MicroFest Detroit: Essays

How do you capture the rich experiences, discussions, learning, and reflections inspired by Detroit, Appalachia, and New Orleans and that are all part of MicroFest USA?  Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, is pleased to be partnering with NET to help with the somewhat daunting task of documenting MicroFest USA. For each festival, we are engaging two individuals, one who is of the host community or region, and another from outside, to write about their experiences.  They may be artists, activists, journalists, planners, scholars, or other.  Each writer is capturing not only the stories and dialogue, but encouraged to bring his or her unique local and national perspective, knowledge, experiences, and point of view to the task and to add to the discourse.

Writings are offered after each event to inform and seed ideas and questions for subsequent MicroFest conversations. Quick turn around might mean that some are still considered works-in-progress!  As they are finalized and assembled at the conclusion of MicroFest USA, we hope they live on to deepen understanding of the roles of theater, ensemble practice, and interdisciplinary arts and cultural endeavors as vital partners with other sectors to revitalize, renew, and reconnect communities. 

Now you can read INQUIRING – A QUEST TO KNOW, reflections by MicroFest’s documentation editor, Pam Korza of Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts.

Below are brief snapshots of essays on MicroFest: Detroit  by Eddie B. Allen Jr. and Michael Premo including links to the full papers. This is followed by HowlRound features about the MicroFests.

Making Art, Making Detroit, Making a Difference 
by Eddie B. Allen Jr. (Click on the title to see the full essay.)

As a Detroiter and a journalist who has covered the city’s urban as well as cultural affairs, Eddie B. Allen, Jr. brings a gentle local eye to surface questions that deserve a hard look as MicroFest traverses its next locations. Allen zeroes in on participants’ examination of the role of arts inside the justice system and in building awareness and fostering dialogue about issues of the justice system, a system he has followed personally and as a concerned citizen and journalist. While the “transformational value” of art for those incarcerated was affirmed and demonstrated through MicroFest’s session featuring the work of Prison Creative Arts Project, 4TheatrSake, and Yusf Shakur and Urban Network, Allen notes that the frame of “transformation” may not register to the system’s gatekeepers. Hasan Davis, artist and Juvenile Justice Commissioner for the State of Kentucky, underscored that gatekeepers need to hear outcomes in the language that matters to them—reintegration, recidivism, and cost savings. 

The question, “What difference are we making and how do we know?” was somewhat elusive at MicroFest, but Allen captures how Mosaic Youth Theatre methodically pursued this question to move beyond anecdotes and dig deeper at two levels: 1) What makes the work work? and 2) What impact is Mosaic having on young members’ skill, self, and social development? 

Allen pauses often, with a long appreciative look, to capture moments of art by Detroit’s amazing artists—4TheatrSake’s Cell/Ships, poets and performers, jessica Care moore and Invincible—and to connect the dots to Detroit’s legendary music history. How does place impact art?  Allen links techno beats in moore’s background house music to Detroit’s Motown history and enduring music scene.  “Motown meets techno in lyrical union…” he muses, it’s “almost like a code language…reminiscent of the spirituals sung aloud during slavery, which doubled as instructions for mobilizing toward freedom.” 

Related materials: Excellence on Stage and in Life:  The Mosaic Model for Youth Development through the Arts

Re-imagining Revitalization — Thoughts on MicroFest: Detroit  
by Michael Premo (Click on the title to see the full essay.)

As artist, cultural worker, and organizer, Michael Premo offers a prismatic lens through which Detroit appears as an “incubator of possibility,” a place where an affirmative path forward is being forged by creativity.  He reflects on the exemplary work of The Alley Project, Detroit Summer, Matrix Theatre Company, and Detroit Future Youth to highlight how young people are stepping up as the next generation of artist-activists, leaders, and perpetuators of the character and spirit that is uniquely Detroit.  They are adding their own fresh vision on creative process and product. Premo observes the importance of intergenerational learning and mentoring, too, in these examples and especially in the work and influence of elder philosopher and social activist Grace Lee Boggs and her late husband, organizer Jimmy Boggs.

The snarly topic of gentrification is front and center. Premo unpacks the complexities of the forces at play in Detroit (and beyond) to reveal the limits of the term “gentrification” in describing what is happening here. He observes the purposefulness guiding many good initiatives and organizations whether they are exercising a more market-based or creative value-based approach. He highlights the artist, educator, and MC known as Invincible and her collaborative performance piece Complex Movements which, in part, critiques the renaming of Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood as a blatant example of gentrification. Looking nationally at gentrification, he reveals the typical scenario (artists entering and improving decaying locations, then being forced out) as only one of many kinds of displacement cycles prompted by economic and social forces. 

Finally, Premo examines power as a critical determinant in how arts and culture can play their most impactful roles in revitalizing place. The past’s “industrial logic” and “assembly line thinking” no longer make sense in Detroit and other post-industrial cities. He credits the arts, artists, and collective imagination of groups featured in and around Detroit as breaking out of that logic. They offer new models—characterized by transformational intention, holistic approaches, and meaningfully shared power and leadership—to move a post-industrial city forward.


Alerts and links to more!

In addition to these commissioned essays, Gerard Stropnicky—member emeritus of BloomsburgTheatre Ensemble and former NET board member—offers a through line in his writing, looking at theater and ensemble practices in particular, as well as what MicroFest stimulates and brings to NET and its member theaters and, in turn, what they can offer to creative placemaking.  Click here to view this essay.

HowlRound, the online journal of the theater commons, served up several substantive blogs and interviews about MicroFest: Detroit: 

Read Mark Valdez’s grounding blog that traces the concept for MicroFest and NET’s reasons for selecting Detroit, “a city deep in transformation,” as the first site:  “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.” 

Mark Valdez’s interview with Shea Howell, who co-founded Detroit Summer, with comrades and Detroit movement builders, Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, provides a grounded and complex view of Detroit’s present moment, movement toward something new, and the role of imagination, artists, and culture in transformation. 

David Dower’s podcast interview with Richard Newman of The Hinterlands, an ensemble company which collaborated with Power House Productions to engage MicroFest participants in a site-specific performance through Detroit’s Banglatown neighborhood. In David’s words:  “Richard paints in micro-brush strokes—the specifics of his actual experience, and his actual neighborhood, and his actual company. It starts to create important detail and nuance to something many of us have no direct experience with but assume we understand.”

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