Did Erik Larson tell the quintessential Chicago tale? How about Sandra Cisneros? Or David Mamet, or Stuart Dybek or maybe Carl Sandburg? According to Theatre Seven Artistic Director, Brian Golden, no single story could showcase the Windy City. Instead, his Chicago Landmark Project strives to provide a sampling, divided by zip code and accessible to all. A production combining twelve world premiere short plays about famous Chicago attractions as well as lesser-known neighborhoods, the project unveils work by local writers such as J. Nicole Brooks, Brett Neveu and Marisa Wegrzyn. Our Town spoke with Golden about the Landmark project’s impetus and scope.
Our Town What moved you to create the project?
Brian Golden We wanted to tell the Chicago story from as many perspectives as possible, and create one piece of art that would bring a lot of artists together under one roof to contribute a new chapter to the great history of Chicago storytelling, in a way that would inspire a deeper sense of connection between our audience and a dozen different neighborhoods in this town.
OT Chicago has inspired many writers over the years, what’s the archetypal Chicago story?
BG Oh, there are so many and yet there really can't be just one. In Chicago, there is a profound sense of location and neighborhood. The need to tell and hear stories about neighborhoods and communities, both our own and others, is paramount. We wanted to tell the Chicago story from as many perspectives as possible, and create one piece of art that would bring artists together under one roof to contribute a new chapter to the great history of Chicago storytelling, in a way that would inspire a deeper sense of connection between our audience and a dozen different neighborhoods in this town. The quintessential Chicago story is a patchwork story like The Chicago Landmark Project. [Our] audience will, in addition to having a great time at the theatre, leave with a deeper sense of community and connection. There will be twelve new places in town, twelve street corners that may have been anonymous, but now will have a human story. That's a powerful thing.
OT How did you go about choosing plays?
BG We targeted playwrights first, the goal, to find a group whose voices represented the [Chicago’s] diversity. All the writers in this project were on our wish list, and the amazing thing is, every single writer we approached wanted to do it. We intended to include six plays, but we realized we had an opportunity and we went for it with all twelve. Each writer submitted a couple ideas [dealing with] how location informs relationship, and then [co-curator] Cassy Sanders and I sculpted the project, picking and choosing to ensure we were fulfilling the aims of the project.
OT Why offer staged readings near Chicago landmarks?
BG We thought it was important give residents all over town the opportunity to see a piece of theatre about the street where they live, totally free. The vision of the production is so essentially about communities, and art as a tool to engage and build communities, so we made a commitment to do it before we had any idea how to pull it off. We've been a presence in nine of the Landmark Neighborhoods so far, and the events have been unique to each neighborhood. We've had collaborations with Neighborhood Writing Alliance groups in Albany Park and Humboldt Park, the Grafton Pub in Lincoln Square, we read two plays on a Harbor Cruise from Navy Pier. It’s been exciting to connect with Chicagoans all over the city and get a sense of the pride they feel for their neighborhoods.
OT Specifically how have the staged readings facilitated audience diversity?
BG In the non-profit theatre community you hear a great deal of complaining about the lack of diverse audiences in our theatre seats, wondering why that is the case, and hoping that somehow, magically, non-traditional theatergoers will find us and begin flocking to our theatres. [This] is certainly something worth thinking about, but sometimes theatre people just expect non-traditional theatergoers to show up by the thousands, which is sort of like complaining about being single, and showing up at a bar, and just waiting for people to come over and talk to you. With this Project, we wanted to make the first move. Invite people who actually live there to see a play about their neighborhood, and then invite them back to see the entire production in our neighborhood. I think if you want to start new relationships, you have to meet people where they are.
OT What makes Chicago unique?
BG Chicago has a proud tradition of hard work and a do-it-yourself spirit essential to both the theatre community and the city at large. There is a kindness justifiably associated with the Midwest, but also a spirit of entrepreneurship and ambition that is really exciting. The theatre community here is remarkably collaborative, ensemble-based and supportive of new voices. I don't know a single artist working in Chicago right now who views making it to New York as the barometer of their personal success. It really angers me when people try to put Chicago in that box. You know who popularized [the idea of] Chicago as "the second city"? A writer from The New Yorker.
The Landmark Project runs June 2-July 10. Visit www.theatreseven.com for more info.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez