New performing arts company launches with trans-themed folk opera at Ypsi Freighthouse

A new Ann Arbor-based performing arts company called Fifth Wall will kick off its debut season at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse with a folk opera about a trans person's journey to embrace her womanhood.


The opera, called Michigan Trees: A guide to the Trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, will be performed Aug. 28 and 29. It's written by U-M alum Grey Grant, who is currently in the process of moving to Ypsi.


Grant, who uses they/them pronouns, co-founded Fifth Wall with Karl Ronneburg, a composer, percussionist, writer, and multimedia/performance artist originally from the Seattle area. Grant says the company's name came from the concept of the fourth wall, the imaginary wall between performers and audience.


"The idea behind the fifth wall was that we were not only breaking the fourth wall but acknowledging the audience," Grant says. "Everyone (is brought) into the piece. We recognize everyone's humanity, and everyone is participating in the art-making."


Michigan Trees combines images of the Great Lakes region's trees with a story about a trans person's process of accepting her identity.


"Trees go through a crazy transformation, from being so tiny (as a seed) to massively huge, and I felt I could relate this to this big feat of coming to terms with one's gender and making the decision to transition," Grant says.


They say the idea for the opera had been percolating for a few years after they and Ronneburg adapted Philip Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach for a performance in Ronneburg's living room.


"That was the beginning of our artistic collaboration and we've been wanting to continue it, but it's been a few years of figuring out what to do and how we want to do it," Grant says.


Grant was also inspired after seeing a master's recital by Allison Prost, the principal vocalist in Michigan Trees. Grant wanted to write material for her, so they used two poems they'd previously written that contained tree imagery as the basis for the opera.


"It was very convenient timing that I was writing a theatrical work and was starting a performance-based company," Grant says. "It was a perfect storm of things."


Converge New Music, an Ypsi/Ann Arbor-area string quartet committed to playing and commissioning new works by emerging composers, is also collaborating on the opera.


Grant says the freighthouse is an ideal venue for the piece, because it is full of old wood and fits with the opera's theme of travel.


"This opera takes place on I-75 North, and there's lots of traveling, and we thought the freight house would be a really lovely venue to represent that north-south link," Grant says.


Fifth Wall is currently hosting a crowdfunding campaign to help kick off its inaugural season. More information is available at the Fifth Wall website, and sliding-scale tickets are available through EventBrite.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of Grey Grant.

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