Matrix Theatre Company was founded in 1991 by Shaun and Wes Nethercott. The commitment to mission has resulted in activities in two primary areas: the creation and production of original plays and the experiential education in play writing, performance, and puppetry for people of all ages. This work has been undertaken in three areas.
Between 1991 and 1998, Matrix created a series of groundbreaking productions and partnerships which created new plays about important community issues. Major works included Fear and Faith, Beyond Violence, Street Stories, Jesus in the Hood, and Southwest Story. Working in community, usually with vulnerable young people, these plays toured the neighborhood and the region, garnering a number of awards, especially for its Beyond Violence Initiative. The play Beyond Violence, along with Fear and Faith, formed Matrix's Beyond Violence Initiative, was in constant production for seven years -- requested by audiences not only for its honest portrayal of violence in children's lives, but for its cast-led, in-character discussions with the audience. It toured jails, psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, national conferences, schools, universities, churches, towns, and suburbs.
This program was featured in the WTVS City for Youth series, named an outstanding project by Michigan Humanities Council, given a Silence the Violence Award by New Detroit, and given the Unity in the Community Award. The Fear and Faith performance engaged thousands of young people in the creation of public theatre events featuring giant puppets and masks and was named by the National 4-H Council as a model community program. In 1999, the United States Conference of Mayors gave Matrix its Christina Mattin Arts Award for work with at-risk youth. Sports and Recreation Commission gave Matrix its Leonard Smith Award for Organizational Excellence for youth serving programs.
In 1999, another era began when Matrix began teaching children as young as 8 to create new plays through its Playbuilders Program, moved into its current studio at 2730 Bagley, and began a series of programs reaching highly isolated populations such as adults with visual impairments or with mental health disabilities. Between 1999-2005, in a variety of settings, and with a wide variety of constituents, Matrix teaching artists worked collaboratively to create 34 new plays. As one observer noted, “Matrix can make a new play anywhere with anyone!” Of particular note was the creation of the Once Was Paradise Series, which depicted the history of the Detroit ecosystem with more than 100 giant handmade puppets. The groundbreaking project grew out of a year-long residency at Western International High School and was honored by the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan as an exemplary program.
Matrix opened its own performance space in March 2001, where it began offering a full slate of classes, drop-in workshops, and plays. At the same time, Matrix creative artists began a series of new plays exploring the history and culture of Detroit. Plays from this period were based on primary research and often grew out of innovative partnerships and collaborations. University of Michigan students joined local residents to create Ambassador (2001), a modern retelling of the LaMalinche story. They also participated in the creation of Homelands: Michigan Central (2003), which grew out of oral histories gathered by the students about Detroit’s fabled, but now abandoned train station. This project won numerous awards, including the Ginsberg Center Award for University/Community Partnership and the Inaugural Imagining Michigan Award. During this same time, Wes Nethercott led the development of Harpers’ Ferry, another award winning play, while Shaun Nethercott was gathering primary research for Boomtown 1925. This series of work resulted in awards from the Oakland Press, Detroit NOW, the Detroit City Council, and most notably, the Governor’s Award for Arts Organizations.
Another era commenced in 2005, when Matrix began, with funding from the Skillman Foundation to build a sequential curriculum for teaching performance, playwriting, and puppetry to children aged 5-18. Through the years, young people from aged 5-18 have created and toured numerous plays in both English and Spanish on a huge range of subjects—from City Critters to gang violence. The Young Directors Program created Vanished, a new play about immigration and deportation. Before that, they created Caution, a new play and education module created by teens about HIV/AIDS. Before that, they took a look at teen dating violence with the play, Where is the Love?
At the same time, Matrix continued developing its professional theatre, celebrating a year of revivals as part of the company’s fifteenth anniversary celebrations. It began a major new initiative to bring artists and audience with disabilities into the professional theatre in Detroit, resulting in the acclaimed production of One Flew of Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The following year, Matrix began offering Jambalayas, new multi-arts story-gathering workshops around metro Detroit. This work, too, generated awards: from the Wayne County Council for the Arts, History, and Humanities, and the Michigan History Society. Matrix Theatre Company and its founders were deeply honored in May 2007 to receive the Theresa Maxis Award for Social Justice from Marygrove College.
In 2006, Matrix began the Inclusive Theatre Initiative, whose goal is to bring adults with disabilities into full participation in Matrix as creators, producers, and audience. Matrix provides real time audio describing, sign language interpretation, and provides support so that all people, regardless of disability status or ability to pay, can share their creativity. Matrix has led the development of the Inclusive Arts Network, created a new puppet of the Americans with Disabilities pioneer Justin Dart, and participated in disability rights activities and celebrations throughout the country.
In 2009, Matrix Theatre Company began the Ghost Waters Initiative. This effort was dedicated to raising awareness of and connection to Detroit’s water heritage and resources. Children, youth, and adults in all Matrix programs created new plays and puppets about Detroit’s buried rivers, streams, and wetlands. In addition, Matrix undertook a wide range of public programming around water awareness. In the first year, this resulted in the River Resurgence pageant and water conservation programs with more than 1500 Detroit residents. In the second and third year of this initiative, Matrix created a wide variety of activities, and engagement with hundreds of people. During Year 3, Matrix worked deeply with more than 250 participants in multiple locations, using water consciousness in our local environment as the organizing theme for the curriculum. Further, more than 1,700 people have attended performances associated with Ghost Waters programming throughout the last twelve months. Both of these benchmarks – individuals directly served and audience attendance – exceeded the outcomes originally proposed. Altogether, the project directly touched more than 5,000 people through performances, workshops, writing circles, classes, and puppet events. The whole project culminated with the production of Raven’s Seed, which featured new puppets made entirely of natural materials and a new script by Emmy award-winner and playwright Stephen Most.
The Matrix Teen Company formally began in 2011. Growing out of the success of Vanished and The Cry, The Matrix Teen Company has gone on to create a number of number of new plays and adaptations, including Collage, Water in Our World, Pumped, and True Detroit. The company reached a new height of artistry and social conscience with the production of The Skin I’m In, which dealt forthrightly with issues of bullying, ethnic intimidation and homophobia in a creative, brave, and thoughtful production. All the productions were envisioned, written, produced, and performed by the young people in the Teen Company.
In 2010, Matrix formally recognized three distinct arms of programming: The Matrix Theatre, a professional theatre, specializing in the development of new plays with a uniquely Detroit focus as well as heritage plays; the Matrix School of Theatre, a community school for the arts teaching play writing puppetry, and performance to all ages; and the Community Puppets Workshop, which makes and performs puppets of all sizes for performances, processions, and events throughout the community.
In 2008, Dr. Shaun Nethercott began pulling together a coalition of small youth serving arts organizations to explore sharing management tasks. In 2010 the collaboration of Matrix Theatre Company, Heritage Works, Living Arts, and VSA Michigan, now named the Detroit Community Arts Alliance (DCAA), received start-up funds from McGregor Fund and The Kresge Foundation to create a new model of shared fund development, financial management, program collaboration, and evaluation. DCAA fosters institutional transformation in each of these areas, with the goal of achieving best practices, a daunting task for small organizations to accomplish alone.
The rare mix of creativity and conscience as well as collaboration and community that has defined Matrix’s storied career continues with greater promise of achievement and artistry in the years to come. Matrix Theatre Company offers a full season of performances which take place at Matrix and in the Matrix GreenSpace. With year-round programming for more than 700 children, youth, and adults in 6 different locations, 4 professional productions reaching an audience of more than 8,000, and numerous puppet appearances and workshops throughout the region, Matrix Theatre Company is indeed the center of a powerful and growing community of creativity.