When my daughter went off to college, I made a list of things I would do to fill in the gaps left by her departure. I had enjoyed helping with theater scenery for her high school productions, and I’ve always loved Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, so one item was to help make scenery for the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society. That was twenty-two years ago, and I’ve been designing and painting UMGASS sets ever since.

The Englishmen William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan together created thirteen operettas between 1875 and 1896. From what I’ve read, the 1999 movie Topsy Turvy got their personalities right: it portrayed Gilbert as an irascible and insecure prig and Sullivan as an easy-going profligate.

Despite their ill-matched personalities, they nonetheless admired each other’s talents: Gilbert’s librettos and Sullivan’s music. Their resulting operettas are, for the most part, seamlessly brilliant. Gilbert’s texts poke fun at class distinctions, snobbery, politicians, and pretentiousness, while celebrating love and life and the English language. Although Sullivan aspired all his life to be a serious composer and would have been distressed that his reputation survives on the basis of his operettas, his music is perfectly suited to the form, at once a light-hearted mockery of grand opera and a collection of wonderfully original tunes.

More than a century later, these operettas are performed regularly by almost 300 “G & S” groups worldwide. UMGASS is the oldest student-run society in the United States. The brainchild of Gloria Katlan Bennish, then a U-M junior, it presented The Mikado at the old Ann Arbor High School on Huron and State in December 1947, making 2022 the society’s 75th anniversary year.

At first the society was composed exclusively of students, with faculty advisors. Over the years, the cast and production staff became more mixed. Students now make up about half the cast, sometimes including high schoolers and students from other colleges. The rest of the cast is a typical array of Ann Arborites: professors, doctors, teachers, engineers, waitstaff, business owners, the unemployed, and retirees.

I know of at least two past students who came to the U-M because of the reputation of UMGASS. We also have legacies, students whose parents were on stage at Lydia Mendelssohn ­Theatre–our primary venue since the early 1950s–a generation before them.

Some of those parents may even have met on Mendelssohn’s stage, because we’ve had a good number of UMGASS marriages. In April 2007, after the Saturday night performance of The Pirates of Penzance, we even had an on-stage proposal following the curtain calls. (She said “yes.”)

One of my favorite stories is about the time the smoke alarm went off at the beginning of Iolanthe. The first act takes place in an Arcadian landscape where some members of Parliament encounter a group of fairies. Everyone–the cast, the crew, the orchestra, the audience–had to evacuate the theater and stand outside in the cold until the U-M fire marshal gave the all-clear. When we filed back inside and the curtain went up, the fairy queen ad-libbed, “Damn those fairy hot flashes!”

UMGASS holds auditions, rehearses, builds and paints sets, and makes costumes at the Student Theater Arts Complex (STAC). An antiquated facility just east of Michigan Stadium, it is also home to a number of other student performing groups. As much as I grouse about the difficulties of carving out our own space in the set shop, I love being in the middle of the chaos and the creativity at STAC.

Before I started working on UMGASS sets, I created etchings and pastel paintings that I sold at art fairs and galleries (and that occasionally became Observer covers). It was a big change: from trying to create lasting art to making something to be used for a few nights, from lines drawn with a needle to lines drawn with a 3″ house-paint brush, and from pictures to be viewed up close to scenes that are best seen from a hundred-plus feet away.

Moreover, I went from working alone in my studio to working in company, and from being my own boss to having to cooperate with the show directors, the shop crew, and the other student groups who share the shop. I love every minute of it: working collaboratively, solving new puzzles, being part of a wonderful show, meeting new people every semester. Working on stage scenery has even improved my other art; I’ve learned a lot about perspective, color, and composition.

UMGASS prides itself on performing all thirteen G & S operettas, although the more popular ones are done more frequently than others to keep it solvent. For its first seventy-three years, it put on at least two shows a year. But in March 2020, after more than two months of rehearsals, Covid cancelled H.M.S. Pinafore. The sets and costumes, which were almost finished, were put in storage at STAC.

In the midst of the pandemic, ­UMGASS presented an online double show of Trial by Jury and Cox and Box (a short operetta Gilbert wrote with a different composer) with performers located all over the world. Then, last fall, with a new director (the previous one had graduated from EMU by then), a mixture of old and new cast members, a surprise influx of newly acquired costumes, and the old sets, finally finished, we put on Pinafore.

This semester, the Omicron surge postponed the planned presentation of The Pirates of Penzance till fall. But on April 9 and 10, UMGASS will present a concert version of The C.E.O., or, the Widget Company at Lydia Mendelssohn. In this alternative version of The Mikado by longtime UMGASS actor and director David Andrews, the Japanese emperor of the title is recast as an imperious Ann Arbor executive.

UMGASS alums have gone on to join G & S groups in other cities, and some have forged professional careers. The list includes well-known performers (Tom Hulce, Marian Mercer, and Ara Berberian); several Broadway directors; and assorted composers, songwriters, producers, music teachers, screenwriters, and opera stars. Others are better known locally for their non-theatrical work, including former U-M vice president Cynthia Wilbanks, long-serving former UMS director Ken Fischer, and Ann Arbor mayor Chris Taylor.

Happy seventy-fifth Birthday to UMGASS in 2022!

Strowe’s etchings and pastel paintings have appeared on the cover of fifty-six issues of the Ann Arbor Observer.