Meet the Hinterlands, your friendly neighborhood theater revolutionaries

The place that Detroit-based experimental performance ensemble The Hinterlands calls home is, in fact, a home. Or at least it used to be.

Play House is a formerly vacant, 1,000 square foot corner house on a dense, residential street in Banglatown, the Detroit neighborhood that borders Hamtramck to the northeast. Built in 1920, it was converted into a small rehearsal and performance space by Power House Productions in 2013 as part of their creative stabilization work there.

It's fitting that "The Radicalization Process," the Hinterlands' new performance, begins in the basement of that house. Because this work, like just about everything else they've done in Detroit, is suffused with a sense of subterranean richness.

The vivid, boundary-stretching productions the Hinterlands creates are wonders to behold; they're beautiful, funny, and technically accomplished all at once. But they also reflect an unusually profound engagement with their subject matter, as well as a long and intensely physical creative process. The result is a theatrical experience like no other -- something that's alive, intimate, multilayered, and that reverberates long after each performance has ended.

Play House, theater for "The Radicalization Process"

The Hinterlands take an exploratory approach to creating work. They conduct extensive research into subjects they're interested in, incorporate that research into their ongoing physical training, and see what emerges over time. In their previous productions "
Manifest Destiny," "Dreamtigers," and "The Circuit," they took on the Wild West, magical realism, and vaudeville, respectively. At the center of the new work is a timely question: what drives people to become political radicals?

They root their investigation of this theme in late '60s/early '70s American left-wing extremism, and explore it in typically kaleidoscopic fashion. The world of "The Radicalization Process" includes, among much else, a bomb that's being built in a Detroit safe house, a fanatical Method acting coach, and a rehearsal for a production of "Antigone," all set against the background of the Vietnam War. A live score is performed on an analog synthesizer, a briefcase turntable, and ringing wine glasses.

All of that takes place on the first floor of Play House. But before you, the audience member, see or hear any of it, you start in the basement, where you're invited to spend time rifling through a mysterious archive.

The Hinterlands' co-founders, Richard Newman and Liza Bielby, take an approach to performance-making that is indisputably their own, but also informed by a handful of notable traditions. Moving to Detroit from Milwaukee in 2010, they've taken a long, winding path to get here, and picked up a few things along the way.
Newman, 35, grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Bielby, also 35, in Marquette in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They met in northern California in 2008, at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre.

Liza Bielby and Richard Newman

Bielby had come to Dell'Arte from Sichuan, China, where she'd spent three years studying Sichuanese folk opera, a rigorous, demanding, and elaborately coded form.

Newman, meanwhile, had just spent five years performing with Double Edge Theatre, an ensemble that lives and works on a 105-acre farm in western Massachusetts. Double Edge is known for its spectacular, sprawling, actor-created performances, as well as for an approach that Newman calls a "theater of questions, not statements."

The pair's union, then, weaves together several strands, among them an urgent, go-for-broke physicality, a meticulous formal precision, and an extensive, ongoing, performer-driven process of training and creation. Add to that list a restless questioning of established theater conventions (including the audience's traditionally passive role), a comfort with ambiguity and narrative open-endedness, and a delicate balance between laugh-out-loud hilarity and real emotional punch, and you're getting close to what makes the Hinterlands the Hinterlands. It's theater, when you get right down to it, but it's also much more than that. It's real, immediate, mysterious, immersive. It's dizzying, dreamlike.

When I meet the Hinterlands at Play House to talk about their work, it becomes clear to me that part of what distinguishes their performances from traditional theater is the level of accountability they bring to each production. These are entirely original works, conceived and created through a very personal process, so the Hinterlands are responsible for them in a way that traditional theater companies just aren't.

And they take that responsibility very seriously. "When you make live performance," Newman tells me, "you're asking people to come and spend their time and money. There's this old idea that the audience should 'suspend their disbelief' when they walk in. But they shouldn't have to -- we should make them believe!"

"We should believe," Bielby adds. "That's our job."

Play House interior and part of "Radicalization Process" set

Bielby and Newman labor extensively to realize their productions, to achieve this belief ("The Radicalization Process", for example, is the culmination of two years of work). As such, they have found a natural home in industrious Detroit, and a community of artists eager to collaborate. For this current production, they are joined by sculptor and company member Dave Sanders, who also performs in and helped develop the work; poet Casey Rocheteau, who organized the archive; Shoshanna Utchenik, who created the set; and Ben Gaydos, whose alternative history newspaper, The People's Press, gives audience members a piece of the performance to take home and explore later.

When I tell people about the Hinterlands, I like to say that we're lucky to have them in Detroit. I'm thinking about the considerable integrity, originality, and quality of their performances, but also about the fact that, thanks to Power House Productions, they create and perform their work in a house that was once vacant -- once, in fact, a drug house and destructive force in their neighborhood (Bielby and Newman live just a block away).

But to hear the Hinterlands tell it, they're the lucky ones. They didn't have much when they left Milwaukee for an uncertain future. They had to go somewhere, and they came to Detroit because they'd been here before, and had liked and respected the people they'd met. They came because Newman grew up loving Detroit techno, and because Bielby missed Michigan. When they talk about the experience of moving here and putting down roots, they quote their friend and collaborator Marsha Music, who has written about the people who come to Detroit not to save the city, but to be saved by it.

It would seem, in the end, that the Hinterlands' ongoing presence in Detroit is of considerable mutual benefit. If you haven't yet taken the opportunity to get to know them, now's the time. The Hinterlands have worked hard, as they always do, on their unforgettable new show, building a doorway to a world both familiar and wondrous. The next part's easy -- all you have to do is step through.

"The Radicalization Process" runs Thursdays through Saturdays until May 7 at Play House, 12657 Moran St., Detroit, MI 48212. Tickets cost $10-$30 on a sliding scale. Seating is very limited; email [email protected] or call (313) 454-1756 to reserve a spot.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewsaurus and on Instagram at @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
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