The home of Matrix Theatre sticks out from its surroundings — it’s a two-story brick building that looks like the other storefronts should surround it, but it stands abruptly thin, tall and alone. Michigan Central Station looms in the background, long-abandoned and windowless. To the east is the center of the city, a cluster of buildings that fan out from Detroit’s highest point, General Motors’ Renaissance Center. Directly to the west, the Ambassador Bridge crosses the Detroit River to Canada.
2730 Bagley Avenue looks nothing like the ruin porn that populates a Google image search of Detroit. Matrix Theatre is well-kept, and has been since it moved in. The theatre nonprofit calls the space on Detroit’s Southwest side home and takes in Detroiters of every kind to create an open community with one common mission: “Using the transformative power of theatre to change lives, build community, and foster social justice.”
Matrix began as a grassroots movement by Shaun and Wes Nethercott in 1991, who aimed to create original plays that would represent the community and offer an outlet for people of all ages to learn playwriting, performance, and puppetry. Matrix hit the ground running with successful plays that found their way to untraditional theater venues — jails, psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, universities and churches. By 1999, the company had become such a community staple that it decided to settle into their studio space on Bagley Avenue.
The stage inside the doors of Matrix Theatre’s is unassuming. Small and simplistic, rows of red chair seating stretch back away from the stage and spread to the sides of the exposed brick walls. However, when the house lights dim and the spot lights rise, audience members are greeted with a sense of intimacy and closeness that can only be found inside a community theater like Matrix.
“In terms of the space, I was surprised by how small it was,” said Music, Theater & Dance senior Mary Naoum. Naoum first got involved with Matrix through the Semester in Detroit program over two years ago, and has been interning there ever since. “It’s a very small, cute theatre, but after seeing productions in it, I realized that the small space is what makes it such a powerful theatre. It’s such an intimate environment and their plays involve such important and sometimes challenging issues to talk about, so the environment works really well for that.”
Now the Matrix mission encompasses its three main branches of professional theater, puppetry, and educational theater. The professional theater presents annual seasons that feature a myriad of shows, from classics like “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” to original plays like “No Child…” that deal with modern issues such as the education crisis.
The puppetry department is another offering that makes Matrix unique. Inspired by huge puppets at a May Day Festival in Minnesota, Nethercott decided that puppetry would be an asset to the Detroit community. Yet these are no ordinary puppets; they depict important figures that connect to Detroit in one way or another, whether it be through civil rights activism or environmental issues, or important figures from the city. As the Matrix website boasts, these larger-than-life sized puppets are “people you can really look up to.”
The part of the theatre that has perhaps the largest impact on the community is the educational theatre school. The theatre school offers catering to different age groups.
The younger groups of actors create a play that revolves around their experiences at school, exploring what they like and dislike about the educational system in the city. Through the process of creating the play, students gain important theatrical skills, from improvisation, projection and important public speaking abilities that can aid them in advocating for change in their schools.
The 14 to 18-year-olds are members of the coveted group called the Matrix Teen Company. They are charged with writing an original play about the state of education in Detroit schools, drawing from their own experiences as well as what they see from the different schools they visit over the class period. This year, actor Justin Bartha (“The Hangover,” “Failure to Launch”) will join Matrix to guest direct their show, which opens in April and runs for two weekends.
All of the classes cost money with the exception of the Teen Company, which is funded by the Skillman Foundation, which focuses its donations on programs helping the children of Detroit. The prices are not easily affordable for many, ranging from $50 to $100 for the longer programs, however Matrix Theatre has a policy: Don’t turn anyone away.
“It’s possible through the very generous scholarship donations that we get from a variety of sources,” said Director of Education Andrea Scobie. Among such scholarships are the Hope Scholarships, which are need-based and funded through grants and donations. There is also the Youth with Promise Scholarship, which is awarded to students with promise in performance, playwriting, and puppetry. The student selected for the Promise Scholarship is required to have already participated in Matrix programs for at least one year. This fits in with Matrix’s goal to make theatre available to anyone and everyone who wants to get involved.
For Scobie, her involvement with Matrix began almost by accident; she had heard about an audition in 2005 for the professional theater at Matrix and decided to attend. She’s been at Matrix ever since, and now heads the educational theatre portion of the company.
“The more students are involved in Matrix, the more transformational the experience is,” Scobie said. “Most of these kids have never had the opportunity to be on stage themselves, and have certainly never had the opportunity to perform their own work, and use their own voice and their own ideas as the catalyst for this art. The more students come back to do this, the more you see changes in their confidence and in their behavior.”
One student who was strongly influenced by Matrix is Eastern Michigan University freshman Analy Aguilar. Aguilar moved to Detroit’s Southwest side when she was ten years old. She went to middle school in Detroit, where she said she meshed well with her peers. When it was time for high school, however, Aguilar’s parents decided to send her to high school in Madison Heights to avoid the violence and crime of Detroit Public Schools. At her new school, she was the only student of Mexican descent.
Four years after arriving to Matrix, Aguilar is still involved with the theatre and attending Eastern Michigan University for theatre arts.
“Matrix really helped me out,” Aguilar said. “When I was in high school I was bullied, and that caused me to become shy and kind of depressed. When I went to Matrix, they helped me open up and they made me happy, and they got me out of that phase. It helped me open up. Even my teachers at school noticed the difference. Matrix gave me a lot of confidence in myself.”
During Aguilar’s time at Matrix, she helped write and act in a teen production called “The Skin I’m In,” a production which dealt with issues of racism, stereotyping, discrimination and homophobia in schools. In a dialogue immediately following the performance, audience members said time and time again that the play was eye-opening and was performed not only at Matrix but also at Cranbrook Kingswood School.
“The experience, the opportunities, the people are worth coming back for,” Aguilar said. “It’s like a huge family. I loved coming home from school which was so stressful, and then going to Matrix and being able to let that all out with friends, and being able to act, because acting is so freeing for me. The environment is so comforting and loving, and it was something that was so different than school.”
Scobie said Analy Aguilar is just one example of Matrix’s transformative effect on young people.
“Through being a part of Matrix she was able to gain the confidence and gain the voice to be able to stand up for herself,” Scobie said. “Two years later when she graduated her senior year she was nominated for homecoming queen, all of those kids who had bullied her were now her best friends because she really learned to use her own voice and to have confidence in her own self.”
Part of the reason that Matrix works so well is the fact that it has nestled so seamlessly into the Detroit community. Detroit is a city that has had its ups and downs, and monetary problems in the public school system leave gaps in education. For most Detroit children, there is no theater program in their school, no creative outlet to help them express themselves and the myriad of troubles that might face them in their everyday lives. Matrix gives these children a safe space to rebuild themselves, arising from the ashes as their city has so many times before.