The Network of Ensemble Theaters' MicroFest USA

Part 1, Detroit

This from my friend and colleague, Ashley Sparks:

Detroit is—insert the sound of potential, resistance, and innovation.
Detroit is—insert your images of visionary landscapes.
Detroit is—insert an urban graffiti prairie garden tilled by strong hands and children’s fingers. Detroit is—insert the adjectives of awe and wonder that remind you of the time before you were cynical.

There is so much I want to tell you about this city, but the words keep bottlenecking. So many positive things, so many heartbreaks, but all of it, a good story—by which I mean a story about goodness.

Once Upon a Time…
Let me take a few steps backs to the beginning. I work for the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), a national coalition of ensemble-based theatre companies, artists, and allies. NET grew out of a need for ensemble artists to come together, at a time when the general field of theatre in the US considered the ensemble form to be a somewhat aberrant organizational structure, admired in theory and practiced in Europe, perhaps, but of no significant artistic value to theatre-making in the US. Back then, about fifteen years ago, NET was a loose network run by volunteers who managed to create annual opportunities to come together, recognizing the power of being in a room with like-minded peers and colleagues, where you didn’t have to explain yourself and where you could draw inspiration, steal good ideas, and recharge artistic batteries. Since its genesis, gatherings and convenings have played a central part in how NET has organized the ensemble field.

By 2009, we felt we had outgrown an annual gathering/conference. We needed to provide our members with more opportunities for participation, in more places, at cheaper prices, while pushing ourselves toward strengthening the field by promoting more rigorous discourse on the issues we felt we needed to tackle. From 2009–2011, NET began a new experiment, asking ourselves: how can we organize regionally for national impact?

a logo
Photo courtesy of www.ensembletheaters.net.

The result was the MicroFest USA initiative. Part performance festival, part think tank, these events were designed to use theatre as an entry point into conversations about pressing topics facing our field. In the initial cycle we hosted events in Atlanta, asking: what are the aesthetics of diversity? Then in Los Angeles, asking: what are the processes ensembles use to generate new work? And then to Philadelphia, where we asked: what is/how do we discuss the genre-defying work of ensembles? At each of these events, the focus was on local work and local companies. As we discovered, many of these artists were unfamiliar to one another; the silos of aesthetics, culture, and geography are very real. These events culminated in a National Summit in Minneapolis, where the three conversations came together and we expanded the learning and discourse to include the field at large, resulting in a National Call to Action with strategies for ensembles to fortify our collective intentionality in addressing these topics.

We believe that artists have the capacity to do it, and we gladly accept the responsibility that comes with making this a reality. This isn’t about bravado. It’s about bravery.

You’re Doing What?!
For NET, it’s not enough to host gatherings or to provide networking opportunities (though we do provide these services and recognize their value). We want to do more. We’ve given ourselves the mandate to be leaders in the field. And at the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, the truth is that we are working to change the world for the better. We believe that artists have the capacity to do it, and we gladly accept the responsibility that comes with making this a reality. This isn’t about bravado. It’s about bravery.

There were so many times during the inaugural MicroFests when I swore that NET would never, ever do this again. Essentially we went from producing one national event to producing three site-specific national events—all within the same time period with no increase in staff, or money! It was crazy… but it was exactly what we needed to be doing.

NET is a national organization, and it’s important to us that we have a real, regular, and meaningful presence around the country. This has everything to do with who we are and who we represent: ensembles. Ensembles are place-based entities. Unlike the pick-up company that comes together for a one-time collaboration on a production, ensemble artists are permanent members of the communities they are serving. It got us thinking: how does place impact art and art impact place?

Of course! It was immediately clear now that we needed to do another MicroFest series, this time focusing on a single topic—place-based artmaking—asking: “What is the impact of art in your community?” The aim of this new cycle is to boost the national significance of local placemaking efforts by creating opportunities for learning exchange that can strengthen local endeavors while also inspiring similar work in other communities. For our host sites, we identified four locations, each geographically remote, each in economic distress, and each models for trailblazing, cross-sector, community-development work. They are: Detroit, Appalachia (Knoxville, TN, and Harlan, KY), New Orleans, and Honolulu.

Whether urban or rural, or in neighborhoods, wards, or “hollers,” the most successful and creative strategies we have identified for making a vibrant place include cross-sector/cross-disciplinary collaborations, which involve community participation alongside arts and non-arts professionals. The merging of multiple perspectives and expertise enable fresh and holistic solutions to some of the community’s most pressing needs and challenges. Some examples:

  • In Detroit’s Osborne neighborhood, The Edible Hut project (sponsored by Community and Public Arts: Detroit) addresses issues such as land use, the environment, and food needs through a public art project created by artists and neighborhood residents.
  • The Thousand Kites project, based in Whitesburg, KY, uses performance, web, video, and radio to create a public space for incarcerated people, corrections officials, the formerly incarcerated, activists, and ordinary citizens to organize around the criminal justice system.
  • The Music Box is an interactive musical village created by the New Orleans Airlift to activate abandoned lots in New Orleans’ Bywater district. More than twenty-three artists, sound engineers, architects, and musicians converted the remains of collapsed houses into musical instruments to redress the futility of blight.
  • The Tutu and Me program, based in Honolulu, is an innovative traveling preschool for Native Hawaiians (ages 0–5) who live in rural communities. Teams of teachers and artists integrate dance, music, theatre, and chanting—spoken/sung in Hawaiian—into learning themes, thus preparing participating youth for academic success while instilling cultural awareness and pride.

As Dudley Cocke, Artistic Director of Roadside Theater in Whitesburg, KY, said to us, “We lose ground because what we do isn’t visible.” MicroFest USA aims to shine a bright spotlight on our partners’ efforts, making their work visible to a larger, local, and national audience while advancing momentum for cultural community-development enterprises.

The Good Story
The first gathering will take place in Detroit. We selected Detroit because it’s a city deep in transformation. This place, which has always been seen as a large, “urban” dwelling is in the process of redefining how they see themselves and how they’re seen by the rest of the nation. Once the fourth largest city in America, Detroit now has a population smaller than Jacksonville, FL (the city experienced a 25% loss of its population in the last decade—many of the citizens who are leaving are middle-class African Americans).

 This place, which has always been seen as a large, “urban” dwelling is in the process of redefining how they see themselves and how they’re seen by the rest of the nation.

The city is at a crossroad, yet there is unquestionably an air of optimism, sparked mostly by a new generation of artists and activists who are committed to revitalizing their community. They look at a vacant lot, and instead of seeing devastation they see the opportunity to grow your own food, or to create a performance space. This isn’t hyperbolic metaphor. This happened. A local group, The Lot, took over an abandoned lot and created an outdoor performance space for theatre, music, and community events (the leader of this project started her graduate studies this year, so the project in on temporary hiatus). Another group, Mosaic, undaunted by high dropout rates at Detroit schools, dedicates themselves to creating theatre with neighborhood students. Similarly, culturally specific organizations like Ploughshares Theatre Company and the performances offered by the Arab American National Museum are embracing shifting demographics.

And it’s not just theatre companies; you see the revitalization movement also happening in visual arts (The Heidleburg Project; MOCAD, The Alley Project), in music (garage rock and electronic movement), in food/community gardens (Komodo Kitchen, Detroit SOUP, Local Orbit)… There is just so much!

And here’s a list of some of my favorite innovative enterprises currently underway in Detroit:

Urban Innovation Exchangean initiative to showcase and advance Detroit's growing social innovation movement.
Green Garagea building located in the Midtown area of Detroit, a business enterprise, and a community of people dedicated to Detroit's sustainable future.
Pony Ride—a study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on our communities.
Detroit Lives!—a creative factory with a social mission of telling a good story about Detroit.
D:hivea physical storefront in Detroit’s Central Business District where you will find help with anything Detroit.

The story of Detroit (and that of Appalachia, New Orleans, and Honolulu) is the story of our country. It chronicles the rise of industry and “world-class cities,” and also of class and racial oppression, leading to decline and ultimately, I would argue, resurgence.  These cities will act as our blueprints: a users guide, directing our collective energies and hopes and optimism for a more equitable and inclusive society. And in this society (as we can see from the work happening on the ground) art is vital. As Philip Lauri, founder of Detroit Lives! stated, “Detroit will be an innovator just because we happen to be one of the first behemoths to fall. We are forced to create the model, and what a grand opportunity indeed that is.”    

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Thoughts from the curator

The story of Detroit is the story of our country. It chronicles the rise of industry and “world-class cities,” and also of class and racial oppression, leading to decline and ultimately, resurgence. This series takes a look at Detroit's thriving theatre scene.

Detroit, Michigan

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Much is happening in community practice, performance and collaboration in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area as well and we would love to be part of the conversation. When is the Microfest?