Ann Arbor "underground playhouse" helps people heal through creativity

The nonprofit Express Your Yes Foundation recently launched NOW Studios, an eye-popping space that functions as a multi-modal production company, activist theatre, social lab, gallery, and more.
Bubbles Sandcastle (aka Samer Chahine) contends that "people blossom the moment that they discover that you are a human being, just like them." 

As the co-founder of the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit Express Your Yes Foundation, which strives to strengthen marginalized voices and advocate for the healing power of art, Sandcastle has witnessed this type of deep transformation time and time again. 

"We need to come back to the humanness of the soul and remind ourselves that we are all human beings," they say. "Even though there are aspects of ourselves that we're expressing that are different from others, the fact is that each of us is human and we all want to be unified by something."

The challenge along the way, Bubbles says, is that people often don't know how to let go of the things that block them from doing so. This recognition was a big part of what propelled Bubbles and their partner, Petals Sandcastle (aka Ricky Herbert), to launch one of Express Your Yes' latest projects: NOW Studios, a multi-modal production company, activist theatre, social lab, gallery, and underground playhouse at 715 N. University in downtown Ann Arbor. The space technically opened in 2020 but has more recently been ramping up its programming and community collaborations.

In the eye-popping space, about 350 paintings vie for attention on the vibrantly painted walls, fun and fanciful costumes beckon both the shy and flamboyant, and a slew of art supplies await to inspire visitors' creativity. Guests can canoodle with a good book (ranging from the works of Shakespeare to coloring books), or play and experiment with any of the numerous musical instruments that are on hand. 
Express Your Yes Foundation co-founder Petals Sandcastle at NOW Studios.
"The space is extreme and so full throttle. People will come in all the time and say that they haven't ever felt this type of safety and room for exploration, play, growth, and evolution before coming to NOW Studios," Petals says. "Subconsciously, I think that people feel that the space is bigger than their fears, insecurities, doubts, and talents. That's powerful and that's potent."

A glance at the studio's calendar of events reveals offerings including open mics, guided meditations, "open existential playtime" sessions, and watch parties for TV shows and movies. Bubbles says more weight is given to theater-based offerings, and that focus is intentional.

"It gives people a chance to suspend disbelief and creates an opening. We believe that it's a powerful way to really reach people's souls and kind of break things down," they say. 

Bubbles says they and Petals have been very intentional about ensuring that NOW Studios is a safe place for everyone in the community to explore, grow, and heal. The Sandcastles are queer and they started the space from a queer mindset. While Bubbles says they are looking to "make space for queer people and cultivate the queer in all of us," NOW Studios is not a queer-only space.
Express Your Yes Foundation co-founder Bubbles Sandcastle.
"Our opinion is that we're all a little queer. The idea is how can that become a yes, and how can you express that if you want to?" Bubbles says. "We believe that through that process a lot of our barriers and hang-ups and internal traumas can be released and we can personally evolve."

It's been hard for the Sandcastles to talk about NOW Studios being a queer space because it can turn people off, including some in the queer community who have asked if they will be safe if everyone is welcome. Bubbles explains that they want the studio to be a safe place, but they also want to build bridges in the community so that everyone can grow.

"I have felt outcasted and on the outskirts a lot in my life, and I don't want a siloed world any more. I want to help create a world where no one feels like I have," they say. "I don't want to have to think about going to a gay bar. I just want to think about going to a bar and being in communion with my community."

Petals expresses similar sentiments. A former New York City high school teacher and University of Michigan (U-M) alum, Petals previously founded Lampshade, a pick-your-price cafe, performance venue, bookshop, and gallery in Ypsilanti. (Lampshade has since closed, but creative spirit lives on in the space in the form of Ziggy's.) The Sandcastles created Express Your Yes to bring together disparate social groups to create, explore, play, perform, socialize, heal, rebel, move, grow, and more. This latest venture, Petals says, is "a grassroots place to dance against larger institutions and megaphone the margins." 
The University Musical Society presenting a Parable of the Sower Party & Open Mic at NOW Studios.
Petals, who was once a write-in candidate against U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, wants to incorporate some political activism into the mix at the studio. They're currently thinking about including programming before the November midterm elections to engage people who don't feel part of the political process. 

"There are so many creatives, hippies, and marginalized people who say that their voices don't matter or they don't want to support a system that they feel is ultimately designed to destroy them," Petals says. "How can we use spirituality, art, playtime, music, dance, and all the silly heart stuff to enter into people and help them rethink their mental landscape?"

Currently, as Petals works toward getting more disparate groups involved in these dialogues, Bubbles (who has a bachelor's degree in computer science from U-M) has been rallying support outside of the community. Bubbles' resume includes work in Silicon Valley and founding a startup. They are currently working in Texas for an environmental tech group, which not only helps keep the lights on at NOW Studios, but also serves as a segue to their intention of adding environmental stewardship into the space's future offerings.

Having self-funded NOW Studios for the last two years, the Sandcastles are working hard toward finding more grants, donors, and patrons to extend NOW Studios' reach in the community. 

"NOW Studios offers opportunity to unzip and begin again," Bubbles says. "We're looking for ideas and collaborators who can help us make a powerful impact. Let's all jump in and unabashedly explore and evolve together." 

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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