Your Cart UMS

Tweet Seats: Propeller

For our third tweet seats event, we saw Propeller Theater Company’s Twelfth Night at Power Center.

UMS: Tell us a little about you. If you have an online presence you like to share publicly, please tell us the relevant websites or user names/handles.

Annette Smith: Independent thinker, small furry creature lover, amateur photographer, lifelong learner, automotive marketing executive. Proud graduate of Chicago and Michigan. Find me @bluepersiancat on Twitter.

Hannah Mahalak: My name is Hannah Mahalak. I go to Chelsea High School as a Senior and plan to attend Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee next year. Currently I am involved in the high-school show choir, Company C, and also the Varsity Swim Team. I am @ha_m24 on Twitter.

Nisreen Salka: My name is Nisreen Salka and I am a freshman at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, studying Business Administration (Marketing) with a minor in Screen Arts and Cultures. I enjoy photography, writing, reading, and socializing with friends. I am very passionate about everything I do, and throw my heart and soul into my every endeavor. I am @Nizzi_Salka on Twitter.

Jasmine Hentschel: My relationship with UMS started back in my sophomore year at U of M, when I started interning in the production department. It was one of the most enriching, enlightening, and greatest learning experiences not only of my undergraduate career, but of my entire life. I currently work for Cambridge Michigan Language Assessments making standardized English language tests, and I’m headed to U of M’s School of Information to study computational linguistics in the fall. @JasmineShuree on Twitter.

UMS: In one sentence, how would you describe your relationship with technology?

Annette Smith: Love/hate. Still remember my first computer and discovering the internet…I didn’t sleep for two weeks, it was like the door to a magical whole new world had opened to me, and I couldn’t get enough. I also fell in love the first time I saw a flat screen television, but was too practical to buy one at $12K. The “hate” part comes having to figure out how to work/use the new stuff, and oftentimes getting frustrated while I’m doing this.

Hannah Mahalak: I would say I am pretty tech-savvy. I have a smart phone, so I tend to keep up with the latest and greatest trends and news updates.

Nisreen Salka: I believe that technology is an essential part of daily life; I use my iPhone, laptop, and camera every day to finish academic work, schedule appointments, coordinate extracurricular activities, and keep in touch with friends that I haven’t seen in a while.

Jasmine Hentschel: I am wonderfully overwhelmed by the incredible knowledge and power that technological advances of recent decades have afforded people all over the world.

UMS: Why did you decide to participate in this project?

Annette Smith: As someone relatively new to Twitter, I want to take my tweet game to the next level. Blending Twitter with my love of the arts seems like a natural step. I am intrigued by the prospect of being able to share my thoughts, reactions to the performance with others real-time. I’m also interested in how/if others respond. It may be crickets out there. We’ll see!

Hannah Mahalak: I am taking a class at Chelsea [High School] that is a mentorship course with UMS and getting a little taste of each department. I’m trying to get as much experience as I can in the music business and all that goes into it since that’s what I will be studying next year.

Nisreen Salka: Although I love technology as a whole, I have never jumped onto the social media bandwagon. I suppose I always thought it was some sort of fad, a waste of time, or a superficial way to gather information and/or keep in touch. It has recently dawned on me, however, that maybe social media has some merit, and I decided it was about time that I tried it. I want to see if it would really interfere with my life in a negative way, or actually improve my understanding of the world around me in the same way the rest of technology does. I would also like to see the impact it has on my understanding of the performance.

Jasmine Hentschel: I think UMS is an incredible organization that really brings a great deal of phenomenal art and culture to the vibrant city of Ann Arbor. Having worked as an intern for several years in the production department, I’ve been to dozens and dozens of UMS shows and I thought this would be an exciting new way to get involved. I am very curious to see how it feels to be engaged in the performance in a totally different way.

UMS: To you, what does it mean to “be present” during a performance or another arts experience?

Annette Smith: This is a tough one to put in words, but to me I think this means to be engaged in the artistic experience with my heart as well as my mind. When I’m “present”, I am 100% engaged. Every word/note/movement is heightened. Sometimes, I can actually feel the performance. To be honest, it’s easiest for me to “be present” at musical performances, where I close my eyes, and just focus on the sounds and how they make me feel. And when I finally feel that first frisson, I know I’m there.

Hannah Mahalak: To “Be Present” is a lot more than just sitting in the audience. I believe that you need to try and look for a deeper meaning to each story the performer is trying to convey. The more you invest into the performance the more you can get out of it.

Nisreen Salka: Being present in a performance means watching the performance attentively, understanding what is happening on stage, and connecting with the performers themselves.

Jasmine Hentschel: Being “present” is a matter of being engaged in a performance and giving it all of your consideration and attention, regardless of your preconceived notions and expectations of what it might be. It’s about not only noticing the little things, including all of the time and effort that gets put into every aspect of a performance, but also how it makes you feel before, during and after, and how you the art you’re watching ties into and relates to your personal experiences and those of all of mankind, whether it be theater, dance, music, or some other art form.

Meet the tweets.

How did tweeting affect your experience of the performance?

Annette Smith: I had to take my eyes off stage to tweet, so missed seeing a few things, but still felt like I heard everything. Tweet seat location – at back of the balcony – was not ideal. I could not really see facial expressions, costume details, etc. It’s a little tight and cramped having all of the tweeters (twitterers?) sitting side by side with the black boxes on our laps. Not unbearable, but there definitely wasn’t much space to move or stretch.

Hannah Mahalak: I really enjoyed the tweet seat experience. It made me pay attention to the play more and stay focused. It was a really unique and innovative way to get the word out about the performances and the UMS organization.

Nisreen Salka: Tweeting during the performance allowed me to express my opinions about the performance without speaking, and therefore without annoying others who were fully immersed in the play. It also encouraged me to think more about the purpose of the play, almost to critique it, rather than just follow the narrative. I was able to think more about the artistic merit of the performers, express those opinions to other interested viewers, and read their responses. Exposure to other viewers’ opinions also encouraged me to notice aspects of the performance that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Jasmine Hentschel: This was my first tweet seats experience, and it was definitely a little more difficult than I had expected. I think it would have been much different had it been a musical performance, because with music you can still hear and feel the music, even if you’re looking down at your phone. With Twelfth Night, I had difficulty getting adjusted to the language at first, and was completely unfamiliar with this particular play. I had a hard time trying to tweet during the performance at first because I had to completely stop paying attention and look down at my phone. It was a matter of removing myself from the very personal and introspective experience of watching, experiencing, and processing the play and changing my mindset to think about how to express my thoughts and opinions to a public audience. You have to not only carefully consider your thoughts, but also how to phrase them in a way that will make sense to other people. You have to use your brainpower to focus on minor things like spelling, grammar, and how to make your thoughts make sense that otherwise would never be crossing your mind during a performance.

Taylor Davis: I enjoyed that not only could I tweet my thoughts and experience, but through following the #umslobby hashtag I could communicate and interact by others.

Did you expect this effect or are you surprised by this outcome?

Annette Smith: I expected having to take my eyes off stage to tweet – no way around this. Since I was expecting this, it didn’t really bother me. The location of the seats was a surprise. To get the maximum visual experience of live theater, the back of the balcony is almost the last place you want to be. I didn’t expect the “tight” feeling from all of us sitting together. But we adjusted. After intermission, some of the tweet participants either exited or moved, freeing up space, and making it much more comfortable.

Nisreen Salka: I did expect to consider the performance more carefully, but I did not expect the strong effect of other viewers’ responses. At times, the tweets followed almost like a conversation, with questions and answers, and at others the tweets formed a list of comments. Both formats encouraged me to notice aspects of the performance I wouldn’t have otherwise, and to consider those elements when I tweeted again.

Hannah Mahalak: Yes, I expected to pay more attention to the play and get really involved in the play and each character.

Jasmine Hentschel: I definitely expected some sense of disconnect just considering the nature of the gig. However, like I said, I think I didn’t totally take into account the fact that doing this for a musical performance and a play is a totally different thing. It was a little harder than I anticipated, but I think it definitely would’ve been easier if I had been more familiar with the play ahead of time!

Taylor Davis: I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed interacting with others. At first, I was nervous that I didn’t really have anything that I considered “tweet worthy” and that my twitter followers would enjoy and interact with. However, as the performance progressed, I was able to see what other people were saying through following the #umslobby hashtag. Once I was able to read their tweets and see their interactions, I tailored my tweets to join in the conversation.

What I found the most surprising was that I had two friends text me that the next time I go to a UMS event they want to come with. I also had someone respond to my tweet asking where I was, which is kind of a cool grassroots and authentic way that UMS can further their marketing.

Curious to try it? Sign up.

Propeller Blog: Hauntings

Editor’s Note: Propeller performs Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew in Ann Arbor, February 20-23. Leslie Stainton covered the company’s last visit to Ann Arbor in 2011 with Richard III. This post is a part of a series.

Photo: Twelfth Night. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

“Everything in the theatre, the bodies, the materials utilized, the language, the space itself, is now and has always been haunted, and that haunting has been an essential part of the theatre’s meaning to and reception by its audiences in all times and all places.” —Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine

Among the ghosts I detected onstage Wednesday night—images and actions that reminded me of the last time I saw this company at work, here in Ann Arbor in 2011—were:

  • Music—not recorded but performed onstage by the ensemble on an eclectic range of instruments, among them cello, clarinet, sax, bongo, wine glass and balloon
  • Acoustic sound—no miked voices, thank god
  • Chorus—the company is, for the most part, onstage throughout the show, donning half-masks to function collectively as both witnesses of and ghostly participants in the story
  • Men playing women—I’d forgotten the unsettling pleasure of watching one gender impersonate the other (and, in the case of Viola-Cesario, male playing female playing male); this is how Shakespeare meant his plays to be seen, and while I don’t always love it, there is, as one actor said in last night’s post-show talkback, a “layering” that speaks to the ways we each layer ourselves in guises
  • A quality of low-tech and handmade—of course this isn’t literally true (the show is designed and lit and costumed within an inch of its life), but you get the sensation this troupe of players has rather spontaneously come together on a platform to tell you a story, and they’re going to do it by hand, converting wardrobes into rooms, turning a chest of drawers on its side to function as a bar, picking up whatever musical instrument is at hand, grabbing costumes and props from a clothing rack, creating bird song with their own voices, acting out a tale as if they were kids in a playroom making their toys talk
  • Syringe—remember Richard III with its sinister band of nurses? It came back in a flash last night when Sir Toby Belch produced a giant syringe to sedate Malvolio

There’s another way in which this production of Twelfth Night reminded me of Propeller’s last visit, and that’s the way it seemed to blend both previous productions—the somber, monochromatic Richard III and the zany Comedy of Errors—into a single show, at once monochromatic and zany. I’ve never seen a darker Twelfth Night, or a bleaker take on any Shakespeare comedy. Picture a score of actors, almost all of them in black, on a gray stage with sepia furnishings against a thundery sky. I kept waiting for unadulterated comedy to erupt from this gloomy space, and of course it did, but mostly in quick, jabbing bursts, and always with an edge.

And that’s as it should be, said actor Joseph Chance (Viola-Cesario) during last night’s post-show talkback. “There’s a lot of violence behind the play,” Chance told the hundred or so audience members who’d stayed behind to discuss the production with cast members. (I recommend it—and I’m not a big fan of talkbacks. There’s a second one tonight after Shrew.)

Malvolio’s humiliation is hilarious but also deeply cruel, Chance went on. It’s painful to behold. The ending of the comedy is not wholly sweet. Chance said he thinks this all “has a lot to do with Shakespeare’s ability to last through the years. He doesn’t pander.” The play is not unabashedly romantic, nor is it purely tragic—like life, it’s a mingling of both. When characters wonder if they’re going mad, they’re not being cute. There’s a real chance they are—and we literally hear that madness as it threatens to envelop them.

Here’s what assistant director George Ransley has to say about all this:

Caro McKay told me the other day that Shrew was the darker of the two plays on offer at Power. Now that I’ve seen Twelfth Night, I’m wondering how that’ll play out onstage. All I know is what actor Ben Allen said last night: “This show is monochrome. Shrew is disco lights like you’ve never had. It’s like drinking 10 espressos.”

Back in Town, and Loving It

Editor’s Note: Propeller performs Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew in Ann Arbor, February 20-23. Leslie Stainton covered the company’s last visit to Ann Arbor in 2011 with Richard III. In this interview, Leslie chats with Propeller’s executive producer Caro McKay.

Photo: The Taming of The Shrew. Photo by Manual Harlan.

Caro McKay has been around the theater long enough to call herself “a dinosaur.” Now the executive producer of Propeller, she managed the English-language tour of the Peter Brook’s iconic Mahabarata back in the 1980s—a production students now learn about in performance studies classes, as McKay discovered to her surprise when she visited a class in U-M’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance yesterday.

McKay’s been to Ann Arbor twice before—first with the venerable Royal Shakespeare Company nearly a decade ago, and then in 2011 with Propeller, the rambunctious, unpredictable, musically minded all-male troupe she launched a few years ago with the director Edward Hall. They’re all back in A2 this week with a pair of Shakespeare plays McKay says complement one another in dizzying ways—“because one is so harsh on love and marriage, and the other is so life-affirming about it.”

While crews were unpacking sets and focusing lights in the Power Center late yesterday afternoon, McKay took time to field a few questions by phone from her hotel room.

Leslie Stainton: What’s the best part about coming back to Ann Arbor?

Caro McKay: It’s the people. It really is. UMS is a fantastic host. And we’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing to the audiences. American audiences are very vocal. You let us know if you find it amusing or shocking. You tell us, and English audiences are rather restrained. It’s such a joy to have that interaction.

LS: What’s especially challenging about these two shows, Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew?

CM: Shrew is very funny but also very painful—there are very few kind words in that show. It’s the shorter, tighter, harsher of the two plays. For me it just passes in a moment, really. It’s riveting. And to follow up with Twelfth Night, which is a beautifully balanced bit of love with melancholy and humor—and also its own viciousness.

LS: Anything in particular we should be looking for in either play?

CM: Both shows are full of music. That’s very particular to Propeller, the way the actors are active musicians. I think there will be a lot for people to enjoy. I should just say very quietly that Act Two of Twelfth Night starts with a little bit of a tap dance routine.

LS: What about the sets?

CM: This time we’ve come back with a set that is shared between both productions, using wardrobes that you can walk into, out of, swing around. One wardrobe opens and has an organ. There’s an enormous great chandelier that is used in both plays. Twelfth Night can be quite black and white when we start in the beginning, in court, in this rather miserable little place … and then the color comes into it through the play.

LS: Are there certain moments where you’re especially curious to see how audiences react?

CM: I’m wondering how they will respond to the wedding in Shrew. So we’ll just wait and see what comments that might bring in. And to Petruchio and his servant. And I think the audience for Twelfth Night will enjoy the box tree scene—when Malvolio gets the letter to read. I think that is done in a rather different way. I’m very much looking forward to the comments. It was a rather lively debate last time.

What’s next in the Propeller pipeline?

CM: Our next two shows are Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors. Popular titles. We’re building our audiences. Because a year after that, from the autumn of 2014 to 2015 we’re going to produce our history cycle. So we’re consolidating audiences, and then we’re going to sock ’em with a whole load of history. (Laughs.) Five plays, and we’ve decided that our version of the history cycle will include Edward III, which is attributed to Shakespeare.

LS: Any chance we’ll get to see it in Ann Arbor?

CM: We’d be so proud to. But I’m very very aware that Ann Arbor has had the RSC history plays! We would be only too proud—we love coming here already.