'No Safety Net 2.0' brings plays on national controversies to Ann Arbor

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Difficult, morally ambiguous social and political issues will once again dominate the four theatrical works University Musical Society is bringing to No Safety Net 2.0, a reprise of the biennial festival the Ann Arbor arts organization launched in 2018. 

The festival will run from Jan. 22-Feb. 9. 

But No Safety Net 2.0 is far more than just the four productions, which include "The Believers Are But Brothers" (Jan. 22-26), "Is This a Room" (Jan. 29-Feb. 2), "White Feminist" (Feb. 3-Feb. 9) and the interactive "As Far As My Fingertips Take Me" (Jan. 24-Feb. 9). 

Tied to the theatrical events is a whole suite of community dialogues, post-performance Q&A's, podcasts and workshops about, among others topics, how to understand and resist internet trolls. 

Emily Davis in "Is This a Room," coming to "No Safety Net 2.0," with TL Thompson (left), Pete Simpson and Becca Blackwell

"It takes an enormous amount of capacity to launch the plays," said UMS President Matthew VanBesien, "and to surround them with activities and context. But that’s the point – not just to present, but to get people to really engage with the works."

While No Safety Net 2.0 is clearly aimed at University of Michigan students, who will enjoy discounted tickets, it's also meant for the larger community.

Will students show up? The 2018 experience suggests they will.

"Last time we had 46 percent students in those audiences," VanBesien said, "literally twice our aggregate over the years. We work really closely with faculty," he added, "so a lot will come as part of their classes."

The point, he notes, is to use theater as a catalyst for students to dig into the complexities presented by the productions -- none of which offer easy answers. 

"You can’t force people to have a constructive dialogue," VanBesien said, "but you can create a conducive environment." He sees this as part of a growing responsibility for the artistic community as a whole, particularly in an era of sharpening polarization.

"Our role has to be about somehow keeping the social fabric intact," he said, in this case by promoting thoughtful discussion, "regardless of what happens politically in this country."

Each production will hit specific hot-button issues.

"The Believers Are But Brothers" focuses on masculinity and internet radicalization. "Is This a Room" hits patriotism and whistle-blowing. "White Feminist" takes a sober look at race, feminism and privilege, while "As Far As My Fingertips Take Me" explores the refugee crisis. 

Emily Davis with TL Thompson in "Is This a Room," coming to "No Safety Net 2.0."

One of the workshops Mary Roeder, UMS programming manager, is looking forward to is "How to Become an Internet Troll"

The free, interactive event on Jan. 25 is "aimed at giving folks an insight on how trolls behave" she said, "what motivates them and what strategies they use." The goal is not just to raise awareness of how such low-lifes operate, but also to help participants resist such attacks, should that be necessary. 

While conceding he's excited about all four productions, VanBesien says he's particularly psyched for "Is This a Room," which he saw in New York, with its morally ambiguous examination of those who speak up about misconduct and the consequences that follow that act. 

"We knew the play was going to be relevant when we originally programmed it," he said, long before the President Trump's Ukraine troubles surfaced, "but didn’t realize how relevant the whistleblower issue would eventually turn out to be." 


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No Safety Net 2.0 - presented by University Musical Society

Jan. 22-Feb. 9

"The Believers Are But Brothers" - Jan. 22-26, Arthur Miller Theatre, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

"Is This a Room" - Jan. 29-Feb. 2, Arthur Miller Theatre 

"White Feminist" - Feb. 3-9, Duderstadt Center, University of Michigan 

"As Far As My Fingertips Take Me" - Jan. 24-Feb. 2, University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities; Feb. 4-9, Arab American National Museum in Dearborn 

Tickets: $35 - general; $12-$20 - students 

Visit ums.org for specific dates, times and prices 

(734) 764-2538