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They parade along the beach and dance among the trees

Northwestern artists use the magic of outdoor theatre to build connection and unity in Chicago

A group of masked children broke from the socially distant circle of parents and theater makers to choose from the array of twigs and branches wrapped in strands of white lights or festooned with electric votive candles that lay on a blue tarp. 

Nearby a u-shaped gathering of musicians conferred about the songs they would play. An oversized puppet with the face and arms of a tree was hoisted by a trio of puppeteers. A stag dressed in a white sport coat drifted through the gathering holding a glowing light.

Rallying the amorphous crowd of roughly 75 people of all ages, and dogs too, was Jessica Thebus, associate professor and director, MFA directing program of theatre at the School of Communication.

Art of Spontaneous Spectacle

“Welcome to the Art of Spontaneous Spectacle. Tonight, you will help us with a Firefly Procession! Yes! Celebrating the tiniest sparks of light in the darkness and featuring the great and humble Twilight King. Masks and social distancing are a must in this COVID-Safe performance. Together we will offer an image of available magic to all of the people in the park. Theater will not be silenced as a voice for this moment.”

The Art of Spontaneous Spectacle arose from a quest by School of Communication theatre faculty Julie Marie Myatt, Shana Cooper and Thebus to make leaner, faster theater by working with what they had: the lakefront, the people and the protocols for masking and social distance. 

A large and loose collective of artists have gathered all summer to produce processions with life-size puppets and music at Loyola Beach on Chicago’s north side. The participatory events invite community members into the spectacle, either as performers, followers or viewers.

The Art of Spontaneous Spectacle will present “A Celebration of Things We Hope to Carry into the Future,” featuring a march of very tall storks, at 5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 26. Participants and spectators will assemble at 4:45 p.m. at Farwell Ave. and Lake Michigan. Mask-wearing is required. All ages are welcome and encouraged to bring signs with words or pictures expressing their hopes for the future. 

Several other Northwestern faculty, students and alumni have staged pop-up park productions as well.

Black Butterfly

When the late civil rights activists John Lewis and C.T. Vivian passed, directing alum Jerrell L. Henderson, (MFA ’15) wanted to find a way to honor them with art. 

“Their legacies were already important but especially at this particular time in American history when it seems, once again, we as a nation must decide how free we are all going to be. It's a charged, tense, sometimes terrifying, always inspiring time in which to be alive and American,” said Henderson. “‘Black Butterfly’ is one way I can provide a productive and hopefully inspirational response to the conversations we are all having right now.”

Recognizing a misconception that Chicago arts only happen on the north side, Henderson sought to connect artists he knows from all parts of the city, such as Northwestern colleagues from The Art of Spontaneous Spectacle and the Austin-based dance ensemble Move Me Soul.

“This promotes connection, it promotes unity,” said Henderson. “It also allows for other folx in Chicago to experience a Pop-Up Puppetry event. Everyone deserves a little magic. If that magic can be based in a space where puppetry meets history meets communal building and understanding, even better!”

A “Black Butterfly” performance will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11 outside the Town Hall/Library in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. To find out more, follow Jerrell L. Henderson on Instagram or Twitter.

Where the Wild Things Are

The terrible roars of “Wild Rumpus-ing” were heard from Loyola Beach, Sept. 18-20 as family park-goers participated in “Where the Wild Things Are: A Masked Promenade.” Theater alumni Annabel Heacock (’20), Connor Lifson (’19) and Jeremy Gubman (’19) adapted WAVE student theater’s 2016 production of Maurice Sendak’s storybook into an outdoor, interactive journey using household items for puppets, costumes and props. 

“We wanted our production to emphasize the wonder that can come from reimagining home and everyday objects,” said Heacock. “Being able to parade along the beach, dance among the trees as the sun sets was much easier to direct outside than it would have been in a traditional theatre.”

Grass Studio Theatre

Five current Northwestern graduate and undergraduate theatre students formed Grass Studio Theatre to create shows within pandemic restrictions. The collective includes MFA graduate students Hamid Dehghani, Daphne Agosin and Emiley Kiser, and undergraduates Jacob Leaf and Leo Merrick. 

Their most recent work, “Reportage of a Room,” was staged in Elliot Park along the Evanston lakefront. The two-hour improvised performance provided a glimpse of life as lived during the pandemic, exploring the nature of our routines and relationships to objects.

The seemingly mundane routines of three individual people alone in their room, was magnified by having two “sports commentators” describing their actions and telling the stories behind the room’s objects to the audience. 

“We changed our expectations and goals for creating theatre,” said Dehghani. “Our goal was to make the passers-by the audience of an outdoor theatre even for a few seconds by performing a piece of art where they would not expect it. They cannot go to the theatre, so we took the theatre to them.” 

Find out about future Grass Studio Theatre performances on the company’s Facebook page.

Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak on It

Theatre professor Henry Godinez, a resident artist of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, is directing an outdoor adaptation of “Fannie” by Cheryl L. West. Inspired by voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, the performance aims to spark hope and determination about the civic right to vote.  

“The catalyst for me was realizing back in May that we would not be able to mount this production as we’d planned,” said Godinez. “I thought about what Teatro Campesino and my great mentor Luis Valdez did in the 1960s and ’70s to inform migrant farm workers about their rights. They would take short plays on the backs of pick-up trucks into the fields to educate folks about pesticides and their rights to unionize. That’s what we’re doing, only this time it’s about voting!”

Performances take place in a variety of Chicago Parks from Sept. 17 - Oct. 3. Performances are free and seating is first-come, first-served. Visit the Goodman Theatre for the schedule and details.

Calendar: plays in the parks

“A Celebration of Things We Hope to Carry into the Future”
Sept. 26, 5 p.m., arrive by 4:45 p.m.
Loyola Beach, Chicago

“Fannie Lou Hamer: Speak on It”
Sept. 17 to Oct. 3
Chicago Park District, various times and locations
Presented by the Goodman Theatre

“Black Butterfly”
Oct. 11, 2 p.m.
Austin Town Hall Park
5610 W. Lake St., Chicago