd classic that it is, replace “fascist” with “rhino” and you’ve got Rhinocéros.
The UMS Student Committee really got behind the concept of a real-life rhino occupation. Equipped with rhino masks and flyers, students took to the streets and for the two weeks leading up to the Théâtre de la Ville performance, rhinos invaded Ann Arbor.
My favorite part of this project was watching the students really run with the idea and take it to entirely new levels. During the campaign, students became actors, buskers, art directors, photographers, and social media animals. Using their expertise and natural enthusiasm, the UMS Student Committee took the campaign and really made it their own.
Sure, the campaign worked for UMS on a purely promotional level but more importantly it invited deep, meaningful participation and collaboration from the students on campus. This is the kind of project that might even make Nina Simon proud. Plus, Théâtre de la Ville loved it. The actors clamored for souvenir rhino hats and the management requested images of our rhinos to be used in company communications efforts.
Rheme Sloan, UMS Student Committee President, did a fabulous job of getting buy-in for the campaign from the students and organizing the efforts on campus. UMS Marketing Intern Anna Piotrowski did a great job of rhino-acting herself and organizing other layers of the rhino campaign, including postering and sidewalk stenciling.
Here, Rheme and Anna talk about what it was like to be a rhino and what this type of participatory project means for student engagement.
UMS: Please introduce yourself. What’s your role at UMS? What interests in you in performing arts?
Rhemé Sloan: I am a junior Voice Performance Major in the School of Music, Theatre, & Dance. I am a Marketing Intern for UMS as well as the President of the UMS Student Committee. I live for the performing arts. They challenge me to think outside of my own world and explore the beauty in all things.
Anna Piotrowski: My name is Anna Piotrowski, and I’m a junior Violin Performance Major with a Performing Arts Management Minor at U-M. This is my first year as a marketing intern at UMS. Since I have been playing the violin for 15 years, I definitely have a passion for the performing arts. I’ve always enjoyed going to a variety of concerts and performances where I can see or hear something that I’ve never encountered before.
UMS: Could you describe your role in the recent Rhinoceros guerrilla marketing campaign?
RM: I was in charge of organizing all the volunteers who went around Ann Arbor and U-M in rhino masks. At several happenings we had photographers come out and take pictures so it was crucial to make sure we had solidified plans. I also organized and participated in the photo shoot that took place at landmarks across central campus. We had a blast taking those photos.
AP: I was in charge of creating a “street team” of 10 people to cover the campus sidewalks with spray chalk Rhinoceroses, as well as getting volunteers to post different flyers promoting the performance. We had a political style campaign poster as well as a traditional informational poster that were posted.
UMS: What did you like about this campaign? What were some surprises along the way?
AP: I liked the mystery behind this campaign – the Rhino masks and spray chalk stenciling and vague political posters were all very attention getting and got people talking! I also liked that it was accompanied with other tactics that were more informational, so people could really get a sense for what type of performance this would be.
RM: I loved how innovative and weird the campaign was. When my supervisor first told me about this project I’m sure my face read “You all must be out of your mind.” But when I saw the posters I was filled with glee because I had never seen anything like it. The biggest surprise along the way was the Saturday morning we did the photo shoot around campus. We had finished taking pictures in Nickels Arcade and were walking across the street to take pictures with this guy playing the accordion. To our disbelief this random accordion player was wearing a rhino mask and had our “Rhino is Listening” flyers in his money box. We couldn’t believe what was happening.
UMS: What kind of a response did you get from other students about this campaign or the performance?
AP: Other students seemed to be excited and willing to participate in this campaign. There were many different ways that students could help out and I think that everyone found something they could enjoy.
RM: Students responded positively to the rhino campaign. We did our best to make Rhino as visible across campus as we possibly could and I think we were very successful. Once the tour came to town there was so much hype around the show and students’ expectations were very high. I think the show really rose to the occasion and many found it very relevant during this election season.
UMS: Did you have the chance to go to the performance? If yes, did working on this campaign affect your experience of the performance?
AP: I did see the performance, and working on the campaign definitely affected how I experienced the performance. It gave me background knowledge of the plot and history of the play, among other things. Working on the campaign also allowed me to go into the performance with a good basic knowledge of what to expect in terms of style, genre, and themes, while still retaining a level of uncertainty as to how it will be delivered. Over all, working on the campaign was a positive contribution to my viewing experience.
RM: I went to the last performance of Rhinocéros. Having worked on the campaign I knew to expect something incredible and major and the show totally delivered. It was difficult to get a full grasp of the play since I was hearing it for the first time in French, but the action and storytelling was so on point that it didn’t matter. Now all I have to do is read it in English!
Check out the November issue of The Ann Magazine for more on this campaign!
Did you see rhinos around town? Would you like to see more campaigns like this one?