Q&A: UMS president Matthew VanBesien discusses provocative ‘No Safety Net’ theater series
ANN ARBOR—As part of their 139th season, the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society is in the midst of presenting their “No Safety Net” series, a three-week-long look at stage work that embraces the long theatrical legacy of intervening in social issues and drawing diverse voices into focused conversation.
As part of the series, they’re presenting a range of theater works addressing topics from racism in America to terrorism, transgender identity, and radical wellness and healing.
In addition to artistic presentation on stage, UMS is engaging audiences off the stage, creating a community platform for important dialogue through panel discussions, public talks and workshops.
Matthew VanBesien has been president of UMS, the nation’s oldest university presenting arts organization in the country, since July 2017. He previously served as president of the Houston and Melbourne symphony orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.
Q: Where did the idea for “No Safety Net” begin?
VanBesien: UMS has been doing this kind of thing for many years—as in, programming across different disciplines—getting more adventurous, more experimental and more provocative in terms of content and subject matter. As an organization, we’ve been thinking more and more about how to program in this intentional way around issues of our time. “No Safety Net” emanated from our existing “Renegade” programming that encourages courageous conversations through the lens of performing art. And over the years, we’ve done a lot of work in trying to understand the audience that comes to these kinds of performances.They’re politically aware and socially conscious, and they have been asking us to do more of this kind of work. So in a way, this is our answer to that call.
Q: Why is it important for an organization like UMS to facilitate the conversation surrounding these “issues of our time?”
VanBesien: Presenting this kind of challenging work isn’t just an opportunity, it’s more of a responsibility. All of us who work in the arts, we spend a lot of time trying to self-validate. I don’t mean that in a negative way, because we’ve all seen firsthand that arts can impact someone’s life for the better. But I think that many performing arts presenters and companies are shedding the risk-averse mentality. We’re seeing an added sense of urgency around asserting ideals and cultural moments that demonstrate what we should aspire to be as a society. When ‘we’ in the arts—and I say ‘we’ in a broader sense—are worried about offending or alienating our funders or board members or our audiences, we are doing society a disservice.
Q: “No Safety Net” is an incredibly ambitious, three-week-long theater festival. Have there been any challenges? What have you learned?
VanBesien: We’ve essentially overlayed this festival on top of our normal stream of events, so there are definitely things that we learned from a logistics standpoint. However, it is really the first time that we’re doing something like this, so we look forward to learning even more about what kind of content works and what engages people in this format. As in, how we can achieve success in drawing in audiences who would normally be reluctant to come? With that in mind, we have been looking for opportunities and thinking about access. For example, we have done our best to make sure that most of the public programming is free, and we are livestreaming one of the performances.
Q: How is the work that you’re doing now different from the work that you did at the New York Philharmonic?
VanBesien: For me, personally, there’s a certain liberating quality to programming in this space and in this context versus at a famous, long-standing arts institution where there’s a certain risk-averse mentality. The “No Safety Net” series is already a manifestation of where I wanted to go and why I’m here, and it is something that you’ll definitely continue to see in our future.
Q: Are there any performances that you’re particularly excited about?
VanBesien: I’m honestly excited for all of them and they’re all so different, but one that I can specifically talk about is FK Alexander’s piece because I actually had a chance to experience it in August at the Fringe in Edinburgh. FK’s piece is the most difficult to define. What she does is very experiential for those participating and those observing. People in the audience self-select and come up to her as she holds their hand and sings Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” directly to them. It is fascinating for me to see how different people reacted to it and how profound those reactions were. She draws from her personal struggle with addiction and depression for this performance, but you don’t have to know anything about the work to have a response to it. I should also mention that this will be her U.S. debut.