Sweet Dreams Are Made Of These

Now it's time to get out of that infernal head of yours. Just go with it for a minute. Get far out of your head, then let it all go.

Imagine taking a roller coaster ride after a couple doses of NyQuil. Keep your hands inside the car at all times and feel the swirl, let the breeze just twist all up and down until your stomach drops and your head spins.

You're out of your head now, which is good. Sometimes you have to get out of your head if you want a really heady experience.

Welcome to Dreamland Theater in Ypsilanti. The signposts up ahead all point you toward that unfettered and whimsical part of your psyche. You know, the one you threw into storage when you decided to major in accounting rather than tour with your noise rock band.

Dreamland is here to bring it all back. It's sticky sweet childhood memories chased with a strong shot of grownup psychoanalytical panache.

Oh, and there are puppets. You probably need to know about the puppets. There are lots of them. Big ones, smaller cloth ones, downright freaky ones, an exquisite winged one made from metal utensils. They hang on the walls as art, animate onstage in avant-garde performances, delight little kids on Sunday afternoons and sometimes hang like parasitic twins from the necks of human actors.

Dreamland Theater, in its Washington Street abode since 2006, has been making puppetry a cutting-edge art since founder Naia Venturi started it in 2002. She makes all those puppets herself, a craft she learned after a childhood of watching her artist mother make hand puppets for her.

"It's been my dream to have a space like this," says Venturi, an Ann Arbor native who still attends to a day job as a bio-engineer. "I thought it would be really cool to have people do art without it being part of the art industry."

If one thing's clear about the enigmatic Dreamland Theater, it's not a part of any industry. Or linear structure. Or anything.

The theater offers a whiplash mélange of adult-oriented puppet shows, children's puppet shows every Sunday afternoon, music, film screenings, band rehearsals, multimedia art exhibits and an all-around welcoming place for Ypsilanti's right-brained denizens.

"It's the only venue I know of where one night it's a children's puppet show, the next night do a noise puppet show, and the next night be doing adult-themed music shows, and the next night they may have a folk band," says Carrie Morris, a puppeteer/director with Dreamland who recently returned after spending a year in Indonesia studying puppetry.

"It's really accessible," she says. "All of the different art forms that will show up here … it's really remarkable."

In short, Dreamland's doing the kind of cool, standing-on-the-ledge-and-ready-to-jump-into-the-abyss type of stuff Ann Arbor used to do before it became, well, something known as A2 and a place too expensive to park, let alone live.

Venturi herself came to Ypsilanti after graduating with a physics degree from the University of Michigan. She grew up surrounded by the arts, courtesy of her mother, and big ideas, courtesy of her engineer/inventor father.

When it seemed like a good idea to start up her own art space and puppet theater, Venturi thought Ypsilanti made a good fit – initially for the cheaper cost of living and rent. But she now sees a very real and vibrant art scene starting to hop in the city, one that's been either gentrified or otherwise mainstreamed in Ann Arbor.

"I like it so much better than Ann Arbor now," says Venturi. "[Ann Arbor] changed a lot over my lifetime. There's a lot more structure."

That's how it always is, she adds. It seems you get a really cool scene happening in one place.
Everyone wants to live there, so everyone starts moving there. Soon everyone causes the cost of living to go up until those same ragtag artsy types who made the city so desirable in the first place can't afford to live there. So they head to a smaller, lower-cost city nearby, where the glare of expectation and pretension isn't so bright. There they rebuild, and start making art again.

That, says Venturi, is where Yspilanti is now. As evidence she points to the collective of artists who drop in at the Dreamland to hang out, talk or play music on any given night of the week. There's Chris Sandon, artist and member of Dirty Bros. Quality Productions, which presents art and music events and productions.

Morris, meanwhile, notes how noise music is not only big in Ypsilanti, the city is practically a mecca of the scene.
Then there's Patrick Elkins, Morris' husband, author/musician and founder of the Totally Awesome Fest, a grassroots music festival taking place at a bunch of venues around Ypsilanti in late April.
Elkins came to Ypsilanti to attend Eastern Michigan University, but stayed for what he sees as the city’s more inclusive scene, one that thrives on connections between purveyors of different art forms.

“It definitely feels like there’s much more of a community feel,” he says. “It doesn’t fall into some of the cliques that I’ve noticed in Ann Arbor.”

Venturi sees her little storefront puppet/art/music/film theater as a happy fixture in this surging scene. With the daring and edgy spotlighted every weekend, along with the children’s shows on Sunday afternoons, Dreamland is starting to attract more than just those from Ypsilanti’s art community.

“It’s bringing more people that I don’t know,” she says. “And that’s good. When people see shows here they’re always blown away.”

Well no wonder. Consider this latest offering from the Dreamland folks: A Dadaist psycho-surrealist little ditty of a play called “The Truth About Teeth.” It’s written by San Francisco playwright and dental-phobe Jess Rowland, Venturi’s former classmate at U-M.

“The Truth About Teeth” is a spot of absurdist exploration about teeth, dentistry and all the repressed, neurotic and primal stuff that surrounds the sometimes messed-up relationship we have with our choppers.

If that’s too out there for your weekend tastes, there are the children’s puppet shows on Sundays. Attendance for the children’s shows varies, says Venturi, as does attendance for the adult shows. In June, Venturi is offering four-week puppetry camps in which youth can make their own puppets to show off in a special performance. 

Alas, even with all of the ideas spilling out of Dreamland, Venturi says her little theater has never broken even financially. She hopes the puppetry camps will help get the word out, and that the burgeoning art scene in Ypsi will buoy Dreamland to … well, at least financial solvency, anyway. 

Something that doesn’t help toward that goal is vandalism. Namely, vandalism in the form of someone recently smashing out the theater’s front windows, which cost Venturi around $1,000 to replace. 

It was a discouraging thing to happen in a discouraging economy that discourages artists from forging ahead with their dreams. Discouraging, also, because of the tenor Venturi has always tried to establish at Dreamland: a welcoming place for the community to gather and be creative together.

Still, a little vandalism isn’t something that’s likely to deter Venturi. She is a puppeteer, after all. They’re accustomed to using a little finesse to get things moving in the way they want.

“I’m pretty stubborn about things,” she says. “I don’t give up on things too easily.”

Dreamland Theater is located at 26 N. Washington Street in Ypsilanti. It will present “The Truth About Teeth” April 3 and 10. There are also children’s puppet shows each Sunday afternoon and a puppetry camp for kids coming up in June. For more information, call Dreamland Theater at 734-657-2337.

Megan Pennefather is a freelance writer living in Royal Oak. This is her first article for Concentrate.
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