Think of it as Taste of Ann Arbor–category, theatre; subcategory, U-M students. The Wall-to-Wall Theatre Festival, held in North Campus’s Walgreen Drama Center March 26 and 27, is roaming theater, with the audience, not the players, doing the roaming. The cost is zero, and the time commitment can be as minimal as twenty-five minutes or can be stretched out to a full two nights’ entertainment, if you bring food and drink and spend some time prowling around the spectacular building, enabled by a $10 million donation from Charles Walgreen Jr., of drugstore fame, a 1938 U-M graduate (pharmacy, not theater).
Last year’s format–essentially the same this year, emails organizer Allyssa Powell– simultaneously staged nine mini-plays, each lasting about twenty to thirty minutes. They are staggered and repeat several times per night, allowing you to see as many as six of the nine in one evening, or all nine if you come both nights. Performances are held in classrooms, studios, and even the lobby. Some are well-known classics adapted for the time limit. Others are original scripts penned by students. Casts range from one to large. You feel the pop and fizz of young creative energy all around you.
I saw six of the nine last year. Karly Thomas’s original Women of Williams County was an outstanding pile-up of Tennessee Williams’ women characters from different plays, all on the same stage at once, six-characters-in-search-of-an-author style. Some were in drag, some were straight, though with Tennessee Williams, you can do it either way and get about the same effect. It left me hoping it was adapted from a longer script. Not as successful as a production was Buyer and Cellar, a one-man show by (non-U-M) playwright Jonathan Tolins, performed by theater student Henry Nettleton. The one-man-show format is hard enough for a battle-tested aging actor to pull off without a certain narcissism and self-parody creeping in. This script is even about narcissism and self-parody, but the actor’s skill level was not there. (Though it did provide some after-hours entertainment as I tried to piece together how much of the story was true. Enough to convince me that Barbra Streisand is one peculiar lady.)
The Walgreen Center remains a working building during these two nights, with people entering and exiting for their own prosaic reasons. That provided improvisational fodder for the Rude Mechanicals doing a few scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the lobby when a hapless pizza deliveryman found himself on a makeshift stage holding someone’s dinner. Without breaking character, Tom Snout hopped up and talked him on to his destination.
Powell is one of five organizers, as is Women of Williams County playwright Thomas. Powell says this year’s lineup includes Shakespeare, a dance piece, The Trojan Women, a few musical pieces, and more. The Wall-to-Wall, now in its third year, is not part of a class or a thesis. Powell says it’s “completely voluntarily, and we do this work because we love it.”