Thursday, April 28, 2016

Meet the Hinterlands, your friendly neighborhood theater revolutionaries

(originally published 4/28/16 in Model D)

The place that Detroit-based experimental performance ensemble The Hinterlands calls home is, in fact, a home. Or at least it used to be.

Play House is a formerly vacant, 1,000 square foot corner house on a dense, residential street in Banglatown, the Detroit neighborhood that borders Hamtramck to the northeast. Built in 1920, it was converted into a small rehearsal and performance space by Power House Productions in 2013 as part of their creative stabilization work there.

It's fitting that "The Radicalization Process," the Hinterlands' new performance, begins in the basement of that house. Because this work, like just about everything else they've done in Detroit, is suffused with a sense of subterranean richness.

The vivid, boundary-stretching productions the Hinterlands creates are wonders to behold; they're beautiful, funny, and technically accomplished all at once. But they also reflect an unusually profound engagement with their subject matter, as well as a long and intensely physical creative process. The result is a theatrical experience like no other -- something that's alive, intimate, multilayered, and that reverberates long after each performance has ended.

The Hinterlands take an exploratory approach to creating work. They conduct extensive research into subjects they're interested in, incorporate that research into their ongoing physical training, and see what emerges over time. In their previous productions "Manifest Destiny," "Dreamtigers," and "The Circuit," they took on the Wild West, magical realism, and vaudeville, respectively. At the center of the new work is a timely question: what drives people to become political radicals?

They root their investigation of this theme in late '60s/early '70s American left-wing extremism, and explore it in typically kaleidoscopic fashion. The world of "The Radicalization Process" includes, among much else, a bomb that's being built in a Detroit safe house, a fanatical Method acting coach, and a rehearsal for a production of "Antigone," all set against the background of the Vietnam War. A live score is performed on an analog synthesizer, a briefcase turntable, and ringing wine glasses.

All of that takes place on the first floor of Play House. But before you, the audience member, see or hear any of it, you start in the basement, where you're invited to spend time rifling through a mysterious archive.

The Hinterlands' co-founders, Richard Newman and Liza Bielby, take an approach to performance-making that is indisputably their own, but also informed by a handful of notable traditions. Moving to Detroit from Milwaukee in 2010, they've taken a long, winding path to get here, and picked up a few things along the way.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Liza B at Play House

I'm working on a piece for Model D about The Hinterlands, a Detroit-based experimental performance group that I just can't get enough of.

I went and took some photos of them and their space to illustrate the piece the other day. I didn't think this particular photo was good for the article but I wanted to share it anyway. It depicts Hinterlands co-founder Liza Bielby on the set of their new production The Radicalization Process, inside their performance space, a once-vacant house transformed by Power House Productions.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Essay'd: David Philpot

(originally published 4/25/16 in Essay'd)

David Philpot is an antenna, finely tuned to subtle frequencies. He listens carefully, receiving transmissions from as far away as West Africa, and from as nearby as God or the wood in his hands. His primary medium, fittingly, is the staff, an energizing rod that joins the earth to the sky via the human being who wields it.

Long before he ever considered himself an artist, the 30-year-old Philpot heard a voice call his name, leading him, amazed, to an oasis: a grove of trees in a Chicago housing project. A week later, Philpot, who had never abandoned his childhood habit of gathering and carrying sticks, and who had recently admired Charlton Heston’s staff in The Ten Commandments, woke in the night with a mission: to chop down one of those trees, and make from it a staff of his own. When it was done, he called it Genesis (1971), an apt title for the first of more than 350 staffs he has made in the 45 years since.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Fiberglass History

(originally published 4/4/16 in Model D)

Since its opening in 1964, Guy Kenny's Plymouth-based industrial company Glassline has specialized almost exclusively in the fabrication of corrosion-resistant fiberglass equipment for the steel, chemical, and automotive industries. Hence the massive, multi-chambered tank that's currently under construction in the middle of his workshop.

"The principle," Kenny tells me matter-of-factly, "is that is they can put a car in there, give it seven years of exposure in four or five weeks, and see how it holds up. They'll raise the temperature inside from 40 degrees below zero to 140 at one degree a minute. They'll spray it with water and salt. They can even make it snow in there."

Fascinating as the tank is, it is not actually the reason for my visit to Glassline. I'm there to learn about the curious variety of disembodied architectural elements that are strewn about Kenny's workshop, and that give it the appearance of a disassembled classical theatre set. There are elaborately carved lions' heads, bits of balustrade, and several sections of cornice -- the ornate ledges that crown historic buildings and are intended to deflect rainwater from their facades.

That's because, in the last ten years, Kenny has brought his technical know-how to a whole new market: the revitalization of downtown Detroit. In addition to their industrial work, Glassline has taken to recreating lost or deteriorated architectural elements for a host of historic buildings that are undergoing rehabilitation. And they're making them all out of fiberglass....

Read the rest at Model D.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Curtain Call

I was really struck by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson's Woman in E, a performance installation that was on view at Detroit's Museum of Contemporary Art from January 15 to April 10. 

Formally, Woman in E is pretty straightforward, minimal, even. The two entrances to MOCAD's main gallery are obscured by curtains of gold tinsel that reach to the floor. Part a curtain, step through, and enter an expansive oval room, defined by an uninterrupted wall of tinsel. In the center is a rotating platform, upon which you'll find an amp and a woman in a glittering gold dress and gold high heel shoes. She is standing or sitting on the amp, strumming a gold and white electric guitar. She strums an E flat chord, over and over again. Sometimes she riffs. She looks over your head or down at the guitar, or else she closes her eyes. Occasionally she might glance at you, ever so briefly, but you get the impression she's not supposed to. The platform rotates slowly. The tinsel dazzles in the light. Stay as long as you want; she's here whenever the museum is open for visitors. "She" is actually seven different women, local musicians who work in three hour shifts.

I don't want to spend a lot of time reading the piece here, because this is all really intended to be a prologue to some photos I'd like to share, but of course there is a lot to be said about it. It's a complex work about objectification and music, cinema and presence, glamour and artifice. It's about art history's long line of singular, sorrowful women, and about women's long history of being looked at. It's about you and the performer, being in the room together. It's about conceptions of beauty. And all of its meaning comes by way of this experience: Woman in E is alive, multi-sensory, enveloping. It's art you become part of, gently but powerfully. I went to experience it three different times, twice in February and again last Saturday. On my second visit, I went alone in the middle of the day and sat on the floor for a while, just sort of giving myself over to the piece: its resonant sounds, the beautiful visual counterpoint of the slow rotation and the fast-dancing light, the exquisite tension of looking, really just sitting and looking, wordless, at another human being. A stranger. A woman.

Part of the pleasure of repeat visits is the variability of the performers. I saw a different woman each time I visited. Each time I felt moved to take her picture. (This is the kind of work that invites you to photograph it, but also makes you feel a little uncertain about whether or not you really should. That's a person up there, after all, who didn't exactly give you her permission to be photographed; yet there she is, no doubt being photographed all day, no doubt having signed something saying she was cool with it.) I shot the first two with my phone:

Last Saturday, I went back to MOCAD to write at the cafe there, and I brought my proper camera, knowing that Woman in E was closing the next day. I worked for a couple hours, listening to the E flat chord emanating from the next room, savoring it, telling myself I shouldn't go in until I'd done a couple solid hours of writing.

Eventually, ready, I picked up the camera, parted the streamers, and walked in. This woman (her name, I learned from Instagram, is Deekah Wyatt), was evidently just starting her shift, or returning from a break. She was being led across the gallery and up the stairs of the platform by a MOCAD employee, and she was crying. I learned later that she was crying because it was her last shift, her last time playing the Woman in E, but I intuited that before I knew it. Deekah Wyatt was really feeling it, feeling something (who knows what, after so many hours of doing this over three months?), and her unexpected outpouring changed the piece, deepening its beauty and raising the stakes of our interaction. Her tears subsided after a few minutes, but her emotion hung in the room, stayed preserved in her body. For a long time, it was just the two of us, and it was all so personal. I felt in our moments together that I was equal parts witness and intruder. That ambivalence about taking pictures reached new heights, and it took a few minutes before I felt comfortable turning on the camera. (I don't, in fact, ever recall feeling so acutely that the taking of a photograph is a rapacious act. Yes, you take a picture). But I did turn it on, and in the end, I'm glad I did.

Here are my favorite shots from that afternoon:

Friday, April 1, 2016

Scenes from Mrs. Dalloway

I recently reread Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf for the first time since college.

First edition cover art by Vanessa Bell

That first exposure was in a terrific British lit class I took as a WSU freshman. In the intervening 14 years (yikes!), Woolf has become a favorite writer, her voice familiar and companionable (even haunting -- I hear it my head sometimes, for hours, after I've read her), but back then, she was brand new. I remember that I actually didn't finish Mrs. Dalloway in time for the class discussion about it (whoops!), but over the course of that conversation, I grew more and more intrigued. I think I went home that night and read the whole thing cover to cover (not a great accomplishment; it's not that long), and from then on, I was hooked.

I was thinking about Mrs. Dalloway these last months after catching a glimpse of President Obama in Detroit. He was visiting the neighborhood where I work, and several of us, hoping and straining, gathered outside in the snow and waited for him to come out of the restaurant where he was eating lunch. (I'm pretty sure I saw the back of his head.) The whole thing dimly reminded me of some event in the book, a moment near the beginning when a car drives down a crowded London street, bearing someone of national importance -- maybe the queen, prince, or prime minister. Only a hand is glimpsed, drawing down a shade, but the experience sends a kind of shudder through the crowd, impresses them in a profound way. Woolf is such a sensualist, and it was the feeling of the words I remembered that moved me to grab the book off the shelf and search out that passage. Just spending a few minutes with Mrs. Dalloway made me want to return to it, swim in it again, so I reread it, and was struck by how much I'd forgotten (or not picked up in the first place). It's so rich.

As I read, I marked passages that struck me, as I tend to (I've never been one to write in the margins -- I underline, asterisk, exclamation point, bracket), and I thought I'd go back through the book one more time to rediscover and share those words and passages that caught my interest. Sometimes it's just an exciting adverb, because that woman was not afraid of making up crazy adverbs; sometimes it's an especially beautiful assemblage of words; sometimes it's those incredible Woolfian shocks, those moments of truth, dropped; those luminous descriptions; those moments of interiority you read and say "Yes!" to. Yes! That's what it's like to be a person, locked inside, full of trouble and memory and sorrow and joy, bumping up against other people.

I don't know that there's any point to this. It's just an impulse I have, to pay tribute, to spend more time with her. The quoted passages go in order, so maybe it's interesting as a version of the novel in miniature, as a distillation of its themes. (Probably not.) Without further ado:

She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or they were that.
She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, far out to the sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.