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What Theater Can Do

A few months ago, the Freedom Dreams conference invited me to be a speaker on a plenary panel called The Power of Art, which asked artist/activists to speak about the role of art in social justice organizing.

A few nights ago, Free Street presented TRACK 13,  the latest piece from the Young Fugitives. TRACK 13, created by young artists and activists, eloquently spoke to the pain and the helplessness that many people feel in the face of brutality and oppression perpetrated by the very people who are “supposed” to protect them: the police. The play posed the question: what can making a play really do? And many in the audience shared this (entirely valid) question: what can making theater, or art, or talking about a problem REALLY and ACTUALLY DO to make change? This was the very question I’d wrestled with at the Freedom Dreams conference, facing an audience of activists who were not entirely convinced that art had a valid role in organizing and social change.

I’m no Pollyanna. I’m skeptical about most things, and don’t believe in self-congratulation. But I do believe in theater, and I do believe that there are things the theater can do. So I thought I’d post my comments from the conference here:  (more…)

One Year, One Zillion Performances, One Zillion Grey Hairs…

Watching the Free Street LiVE show in Piotrowski Park

A year ago this week, I formally became the Artistic Director of Free Street Theater. It was, and still is, an intimidating challenge. After all, Free Street has a 45 year history. I wasn’t even BORN when Patrick Henry and crew started making theater in parks and other public spaces. I was watching Sesame Street, aka Plaza Sésamo, in another country when Free Street ensemble members set up a long-term residency in Cabrini-Green to create original work with residents there. I mean, SERIOUSLY, everywhere I go, when I say I work with Free Street, people start telling me stories about seeing them in the 70′s, the 80′s, the 90′s. It’s a legacy company in Chicago – one of the oldest continuously running theaters in the city. Seems like half of the city knows more about Free Street’s history than I do! And to be real, not all of it is positive. You can’t do 45 years in a place and not have bad blood here and there. Some years have produced better shows than others. Some years have been kinder to its people than others. Some years have been all about international travel and accolades and others have been a bust. You get the picture.

All the same, any one who knows me and knows my work knows that I believe in theater. (more…)

I Heart FB

‘Tis the time of year to swear off Facebook. I mean, not for me. I would never do such a thing. I love Facebook like whoa. By “like whoa,” I mean like this, which is to say fully but not uncritically.

But every December into the wee early days of January, my Facebook feed is full of people renouncing social media. Dozens of “goodbye, I’m deactivating, taking a break, contact me by phone or snail mail or carrier pigeon.” I guess this sounds snarky, but I don’t mean it to be. I understand that on an average day, Facebook is a addicting distraction, a flow of generally useless and trivial information. On a bad day, it might be a hostile environment. Maybe even on a good day, the kind of day where you exchange jokes with an old friend and “like” a genuinely cute picture of someone’s dog/baby/dinner, it can be exhausting.

Still, I’m a super fan. Here’s why: I am not a stay-in-toucher. I am TERRIBLE at remembering to communicate with others. I answer emails in my head, but rarely on the information super highway. I never check voicemail. I forget to call even my most favourite people in the whole wide world. And I can’t remember the last time I wrote anyone a letter. I also MUCH prefer to be alone, to spend hours doing things like painting my nails and staring at a wall. And yet, I have chosen a field that is inherently and endlessly social. On an average day, I have extended interaction with about 60 students, a dozen colleagues, and a cast of 12. That’s JUST the default of meeting my contractual obligations. It doesn’t count professional networking, meetings with funders, planning committees, or any number of informational coffees that come with the job of an Artistic Director. And it definitely doesn’t count time with friends, family (8 brothers and sisters in 4 different states, 3 sets of parents in 2 different countries, 4 nieces and nephews, oodles of wonderful aunts, uncles, and cousins), or my partner and child.

In this landscape, Facebook emerges as a giant beacon of light, a shining star, a glistening web of social connectivity. In 10 quick minutes, I can admire my sister’s growing baby bump, commiserate with a friend’s job woes, link two people who are interested in the same kind of political activism, and check out Real Simple’s advice on organizing. I LOVE IT! I LOVE IT SO MUCH! Sure, none of this is a substitution for relating to people you really care about in depth, but it offers an alternative when that isn’t an option, whether separated by time, continents, or general flakiness.

Over the past year, I’ve sworn off (and on and off and on and off and on) gluten, sugar, dairy, and chemicals in my lip gloss, but Facebook? Oh hell no, I won’t go!



Free Street Homecoming

(In the following, I talk about myself in the third person. But that’s because I’m feeling kind of lazy and just reposting what I put on the Free Street website.)

Exciting things are in the air at Free Street, so let’s celebrate!

2013 has been big year for Free Street. We’ve welcomed a new Executive Director, Caroline O’Boyle, and a new Artistic Director, Coya Paz (that’s me!); and with their help, we’ve begun an exciting journey back to our roots (grassroots, that is).

For 44 years, Free Street has been dedicated to bringing theatre to anyone, anywhere; and with our new leaders at the helm, we’re confident that our mission can be accomplished. And while we’re excited for Free Street to return to its roots, we know that public access theatre in Chicago is undergoing a paradigm shift; so we are too. In addition to our long-running youth ensembles, we’ve added:

  • a Multi-Generational Collective – for youth and adults to create together
  • an Incubator Program – for artists developing new performances
  • Free Workshops – to help bring theatre to everyone
  • Community Residencies – to help groups and organizations use theatre to amplify their work

Theatre matters. Theatre travels. Theatre responds and includes. Theatre builds community and activates action through dialogue. And Free Street supports theatre. But we can’t do it alone; we need your help!

This is a call to action. An attempt to activate former ensemble members, former board members, former staff members and students, parents of Free Street, theatre supporters, Free Street lovers, anyone who remembers Free Street’s performances at parks and on street corners (or maybe even in a theatre) to help revitalize Free Street. And all you have to do is come home to Free Street.

On December 10th, we’re hosting a Homecoming Celebration. Come enjoy food, drinks, short performances and, most importantly, learn how you can join the Free Street movement toward community theatre for all.

Free and open to all ages. RSVP here.

Support us, from your couch!

Can’t make it on December 10th? Not to worry, you can still help! Consider making a donation of any amount to Free Street Theatre. Free theatre might be free to the public, but unfortunately, it’s not free for us. Your financial support allows Free Street to continue our vital efforts.


Racist? or Not Racist? BYC Edition.

On Monday night, I attended the South East Lake View Neighbors (SELVN) meeting where they were discussing, among other things, the fate of the Broadway Youth Center (BYC). I’m not a resident of Lakeview (more on that later), so I was reluctant to attend, despite my longstanding support of BYC. One of the underlying principles of my work is that people in local communities should have the right to self-determine policies that affect them, and while I advocate for this precisely because it is so rare for systematically marginalized communities to be offered a seat at the decision-making table, I wasn’t sure that I felt that the fact that most of the residents in Lakeview are richer and whiter than most of the city necessarily excluded them from the right to make decisions about things that happen on their street.

Ultimately, though, I decided to attend the SELVN meeting for two reasons. (more…)

Attention, Attention

Amores, I have an exciting announcement. As of July 1st, I will officially be the Artistic Director of Free Street Theatre. Whoa whoa whoa, some of you may be thinking. Are you quitting your teaching job? NEVER. I love teaching AND, in particular, I love teaching at DePaul. But I am excited to take on this new challenge, which allows me to take my passion for social justice and my passion for theatre/performance and put them together strategically, in way that is more expansive than anything I could accomplish on my own. So here’s the deal:

Free Street Theatre has been around since 1969. It started as one of those classic late-sixties/early-seventies projects founded with the idea to make theatre by, with, and for “the people.” And guess what? I’m totally on that. My favourite quote, the one that guides so much of my performance practice, is from the great Augusto Boal: “I think anyone can do theatre. Even actors. And theatre can be done anywhere. Even in a theatre.” I believe that performance, as a both a process and a product, belongs to everyone. And so, much of my career thus far has been spent working to build and/or support platforms that increase access to performance and performance processes.

That’s exactly what we’ll be doing at Free Street. Although the company is best known for its work with youth artists, in the coming year you’ll see us roll out a variety of new programs that are designed to include multi-generational participants in a wide-variety of spaces. In addition to our youth ensembles, we’ll be developing an ensemble process for people ages 20 and up; facilitating workshops and residencies around the city; offering free master classes; and hosting the In/House series, which presents the work of artists who are using performance to address questions of community, critical inquiry, and social justice.

I am both excited and nervous about this. It is a big commitment, but I believe in the challenge because I believe in Free Street! Jajajaja… that’s cheezy as all hell, I know. But just look at this awesome video from the 1970′s (narrated by Studs Terkel!) and tell me it doesn’t make you want to figure out what the 2013…2014…2020 version of all of this might be?