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. I believe that theater can be a powerful tool for exploring an idea, for bringing a community together, for transforming our ideas about who has a right to be heard. I believe that most theater is bullshit–sure, sometimes it is pretty, well-executed, well-crafted bullshit, but shallow all the same, performed by and for the same people all of the time. I don’t care to invest my time or my energy in that kind of work. Plenty of other people have that game covered. I care about investing in work that imagines the theater as a place of radical inclusion, a space where anyone–and I mean ANYONE–can make exciting work given the resources. I believe in theater that is multilingual, that doesn’t assume an audience used to hearing “proper English” but instead understands that the city we live in tells its stories in a multitude of dialects. I believe in theater that asks questions, that invites multiple perspectives, that unites and unsettles. I believe in theater that feels like being at the table with your favourite uncle and your funniest sister. I believe in theater that is accessible, theater where you don’t have to have a lot of money or a babysitter or nice clothes to feel like it is okay to come. In fact, I believe in theater that comes to you.
And the reason, a year ago, that I said yes to being the Artistic Director at Free Street, despite years of SWEARING to my friends and family that I WOULD NEVER AGAIN BE AN ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OR RUN A THEATER COMPANY, is that I believe that Free Street is the kind of place that makes the kind of theater I believe in possible.
I’m not going to recap everything we’ve done in the past year, because we’ve done a lot. I’m not kidding when I say that I have grey hair now, gained 10 pounds from stress eating, and last week I actually rolled into a meeting wearing sneakers and no makeup — DON’T WORRY! I had lip gloss in my bra. And when I say no make-up I mean “no make-up,” but still, the point is, I’m tired! We made two original pieces, including one where a puppet Foucault read bed time stories about the Red Scare to a baby, and we supported the creation of original work by like minded artists across the city. We did a show in Spanish, in a park, with children, and abuelas, and eloteros as the audience.Last summer, we handed out paletas and performances all over the city. We welcomed Two Years Later, a play about Trayvon Martin, and sheltered the Young Fugitives when they lost their funding for critiquing the mayor. My friend Chloe came in and made a performance installation co-created by dozens of people on the internet. YEPP, a collective of queer homeless youth, presented their play FACES to sold out crowds. We offered free classes on stage combat, puppetry, storytelling, and adaptation to anyone who wanted to come. The number of people coming through our doors has literally, no kidding, for real, QUADRUPLED in the past year. And guys… I AM JUST GETTING STARTED.
In the coming year, I expect to have even more grey hair and a few more frown lines because, no joke, we have 7 shows debuting between now and November. Okay, sure, two are In/House projects, meaning someone else is doing most of the work and we are supporting, and one is our summer project, already in progress, and one is a remount of DOPE! But three (3!!!!!) are original pieces created by us and our artists: the Young Fugitives are working on a piece about Deonta Mackey, Lead Artist Ricardo Gamboahas invited 20 Chicago-born Mexicans to create a play called Meet Juanito Doe; and Karla Estella Rivera is spearheading X-CPS, a piece created by people impacted by the CPS school closings and layoffs. Plus we are working with community organizations to offer workshops around the city, running our two youth ensembles, and generally being a home to anyone interested in seeing what theater can do. Plus, you know, I have my actual full-time job at DePaul and this kid and this radio gig and sometimes I do solo shows where I try to be funny and sometimes I write poems and also it takes more time than you would think to stay up on lip gloss trends. I’m not even kidding.
P.S. If you are excited by the stuff we are doing, join in. I’m not even kidding about that either!