Teaching the N-Word
This essay is published in conjunction with the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances of Underground Railroad Game. UMS Presents Underground Railroad Game on January 17-21, 2018 at the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor.
“Teaching the N-Word” is written by Emily Bernard. Dr. Bernard is a professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is working on a collection of essays called Black Is the Body.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
—Countee Cullen, “Incident” (1925)
Eric is crazy about queer theory. I think it is safe to say that Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Lee Edelman have changed his life. Every week, he comes to my office to report on the connections he is making between the works of these writers and the books he is reading for the class he is taking with me, African-American autobiography.
I like Eric. So tonight, even though it is well after six and I am eager to go home, I keep our conversation going. I ask him what he thinks about the word “queer,” whether or not he believes, independent of the theorists he admires, that epithets can ever really be reclaimed and reinvented.
“‘Queer’ has important connotations for me,” he says. “It’s daring, political. I embrace it.” He folds his arms across his chest, and then unfolds them.
I am suspicious.
“What about ‘nigger’?” I ask. “If we’re talking about the importance of transforming hateful language, what about that word?” From my bookshelf I pull down Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and turn it so its cover faces Eric. “Nigger,” in stark white type against a black background, is staring at him, staring at anyone who happens to be walking past the open door behind him.
Over the next 30 minutes or so, Eric and I talk about “nigger.” He is uncomfortable; every time he says “nigger,” he drops his voice and does not meet my eyes. I know that he does not want to say the word; he is following my lead. He does not want to say it because he is white; he does not want to say it because I am black. I feel my power as his professor, the mentor he has so ardently adopted. I feel the power of Randall Kennedy’s book in my hands, its title crude and unambiguous. Say it, we both instruct this white student. And he does.
It is late. No one moves through the hallway. I think about my colleagues, some of whom still sit at their own desks. At any minute, they might pass my office on their way out of the building. What would they make of this scene? Most of my colleagues are white. What would I think if I walked by an office and saw one of them holding up Nigger to a white student’s face? A black student’s face?
“I think I am going to add ‘Who Can Say Nigger?’ to our reading for next week,” I say to Eric. “It’s an article by Kennedy that covers some of the ideas in this book.” I tap Nigger with my finger, and then put it down on my desk.
“I really wish there was a black student in our class,” Eric says as he gathers his books to leave.
As usual I have assigned way too much reading. Even though we begin class discussion with references to three essays required for today, our conversation drifts quickly to “Who Can Say Nigger?” and plants itself there. We talk about the word, who can say it, who won’t say it, who wants to say it, and why. There are 11 students in the class. All of them are white.
Our discussion is lively and intense; everyone seems impatient to speak. We talk about language, history, and identity. Most students say “the n-word” instead of “nigger.” Only one or two students actually use the word in their comments. When they do, they use the phrase “the word ‘nigger,’” as if to cushion it. Sometimes they make quotations marks with their fingers. I notice Lauren looking around. Finally, she raises her hand.
“I have a question; it’s somewhat personal. I don’t want to put you on the spot.”
“Go ahead, Lauren,” I say with relief.
“Okay, so how does it feel for you to hear us say that word?”
I have an answer ready.
“I don’t enjoy hearing it. But I don’t think that I feel more offended by it than you do. What I mean is, I don’t think I have a special place of pain inside of me that the word touches because I am black.” We are both human beings, I am trying to say. She nods her head, seemingly satisfied. Even inspired, I hope.
I am lying, of course.
I am grateful to Lauren for acknowledging my humanity in our discussion. But I do not want me—my feelings, my experiences, my humanity—to become the center of classroom discussion. Here at the University of Vermont, I routinely teach classrooms full of white students. I want to educate them, transform them. I want to teach them things about race they will never forget. To achieve this, I believe I must give of myself. I want to give to them—but I want to keep much of myself to myself. How much? I have a new answer to this question every week.
I always give my students a lecture at the beginning of every African-American studies course I teach. I tell them, in essence, not to confuse my body with the body of the text. I tell them that while it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that my own racial identity has nothing to do with my love for African-American literature, my race is only one of the many reasons why I stand before them. “I stand here,” I say, “because I have a Ph.D., just like all your other professors.” I make sure always to tell them that my Ph.D., like my B.A., comes from Yale.
“In order to get this Ph.D.,” I continue, “I studied with some of this country’s foremost authorities on African-American literature, and a significant number of these people are white.
“I say this to suggest that if you fail to fully appreciate this material, it is a matter of your intellectual laziness, not your race. If you cannot grasp the significance of Frederick Douglass’s plight, for instance, you are not trying hard enough, and I will not accept that.”
I have another part of this lecture. It goes: “Conversely, this material is not the exclusive property of students of color. This is literature. While these books will speak to us emotionally according to our different experiences, none of us is especially equipped to appreciate the intellectual and aesthetic complexities that characterize African-American literature. This is American literature, American experience, after all.”
Sometimes I give this part of my lecture, but not always. Sometimes I give it and then regret it later.
As soon as Lauren asks me how I feel, it is as if the walls of the room soften and collapse slightly, nudging us a little bit closer together. Suddenly, 11 pairs of eyes are beaming sweet messages at me. I want to laugh. I do. “Look at you all, leaning in,” I say. “How close we have all become.”
I sit at the end of a long narrow table. Lauren usually sits at the other end. The rest of the students flank us on either side. When I make my joke, a few students, all straight men, I notice, abruptly pull themselves back. They shift their eyes away from me, look instead at their notebooks, the table. I have made them ashamed to show that they care about me, I realize. They are following the cues I have been giving them since the beginning of the semester, cues that they should take this class seriously, that I will be offended if they do not. “African-American studies has had to struggle to exist at all,” I have said. “You owe it your respect.” Don’t be too familiar, is what I am really saying. Don’t be too familiar with me.
Immediately, I regret having made a joke of their sincere attempt to offer me their care. They want to know me; they see this moment as an opportunity. But I can’t stop. I make more jokes, mostly about them, and what they are saying and not saying. I can’t seem to help myself.
Eric, who is sitting near me, does not recoil at my jokes; he does not respond to my not-so-subtle efforts to push him and everyone else back. He continues to lean in, his torso flat against the edge of the table. He looks at me. He raises his hand.
“Emily,” he says, “would you tell them what you told me the other day in your office? You were talking about how you dress and what it means to you.” “Yes,” I begin slowly. “I was telling Eric about how important it is to me that I come to class dressed up.”
“And remember what you said about Todd? You said that Todd exercises his white privilege by dressing so casually for class.”
Todd is one of my closest friends in the English department. His office is next door to mine. I don’t remember talking about Todd’s clothing habits with Eric, but I must have. I struggle to come up with a comfortably vague response to stop Eric’s prodding. My face grows hot. Everyone is waiting.
“Well, I don’t know if I put it exactly like that, but I do believe that Todd’s style of dress reflects his ability to move in the world here—everywhere, really—less self-consciously than I do.” As I sit here, I grow increasingly more alarmed at what I am revealing: my personal philosophies; my attitudes about my friend’s style of dress; my insecurities; my feelings. I quietly will Eric to stop, even as I am impressed by his determination. I meet his eyes again.
“And you. You were saying that the way you dress, it means something, too,” Eric says. On with this tug of war, I think.
I relent, let go of the rope. “Listen, I will say this. I am aware that you guys, all of my students at UVM, have very few black professors. I am aware, in fact, that I may be the first black teacher many of you have ever had. And the way I dress for class reflects my awareness of that possibility.” I look sharply at Eric. That’s it. No more.
On the first day of class, Nate asks me what I want to be called.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, fussing with equipment in the room. I know. But I feel embarrassed, as if I have been found out. “What do you think?” I ask them.
They shuffle around, equally embarrassed. We all know that I have to decide, and that whatever I decide will shape our classroom dynamic in very important ways.
“What does Gennari ask you to call him?” I have inherited several of these students from my husband, John Gennari, another professor of African- American studies. He is white.
“Oh, we call him John,” Nate says with confidence. I am immediately envious of the easy warmth he seems to feel for John. I suspect it has to do with the name thing.
“Well, just call me Emily, then. This is an honors class, after all. And I do know several of you already. And then wouldn’t it be strange to call the husband John and the wife Professor?” Okay, I have convinced myself.
Nate says, “Well, John and I play basketball in a pickup game on Wednesdays. So, you know, it would be weird for me to be checking him and calling him ‘Professor Gennari.’”
We all laugh, and move on to other topics. But my mind locks onto an image of my husband and Nate on the basketball court, two white men, covered in sweat, body to body, heads down, focused on the ball.
“It’s not that I can’t say it, it’s that I don’t want to. I will not say it,” Sarah says. She wears her copper red hair in a short, smart style that makes her look older than her years. When she smiles I remember how young she is. She is not smiling now. She looks indignant. She is indignant because I am insinuating that there is a problem with the fact that no one in the class will say “nigger.” Her indignation pleases me.
“I’d just like to remind you all that just because a person refuses to say ‘nigger,’ that doesn’t mean that person is not a racist,” I say. They seem to consider this.
“And another thing,” Sarah continues. “About dressing for class? I dislike it when my professors come to class in shorts, for instance. This is a profession. They should dress professionally.”
Later, I tell my husband, John, about our class discussion. When I get to Sarah’s comment about professors in shorts, he says, “Good for her.”
I hold up Nigger and show its cover to the class. I hand it to the person on my left, gesture for him to pass the book around the room.
“Isn’t it strange that when we refer to this book, we keep calling it ‘the n-word’?”
Lauren comments on the affect of one student who actually said it. “Colin looked like he was being strangled.” Of the effect on the other students, she says, “I saw us all collectively cringing.”
“Would you be able to say it if I weren’t here?” I blurt.
A few students shake their heads. Tyler’s hand shoots up. He always sits directly to my right.
“That’s just bullshit,” he says to the class, and I force myself not to raise an eyebrow at bullshit. “If Emily weren’t here, you all would be able to say that word.”
I note that he, himself, has not said it, but do not make this observation out loud.
“No.” Sarah is firm. “I just don’t want to be the kind of person who says that word, period.”
“Even in this context?” I ask.
“Regardless of context,” Sarah says.
“Even when it’s the title of a book?”
I tell the students that I often work with a book called Nigger Heaven, written in 1926 by a white man, Carl Van Vechten.
“Look, I don’t want to give you the impression that I am somehow longing for you guys to say ‘nigger,’” I tell them, “but I do think that something is lost when you don’t articulate it, especially if the context almost demands its articulation.”
“What do you mean? What exactly is lost?” Sarah insists.
“I don’t know,” I say. I do know. But right here, in this moment, the last thing I want is to win an argument that winds up with Sarah saying “nigger” out loud.
Throughout our discussion, Nate is the only student who will say “nigger” out loud. He sports a shearling coat and a Caesar haircut. He quotes Jay-Z. He makes a case for “nigga.” He is that kind of white kid; he is down. “He is so down, he’s almost up,” Todd will say in December, when I show him the title page of Nate’s final paper for this class. The page contains one word, “Nigger,” in black type against a white background. It is an autobiographical essay. It is a very good paper.
Nate reminds me of a student in the very first class I taught all on my own, a senior seminar called “Race and Representation.” I was still in graduate school. It was 1994 and Pulp Fiction had just come out. I spent an entire threehour class session arguing with my students over the way race was represented in the movie. One student, in particular, passionately resisted my attempts to analyze the way Tarantino used “nigger” in the movie.
“What is his investment in this word? What is he, as the white director, getting out of saying ‘nigger’ over and over again?” I asked.
After some protracted verbal arm wrestling, the student gave in.
“Okay, okay! I want to be the white guy who can say ‘nigger’ to black guys and get away with it. I want to be the cool white guy who can say ‘nigger.’”
“Thank you! Thank you for admitting it!” I said, and everyone laughed.
He was tall. He wore tie-dye T-shirts and had messy, curly brown hair. I don’t remember his name.
After Pulp Fiction came out, I wrote my older brother an earnest, academic e-mail. I wanted to “initiate a dialogue” with him about the “cultural and political implications of the various usages of ‘nigger’ in popular culture.”
His one-sentence reply went something like this: “Nigga, niggoo, niggu, negreaux, negrette, niggrum.”
“Do you guys ever read The Source magazine?” In 1994, my students knew about The Source; some of them had read James Bernard’s column, “Doin’ the Knowledge.”
“He’s my brother,” I said, not bothering to mask my pride with anything like cool indifference. “He’s coming to visit class in a couple of weeks, when we discuss hip-hop culture.”
The eyes of the tie-dyed student glistened.
“Quentin Tarantino is a cool-ass white boy!” James said on the day he came to visit my class. “He is one cool white boy.”
My students clapped and laughed.
“That’s what I said,” my tie-dyed student sighed.
James looked at me slyly. I narrowed my eyes at him. Thanks a lot.
On the way to school in the morning, I park my car in the Allen House lot. Todd was the one who told me about the lot. He said, “Everyone thinks the lot at the library is closer, but the lot behind Allen House is so much better. Plus, there are always spaces, in part because everyone rushes for the library.”
It is true that the library lot is nearly always full in the morning. It’s also true that the Allen House lot is relatively empty, and much closer to my office. But if it were even just slightly possible for me to find a space in the library lot, I would probably try to park there, for one reason. To get to my office from Allen House, I have to cross a busy street. To get to my office from the library, I do not.
Several months ago, I was crossing the same busy street to get to my office after a class. It was late April, near the end of the semester, and it seemed as if everyone was outside. Parents were visiting, and students were yelling to each other, introducing family members from across the street. People smiled at me—wide, grinning smiles. I smiled back. We were all giddy with the promise of spring, which always comes so late in Vermont, if it comes at all.
Traffic was heavy, I noticed as I walked along the sidewalk, calculating the moment when I would attempt to cross. A car was stopped near me; I heard rough voices. Out of the corner of my eye, I looked into the car: all white. I looked away, but I could feel them surveying the small crowd that was carrying me along. As traffic picked up again, one of the male voices yelled out, “Queers! Fags!” There was laughter. Then the car roared off.
I was stunned. I stopped walking and let the words wash over me. Queer. Fag. Annihilating, surely. I remembered my role as a teacher, a mentor, in loco parentis, even though there were real parents everywhere. I looked around to check for the wounds caused by those hateful words. I peered down the street: too late for a license plate. All around me, students and parents marched to their destinations, as if they hadn’t heard. Didn’t you hear that? I wanted to shout.
All the while I was thinking, Not nigger. Not yet.
Nate jumps in.
“Don’t you grant a word power by not saying it? Aren’t we, in some way, amplifying its ugliness by avoiding it?” He asks.
“I am afraid of how I will be affected by saying it,” Lauren says. “I just don’t want that word in my mouth.”
Tyler remembers a phrase attributed to Farai Chideya in Randall Kennedy’s essay. He finds it and reads it to us. “She says that the n-word is the ‘trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.’”
“Do you agree with that?” I ask.
Eleven heads nod vigorously.
“Nuclear bombs annihilate. What do you imagine will be destroyed if you guys use the word in here?”
Shyly, they look at me, all of them, and I understand. Me. It is my annihilation they imagine.
Some of My Best Friends, my anthology of essays about interracial friendship, came out in August, and the publicity department has arranged for various interviews and other promotional events. When I did an on-air interview with a New York radio show, one of the hosts, Janice, a black woman, told me that the reason she could not marry a white man was because she believed if things ever got heated between them, the white man would call her a nigger. I nodded my head. I had heard this argument before. But strangely I had all but forgotten it. The fact that I had forgotten to fear “nigger” coming from the mouth of my white husband was more interesting to me than her fear, alive and ever-present.
“Are you bi-racial?”
“Are you married to a white man?”
These were among the first words exchanged between Janice, the radio host, and me. I could tell—by the way she looked at me, and didn’t look at me; by the way she kept her body turned away from me; by her tone—that she had made up her mind about me before I entered the room. I could tell that she didn’t like what she had decided about me, and that she had decided I was the wrong kind of black person. Maybe it was what I had written in Some of My Best Friends. Maybe it was the fact that I had decided to edit a collection about interracial friendships at all. When we met, she said, “I don’t trust white people,” as decisively and exactly as if she were handing me her business card. I knew she was telling me that I was foolish to trust them, to marry one. I was relieved to look inside myself and see that I was okay, I was still standing. A few years ago, her silent judgment—this silent judgment from any black person—would have crushed me.
When she said she could “tell” I was married to a white man, I asked her how. She said, “Because you are so friendly,” and did a little dance with her shoulders. I laughed.
But Janice couldn’t help it; she liked me in spite of herself. As the interview progressed, she let the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile. She admitted that she had a few white friends, even if they sometimes drove her crazy. At a commercial break, she said, “Maybe I ought to try a white man.” She was teasing me, of course. She hadn’t changed her mind about white people, or dating a white man, but she had changed her mind about me. It mattered to me. I took what she was offering. But when the interview was over, I left it behind.
My husband thought my story about the interview was hilarious. When I got home, he listened to the tape they gave me at the station. He said he wanted to use the interview in one of his classes.
A few days later, I told him what Janice said about dating a white man, that she won’t because she is afraid he will call her a nigger. As I told him, I felt an unfamiliar shyness creep up on me.
“That’s just so far out of . . . it’s not in my head at all.” He was having difficulty coming up with the words he wanted, I could tell. But that was okay. I knew what he meant. I looked at him sitting in his chair, the chair his mother gave us. I can usually find him in that chair when I come home. He is John, I told myself. And he is white. No more or less John and no more or less white than he was before the interview, and Janice’s reminder of the fear that I had forgotten to feel.
I tell my students in the African-American autobiography class about Janice. I say, “You would not believe the indignities I have suffered in my humble attempts to ‘move this product,’ as they say in publishing.” I say, “I have been surrounded by morons, and now I gratefully return to the land of the intellectually agile.” They laugh.
I flatter them, in part because I feel guilty that I have missed so many classes in order to do publicity for my book. But I cringe, thinking of how I have called Janice, another black woman, a “moron” in front of these white students. I do not tell my students she is black.
“Here is a story for your students,” John tells me. We are in the car, on our way to Cambridge for the weekend. “The only time I ever heard ‘nigger’ in my home growing up was when my father’s cousin was over for a visit. It was 1988, I remember. Jesse Jackson was running for president. My father’s cousin was sitting in the kitchen, talking to my parents about the election. ‘I’m going to vote for the nigger,’ my father’s cousin said. ‘He’s the only one who cares about the workingman.’”
John laughs. He often laughs when he hears something extraordinary, whether it’s good or bad.
“That’s fascinating,” I say.
The next time class meets, I tell my students this story.
“So what do we care about in this sentence?” I say. “The fact that John’s father’s cousin used a racial epithet, or the fact that his voting for Jackson conveys a kind of ultimate respect for him? Isn’t his voting for Jackson more important for black progress than how his father’s cousin feels?”
I don’t remember what the students said. What I remember is that I tried to project for them a sense that I was untroubled by saying “nigger,” by my husband’s saying “nigger,” by his father’s cousin’s having said “nigger,” by his parents’—my in-laws—tolerance of “nigger” in their home, years ago, long before I came along. What I remember is that I leaned on the word “feels” with a near-sneer in my voice. It’s an intellectual issue, I beamed at them, and then I directed it back at myself. It has nothing to do with how it makes me feel.
After my interview with Janice, I look at the white people around me differently, as if from a distance. I do this, from time to time, almost as an exercise. I even do it to my friends, particularly my friends. Which of them has “nigger” in the back of her throat?
I go out for drinks with David, my senior colleague. It is a ritual. We go on Thursdays after class, always to the same place. I know that he will order, in succession, two draft beers, and that he will ask the waitress to help him choose the second. “What do you have on draft that is interesting tonight?” he will say. I order red wine, and I, too, always ask the waitress’s advice. Then, we order a selection of cheeses, again soliciting assistance. We have our favorite waitresses. We like the ones who indulge us.
Tonight, David orders a cosmopolitan.
We never say it, but I suspect we both like the waitresses who appreciate the odd figure we cut. He is white, 60-something, male. I am black, 30-something, female. Not such an odd pairing elsewhere, perhaps, but uncommon in Burlington, insofar as black people are uncommon in Burlington.
Something you can’t see is that we are both from the South. Different Souths, perhaps, 30 years apart, black and white. I am often surprised by how much I like his company. All the way up here, I sometimes think when I am with him, and I am sitting with the South, the white South that, all of my childhood, I longed to escape. I once had a white boyfriend from New Orleans. “A white Southerner, Emily?” My mother asked, and sighed with worry. I understood. We broke up.
David and I catch up. We talk about the writing we have been doing. We talk each other out of bad feelings we are harboring against this and that person. (Like most Southerners, like the South in general, David and I have long memories.) We talk about classes. I describe to him the conversation I have been having with my students about “nigger.” He laughs at my anecdotes.
I am on my second glass of wine. I try to remember to keep my voice down. It’s a very nice restaurant. People in Burlington do not want to hear “nigger” while they are eating a nice dinner, I say, chastising myself. I am tipsy.
As we leave, I accidentally knock my leg against a chair. You are drunk, I tell myself. You are drunk and black in a restaurant in Burlington. What were you thinking? I feel eyes on me as I walk out of the restaurant, eyes that may have been focused elsewhere, as far as I know, because I do not allow myself to look.
Later that evening, I am alone. I remember that David recently gave me a poem of his to read, a poem about his racist grandmother, now dead, whom he remembers using the word “nigger” often and with relish. I lie in bed and reconstruct the scene of David and me in the restaurant, our conversation about “nigger.” Was his grandmother at the table with us all along?
The next day, I see David in his office, which is next to mine, on the other side from Todd. I knock on the door. He invites me in. I sit in a chair, the chair I always sit in when I come to talk to him. He tells me how much he enjoyed our conversation the night before.
“Me, too,” I say. “But today it’s as if I’m looking at you across from something,” I say. “It has to do with race.” I blame a book I am reading, a book for my African-American autobiography class, Toi Derricote’s The Black Notebooks. “Have you read it?” David is a poet, like Derricote.
“No, but I know Toi and enjoy her poetry. Everything I know about her and her work would lead me to believe that I would enjoy that book.” He is leaning back in his chair, his arms folded behind his head.
“Well, it’s making me think about things, remember the ways that you and I will always be different,” I say abruptly.
David laughs. “I hope not.” He looks puzzled.
“It’s probably just temporary.” I don’t ask him my question about his grandmother, whether or not she is always somewhere with him, in him, in the back of his throat.
John is at an African-American studies conference in New York. Usually, I am thrilled to have the house to myself for a few days. But this time, I mope. I sit at the dining-room table, write this essay, watch out of the window.
Today, when John calls, he describes the activity at the conference. He tells me delicious and predictable gossip about people we know, and the divas that we know of. The personalities, the in-fighting—greedily, we sift over details on the phone.
“Did you enjoy your evening with David last night?” he asks.
“I did, very much,” I say. “But give me more of the who-said-what.” I know he’s in a hurry. In fact, he’s talking on a cell phone (my cell phone; he refuses to get one of his own) as he walks down a New York street.
“Oh, you know these Negroes.” His voice jounces as he walks.
“Yeah,” I say, laughing. I wonder who else can hear him.
Todd is married to Hilary, another of my close friends in the department. She is white. Like John, Todd is out of town this weekend. Since their two boys were born, our godsons, John and I see them less frequently than we used to. But Hilary and I are determined to spend some time together on this weekend with our husbands away.
Burlington traffic keeps me away from her and the boys for an hour, even though she lives only blocks away from me. When I get there, the boys are ready for their baths, one more feeding, and then bed. Finally, they are down, and we settle into grown-up conversation. I tell her about my class, our discussions about “nigger,” and my worries about David.
“That’s the thing about the South,” Hilary says. I agree, but then start to wonder about her grandmother. I decide I do not want to know, not tonight.
I do tell her, however, about the fear I have every day in Burlington, crossing that street to get back and forth from my office, what I do to guard myself against the fear.
“Did you grow up hearing that?” She asks. Even though we are close, and alone, she does not say the word.
I start to tell her a story I have never told anyone. It is a story about the only time I remember being called a nigger to my face.
“I was a teenager, maybe 16. I was standing on a sidewalk, trying to cross a busy street after school, to get to the mall and meet my friends. I happened to make eye contact with a white man in a car that was sort of stopped—traffic was heavy. Anyway, he just said it, kind of spit it up at me.”
“Oh, that’s why,” I say, stunned, remembering the daily ritual I have just confessed to her. She looks at me, just as surprised.
I am walking down a Burlington street with my friend, Anh. My former quilting teacher, Anh is several years younger than I am. She has lived in Vermont her whole life. She is Vietnamese; her parents are white. Early in our friendship, she told me her father was a logger, as were most of the men in her family. Generations of Vietnamese loggers in Vermont, I mused. It wasn’t until I started to describe her to someone else that I realized she must be adopted.
Anh and I talk about race, about being minorities in Burlington, but we usually do it indirectly. In quilting class, we would give each other looks sometimes that said, You are not alone, or Oh, brother, when the subject of race came up in our class, which was made up entirely of white women, aside from the two of us.
There was the time, for instance, when a student explained why black men found her so attractive. “I have a black girl’s butt,” she said. Anh and I looked at each other: Oh, brother. We bent our heads back over our sewing machines.
As we walk, I tell Anh about my African-American autobiography class, the discussions my students and I have been having about “nigger.” She listens, and then describes to me the latest development in her on-again, offagain relationship with her 50-year-old boyfriend, another native Vermonter, a blond scuba instructor.
“He says everything has changed,” she tells me. “He’s going clean up the messes in his life.” She laughs.
Once, Anh introduced me to the boyfriend she had before the scuba instructor when I ran into them at a restaurant. He is also white.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” I said, and put out my hand.
“I’ve never slept with a black woman,” he said, and shook my hand. There was wonder in his voice. I excused myself and went back to my table. Later, when I looked over at them, they were sitting side by side, not speaking.
Even though Anh and I exchanged our usual glances that night, I doubted that we would be able to recover our growing friendship. Who could she be, dating someone like that? The next time I heard from her, months later, she had broken up with him.
I am rooting for the scuba instructor.
“He told me he’s a new person,” she says.
“Well, what did you say?” I ask her.
“In the immortal words of Jay-Z, I told him, ‘Nigga, please.’”
I look at her, and we laugh.
In lieu of a final class, my students come over for dinner. One by one, they file in. John takes coats while I pretend to look for things in the refrigerator. I can’t stop smiling.
“The books of your life” is the topic for tonight. I have asked them to bring a book, a poem, a passage, some art that has affected them. Hazel has brought a children’s book. Tyler talks about Saved by the Bell. Nate talks about Freud.
Dave has a photograph. Eric reads “The Seacoast of Despair” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
I read from Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid. Later I will wonder why I did not read “Incident” by Countee Cullen, the poem that has been circulating in my head ever since we began our discussion about “nigger.” What held me back from bringing “Incident” to class? The question will stay with me for months.
The night of our dinner is an emotional one. I tell my students that they are the kind of class a professor dreams about. They give me a gift certificate to the restaurant that David and I frequent. I give them copies of Some of My Best Friends and inscribe each one. Eric demands a hug, and then they all do; I happily comply. We talk about meeting again as a class, maybe once or twice in the spring. The two students who will be abroad promise to keep in touch through our Listserv, which we all agree to keep going until the end of the school year, at least. After they leave, the house is quiet and empty.
Weeks later, I post “Incident” on our Listserv and ask them to respond with their reactions. Days go by, then weeks. Silence. After more prodding, finally Lauren posts an analysis of the poem, and then her personal reactions to it. I thank her online, and ask for more responses. Silence.
I get e-mails and visits from these students about other matters, some of them race-related. Eric still comes by my office regularly. Once he brings his mother to meet me, a kind and engaging woman who gives me a redolent candle she purchased in France, and tells me her son enjoyed “African-American Autobiography.” Eric and I smile at each other.
A few days later, I see Eric outside the campus bookstore.
“What did you think about ‘Incident’?”
“I’ve been meaning to write you about it. I promise I will.”
In the meantime, Nigger is back in its special place on my bookshelf. It is tucked away so that only I can see the title on its spine, and then only with some effort.
This essay is published in conjunction with the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances of Underground Railroad Game. UMS Presents Underground Railroad Game on January 17-21, 2018 at the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor.
“Teaching the N-Word” is written by Emily Bernard. Dr. Bernard is a professor of English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She is working on a collection of essays called Black Is the Body.
Artist Interview: Actress Aisling O’Sullivan of The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Editor’s Note: University of Michigan student Zoey Bond spent several weeks with Druid Theatre Company as part of the UMS 21st Century Artist Internship program. The Company returns to Ann Arbor with a new production of Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane on March 9-11, 2017. The interview below is with Aisling O’Sullivan, the Irish actress who plays the beauty queen of Leenane.
Photo: The Beauty Queen of Leenane’s Aisling O’Sullivan (left) and Marie Mullen (right). Photo by Matthew Thompson.
Zoey Bond: You’ve worked on playwright Martin McDonagh’s text before, what draws you to his writing?
Aisling O’Sullivan: It’s his characters, the dilemmas, and the wit, I suppose. It’s more than just the writing. It’s the delight I get from performing in the plays, which is so much fun to do and challenging. They are deep. They’ve got all of the colors.
ZB: As you know, this new production casts Marie Mullen in the role of the scheming mother. She won a Tony Award for the role of the daughter in the 1996 Broadway production. Last week you started wearing Marie’s boots in rehearsal, so you were quite literally stepping into her shoes. What has this part of the process been like?
AO: I found it very difficult. In the past, if I’ve seen a performance, and then I have to do my performance, I think I can do better. I don’t feel I can better than Marie. I saw her originally, and she is just extraordinary and really painfully beautiful. It would have been one of Marie’s defining performances. I’ve known her for a long time, so stepping into her shoes, I’m trying to embrace it and go, “Okay, so I’m privileged to be asked by the same director who thinks there is something I can do that might equal Marie. I’ll give it a shot.” I’m going to do something totally different, or I’ll just do what she did. I’m just trying to embrace the memory of her, and the joy that I got from it. So stepping into her shoes helps me symbolically with all of that. And her shoes are nice.
ZB: So then, the follow-up question is: After seeing the original production, has it been hard for you to create your own version?
AO: Yes. It’s difficult because of the way Martin’s work has to be rehearsed. You don’t get to do the scene over and over from start to finish without stopping. I have no idea who is developing in me until we start running the show. And then I’ll start getting the sense of who this person is. At the moment, it’s very much stop, start, stop, start, which is not conducive for me anyway. I tend to work through moods and energy shifts. I’m not getting the sense of that, which is not a problem. I’m very curious as to who’s going to appear.
ZB: What excites you about audiences seeing this today, 20 years later? What continues to be relevant?
A: Well, I think I love the universality of his darkness in relationships. I love that he puts it out there. It’s impossible not to recognize yourself in these desperate, almost psychopathic relationships.
For me, the play would be about owning your own power, or that if anyone ever encroaches on that space, you have to fight very hard to protect it. You’re in big trouble if anyone masters you — and I’m speaking here about the mother-daughter relationship. You’re in big trouble because you have no power. You’ve lost your own. And dark things can happen from that kind of powerlessness.
ZB: How do you think American audiences will respond to seeing this Irish play?
AO: I don’t know. I performed in front of an audience in America for the first time last year. And it was a very strange and scary experience for me because I’have spent 20 years performing to mostly English and Irish audiences. I can read them. If you get to know a species of audience, you can read them and you know how to play them. But with the American audiences, I had no idea of your taste and your comedy. It was a very interesting experience for me because it was unique. It was a totally different culture. I’m very interested in learning more about that. About how you respond, what’s your funny bone? What things move you?
ZB: In the play, do you have a particular scene, or a moment, or a line that you feel resonates the most with you?
AO: Not yet, but I love the humility, and honesty, and gentleness in a lot of these characters. They drop in these little, gentle sentences, and I think they are gorgeous moments for me to hear, as a performer in it, anyway. That it isn’t just razor-sharp.
ZB: How do you find the love in such a dark play? Do you think it is there?
AO: Definitely. It’s a funny thing that deep love can exist with masses of irritation. I irritate people too, I know that. As you get older, it’s less of a big deal. I’d be horrified to think I was capable of irritating anyone or boring anyone when I was younger, but now I’ve accepted that about myself. I think it’s all over the place.
ZB: Do you have a certain routine that you use to prepare for every role, or does it differ for each production?
AO: I don’t, but I’ll tell you what happened. I have been very instinctive until fairly recently, in that I would come completely open and unprepared to the first day of rehearsal. That was the way I worked and great things could come because I hadn’t made any decisions. Well, I worked on my first Shakespeare with this company last year. I was playing a fairly major part, and I’d never spoken a word of Shakespeare in my life.
I turned up one day, one big Bambi in the forest and the tiger Shakespeare stepped out of the trees. I was pretty much on stage for five hours speaking pure poetry and not understanding it. That was a baptism of fire, and since then, I try to come as prepared as I can be, in terms of learning the lines. I don’t have them off, but I know where they’re going, and then I come into the rehearsal space having done a bit of work. I think that makes me feel much more like an artist.
People who have gone to drama school are horrified listening to me going, “What? No preparation at all?” [Laughs]
ZB: So, there is a fine line between coming prepared and knowing enough, but not knowing too much, so that you can still discover.
AO: Yes. I think if you come in with some ideas, your mind has worked enough on it that you can change course. But if you come in with no ideas, you’re just going to accept the ideas that come to you. I think the crucial bit for me is to love the character. Even if you’re playing a psycho, to find something that you love.
ZB: That’s a good lead into my next question. With which parts of Maureen do you feel you identify?
AO: I identify with the weakness in her, the self-doubt, the way she tries to protect herself in her relationships. I see so much of me, and so much humanity, in her. That’s what is so brilliant about the play. Martin McDonagh was so young when he wrote it, and he just hit the seam of something about human beings that doesn’t often get shown.
Druid Theatre Company returns to Ann Arbor with a new production of Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane on March 9-11, 2017.
Artist Chat: The TEAM
We had a lovely chat with Kristen Sieh (Teddy Roosevelt) and Libby King (Elvis) of the TEAM. RoosevElvis is in Ann Arbor September 29-October 1, 2016.
Twitter Chat with Artists: The TEAM
Join us for a Q&A with members of The TEAM. Once described as “Gertrude Stein meets MTV,” the TEAM’s work crashes American history and mythology into modern stories that illuminate the current moment.
Twitter Chat: Follow @UMSNews on Tuesday, September 27 at 4:30 – 5 pm.
RoosevElvis. Photo by Sue Kessler.
We’re very excited to present The TEAM’s RoosevElvis Thursday, September 29- Saturday, October 1. Take a hallucinatory road trip with the spirits of Elvis Presley and Theodore Roosevelt, who battle over the soul of Ann, a painfully shy meat-processing plant worker, and what kind of man — or woman — Ann should become.
Did you miss it? Here’s what happened.
Conversation: Young Jean Lee
Described by the New York Times as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation,” Young Jean Lee is a theater maker with range. Her works Straight White Men and Untitled Feminist Show both explore gender and identity but in very different ways.
Holly Hughes (U-M professor, School of Art & Design and Department of Theatre and Drama) and Tina Satter (U-M Playwright-in-Residence) chat about what’s exciting, provocative, and interesting about these performances.
Transcription of conversation
Holly Hughes: I think it’s really exciting that UMS is bringing in Young Jean Lee because we’re not in a major metropolitan area where there’s a lot of contemporary new theater happening. And she’s definitely one of the more exciting and prolific voices that’s making avant-garde theater today, she’s a woman, she’s a person of color, and she’s working within an experimental but accessible domain, and there’s nudity. So it’s January and I feel like that’s going to heat things up a little bit; I’m excited about that.
Tina Satter: It’s so incredible to see that a play or performance is naked women on stage grappling with deep ideas. That a play called Straight White Men written in the traditional way of a well made aristotelian play is actually slowly cutting away at what that means and asking deeply contemporary questions of straight white male identity.
HH: You definitely should see both because it does speak to one of her gifts which is her range. And if you see one and you think that’s who she is, the other one just seems very different.
TS: You haven’t seen Straight White Men, right?
HH: I’ve seen so many straight white men; that’s all I see is straight white men!
TS: In a way like Destroy the Audience, the title alone in 2014, to call a show Straight White Men, that’s provocative just right there to call it that; it’s already doing so much work. Sometimes it’s like, “how dare she?” We don’t need any more straight white men, but we know she’s definitely going to be playing with that.
HH: Calling something Straight White Men after a whole engagement around identity politics makes us aware in a way that sometimes falls out of the conversation that heterosexuality, whiteness, maleness, those are all performances too; They’re all identities and they’re not just, “the culture”. It’s so rare for women to be allowed to be provocateurs, to really throw people into this level of discomfort and uncertainty. There’s a long tradition of men in culture, white men in culture being provocative and if they’re in fact not really provocative but just offensive, they can always hide behind that role. But with women it’s rare.
TS: I can’t remove the idea of Young Jean Lee’s emotional connection to the project. That’s something that’s always in my head when I leave her work.
HH: Can you say more about that?
TS: Maybe it starts because I’ve literally been on Facebook and I read her emotional connection to it from potentially a couple of years before. And it’s sometimes in a discomforting way, like she’s in there almost in my brain wanting to trigger something in me, in a way I don’t feel in many plays. Even plays that are made from a writer/director and they apparently have a more “hand of the maker” in them; That’s something I have when I leave those shows. What is a straight white man supposed to do with himself? Which actually is a question of the play and then, what is everyone that is not a straight white man also supposed so do with straight white men? Those are huge questions and I think it’s not like she’s even attempting to answer that, but those are underneath that, I think in that play. What does it mean in this contemporary moment to be a straight white man? And I think she’s pulling back to consider that in this antithetically subversive way by putting them in the most natural environment of a well made play about straight white men. I think it becomes a bit of a theatrical laboratory for considering.
HH: I think in Untitled Feminist Show you’re thinking about, or she’s wanting you to think about, when you talk about the performance of gender we’re talking about a kind of choreography of moving through and how your gender presentation informs the way you occupy space and how you do different daily tasks, banal tasks or not banal tasks but a range of tasks; How do you use your body? So if it’s a performance and there’s a kind of choreography for it, and by having different bodies on stage who have a different relationship to biology and different relationships to how they see their gender, she’s really thinking about it as a performance; It’s not an idea. It’s not some theory that somebody dreamt up; it’s a reality. To say gender’s a performance is a statement of fact. You’re really made aware of that. In a different way, using a different forum she’s also thinking about these identities we just thought of like, white people don’t have race, men don’t have gender and now we know that’s not true. I think she’s asking us to think and to feel about that and to not come to a conclusion. That’s different than writing a scholarly paper where you have to have some conclusion, even if it’s an open ended one you’ve got to wind it down.
TS: Yeah, I think the word you just used “to feel, to think and to feel” I think that ties into that thing I was trying to explain about Young Jean’s emotional questions that I somehow can feel present in me afterwards. I think getting to feel this thing unfold in front of you is a huge part of it. As clear as the topics are, from the titles to what you see, it’s not to stir up didactic answers; It is to stay with these questions and feel how confusing, and amazing, and scary it is to be next to these questions in a way that frankly only live performance can make happen to elicit a certain feeling.
Artist Spotlight: Theater maker Rob Drummond
Editor’s note: Theater maker Rob Drummond’s Bullet Catch was part of UMS’s 2014-15 season. He returned this season for an extended educational residency, a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan’s Medical Arts program and UMS’s educational programs at U-M. As part of the residency, Rob is researching for a new play related to medicine. We asked him to write about his adventures in Ann Arbor.
I left the flat this morning at 4:30 am. I have not slept. And now the border control guy is doing his job. That’s all he’s doing. His job. Don’t blame him. Don’t get angry. That will only make things worse. I’m sitting in ‘the room.’ I’ve seen other people brought here but they were (borderline racism alert) not white, middle class, English speaking Brits like me. There’s an Asian woman sitting near me who looks on the brink of tears. As people in ‘the room’ often look. As I most likely look. I have tried to explain what I am doing over here.
Well, one thing I’m doing is running theater workshops for medical students.
The border control guy stares at me for around five seconds, like a dog trying to lip-read. And then replies …
Hmmm. How to explain my practice of cross-disciplinary, immersive artwork in one ‘get you across the border safely’ soundbite. Apparently, it can’t be done. So now I’m in ‘the room.’ And he’s on the phone to Mary Roeder, UMS Manager of Community Engagement, whose number I have got from the laptop that currently has 6% battery left. The laptop that has all the information about my stay here on it. And my adapter is in my suitcase. If that battery dies, then so do I. A bone-fide ticking clock drama on my hands here.
The longest three minutes of my life pass by before Mary calls back. She seemed to say the right things, and before I know it Officer Crocker was escorting me out of ‘the room’ and back into the airport. I hate Officer Crocker. Not because he was just doing his job. But because he did it with such grim authority. He is everything, I think, that the arts are not. He is the reason I make art. The world needs less of him.
If America were a person, I’d recommend psychiatric help. This was my first thought upon walking into the stadium where one hundred and eight thousand people had gathered to watch college kids playing football. Pure theater. My second thought. I used to play rugby at a decent level for my college. I remember the time we had forty people show up to a game and spoke of it for years to come. Everything is bigger in America.
I got a look at the Kevorkian papers today. Incredible collection, and something I would not have been able to access without this residency. I didn’t realize Kevorkian was an artist as well as a doctor. As well as a murderer. But was he? Or did he just help desperate people to do something they couldn’t do themselves? His name is certainly whispered as that of some sort of a boogie-man figure, but reading through the letters of his patients, I couldn’t help but feel that he was doing some important work in a controversial way. He was certainly challenging the status quo. Challenging conventional notions of morality. And he certainly had confidence in his convictions. I couldn’t help but like him. But maybe I am romanticizing him. Much much more research is required before I can begin work on anything that is even remotely like Kevorkian, the Musical, as my fevered imagination had already titled the project I had, before today, never even considered working on.
In the afternoon I visit a patient presentation class, which plays out remarkably like a play. We are introduced to the main character, a real life patient, who reminds me slightly of Woody Allen, and then we are invited to re-visit his experience in being diagnosed with a mystery illness. I am trying my best to guess along with the students (incredibly intelligent, all) and, thanks to many many hours of watching medical dramas, I manage (in my head, I don’t dare raise my hand) to follow the case and even make some sensible assumptions. I am struck with an idea that I must speak to Joel Howell (U-M Professor ad doctor) about. Replacing an hour of lectures every term with a play which explores the medical and ethical dilemmas of a specific patient’s case. Sort of like this but more highly dramatized, using actors and performed in a theater (not that type). I need to stop having ideas for things I am not here specifically to work on.
In the evening my mind turns fully to the reason I am here. Interviewing medical students and doctors about their experiences. I am writing a play for the Royal Court Theatre in London, and I think Act Two will be a verbatim piece using the testimonies of said medics and, more specifically, the topic if delivering bad news. It fascinates me as a dramatist that these people spend so much time surrounded by death and yet seem so well-adjusted. Perhaps it is precisely because they spend so much time in and around the thing that the rest of us try to avoid that makes them so well-adjusted. Or perhaps they are not as well-adjusted as I think. As the interviews commence, I realize that it is a combination of the two. It also strikes me that perhaps medical students are the only group of people who think about death as much as artists do.
What I was finding hard to explain to Officer Crocker is that when I make a piece of theater, I often like to immerse myself in the world so that I can feel more authoritative when I write about it. I have trained as a magician (the show which originally brought me to Ann Arbor and started this whole crazy love affair), a wrestler, and a dancer for shows in the past, and now was the time to experience just a fraction of what medical students and doctors experience by accompanying Dr. Scally on trauma rounds.
I get up at half-past ridiculous and make my way to the hospital. Which is like a small city. Feeling deeply intimidated and scared, I change into a set of scrubs. You can probably see in the photo below the mixture of fear and tired I was experiencing at this point. And then, as if I had always been a part of the team, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, I accompany two doctors, a resident, and a student (I think I’ve got that right) on rounds. Confidentiality precludes my mentioning anything specific but suffice to say it was an eye opening experience, my major take away being the feeling that doctors absolutely have to develop a dark sense of humor to get them through the day. They have to.
I have done a few workshops by this point and something that has struck me is that there really is little difference between the artists and the medical students. Whether it be improvisation, writing, or performing, they all enter into it with the same vigor. Both groups offer up insightful and interesting suggestions. Both are equally uncomfortable standing silently in front of the rest of the group. All the workshops are more or less effortless to deliver because the students are so…bright. One group came up with a brilliant play that was set at the top of the Empire State Building during its construction. Four workers on a metal beam, as in that famous photograph. In one-and-a-half hours together we fleshed out this idea, made it real. When I left, one of the students was sitting and writing in the hall. She said she had started writing the play we had just created. I was pleased. I went out and ate some food. Drank far too much beer (Apparently the Hop Cat loves a British accent). And when I came home again around half eleven…She was still there. Still writing.
It might have been the beer, but that made me choke up a little.
Really getting to know and like the people who are showing me such great hospitality while I am here. The interviews are going so well — getting so much incredible material. The students and doctors alike are amazingly open, to the extent that I am starting to feel guilty about milking them for their stories of misery. However, what has been coming out of this is the understanding that they are anything but miserable despite the fact they are surrounded by so much of it. They are doing a good thing with their lives. The delivery of bad information is not enjoyable, but the fact that they take part in such vital conversations, perhaps the most vital you will ever have, fills many of them with a kind of satisfaction. It’s a privilege. That’s a phrase I’m hearing a lot. It’s a privilege to be trusted with such a sensitive moment in a person’s life. To be sharing something real. Again, a massive similarity between artists and doctors presents itself. We are both looking for something real. We are both searching for truth. In many different ways.
I had a rip-roaring time at a trivia night last night (the only thing we won was an over-sized Miller Lite T-shirt which my wife is now wearing as a night-gown), but I was a good boy and didn’t drink too much as I knew I had to be up for another set of rounds, this time internal medicine, with Dr. Fine. As the picture below might suggest, this set of rounds did not require me to wear scrubs, so I felt a little less awkward. Again, I was welcomed into the fold as if I was just another medical student. The patients, I realized, didn’t have a clue that I wasn’t some world leading expert in something, which actually made me relax a little bit. Little did they know I was actually a nervous, anxiety ridden, socially awkward wreck. But actually, from the interviews I have conducted, I have come to realize that this is the normal way for a student to feel in a hospital.
These rounds are different. Less immediate danger. But more emotional somehow as the patients stories can be delved into in more detail. I come out feeling my respect for doctors deepen still. Dr. Fine genuinely cares about his patients. He cares not only about making them physically better but making sure they are emotionally cared for.
Another session with the Kevorkian papers is followed by my last workshop. We seem to save the best for last as together we come up with a concept for a play and create another world in an hour-and-a-half. This is the story of a young offender in prison. The twist is we never see her face. We only hear her voice and we learn about her through the visitors she receives. A really genuinely exciting concept created from nothing and fleshed out with characters, a plot line, and a question we collectively try to answer. What Price Truth? I’ve capitalized that question because it also works as the title. What is the truth worth? Should the girl lie for a reduced sentence or keep telling the truth and get life? Should we tell the difficult truths or lie for an easier life?
This cuts to the heart of the play I am working on for the Court. How do you tell someone they are going to die? Do you sugar coat or do you tell them the cold hard truth? Is it ever right to withhold information from a patient to spare their feelings? What Price Truth?
A good way to end my stay.
I left Michigan yesterday evening. And now I’m going through customs at Glasg-. Oh. I’m through. He barely looked at my passport. The joys of returning to your home country as a national. On my way though, I see a passenger has been taken aside (we don’t have the budget for a whole room apparently) and is being questioned. He doesn’t speak much English – he’s dark-skinned, possibly Indian, I’m not sure. The difference? This time the border control people are smiling. Joking with him. Trying to put him at ease. We’ll get this sorted. Don’t worry.
You see that Officer Crocker. That’s how you do it.
Rob Drummond is a writer, performer and director from Glasgow. His theater credits include Sixteen (Arches Theatre Festival), Hunter (National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly), Mr Write (Tron Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland), and Rob Drummond: Wrestling (The Arches, winner of a Vital Spark Award), among others.
Interview: Theater maker Young Jean Lee
Moments in Untitled Feminist show (left) and Straight White Men (right). Photos by Julieta Cervantes and Brian Mediana.
“Young Jean Lee is, hands down, the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.” (New York Times) This January, UMS showcases Young Jean Lee’s two most recent theater works on gender and identity. The plays are performed across the street from each other in the Power Center and Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.
UMS Lobby regular contributor Leslie Stainton interviewed Young Jean Lee ahead of the visit.
Leslie Stainton: How do you define “theater”?
Young Jean Lee: I don’t have a definition for it. If someone calls it “theater,” then to me it’s theater.
To my knowledge, this will be the first time anyone’s deliberately paired Untitled Feminist Show with Straight White Men. What do you hope happens from that juxtaposition? What are you most curious about?
The shows are so different and appeal to such different audiences, but for me they’re both coming from a similar place. My hope is that seeing them back to back will encourage audiences to look for their similarities.
How do you go about choosing a language—verbal, nonverbal—for a specific work about a particular topic?
I’m always trying to find the best match between form and content. For the first workshop of Untitled Feminist Show in 2010 I wrote a script and after the showing, our audience did nothing but make academic arguments about feminism. I wanted to hit people on a more emotional, visceral level, so as we did more workshops, I kept cutting out more and more of the text until there was nothing left but movement, and the audience was forced to react emotionally. I tried hard to write words that could compete with the movement and dance, but I couldn’t. We found that movement communicated what we wanted much more strongly than words did
For Straight White Men, I saw the traditional three-act structure as the “straight white male” of theatrical forms, or the form that has historically been used to present straight white male narratives as universal. And I thought it would be interesting to explore the boundaries of that form at the same time as its content.
What role do you see for live performance in our technological age? In what ways, if any, must live performance evolve and/or adapt in a world of rapid technological change?
Theater has been around forever—it’s survived the advent of radio and television and film. It’s become part of our educational system. I don’t really see it going anywhere.
What issues are you yearning to tackle in your work (or not, given your penchant for writing about “the last thing” you’d want to write about!)?
The Native American genocide has been on my mind a lot lately.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to figure out how to make my first feature film!
When did you first fall for live performance?
There was a summer stock theater in the town where I grew up, and my parents took me to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when I was very young, and I was hooked.
Many of your pieces deal with identity. In what ways is theater especially well suited for addressing questions of identity?
I don’t know that it is. Identity is hard to address in any art form, I think.
What key trends do you see in American theater today?
I think that contemporary American theater is very aesthetically conservative, and that it charges way too much for tickets. It isn’t adventurous or challenging enough — I’m thinking of mainstream commercial theater where everything has a linear plot line and there’s very little formal experimentation. I think the New York experimental theater/performance scene is still exciting. The stronger artists tend to have longer developmental processes. The performers have a lot of charisma and intelligence. There’s a lot of collaboration. On the other hand, I think a danger with experimental theater is when it gets locked into its own kind of tradition and you just see a bunch of experimental-theater cliches being played out.
UMS Artists in Residence: Meet Andrew Morton
Editor’s note: UMS is in the second season of its Artists in “Residence” program. Five residents from across disciplines take residence at our performances throughout our season. We’ll profile each resident here on UMS Lobby.
Andrew Morton’s plays include Bloom (a winner at the 2013 Write Now Festival and winner of the 2013 Aurand Harris Memorial Playwriting Award), which received its world premiere at Flint Youth Theatre in May 2014 and was subsequently published by Dramatic Publishing, Inc. Other works include: February (shortlisted for the 2007 Royal Court Young Writers Festival), Drive-Thru Nativity, and the collaborative projects State of Emergency, EMBERS: The Flint Fires Verbatim Theatre Project, and the upcoming The Most [Blank] City in America, premiering at Flint Youth Theatre in April 2016. As a community artist and educator, Morton has worked with a range of organizations across the globe, including working alongside Salvation Army community counselors in Kenya to incorporate participatory theatre into their work with people living with HIV/AIDS. While based in the UK, he worked with several educational theatre companies and was the Education Officer at the Blue Elephant Theatre where he ran the Young People’s Theatre and the Speak Out! Forum Theatre projects. Morton is currently based in Flint, Michigan where he teaches at the University of Michigan-Flint and is Playwright-in-Residence at Flint Youth Theatre.
UMS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the Arts.
Andrew Morton: I was born in Derby, England, but moved to Michigan with my family when I was 12 years old. I was raised in a family full of musicians, but as a teenager I became more interested in theater. I studied theater as a undergrad and like most who follow that path, I originally thought I wanted to be an actor. However once I began to explore writing more I realized that was what I really wanted to do. I moved back to the UK in 2004, and then spent six years in London. During that time I was part of the Young Writers Program at the Royal Court Theatre, which I now consider to be one of the most valuable experiences in my artistic journey. I also got my Masters of Arts in Community Arts from Goldsmiths College, which was also incredibly influential on my practice as a theater maker. For a few years I ran several youth theater projects at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, South London, and in 2010 I came back to Michigan. Since then I’ve been living in Flint, where I teach theater at UM-Flint and am Playwright-In-Residence at Flint Youth Theatre.
UMS: Can you tell us a little about your creative process? Where can we find you working on your art?
AM: I describe a lot of my work as “community-based”, so while occasionally I’ll be writing at home or at the Good Beans Cafe (hands down the best coffee shop in Flint), I also spend a lot of my time out and about talking and listening to people, or facilitating conversations that will inform the work I’m creating. I’m currently developing a new play for Flint Youth Theatre called The Most [Blank] City in America, which is inspired in part by the constant negative press that the city receives. As we want the play to represent a wide range of opinions on Flint and help challenge the dominant narrative of the city being a violent and depressing place, I’ve been working with a team of local artists to engage a wide range of community groups and individuals and listen to their stories about living in Flint. We’ve had conversations in music venues, schools, parks, and are just about to start a second round of these in the fall. The play will be produced at Flint Youth Theatre in April next year, so our challenge is to try and include as many stories and voices as we can in the final piece.
UMS: What inspires your art? Can you tell us about something you came across lately (writing, video, article, piece of art) that we should check out too?
AM: When I’m not working on a project I try to read plays and see live theater as much as I can, but I also enjoy a variety of art forms and try to experience different forms whenever I can. I love live music, and since I lived in London I’ve also become more appreciative of dance and physical theater. I’m always impressed by work that can tell a story without relying on words. Earlier this summer I saw one of the events by performance artist Nick Cave, who currently has an exhibition Here Hear at Cranbrook Museum. The event I saw was a performance at the Dequindre Cut in Detroit. It was a fantastic collaboration between the artist and several local groups, and I’m looking forward to his other performances later this year.
UMS: Are you engaged with the local arts community? Tell us about groups or events that we should know about.
AM: I love the arts community in Flint, and Flint as a place is a constant source of inspiration in my work. In addition to a amazing Cultural Center (with the Flint Institute of Arts, the Flint Institute of Music, the Whiting Auditorium, and more), Flint is home to many artists, performance groups and organizations who do some incredible work in the community and are getting national recognition. Sadly I think many people in Michigan aren’t aware of the rich artistic scene in Flint as we’re often overshadowed by places like Detroit and Grand Rapids, but I hope that’s starting to change. Flint is home to Raise it Up! Youth Arts & Awareness (who have an amazing youth poetry team), Tapology (a fantastic tap dance group), and The Flint Local 432 (an all-ages punk rock and multi-arts venue that is just about to celebrate it’s 30th birthday). Tunde Olaniran is a Flint-based musician who is blowing up right now, and is getting a lot of national press for his latest album, Transgressor. Of course, I have to mention my artistic home, Flint Youth Theatre. Unfortunately I think a lot of older people are put off by the word “youth” in our name, but the work we create is for audiences of all ages, and is consistently of a high professional quality. We produce both well-known plays and new works, and if you’ve never seen one of our productions you are missing out! Our next production is Little Women, which runs Oct 10-25.
UMS: Which performances are you most excited about this season and why?
AM: Honestly, I’m excited about them all. I saw Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic in London last year and it blew me away, so I’m excited to see what he does with Antigone. Young Jean Lee and Taylor Mac are two theater artists I’ve been following for a while now, but I’ve yet to see work by either of them. I think they are two of the most exciting voices in American Theater right now, so I’m thankful to UMS for bringing them to Michigan.
UMS: Anything else you’d like to say?
AM: I think I’ve said enough already… 🙂
Interested in more? Watch for more artist profiles on UMS Lobby throughout this week.
The State of Theater in Ann Arbor: Looking Back to 2000, and Looking Ahead
Editor’s note: This article initially appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer in October 2000 and offers a snapshot of the history of theater in Ann Arbor and major developments in the city’s theater life during this time.
Leslie Stainton is a regular contributor to UMS Lobby, focusing on theater. Her new book Staging Ground captures the history of one of America’s oldest and most ghosted theaters—the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
She participates in an authors panel on January 28, 2015, which also included U-M faculty Martin Walsh and Leigh Woods. While the panel will spotlight Staging Ground, it will also provide an updated look at the state of theater in Ann Arbor today.
We thought this “time capsule” would be a great read ahead of that panel.
Arthur Miller, Lee Bollinger, and the U-M’s dead-serious campaign to bring Ann Arbor back to the theatrical big leagues.
It’s been nearly sixty-five years since Arthur Miller sat in a rented room at 411 North State Street in Ann Arbor and in six days wrote his first play. That work, No Villain, won Miller a Hopwood Award worth $250—half the sum it had cost him to come to Michigan in the first place—and convinced him he had what it took to compete with the reigning Broadway playwrights of his day: people like Clifford Odets, Maxwell Anderson, and Philip Barry.
Today, of course, Miller’s name outshines all the rest. “He’s the greatest living American playwright,” says U-M English prof Enoch Brater. With Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Miller created the plays that became the bedrock of American theater. His best-known work, Death of a Salesman, has been performed around the world. Last year’s Broadway revival won four Tony Awards half a century after the play premiered in 1949.
Arthur Miller returns to Ann Arbor this month to give the keynote address at an international symposium honoring him on his eighty-fifth birthday. It’s an auspicious moment in the American theater, nationally as well as locally.
An Up and Down Track Record in Ann Arbor
From New York to California, the commercial stage is thriving. For the first time in years, thanks to a booming economy, every theater on both Broadway and Off Broadway is lit. Big musicals earn huge grosses in New York and spawn profitable touring productions that play to packed houses in places like Toronto and Detroit. Nonprofit theater attendance across the country is also up, according to a 1999 survey by the New York–based Theater Communications Group, as are artist salaries, education and outreach programs, and individual giving. But the costs of producing theater are higher than ever, and competition for arts funding is fierce.
Ann Arbor—whose theatrical track record is at best “up and down,” says Russ Collins of the Michigan Theater—offers a portrait of the art in miniature. Home to one of the oldest university theater programs in the country, the city courted the Guthrie Theater in the late 1950s but lost out to Minneapolis. In the 1960s, under the auspices of the U-M’s Professional Theater Program (PTP), Ann Arbor played host to one of the foremost nonprofit repertory theaters in America, Ellis Rabb’s Association of Producing Artists, or APA. At its heyday in the mid-1960s, the APA earned praise from New York Times critic Walter Kerr as “the best repertory company we possess.” The Times called Ann Arbor “a major regional theater center.”
Since then, it’s been a roller-coaster ride. By 1970 the APA had largely dissolved. The PTP continued to bring in touring shows from the likes of Ontario’s Stratford Festival and John Houseman’s Acting Company, but its visionary co-directors, husband and wife Robert Schnitzer and Marcella Cisney, retired shortly after the construction of the Power Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. In 1973 the PTP was merged into the U-M theater department and placed under the direction of the department chair, a move that further weakened the once maverick organization. “It never got back on its feet again, which is heartbreaking,” says longtime producer, performer, and Ann Arbor theater patron Judy Dow Rumelhart.
Rumelhart herself was involved in a brief attempt to create an outdoor Greek theater festival in Ypsilanti in the late 1960s. The theater’s first and only season starred Ruby Dee, Dame Judith Anderson, and Bert Lahr. But fragile community support, poor leadership, and a deteriorating economic climate doomed the effort.
In the late 1970s Ann Arbor theater aficionado Jim Packard spearheaded an ambitious town-gown endeavor to organize a summer performing arts festival on the scale of Stratford. “I believe it is the manifest destiny of Ann Arbor to become the cultural capital of the region,” Packard said at the time.
But despite an elaborate, two-year planning process that included detailed marketing and feasibility studies, consultations with nonprofit theater professionals throughout the country, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others, the project foundered—partly because of turf wars between the city and the university, partly because of a statewide recession, and partly because the university was not prepared to market the endeavor on the scale it required. From the spoils of the project, today’s much smaller Ann Arbor Summer Festival emerged.
Twice in the 1980s the U-M tried to establish professional companies in alliance with its theater department, but both efforts—Walter Eysselinck’s Michigan Ensemble Theater and John Russell Brown’s Project Theater—folded after a few seasons. In each case, the department chair was simultaneously artistic director of the professional company, in an arrangement that had already proved unworkable in the early 1970s.
In 1991 Hollywood actor Jeff Daniels opened the Purple Rose Theater in his hometown, Chelsea. In 1996 Ann Arbor’s Performance Network went professional. Both companies are opening new theaters this season, a mark of their prosperity (see sidebar, “Reversals of Fortune”).
But Purple Rose and Performance Network are small companies that present exclusively new plays on modest budgets. Ann Arbor continues to lack the kind of first-rate anchor that a large-budget, nationally visible theater such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis provides.
In a now legendary irony, Sir Tyrone Guthrie toyed with putting his theater in Ann Arbor in the late 1950s but ultimately chose Minneapolis because of its more lucrative business climate. U-M administrators gave Guthrie an initially “cool reception,” remembers Wilfred Kaplan, who was involved in the effort to lure Guthrie to Ann Arbor. That, coupled with a lukewarm response from the Detroit business community, steered Guthrie away from Michigan. “Everyone had to come together, and they didn’t,” Kaplan recalls.
Theater: The Weak Sister
Today, Ann Arbor’s theater scene doesn’t begin to approach its musical and dance offerings in either quality or quantity. In a town that routinely sees the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, Yo Yo Ma, Mark Morris, and the Martha Graham Company, theater is “the weak sister,” says Russ Collins. Collins attributes the situation to Ann Arbor’s German-immigrant heritage. “Music is strong because the Germans valued it. These social patterns hold sway even when the ethnic relevance has gone away.”
For U-M president Lee Bollinger, theater is the missing link in Ann Arbor’s otherwise rich cultural picture. “We should have theater that is as vibrant as the music that we experience on campus,” he says. A passionate advocate of the arts who carries a copy of Shakespeare with him much of the time and tries to read something from it “almost every day,” Bollinger has put theater at the center of his vision for the university. In fact, the former law professor and dean is the one person with both the imagination and the means to change not only the university’s but Ann Arbor’s theatrical fortunes in a big way, and he seems determined to do it.
At a press conference last spring, Bollinger announced plans to build a Walgreen Drama Center near the Power Center, on the university’s Central Campus. The new complex will include two theaters: a 600-seat Arthur Miller Theater and an as yet unnamed 100-seat space.
During the same press conference, University Musical Society president Ken Fischer announced the launch of the first full-fledged theater season in the organization’s 122-year history. The season, which opens this month, will include appearances by the Gate Theater of Dublin, Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater, and a three-week residency by one of the world’s foremost classical theater companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company. The season ends next April with a performance piece that UMS has co-commissioned with composer Benjamin Bagby and theater director and visual artist Ping Chong.
A Look at the RSC Residency
By far the largest, most expensive, and riskiest component of the UMS theater season is the RSC residency. “It’s the biggest thing we have ever done. Ever,” says Fischer. RSC is presenting all eight Shakespeare history plays in chronological order in a single year, an “extraordinary dramatic marathon,” in the words of the New York Times, that’s rarely been tried on any stage. The company will present four of those productions at the Power Center next March. In addition to paying the staggering cost of transporting a company of fifty-three (thirty actors and a crew of twenty-three) to Ann Arbor for three weeks, UMS is contributing significantly to the cost of producing the series, which will open in its entirety in Stratford, England, move to London, and conclude in abbreviated form in Ann Arbor. No other foreign tour is planned.
The transatlantic partnership that has evolved between the two groups is unique, according to Barbara Grove, RSC’s American representative: “It goes much beyond a tour. This has turned into a prototype.” Under the terms of its agreement, RSC will visit Ann Arbor at least two more times in the next five years and will make UMS its premier university partner in the United States.
The company itself “honestly contends they could not have done this cycle as they’re doing it without the University of Michigan,” Grove says. As a measure of its respect, RSC recently invited Bollinger to serve on its American board of directors.
Bollinger realizes that many in the community find his interest in theater surprising. “One of the great things about being university president,” he admits, “is that people have such low expectations of your cultural interests.”
If UMS is unable to raise its $2.5 million share of support for the RSC project, Bollinger has guaranteed that the university will make up the shortfall. In addition, he has already assembled most of the $20 million it will take to build the Walgreen Drama Center. Michigan alumnus Charles Walgreen Jr. has contributed between $11 and $12 million to the project, and Bollinger will use an undesignated bequest to the university to cover most of the rest.
Arthur Miller Theater
He is especially eager to build the Arthur Miller Theater. While some believe the university is moving too fast on the project—“I believe they should have [first] built an entire theater department, an Arthur Miller School of Theater,” says Rumelhart—Bollinger contends that it’s time the university honored its link to one of the most enduring voices in American, and indeed world, culture. “This is what you hold up to the students—that one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century found his talents here,” the president says.
When he first pitched the idea of an Arthur Miller Theater to Miller himself, the playwright sent back a note that now sits, framed, in Bollinger’s office. “The theater is a lovely idea. I’ve resisted similar proposals from others but it seems right from Ann Arbor,” Miller wrote.
The question now is whether Bollinger’s commitment portends a new golden age for theater in Ann Arbor—or whether this is just another bump in the roller coaster.
In Arthur Miller’s heyday, the great playwrights of the age were all seen on Broadway. Production costs and ticket prices for New York and major touring shows weren’t as prohibitive as they are now, and the theater was part and parcel of middle-class life and culture. Certain plays—Death of a Salesman among them—became part of the nation’s collective consciousness.
That happens far less frequently today—“which doesn’t mean the theater is in a bad state,” suggests Enoch Brater, who is organizing this month’s Arthur Miller symposium and will be a key participant in the Musical Society’s theater outreach programs. It does mean, though, that the old rules don’t apply. Theater—especially theater in a digitized, cable-ready twenty-first century—must reinvent itself, as it has countless times in its history, if it is to be anything but a quaintly anachronistic pastime.
Why do people go to the theater, anyhow?
Why do people go to the theater, anyhow? Simply to be entertained? To be sociable? To learn something? Or does live theatrical performance continue to meet some fundamental human need that no other medium can approach?
Obviously, those who have devoted themselves to the art think it does. Broughton believes “the more time we spend in front of these TV monitors, the more we want live entertainment. Theater lets you interact.”
“The more inundated people are with technology that’s been manipulated and studied to appeal to a preconceived notion of what audiences want, the more valuable live performance is,” maintains UMS’s [Director of Programming] Michael Kondziolka. “We program against that culture. And guess what? People are hungry for it. People are coming in record numbers to our programs, which are decidedly non–market driven—if by ‘market driven’ you mean tested and focus-grouped and surveyed and preresearched.”
At Chelsea’s Purple Rose, selling live theater to young audiences, in particular, is “a survival issue,” says artistic director Guy Sanville. “Tomorrow’s audiences are found in today’s classrooms.” What’s more, Sanville contends, theater is “a healing alternative to a chemical high. Arts and music are the drugs of choice for millions of kids.”
At its most basic level, a volunteer theater like the Ann Arbor Civic serves much the same social function as a church—it’s a gathering place for the community. Although he does not want the university’s multimillion-dollar Arthur Miller Theater to serve exclusively as a community theater, Lee Bollinger has said he is “open” to both community and student use of the space. He does not intend to place it under the control of either the theater department or the School of Music, however. Bollinger’s vision is larger than that. He’s convened a universitywide committee to consider plans for the new complex, as well as a trio of informal advisors: Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, Purple Rose founder Jeff Daniels, and Jack O’Brien, a Michigan alumnus who is artistic director of the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
Bollinger concedes that he’s not yet sure what will go into either the Miller Theater or the Walgreen Drama Center once they’re built. He wants the complex to be a place for the creation of new work. He’ll seek an endowment to fund national and international collaborations with professional companies and a playwright-in-residence program. He’s toying with the idea of finding an artistic director to oversee “major alliances, new-play programs,” and the like. He is “open to thinking about UMS running it.”
He acknowledges that what’s missing from the Ann Arbor theater scene is professional theater of the very highest caliber. But he is admittedly vague about how he would address that deficiency, or whether he even wants to. He’s not sure whether the new Miller Theater should be strictly a presenting house for shows developed elsewhere or should occasionally produce its own plays.
Bollinger hopes to choose an architect by the end of this month. Construction of the new complex is expected to take several years. In the meantime, performing-arts organizations as disparate as UMS, Performance Network, the Ann Arbor Civic Theater, and University Productions, which manages most of the other stage spaces on the U-M campus, are watching developments closely.
A continuing commitment
One thing is clear: although Lee Bollinger’s determination is sufficient to build an Arthur Miller Theater, a continuing commitment will be needed if it is truly to live up to its name.
“Ann Arbor could have as rich a theatrical life as it does music if the University of Michigan, or some other group of subsidizers, will invest for ten years,” Russ Collins believes. “Theater has been strongly supported here in the past, but then debt and ambivalence set in, and it goes away. There needs to be a commitment of a significant period of time.”
Mark Lamos, former artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut and an adjunct professor in the U-M theater department, goes farther: “For a community such as Ann Arbor to support professional theater at the highest level, you need a group of people who believe in it so strongly they will be willing to fund-raise ceaselessly, choose and support artistic and management leaders, and be standard-bearers within the community for the institution. Every great regional theater began as a dream of pillars of the community.”
Such a theater, Lamos continues, also requires “large corporate pockets, large personal ones,” and an audience “that will sustain and support a variety of theatrical productions. An audience for an institution must be developed not through a hit-and-flop mentality but through a newly discovered conviction that the institution itself is more important than any one show—that its artistic mission is worth subscribing to.”
Finding and maintaining such support isn’t easy. Lamos left Hartford Stage in 1997, after seventeen seasons at its helm, because he’d grown tired of the ceaseless struggle for money. “Corporations were merging or downsizing, and the same group of wealthy arts devotees were being pursued by hospitals, universities, the symphony, the ballet, the museum. The community became too small to support my visions of artistic growth and institutional expansion.” Ann Arbor, he points out, is even smaller than Hartford.
It’s unclear, too, how a town the size of Ann Arbor, a four-hour drive from Chicago, the nearest major theatrical center, can attract the country’s finest actors, directors, and designers. Unlike musicians, who can fly in and out of a city in a matter of days or even hours to give a concert, theater artists typically need weeks of ensemble rehearsal to mount a production. Why spend that time in Ann Arbor?
Why spend time in Ann Arbor?
“We have to think about what could happen in Ann Arbor, in regard to theater, that could not happen in New York, Chicago, or London,” says Enoch Brater. “What can we allow theater professionals who are based there to do here that they can’t do there?”
Brater believes the university is the answer. In the absence of significant federal support, he maintains, universities today “are the great patrons of the arts. We can’t rely on Congress anymore. And it’s unrealistic to rely only on private support.”
It’s a vision Lee Bollinger shares—and he’s even writing a book on the subject. Last year Bollinger quietly provided $10,000 in university funds so that, under the auspices of UMS, singer Jessye Norman and choreographer Bill T. Jones could spend a week on campus working, in private, on a project they ultimately premiered in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Great Performances series. According to Ken Fischer, both artists reported afterward that they accomplished more “in one week in Ann Arbor than they could have in three months in New York.”
As Bollinger, Fischer, and their collaborators launch their new theater initiative, they can draw both inspiration and caution from the U-M’s own history. Back in the 1960s, generous university support enabled Ellis Rabb and his APA to develop productions in Ann Arbor that the company then took to New York. At the same time the Professional Theater Program, which brought the APA and other companies to campus in the 1960s, operated with little university control, as UMS does now.
Back in 1961, when university administrators invited Robert Schnitzer and Marcella Cisney to move to Ann Arbor from New York to run the PTP, they offered to build the couple a new theater. The pair turned it down. Writing about that gesture in a 1970 article for Players: The Magazine of the American Theater, journalist Glenn Loney observed, “The American Way is to build a theater in haste and then try to find out how to use it somehow, at leisure. [Schnitzer and Cisney] understood what few other artistic teams have: that you must first find out who your audience is, where it is, what it wants, what it needs—not always the same thing—and what varieties of creativity and service you can hope to present.”
Paradoxically, after Schnitzer and Cisney finally agreed to a new theater, and not long after the university built the Power Center, the couple left town. “It was retirement time, darling,” recalls Schnitzer, who, at age ninety-four, now lives in Connecticut. “I felt I’d paid my dues. It was a strenuous business, that dozen years. We worked like dogs.”
Schnitzer and Cisney were certainly entitled to their retirement, but without their leadership the PTP drifted and soon faded away. What’s to prevent history from repeating itself with the Arthur Miller Theater?
An Audience Ten Years Later
By September UMS had already sold over 1,000 complete RSC cycle tickets, and Fischer and Kondziolka are optimistic that the momentum can be sustained in subsequent seasons. “We think the time is right,” Kondziolka says. “We can help support the university by starting the labor-intensive, difficult work of building an audience, reestablishing a community, so that by the time the Arthur Miller Theater opens its doors there will be an audience ready, willing, and excited to accept this gift.”
That would be a tremendous accomplishment, and an essential prelude to the creation of a successful new theater. But will the Arthur Miller Theater continue to thrive ten or fifteen years down the road, once the novelty of the idea has worn off? Will a 600-seat theater be sufficient to offset the costs of producing or presenting world-class work, especially in a post-Bollinger administration whose focus is likely to be elsewhere? Will community leaders be willing, as Mark Lamos alleges they must, to “do anything on earth—including mortgage their homes” to keep the theater alive? Or was Tyrone Guthrie right when he decided that Ann Arbor couldn’t support the level of theater he had in mind?
At the outset, of course, the ball is in Bollinger’s court. It bodes well that the president himself is passionately excited by the prospect of bringing topflight theater to Ann Arbor. Shortly after Bollinger announced his plans for the building, Russ Collins sent him a note saying he hoped that Bollinger would listen “to his own inspiration and vision on this. It’s going to take that kind of leadership.”
There’s one other piece of advice that Bollinger would be especially wise to heed. It comes from Miller himself, who after all has chosen Ann Arbor as the one city to have a theater bearing his name. When the playwright learned last May that the regents had approved the Arthur Miller Theater, he wrote to Bollinger, “Who would have believed back in 1932–1934 when I was saving $500 to go to Michigan that it would come to this? Now to mount some memorable productions!”
Don’t miss the authors panel on January 28, 2015 at the Ann Arbor District Library, which includes Leslie Stainton as well as U-M faculty Martin Walsh and Leigh Woods. Moderated by UMS Director of Education & Community Engagement Jim Leiha. The panel will spotlight Staging Ground and also provide an updated look at the state of theater in Ann Arbor today.
Student Spotlight: Could You Repeat That? and Other Stories from Paris
Editor’s Note: Clare Brennan is a junior at the University of Michigan. This past summer she interned for ANRAT, a theater research company in Paris co-founded by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director at Théàtre de la Ville. Their production of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author comes to UMS October 24th and 25th.
The summer of 2014 consisted mainly of getting lost. As a first-timer to the grand city of Paris, or to any sort of international travel for that matter, I had incessantly practiced the correct way to ask for directions to the bus stop during my entire eight hour flight. Before I could get a “Bonjour” in edgewise, a bored flight attendant directed me towards my destination in perfect English, and I was on my way.
I’d gladly forget my first trek from the airport to the dorms, dragging my two oversized suitcases across town, but after the jetlag wore off, I started to get the hang of things. I became a lover of maps, discovering the metro system as quickly as possible. That knowledge invariably went out the window as soon as summer construction began. Eventually, I started ending up in the same places, and what was once a completely strange conglomerate of streets started feeling a little more like home.
Once settled in, I dove into the incredible wealth of theater surrounding me. With over 150 professional theaters within its city limits, Paris never let quantity deteriorate quality. One of my first shows was Ionesco’s Rhinocéros at Théàtre de la Ville. I had missed the production when it came to UMS last season, and was so excited when fellow UMS intern Flores Komatsu offered up a ticket to join him. We met at the theater and crossed one of the many bridges that connect the vastly different banks of the river to find a small café for dinner. A group of men of various ages played pétanque, the French equivalent of bocci ball, on a dirt patch next to us, a common pastime on summer evenings. Obviously American, we prattled away, catching up on upcoming projects, book recommendations, and travel plans. Eventually, the couple from Colorado sitting next to us struck up a conversation, and after twenty minutes we had learned the story of their ex-pat daughter and swapped recipes for favorite dishes we’ve discovered. Caught up in conversation, we barely realized we were running dangerously close to curtain time. We sprinted back to the theater and found our seats with just enough time to absorb the atmosphere.
I love theaters. Between their velvet curtains and cushioned seats, both actor and audience member gain some security to suspend their disbelief for a while and hear a story. I appreciate that sense of trust that seems built into the walls, and I always try and find it again before every show I see.
At Théàtre de la Ville, the most striking quality I found was its size, housing around 1,500. Our Monday evening show was sold out, and as I looked around, I noticed that most of those in attendance were around my age. In my exploration of the arts at home, I’ve often found truly invested younger patrons more difficult to find. There, young people come to shows, stay for talkbacks, and attend season premieres; Théàtre de la Ville’s season announcement, for instance, packed the house just as tightly as their best-known runs.
The house lights dimmed, and I experienced again what would quickly become one of my favorite culture moments abroad. Before an actor ever sets foot on stage, a score of audience members will audibly shush one another. It will be hard to forget my first experience of this sort, as the majority of hisses were directed at me. Foreign air and a lack of sleep had left me sick for a couple weeks, and, apparently, I thought that the start of the Moroccan acrobatic performance Azimut at Théàtre du Rond Point would be a lovely time for a coughing fit; the surrounding patrons did not. I quickly picked up this less-than-subtle social cue, and by the end of my two months, I was joining in as passive-aggressively as possible. Strong reactions like this were never out of place. At the Avignon Theater Festival, a production of Lemi Ponifasio’s I Am, a World War II homage in dance, produced critical laughter, side comments, even a small exodus after a particularly difficult movement. However, with this piece included, I also never saw a performance without at least five minutes of applause at the close.
Seeing theater in a foreign language took a bit of adjustment. Rhinocéros opens with a beautiful monologue. I couldn’t tell you what the first few lines mean now, as I was still looking for surtitles within the first few moments before I remembered where I was. I did have opportunities to try reading French surtitles during a Dutch production of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and a Japanese kabuki style of the Mahabharata. Reading and translating French while listening to another language with which I had no experience left my American brain a little withered, but it did help me to abandon any pretenses I had when I arrived and dedicate a couple of hours to a completely new experience. Or four and a half hours, in the case of the Dutch Fountainhead. (I have to admit, I dozed off for about twenty minutes of that. I read the book in high school, so that counts, right?)
That night, Flores and I left the theater and lingered on the rainy sidewalk with a crowd of theatergoers doing the same. We all shared our thoughts, compared interpretations, raved over actors, and tried to weave our way through the denser moments. We said our goodbyes for the night, and as I turned to leave, I realized that I was pretty disoriented. I was lost in Paris again, but what else was new. Theater abroad left me dizzy and buzzing, not quite sure of where I stood but happy that I was there. I was used to the feeling by now, and there could be worse places to get turned around. Paris is a city for wandering, anyway.