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Side-yard: On the Commons, the Neighborhood, Grief, and Not Making Theatre While Still Making Theatre

A group of people stand together on the porch of a house.

Dave Sanders and audience at the Take Out Take Down 2019 at Play House. Created by The Hinterlands and featuring Detroit and Hamtramck restaurants Zam Zam and Modhuban Sweets. Performed by Liza Bielby, Scott Crandall, Richard Newman, Dave Sanders, Renee Willoughby, and a host of spontaneous community cheerleaders. Video/Streaming Design by Renee Willoughby, Sound Design by Richard Newman, Production and Cheer Support from Maddy Rager and Scott Crandall. Flag design by Maddy Rager and community members. Photo by Sarah Nesbitt.

"So who owns Play House, then?"

It's a good question. I take a moment to consider how much of this question I'm going to answer and what is actually being asked. I have a bit of a problem with oversharing sometimes, and I'm talking to a twelve-year old kid after all. But he's curious and has been spending a lot of time talking to me lately, asking me questions about my life, sharing kid gossip, or letting me know that it was definitely not him who threw that tennis ball against the window. In the eleven years I’ve lived and worked in the neighborhood, I’ve watched this kid grow up. So I explain that, while I manage the space along with Gina Reichert and Liza Bielby, Play House is owned by a nonprofit. We're looking at collective ownership models, but it’s tough because of the way the city of Detroit zones property. I talk for close to a full minute and the kid nods thoughtfully. "Do you know what a nonprofit is?" I ask him. "Yeah," he says, "it means you don't make any money" and now I'm nodding thoughtfully because, you know, the kid's not wrong. Before I can respond, he hops back on his bike and rides up the Play House ramp and onto the porch, where he quickly turns and jets back down, twisting and turning around the ramp's curves before speeding off towards home.

Play House is a two-story house that has become a neighborhood performance space, a laboratory for artists, a place for community gatherings, a studio space, and a school, among other things. It's owned by Power House Productions, an artist-led nonprofit based in our neighborhood and run by Gina Reichert. The Hinterlands, a performance company directed by Liza Bielby and myself, have created our theatre work in Play House since 2013. That year is also when Bangla School of Music, a school for both traditional and contemporary Bengali folk music run by Akram Hussein, began using the space as a home for their classes and concerts. The space has hosted artists from around the world and down the block and has also been used as a space for workshops, political organizing, film shoots, community sing-a-longs, international collaborations, dance parties, and both experimental films and kids’ movies. Liza and I live down the block from the space, about a two-minute walk away.

The difference between the pre-pandemic life of the space and its life now is stark.

A few years ago, we started building an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant ramp in the Play House side-yard. Rather than a standard ramp, we decided on something more meandering that would wind through the trees planted in the side-yard while still meeting all the elevation requirements. It was finally finished in the fall of 2019, right before a Bangla School of Music concert/recital. There were somewhere between fifty and seventy-five people at the event, including a couple dozen kids who attend the school. It was a good turnout for our small space, so people spilled out into the backyard, the side-yard, and, for the first time, the Play House ramp.

Although we designed the ramp for wheelchair access, it became immediately clear that for these kids it's something else: a racetrack! An incredibly fun, slightly dangerous racetrack. Ever since our ramp was finished, the kids on our block have used it almost daily as a hang out, a lunch spot, a bike/skateboard/scooter ramp, and a decidedly non-regulation badminton court. The kids play hide and seek, do their homework, babysit their siblings, and live out their daily kid dramas. Grown-ups also quickly began using the ramp as a bus stop for the self-organized transport vans people use to get to factory work, or as a place to take a private phone call or sneak a cigarette at night. One day before Eid al-Adha, I walked to the space and found two goats tethered to the ramp, grazing in the side-yard. I wasn’t particularly surprised—goats always make an appearance in the neighborhood in the days leading up to Eid al-Adha before disappearing into our collective bellies—but I had to admit I was impressed. The ramp made an excellent hitching post.

A little girl skips across a ramp.

Play House Ramp. Photo by Richard Newman.

All of this activity has felt like an incredible gift during the pandemic because our indoor space has been so quiet. As I write this in November 2021 as theatres attempt to return to “normal,” we have held off on public events in Play House. The space is simply too small to host performances any time in the near future, and the thought of having an event like the Bangla School of Music concert feels very far away indeed. We are using the space for rehearsal and training for our company; Bangla School of Music has classes on the weekends for small groups; and we have started offering the space for residencies and semi-public workshops. But the difference between the pre-pandemic life of the space and its life now is stark.

So, during the pandemic we also started using the ramp more often. We sang on the ramp with some of our neighbors and people who used to come to our community sings at Play House. We held rehearsals and cookouts (sometimes at the same time), and we shot short films. At one point I found myself asking one of the neighborhood kids if it would be alright if we used the ramp for a bit to sing since they were using it for bike tricks. They said sure, as long as they could keep their bikes there. Another time, I had a long discussion with a group of kids about how we could deal with the trash that was sometimes left around the ramp. One kid suggested a weekly cleanup while another suggested we install a trash can. A couple days later I noticed a makeshift trash bag tied to the fence and a lightbulb went off.

What started as an offshoot of our theatre practice—breaking out aspects of our normally closed process to be iterated in the public sphere—slowly morphed into something different, something not-quite-theatre.

When The Hinterlands joined the Arts, Culture, and Commoning Working Group, a group of United States-based cultural workers exploring the commons in their respective practices, I wasn’t sure what we were doing there. I didn’t know much about the commons as a concept, and I hadn’t done any of the reading. I was pretty intimidated by the level of knowledge in our initial meetings, but other people seemed to think our work made sense in this context. We had started doing our public practice somewhere around 2012 or 2013 as a response to what we perceived as an insularity in our theatre work. What started as an offshoot of our theatre practice—breaking out aspects of our normally closed process to be iterated in the public sphere—slowly morphed into something different, something not-quite-theatre.

In 2015, The Hinterlands organized the Porous Borders Festival, a two-day festival along the municipal border between Detroit and Hamtramck. Hamtramck is a working-class city-within-the-city right in the middle of Detroit, and it’s home to one of the largest immigrant populations in Michigan. My partner Liza and I cross this weird little border every day. We became fascinated with its history and the way we might be able to learn from it to understand the municipal borders in our region (many of which are not nearly so porous due to racist housing practices dating back to the 1920s) and the numerous national, social, racial, and economic borders separating people in the Detroit Metro. For many months, we walked along the border and took note of what was happening: how people were using the land, what kinds of things were already happening on this border, how people traveled across it. How could we highlight what was happening here rather than impose something on this space? We ended up commissioning around forty projects, mostly from artists living on or near this municipal border, as well as another dozen or so that were decidedly not art: cricket lessons taught by the kids who play in the parking lot on Carpenter St.; a barbecue at Walter’s Liquor Store; an oil change race between two mechanics on opposite sides of the border.

A parade of men women and children carrying a flag.

The Pollinator Parade at the Porous Borders Festival. Organized by Shoshanna Utchenik and The Hinterlands with support from KT Andresky, Power House Productions, and Popp's Packing. Parade design by Shoshanna Utchenik and Interstate Arts with extensive community collaboration. Additional Puppet Construction by Torri Ashford and Lindsay McCaw. Production Management by Billy Mark. Photo by Ali Lapetina.

Halfway through the festival we noticed that people had started holding their own events: a neighbor put up a sign for free bike repairs; an artist held an impromptu sale on the sidewalk; a DJ who we definitely did not book threw a party in a garage. It was hard to tell what was in the festival and what was just happening, and this felt wonderful. Out of the whole festival, there were maybe two projects that could be classified as theatre. I felt a small pang of guilt about this. Why were we, as theatre artists, so adverse to programming theatre in our festival? Was it that we felt theatre couldn’t work in the context of a neighborhood festival, that it was too closed, too alienating? Or could it be that the festival itself was a kind of invisible theatre, theatre that you had to squint to see, theatre that wasn’t being made but was still happening?

We continued to make performances and began to see that our theatre work and our work with and within the public were two parts of a whole: the inside and the outside, the outside and the in.

Since 2015, we’ve continued to work this way in our neighborhood and occasionally in other places. We continued the Porous Borders series because we wanted to continue this research and invite other artists and community members to do the same if they wanted. One artist, Billy Mark, interviewed people about their dreams and their memories of Conant Street, and then he wove them together into a geolocated sound walk through the neighborhood. People made trophies for their favorite neighborhood businesses. They created signs in Bangla and English for neighborhood places they wanted to celebrate or commemorate, or for things they would like to see in the future.

We also started doing work around food and how we eat together through our Utopian Dinner series. We asked people to collaboratively create meals together to disrupt the structures behind how we eat food together and see if it could help us imagine other ways of living together. Sometimes there were theatrical elements—a table piled high with salad greens, soup that had to be eaten with spoons tied together—but it was never theatre. We would set out basic structures for how these events would go, but the people who came would ultimately determine how the meal was eaten. We held some of these dinners at Play House, but also held them in other contexts including a museum and a flea market. We continued to make performances and began to see that our theatre work and our work with and within the public were two parts of a whole: the inside and the outside, the outside and the in.

Which brings me back to the ramp, the commons, public life, missing public life so desperately, and getting so much hope from something as small as a group of kids putting out a bag for the trash. In the spring of 2021, I was beginning to thaw from the long winter and from the loss of my father and of cherished neighbors to COVID. I was slowly getting over my own sickness; I had caught COVID when I was caring for my father and had lingering symptoms. I was beginning to awaken from my mourning for my father into my grief for him, a grief that I held in common with millions of others, including some of the kids who had started spending time on the ramp that we had somehow decided was special. I took the bag and emptied it into the trash can and put it back. It would probably blow away, and I would have to pick it up later, but I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it—this sign from someone else that there was something shared between us.

I have wondered lately if grief can be a commons, whether it meets the criteria. When I see someone deep in grief, I wonder about this the same way I’ve wondered about the Play House ramp when I see people using it in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I wonder if our grief could be cared for, attended to. And I wonder what could happen there, in this space of grief—what things beyond our imagining?

Thoughts from the curators

This week-long series of essays and conversations uplifts approaches to theatremaking that find confluence with the framework of the commons. Curated by Jamie Gahlon and Matthew Glassman, with members of the Arts, Culture, and Commoning working group, this week-long series amplifies artists and culture workers who activate collectivism, interdependence, and the role of imagination to catalyze systems change. These artists parse the ways their work opens up possibilities for theatre—and culture more broadly—to turn away from the market economy and toward collective liberation.

Arts, Culture, and Commoning

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