In celebration of the 50th anniversary of its founding, Free Street Theater will stage “50 in 50: A City-Wide Theatrical Flash Mob,” spanning Chicago’s 50 wards to create a remarkable city-wide theatrical production. The company has brought together 10 multidisciplinary theater artists from across Chicago, including its own artists and ensembles, to lead teams of five to seven performers in creating short pieces to be presented as pop-up performances in each of Chicago’s 50 wards.
In keeping with Free Street’s commitment to the community, each group will perform their take on what it means to survive in Chicago, and create a “just and joyous” city. Devoted to making art accessible, especially in places where people are least likely to encounter art, Free Street chooses to perform in places such as parks, fieldhouses and other unexpected spaces.
“This event is indicative of the core philosophy put forth by our founder, Patrick Henry,” said Artistic Director Coya Paz. “He wanted Free Street Theater to be exactly what its name suggests: free performances, presented in public untraditional spaces, performed by paid performers, addressing issues that impact the lives of the community. This event will bring free, topical theater, celebrating a hopeful, optimistic message about life in Chicago, to every community in the city, including those with little access to live theater.”
Free Street Theater will announce all locations on June 1 on FreeStreet.org. The performances will be held at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., and will also stream live across the organization’s social media.
Featured artists include Karla Estela Rivera, Kendra Jorstap, Marilyn Carteño, Kwyn T. Riley, Aimy Tien, Quenna L. Barrett, Boogie McClarin, Ivori Skye, Will Pettway, Katrina Dion, Sean James Williams Paris and Keren Diaz de Leon. The production team includes Producing Director Melissa DuPrey, Project Coordinator Tanuja Jagernauth, Artistic Director Coya Paz and Community Engagement Consultant Caroline O'Boyle.
50 Years of Free Street Theater
Creating original work since 1969, Free Street Theater is one of the longest-established theater companies in Chicago. Founded by Patrick Henry with help from the Illinois Arts Council, the company featured a team of performers who were diverse in race and age, reflecting Henry’s vision to break down artificial barriers that divide us.
Free Street Theater has constantly evolved and adapted to the community throughout its history, counting many accomplished theater artists among its alumni including Jackie Taylor founder of Black Ensemble Theater; Chuck Smith, Goodman Theatre’s Resident Director; and actor/singer TC Carson. Performers have come and gone, leadership has shifted and funding has changed throughout the years, but the core values and beliefs of the organization remains the same: to challenge ideas about what theater is and where it belongs, while bringing communities together in a spirit of optimism and celebrity diversity.
Initially a summer project, Free Street performed in outdoor spaces all over the city ensuring accessibility to the public. Recognizing that community members who could not afford to pay for tickets were kept out of more traditional theaters, the company’s free performances gave underserved communities unprecedented opportunity to experience the arts.
Seeking to build relationships within the community, Free Street actively engaged with people and local economies. The members learned as much as they could about the common interests and concerns of the community, using the accumulated information as inspiration for theatrical works. The interactive shows frequently incorporated the audiences, while still focusing on social issues of the time.
Following Henry’s death, leadership shifted several times until 1995, when Ron Bieganski was appointed artistic director. A member of the company and instructor for TeenStreet, a version of Free Street geared toward young people, Bieganski led the company in a slightly different direction, focusing on arts education. Free Street Theater became a predominantly youth-centered organization and the performances served as part of their training. Creative discipline was an important focus of the company, with performances that included music, dance, poetry and short scenes. The performances under his leadership were said to be extremely energized, but still centered on social issues and injustice.
In 2011, Bieganski resigned as artistic director, offering the opportunity to bring back Free Street’s original mission to defy diversity and unite communities under new artistic director Coya Paz. Paz previously served at Teatro Luna and is an advocate of public arts programming. Her goal is to make Free Street a place where diverse theatrical artists can create performances individually or together.
Now, the company produces six to ten new performances each year with the goal of celebrating the voices and experiences of the underrepresented people of Chicago. Paz has incorporated more community partnerships and strives to determine how theater can supplement or amplify issue-based organizing. Less focused on creative discipline, Paz favors an approach that is centered on the performances. As new talent emerges in the organization, exercises are done routinely to energize and encourage people to talk to one another and foster genuine, authentic connection.
Today, Free Street Theater performs throughout the year. The company uses a “pay what you can” approach for the performances so that all members of the community can experience the plays.
Free Street Theater will perform “50 in 50: A City-Wide Theatrical Flash Mob” in each of Chicago’s 50 wards June 23. For additional information visit freestreet.org.