It is 6pm on Monday, February 11th, 2019. Mayor Rahm Emanuel steps onto a stage positioned under the brilliant blue of the Chicago Cultural Center’s Tiffany Dome. He is met by enthusiastic applause from an excited crowd comprised of avid theatre-goers, Cultural Center committee members, actors, singers, stilt walkers, and more. It is an eclectic group. They are what you would expect from a Chicago audience, but even though they are representative, they are anything but typical.
What they await is Mayor Emanuel’s endorsement and introduction of the evening’s forthcoming events, and the precedent that they will set for the rest of the city’s 2019. Tonight at the Chicago Cultural Center, history is to be made with the commencement of the building-wide event, “It’s Showtime, Chicago!”
When thinking about the Windy City, many poignant images quickly spring to mind — hot dogs, the Bears, and deep dish pizza to name a few. Since its very foundation, Chicago has been a hub for innovation and culture, even if in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. For a long time, if one wanted to access the rich oasis of Chicago’s artistic identity, they would have to fork out a sum to enjoy the theatrical delights found in the Loop’s prestigious theatres, like the Chicago Theatre or the Goodman Theatre Company. While their prestige is undeniably justified due to their irrefutable quality and elaborate histories, they contribute to a growing geographical divide within the arts scene in Chicago.
Theatre in Chicago has gained a reputation synonymous with elite due to its prevalence in the northernmost parts of the city. The accessibility for those living in the south and west sides of Chicago and those with lower incomes therefore remains limited. This year, however, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) is determined to change the conversation. 2019 is the Year of Chicago Theatre. The initiative, though seemingly complex — expanding the geographic scope of Chicago theatre, placing greater emphasis on ‘storefront’ venues, getting art in all forms back into schools and public spaces — is actually quite simple. As seen on all advertisements around the city and according to Mark Kelly (head of the Cultural Affairs Department) himself, the Year of Chicago Theatre’s main goal is to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that theatre in Chicago is where the city “bares its fearless soul.”
On Monday night at the Chicago Cultural Center, this soul was brought to life.
“Part of being a citizen in 2019 is grabbing a friend and going to a storefront theatre” Mayor Emanuel preaches to the crowd before him. In the moments of quiet between his statements, uproars of cabaret music can be heard from across the building.
“The actual product of [this] effort is… making sure that everybody across the city, from all walks of life, gets to experience what is going on.”
The electric melting pot of theatrical events occurring throughout the building perfectly punctuated Mayor Emanuel’s wishes and provided experiences to suit all possible attendees. From interactive improv classes with The Second City and stilt walking workshops with Walkabout Theatre Company to a more traditional audience experience with the Youth Showcase presented by Albany Park Theater Project, Chicago Public Schools Youth TheatreFest, and Kuumba Lynx, the overarching theme of the evening was undoubtedly one of community and inclusion.
The young stars of the Youth Showcase certainly played their part in advocating for the mission and this showed throughout their performances, threading together what at first appeared to be fragmented vignettes to create a cohesive underlying narrative. The stories shared through monologues, poetry, song, and devised theatre brought forth messages of community, familial strength, and unapologetic expressions of identity. Covering severe topics such as sexual harassment, deportation, and black and queer identity, it is clear that the members of Albany Park Theater Project, Chicago Public Schools Youth TheatreFest, and Kuumba Lynx boldly define what it truly means to bare a “fearless soul” through art.
Thanks to the valiant efforts made in updating the city’s cultural plan, the Department of Cultural Affairs now has over $300,000 in grant funds to spend on the initiatives proposed by Mayor Emanuel in his commencement speech. As a result, the Year of Chicago Theatre is able to create over 1200 completely free events all over the city, including street theatre, movie nights, music, and more.
Broadening the accessibility to art and theatre in Chicago will require notable effort, but it is a necessity. Of all the cities in the country, the word “fearless” lends itself most readily to ours. Chicago is by no means perfect, but it is teeming with culture, history, and stories aching to be explored and acknowledged. Chicago is full of soul, and it is up to its inhabitants to let it be bared.
Find events near you and participate in the Year of Chicago Theatre!
Department of Cultural Affairs:
Chicago Cultural Center:
League of Chicago Theatres:
Albany Park Theatre Project: