New work explores what it means to belong
Flint is a city that struggles. So it should come as little surprise that the artists who live there are drawn to that struggle and want to make art about what it is like to be a part of a city that continues to try to survive even while under intense economic, social and political pressures.
“9 x Nourished” is a devised theater piece that explores these struggles while also celebrating a piece of Flint that is positive, exciting and growing. It takes place at the Flint Farmers’ Market in Downtown Flint, and the market is not only venue, but theme and setting for the work.
Flint Youth Theatre’s cast of 23 worked with playwright Michael Rohd to tell the story of the market in many different ways. The evening’s experience includes dance, a cooking demonstration with talking vegetables, a history lesson, tours of the city market, discussions with the audience, singing, monologues, and some traditional theatrical storytelling.
The cast is divided into the “now chorus” and the “then chorus,” with the “then chorus” dressed in costumes from when the market first opened in 1905.
Director Janet Haley undertakes a difficult job with this brave cast. The venue is not built for theater, and the acoustics are often a challenge – as is lighting the space. She rises to this challenge with creative solutions designed to make this less of a traditional night at the theater and more of a theatrical experience in which the audience is immersed and participates.
Haley greets each guest as they arrive and assigns them to a small group of six. These six audience members stay together for the whole evening. They’re assigned one of the adult actors who becomes their personal tour guide for the evening. As the show progresses, the audience is sometimes with just their group of six, sometimes divided into two groups, and sometimes together with the entire audience. It is all well choreographed and timed, even while accommodating the individual speeds of the audience members.
Our group was led by Brittany Reed, a graduate of the University of Michigan-Flint School of Theatre and Dance. She helped the group integrate, and immediately set the tone that this was an experience designed to be authentic and engaging. She was enthusiastic and moved easily between her role as tour guide and actor. She was especially moving during a monologue about an apple – transitioning from a conversation with a group member immediately into the story and hitting every note just right.
Despite the use of microphones, there were a few times when it was difficult to hear actors, particularly when soloists were singing from behind the circle of the audience. However when they were singing as an ensemble, the sound carried well, and all the actors projected well when speaking individual parts.
The actors in “9 x Nourished” are given a challenge of a work that is ever changing and relies on the audience to make it come to life. They move in and out of different roles, some acted, some being themselves. They sing, they dance, they act, they interview.
One of the things that makes the non-traditional format of “9 x Nourished” work so well is that it makes the effort to engage the audience and bring them into the work. It explores the theme of belonging by creating a structure in which the audience members also feel like they belong to the work.
The structure allows the artists to introduce a variety of themes without trying to solve them or even do more than make the audience aware of them.
By the time the evening is over, Haley, Rohd and their cast and crew have told several stories – stories of the Farmer’s Market, the vendors who make it their home and look upon each other as family, Flint with its history and struggles, the country and its changes, the individual who needs a place to belong, and families who find ways to relate to each other. They tell these stories in a genuine fashion, with each storytelling trying to make the story his or her own.
It’s an experience that brings the Flint Farmers’ Market to life in new ways while also exploring the commitment people feel to their city, no matter what its reputation might be.