Experimental performance group The Hinterlands explores the outer limits of identity

In contemporary usage, “hinterland” is defined as “an area beyond what is visible or known.” And this is why Richard Newman and Liza Bielby named their experimental performance group, headquartered in a former drug house located on the outskirts of Hamtramck, “The Hinterlands.”

“‘Hinterlands are the areas at the edge of the map just beyond civilization, but you can still see them on the map,” explains Bielby. “We want to get to these unexplored places and get our audience to these unexplored places.”

It helps that The Hinterlands are also located in, well, the hinterlands of Hamtramck. Play House, home of The Hinterlands’ rehearsal and performance space, is located at 12657 Moran in an area known as “NoHam,” ostensibly referring to its geographical position north of Hamtramck but also imbued with a subliminal connotation of “No Man’s Land.” The area is also known as “Banglatown” due to its predominant Bangladeshi population, and is the most ethnically diverse zip code in Michigan. The 1924 two-family, two-story home was a testament to neighborhood toxicity, a hotbed of drug activity and prostitution. But when the absentee owner lost the house in a tax foreclosure, Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope of NoHam’s Power House Productions bought the property and, after receiving a grant from ArtPlace, began work on its cleanup and transformation in January 2013.

Reichert and Cope made international news when they began purchasing cheap, vacant houses in their NoHam neighborhood and turning them into demonstration centers for sustainable building practices and sites of innovative artistic intervention. They’ve rehabilitated several houses over a six-block area – Power House, Yellow House, Jar House, Sound House, Squash House – and also constructed the Ride It Sculpture Park, a collection of vacant lots turned skate park.

The Hinterlands, as an experimental ensemble performance group, relies heavily on collaboration. “That’s why we ended up coming to Detroit,” says Bielby. “We liked the culture, and we really liked the people we met here. Everyone has their own projects that they’re working on but are willing to collaborate in a way you don’t see as much in other places.”

As it happened, when Newman and Bielby first moved to Detroit in 2010, Reichert and Cope were one of their first collaborators. The two groups got to know each other after Newman and Bielby moved into Banglatown in 2010 and started working with Cope and Reichert on neighborhood security issues. It wasn’t long before they started collaborating creatively, too; The Hinterlands performed an early version of their production Manifest Destiny! on the Power House lawn. As their relationship grew and the itinerant Hinterlands began looking for a professional home to call their own, all four turned their eyes to a “problem house” ripe for transformation.

Play House now operates as The Hinterlands studio and small performance space, though larger shows are still held in other venues. “That’s the space where we curate and create our work, and do workshops and open trainings where we share our creation methodology with people,” says Bielby. The house has only been available for use since last September, but they are actively working on programming it as much as possible by working with other groups that can utilize it. Another ensemble named A Host of People just used it for their production Life is Happening To Us Again, and twice a week Play House is home to the Bangla School of Music, which finds Bangladeshi musician, activist, and scholar Akram Hossain teaching classical and contemporary Bangla music through singing, slide guitar, and harmonium lessons for both kids and adults (including Bielby). “We’re always looking for new collaborators who can push us in a different direction to change how we think about our work,” adds Bielby.

“We’re just starting to program Play House,” Newman says when asked about the Hinterlands’ long-term hopes for the space as a performance venue, “but what we’d like to do is curate different events, once a month, that bring in different kinds of people — it could be family puppetry one month, Bangla music the next, and contemporary dance another – and to make meaningful connections in the neighborhood in the process.” The duo is actively starting to curate other pieces and present other people’s work. “Part of that is to share our resources that we have, like the Play House, with other people,” says Bielby. “We think it’s really important to promote this Midwestern voice. There’s a unique voice and culture to where we’re from and where we live and [we want to do] anything we can do to promote that.”

The two have only been working together as The Hinterlands since 2009. When considering to which city to relocate, Bielby says they were looking for a mid-sized Midwestern city that wasn’t already oversaturated with physical theatre. Bielby is a native Michigander born in Flint and raised in the U.P., while Newman, a Southern boy from Texas and North Carolina, has had a profound love of techno music since he was a teenager, making Detroit seem like a natural fit for both. “For me it was a way to come back to Michigan,” says Bielby. “This was somewhere that [our work] could be sustainable and we could afford to live here. We bought a house – I never thought I’d be a homeowner – and have a [studio] space and really awesome neighbors.”

The Hinterlands produces several original shows of their own, which Bielby describes as “a mesh between dance theatre and performance art,” that take one to two years to create. Their works have included the postmodern psychedelic Wild West show Manifest Destiny! (there was blood on the saddle), Dreamtigers, Drive-In Radio Theatre, and The Circuit, a madcap resurrection of Vaudeville into the Internet age. The Hinterlands’ work is deeply informed by a concern with cross-cultural communication; in addition to touring their performances throughout the US and in Canada, China, Kosovo, and Macedonia, Bielby and Newman have participated in targeted cultural exchanges with theatre groups in Chengdu and Shanghai, China and Prishtina, Kosovo.

Identity is also a major theme in their work, both social and cultural identity as well as their own personal identities. “Manifest Destiny! was from Richard because his family was from Texas,” Bielby explains. “His grandfather was a rancher and he grew up with these myths of the West. When he first wanted to work on it, it was a way to look at this part of himself. For me, I lived in China for five years and was studying a [very specified and localized] regional form of Chinese opera. It was very interesting; this highly specific culture makes you think of who you are. I missed elements of American culture. That was something that I started really thinking about. That is something that’s really interesting to us.”

Another way in which The Hinterlands explores identity is through their ongoing group training, which is done on a near-daily basis, as well as their open training, which is open to the public in a highly free-form workshop format. “[In our training] we as individuals have our own personal investigation of the questions that we’re working with to develop a physical vocabulary for the piece. It’s a way to generate material through physical improvisation.”

The open trainings serve the same purpose for anyone with a performance background or those who are simply curious. “The idea is that you push yourself to the point of exhaustion, past resistance, to whatever it is you’re working on and end up in heightened creative, very imaginative state. It’s about getting in this state together with someone you don’t know. Also, the training is looking at who you are at any given point in time – what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses – and using that to your advantage to create.” Bielby puts it another way: “Training is a way for us to get to [those unexplored places of] the hinterlands.”

The Hinterlands’ next major project specifically explores the themes of place and identity. The Porous Borders Festival, to be held in their NoHam neighborhood in May 2015, was a winning project in last year’s Knight Arts Challenge. Another example of how Bielby and Newman are expanding into curation, the festival, held in their border neighborhood, examines the nature of borders. “The idea really grew out of our lives living on border of Detroit and Hamtramck,” says Bielby. “When you live on the Hamtramck side you’re definitely aware of it. We started looking at borders throughout metro Detroit, how there are these invisible markers that have shaped communities and shaped community identity. [In NoHam] we live with [immigrants and refugees] whose home country’s borders have changed during their lifetimes, like Bengal and Yugoslavia.”

The Porous Borders Festival will be a two-day public art event that takes place along the entire border separating Hamtramck from Detroit – a challenge in itself since the border can get a bit nebulous at points, running through people’s backyards, cemeteries, and manufacturing plants. They will select 10 pieces that best respond to the border using art and creative engagement, and all of it will be free, walkable, and family-friendly. “We want to have community conversations that provide a forum for people to talk about these issues regarding borders and immigration.”

Bielby finds her heavily foreign-born NoHam neighborhood particularly inspiring as an examination of borders and cultural identity, and sees it as a metaphor for Detroit as a whole. “Being in Detroit we wonder who we are at this point; what now?”

Portions of this story originally appeared here in Model D.