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Learning about the four productions that compose the University Musical Society’s No Safety Net theater festival (happening January 17-February 3) will likely make you feel both excited and nervous.

But then, that’s the whole idea.

“I was seeing a lot of work … that was asking lots of really difficult questions, and work that was not afraid of making audiences feel uncomfortable or ‘provoked,’ to use a more old fashioned word,” said UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka. “Out of that grew a suite of plays … that felt like they had a kinship to each other. We decided to take them and place them on the calendar as a festival, instead of as a number of presentations over the course of a season. The energy of each one could build on the others and itself, providing a very different kind of experience for our audience.”

No Safety Net kicks off with Ars Nova’s Underground Railroad Game from January 17-21, which debuted at Philadelphia’s FringeArts Festival and was cited by The New York Times as one of the best theater productions of 2016. In the play, two middle school teachers—a black woman and a white man—oversee a role-playing game for students in which Union soldiers smuggle slaves, represented by dolls, to freedom, while Confederate soldiers try to recapture them; meanwhile, the complications of role-play extend to the teachers themselves, who fall in love, but must confront painful issues related to power and race.

As with many of the works included in No Safety Net, ticket holders for Underground Railroad Game are forewarned about “racially-charged adult language, strong sexual content, and nudity," all within the confines of the festival's mission—"Provocative theater. Courageous conversations. Safe spaces."

Underground Railroad Game 1 by Ben Arons PhotographyPhoto of Underground Railroad Game by Ben Arons Photography.

The second show, Us/Them, produced by Belgium’s Bronks theater company and Richard Jordan Productions and in Ann Arbor January 24-28, features the characters of two young survivors who re-examine, with almost scientific precision, the three days of the Beslan School Siege in 2004, when Chechnyan rebels held more than 1,200 hostages in a Russian school—mainly children and their mothers or grandmothers—and more than 300 people died.

“It’s asking two questions, … which are: how do young people make sense of the cruel and sometimes deeply violent and brutal world we live in, especially when that violence is focused on them? And the other side of that is, what’s appropriate for young people to see in the theater?” said Kondziolka. “We spend so much time and effort keeping our kids safe and shielded from all the bad things happening in the world around us. But you sometimes have to wonder if we’re making the right decision when we do that. Are we actually doing them a disservice and not preparing them enough for what’s out there?”

The third show, (I Could Go On Singing) Over the Rainbow, stars Glasgow-based performance artist FK Alexander, who takes the hand of individual audience volunteers and sings both alongside a distorted recording of one of Judy Garland’s last performances of her iconic “Over the Rainbow,” and over the sounds of the abrasive noise band Okishima Island Tourist Association at The Stamps Gallery, January 26 through February 3. 

“It’s an immersive performance art piece about what and how artistic practice and art-making operate as a tool for the artist to stay healthy,” said Kondziolka. “She sees her own art-making as self-care and self-healing. She’s someone who’s struggled for much of her life with mental illness and addiction, and art-making keeps her healthy.”

FK Alexander and Okishima Island Tourist Association by Jannica Honey PhotographyPhoto of FK Alexander and Okishima Island Tourist Association by Jannica Honey Photography.

Finally, those who saw UMS’ 2016 presentation of Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show may recognize actor Becca Blackwell, who will return to Ann Arbor to perform They, Themself and Schmerm from January 31 through February 3 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. Described as part standup comedy show, part confessional memoir, and part performance art, They tells Blackwell’s personal story of existing between genders, being adopted by a religious Midwestern family, being “trained” to be a girl, and being plagued by the question, “How do I become a man, and do I even want that?”

“It’s one person’s story about working toward living in a nongendered world—living beyond the binary of male and female, and what that means, and what the reality of that looks like,” said Kondziolka.

No Safety Net takes place off the stage as well. In addition to the performances themselves, UMS has an ambitious lineup of programs during the festival’s three-week duration so as to expand the public conversation sparked by on-stage topics as much as possible. Among these programs are lectures, panels, a salon series, workshops, post-show artist talkbacks, and a keynote event (in collaboration with the Penny Stamps Speaker Series) featuring a conversation with poet, playwright, and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Claudia Rankine and dramaturg/producer P. Carl on Thursday, January 18th.

Underground Railroad Game 6 by Ben Arons PhotographyPhoto of Underground Railroad Game by Ben Arons Photography.It is perhaps no coincidence that No Safety Net takes place on the heels of one of the wildest, most polarizing political years in America’s history, roughly a year to the day of the most recent presidential inauguaration. At a time of great discourse around issues of identity—both personal and political, No Safety Net seems to have appeared exactly when cultural consumers need it most.

And because UMS’ edgy, seasonal Renegade series has laid the groundwork for more envelope-pushing shows over the last six years, Kondziolka aims to push audiences past an entirely different sort of binary: reductive discussions about whether a work of performance art is “good” or “bad,” or whether we “like” or “don’t like” a show. 

“We can go to see something and have a really strange, complex, unclear set of emotional responses to it, and then realize a month later that we’re still thinking about it, and that there’s value in simply having had that experience,” said Kondziolka. “I think this whole three-week experiment is about a lot of different things. For me personally, it’s about, what can the unique gifts of artists bring to the table to help us make sense of this very strange and heightened time that we live in, where everything’s more difficult, more tenuous, more politicized, more full of pain, and more full of fear than ever before?”

Kondziolka added, “There’s certainly as much to learn in those occasional moments when we feel unsupported and unsafe as there are to be learned from all the good things.”

All photos courtesy of UMS.

No Safety Net runs from January 17 through February 13. For a full list of events and tickets, click here