Tempest Transformed

By a turn of fate, I saw Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Tempest on the first Friday night performance of its run. Magic is illuminated in this telling of Shakespeare’s play with Teller (of Penn and Teller) as one of the Adapters/Directors along with Aaron Posner.


There were easily over twenty substantive magic tricks laced throughout the show. I couldn’t help but think “Wow. This is what a big budget can get you.” There was so much art packed into one evening, it was almost unbelievable. From the magic tricks, to the live band playing Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan songs, to the ornate set, Chicago Shakes firmly established itself as an institution of performing arts anchored in patrons willing to dish out the dough.


Beckoned in by Ariel

Beckoned in by Ariel

Magic enchants the audience from the moment they walk into the space. The front of the stage tampers into a ship cabin and audience members climb in. Ariel (played by Nate Dendy) engages audience members with card drawing tricks. Starting the show off with this bridging of the world of the play literally into the audience was extremely captivating. When spent cooped up in the lobby until minutes before show, the theatre space instantly opened up to the world of the show (minus a few incidents of audience members dropping cell phones from balconies or making out with their dates…) The style of the magic space was echoed elegantly by the set.


Prospero’s magic was not so much a mystical quality, but a performing art. This tale placed the role of Prospero as the magician rejected by his family for his passion for performing magic tricks. The rejected artist figure challenged the role of art practice to the individual. Ariel takes on a “Teller-like” role for the beginning of the show, letting the magic speak for him. Prospero and Ariel create their world through magic, which contrasts with the stark family Prospero left behind, laced-up and focused on money and power.
But what happens when arts are intersected with money?
Most productions I see are making ends meet to bring performances to an audience. The small budget can sometimes transfer to the stage impacting some qualities of the performance. With The Tempest, the struggling artist was juxtaposed with an art space that spared little expense to deliver a fantastic show. But it happened with such elegance that the irony of struggle with a large budget was buried underneath the pearl of the storytelling. Even with all the flash, the artistic balance was remarkably managed to truly present the story.


The audience was transported to the world of Prospero’s island with ease and thus, affected by the story’s emotions. Through this telling with magic arts emphasized, the focus and desire for revelation of a trick draws an audience in. Magic is an art of transforming. But at base, all the arts can transform. Whether its the audience viewing, the artist practicing or ideas changing, the arts challenge us to think and adapt understanding. Another reason why the cornucopia of art forms (magic arts, visual set, theatrics of Shakespeare’s story, music in the band, movement/dance of Caliban) in this telling of The Tempest was a profound choice.


To focus on Caliban, his interpretation in this telling cast him as a transformed being. He was played by two actors almost fuzed together to be a creature that only the magical island could sustain. This unique staging transformed what we typically think of as dance or movement and made it grotesquely intriguing. Caliban, therefore, is a creature that can only exist in the magical space of the island, because he has been so altered by it.


One of my favorite lines from The Tempest well represents the idea of transformation in this production.

Nothing in him doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change 

Into something rich and strange (Act I, Scene II, 399-401)

Let’s unpack these lines. One does not simply undergo a sea-change, but “suffers.” The weight of transformation does not come easily without pain. The material of the sea-change remains intact, as “nothing fades” but becomes something other, “rich and strange.” The sea-change is hauntingly dynamic because the sufferer comes out of it better (rich), yet marred (strange).

Dedication to art can be a type of sea-change. The artist’s identity is re-formed only through suffering to something “rich and strange.” Prospero fits well as a tortured artist. Sea-change has cast him aside and pushed his art practice. Through the suffering of his family abandoning him, over his magic initially and then as Miranda slowly steps away from him, we see before us a sea-change. Out on Navy Pier, with waves crashing up, the audience at Chicago Shakes experiences its own sea-change at the performance of The Tempest. Not fading the content of the story, but augmenting it with content that makes it more rich and strange.

I interpreted this quote visually to reflect art’s transformation. I chose watercolor relief for several reasons (…besides that I love them). 1) Adding water transforms the paint from something hard into a watery (sea-like?) pigment combining qualities of both paint and water 2) The vibrancy of the colors is dependent on each time you add water which makes it multi-dimensional 3) The transformation to make the relief “appear out of nowhere” like magic.
The presentations of Shakespeare transform today. How many Shakespeare in the Park performances have you heard of? Or even popular films based on the bard? (I wrote a little bit about this after Chicago Shakes Greatest Hits, here). Art continues long passed the playwright’s life and constantly strives for the new in order to change the audience’s perspectives on a classic. Posner and Teller wanted to accentuate the art of magic connected to Prospero and in doing so, exposed truths about the transformation art can cause.

Take the… Red Line; A Tale of Chicago + Jazz

Chicago and jazz just go together! Friday night of the Chicago Jazz Festival was something special in the midst of such great musicians with a large group of people in the middle on Millennium Park. Very special, very Chicago.

It is the time of year where we, in our northern climate, realize that the cold will come again, soon. And we try to squeeze in the maximum of free outdoor performances and activities in the last few weeks of summer that anywhere more temperate might spread out over the course of the year.

It’s one of my favorite times to be a Chicagoan.

As I exclaimed at the opening of this post, Chicago and Jazz have a rich history together. With the Great Migration, many African American families brought Jazz influences from the South as they made their way to Chicago. The Jazz scene is alive and brilliant in the 21st century. (I think this wikipedia article touches on a brief history and opinions of Chicagoans saying “The Jazz Festival is among the most important annual public festivities in the city.”)
Billy Strayhorn Festival
Friday night of the Chicago Jazz Festival was part of the Billy Strayhorn Festival that is happening through the end of November. Festivals on festivals! Billy Strayhorn himself was a great composer and pianist who played with Duke Ellington, and, for some time, was in his shadow. Strayhorn historically was made secondary to Duke Ellington and pushed out of the Jazz limelight as both an African American and openly gay man in the 1940s-60s. Many of Strayhorn’s compositions were misattributed to Duke Ellington. Most famously, Take the A Train (You definitely know it, by tune if not by name, take a listen.) “Take the A Train” closed out the Millennium Park performance giving the Second City a taste of New York.
I want to linger on Billy Strayhorn as he shows how important inclusion is in art. His legacy of artmaking became displaced. The minority groups he represents deserve their footing in the arts and for a legend, such as Strayhorn, to be recognized sets precedence for inclusion. The Billy Strayhorn Festival reaches all over the city in different venues and jazz clubs to attract a variety of people. Also crossing arts forms, engaging dancers and panelists in the festival. I’m particularly excited for the Chicago Human Rhythm Project to honor Strayhorn and the Copasetics. (You might note, Friday night of the JUBA! performance this year was dedicated to music of Billy Strayhorn as well, read my post about it here.)
The Billy Strayhorn Festival is happening now to celebrate what would be his 100th birthday. With such a big crowd, there is clearly a strong curiosity for jazz alive in our city. But how do we think of Jazz today? Has jazz become a new classical to us? That’s where it’s lumped in at a record store. (The place of records and recordings in our digital age is a whole other matter too!) The crowd on Friday at the Pritzker Pavillion was the biggest I’ve seen there. Chicagoans from many different walks of life and musical backgrounds/interests made it out for Jazz. Whatever the state of Jazz to our 21st century society as a whole, in Chicago, we revere Jazz and we respect figures like Billy Strayhorn.
Jazz is an exciting spontaneous music form with its use of improvisation. Improvisation is a lot about reacting to one another. As a listener, improvisation feels engaging when ideas are bounced around the ensemble and manipulated to something interesting. Each player shares their individual voice on a common musical topic. Improvisation mirrors life in that, you don’t really practice much for interactions. (maybe presidential debate or like job interviews, but not normal interactions). You don’t practice running into an ex, you don’t rehearse hearing bad news. It just happens and through life, we exercise our flexibility in how we react to one another.
For an art project, I wanted to channel a visual art improvisation. So I adapted a game I used to play with my mom. I collaborated with my friend Tiffany over froyo to add some fun with a touch of light-heartedness.
You start with two pieces of paper and coloring utensils. The first person draws a squiggle until the second person tells them to stop. Then vice versa. They exchange papers and have to turn the squiggle into an image. Next, I added a twist that once we had our images, we would  make them a joint piece of art in the last final details and named it. And voila, “Bird of Paradise” was born.
This is a fun activity to do while on a road trip, while babysitting, while watching a movie with a friend, or you name it! Turning squiggles into stories keeps your creativity thriving, while practicing skills it takes to think on your toes in conversation. Art can speak, we just have to be aware of the language.

Free For All

I’ve been a little absent from blogging enjoying some free time in the some of the last weeks of summer. But it’s good to be back! It was nice to enjoy some time in Chicago and some time away. (As you’ll see on my instagram, including some time eating donuts in Madison :D). And now, I’ve saved up some good posts for you all about the fabulous free festivals at the end of the summer.
Chicago Dancing Festival happens every year in late August. The festival brings together a remarkable mix of world premiers and classic pieces from chicago and around the world for free.
This festival is a highlight for me and this season, I grabbed some dinner to eat in the stand by line and eagerly entered the Opening Night at the Harris Theater. (One day I will crack the code to reserving tickets in advance!)
One of my favorite experiences was last year seeing Martha Graham company perform “Errand in the Maze.” I had seen a video of the performance before and I was in awe to see it performed live. These types of experiences make the festival a masterpiece in and of itself.
Chicago Dancing Festival at the Harris
Does the festival really fulfill its mission of expanding accessibility?
Incredible festival and the Pritzker Pavilion helps a lot in expanding the audience, but more could be done in terms of accessibility. It should be free, it’s great that it’s free! Many people who can’t afford to see these world renowned companies get a chance to do so without charge. I couldn’t help but notice though that my fellow dance attendees seemed to be predominantly an older crowd of fancy dressed people.
It takes clear dedication to get your butt in a seat. Even showing up an hour and a had before the show, we were slightly nervous that we wouldn’t get in. Has the festival overgrown itself?! I called the MCA and they said they “sold” out of tickets within the first hour.
Expanding beyond venues just in the loop would be incredible for accessibility. Chicago Human Rhythm Project had a wonderful Stomping Grounds Festival that toured with different Chicago Rhythmic Dance companies to cultural hubs all over the city. CHRP also premiered a work at the Chicago Dancing Festival this year continuing this work. They collaborated with Trinity Irish Dance and Ensemble Espanol for a piece on Thursday night of the festival. Chicago Dancing Festival celebrates collaboration and exchange in ways that promote this type of work by bringing it to the public. I just wonder what a next step to expand further would be, location expansion would be impactful.
Now to the dancing…
I was glad I saw the opening night which had a variety of visiting troupes. One of the great aspects of the festival is the combination of exposing the work of local companies and bringing in visiting companies that it might be difficult or rare to see otherwise.
Ballet Hispanico stole the show for me on Opening night. Their piece was entitled “El Beso”  which explored the intricacies of a kiss. El Beso showed the value of cultural exchange with Spanish elements in the dance by Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano. The interactions between the dancers were poignant and original. My favorite was a duet between two men in which they share a passionate kiss. (It was a triumph to see this homosexually charged duet, after my last post!) The set piece in this number divided the stage using a Spanish lantern with fringe to divide a portion of the stage. The dancers played with the private/covered space behind the lantern and then how their relationship changed once they were fully exposed out of the lantern. Stunning!
 Spanish lantern<–this example gives you an idea of the style…
A few of the dances shown toyed with the boundaries of the stage, stretching just beyond sight. In addition to the “lantern” duet, in “El Beso” dancers fully stretched to the wings fluidly dancing while dipping behind the curtains.
Heaven on One’s Head by Pam Tanowitz began with a screen raised halfway bisecting the dancers body. With the head “in the clouds” so to speak. Dancers were partially masked by curtains throughout the performance by the screen and then off in the wings. The piece featured live music from the chicago philharmonic. It challenged conventions and did something beautiful with perception that pushed past boundaries.
Melissa Toogood and Dylan Crossman in Heaven on One’s Head. © Christopher Duggan.

Melissa Toogood and Dylan Crossman in Heaven on One’s Head. © Christopher Duggan.

The ancient tradition of paper cutting resembled the set of Ballet HIspanico’s piece and played nicely with the theme of seen/unseen. The cultural exchange that happens with the Chicago Dancing Festival is one of its greatest strengths and papercutting has roots in cultures all over the world.
Papercutting has roots in Japan, but many other countries and cultures around the world have their own practices of papercutting. One of my favorite examples is the papercuts at O’Hare by Qiao Xiaoguang that feature scenes of Japan melding into scenes of chicago. The originals are at the Field Museum, but they are so fitting at the airport where different cultures come into contact.
City Windows at O'Hare

City Windows at O’Hare

I decided to try my hand at it. I thought of paper snowflakes and what is happening behind the negative space. I was pretty excited about the pattern in this adult coloring book I got. When I was younger, I wanted to be a “professional color-er” and color artists pictures (actually a real job, but not called that obviously). Here was my chance! It was actually challenging to decipher the patterns and decide how to choose which colors where and where they repeat.
I’m pleased with how it turned out. The colors show a fusion of different people coming together, but some are seen and others, left out of view. Anytime a festival of art is put on, many might enjoy it, but there will be some on the outskirts, some left unseen. The papercut overlay also represents a shared culture through this art form adapted in many cultures around the world. Unity and Inclusion are the goal, but the road to fully achieve it is difficult.