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Chicago Storefront: Inspiring a Movement

by Artistic Apprentice Katherine Marshall

Chicago draws young audiences to the theatre like no other city can. A lot of this has to do with the thriving and eclectic storefront scene. Jacob Padrón, Associate Producer here at Steppenwolf, and I sat with the artistic directors of Garage Rep, Chris Chmelik of The Inconvenience, Joel Ewing of LiveWire Chicago, and Michael Montenegro of Theatre Zarko, to discuss this phenomenon and what it means to be leaders of their companies in Chicago’s theatre scene. “I think Chicago,” Chris Chmelik begins, “if you compare it to the other major artistic hubs in the country, it’s the only one that this vigor gets instilled in you when you see something produced. It has this ‘you can do this too’ aspect to it.” Both of Chris’s parents were teachers and he spent a lot of time wandering around the school where they taught. By just grade one he met the drama teachers, and in turn, the stage. Dodging bullies in lunch rooms, or just ignoring homework assignments, he quickly discovered that theatre provided a way to escape. This discovery is reflected in his work as artistic director of The Inconvenience: “It’s magical that we can all get together and play pretend. It’s definitely existential. You put all this work, all this money, all this time, love, and energy into something that’s immediately gone. It is pretty romantic.” Joel Ewing, artistic director of LiveWire Chicago, cultivated his initial love for theatre while playing Jake the Snake, a villainous drug pusher in the 4th grade D.A.R.E, the anti-drug campaign, and production. Armed with peer pressure, he attempted to lure young minds into a life of crime. Unfortunately for the D.A.R.E campaign, he nailed it, and kids ended up loving Jake, cheering and rooting for the bad guy. “It provoked a response and elicited a reaction; it still resonates with me today. That’s the kind of theatre I like to produce, works that provoke or makes me think in a different light.” Theatre Zarko’s artistic director, Michael Montenegro, is a painter and sculptor. However, as a child, he was enamored with puppet theatre, fascinated with the ability to create and control a whole world. His father was a painter and his grandfather a writer, and they were also incredible story-tellers. “I loved the aliveness of storytelling. I think that has a lot to do with my fascination with theatre because as opposed to film, theatre is an event that requires people sitting right there and whatever you’re creating for them happens in time and it’s very risky and exciting and dangerous and because of that some really magical things happen.” With so many storefront companies it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd. “The least original idea you can have is to have a theatre company in Chicago,” Joel jokes to the agreeing laughter of the other two men. Despite this sentiment, these three companies have managed to produce stand-out work. “At LiveWire we look for those issues that are meaningful, that resonate within a millennial generation. We try and find the contemporary plays that uniquely address those themes. I think that’s what draws a millennial audience to us.” Michael theorizes that the popularity of his puppet theatre has to do with it being low tech. During a recent show their rudimentary sound system failed and the company improvised using their mouths and bodies for sound. Afterwards, a group of Art Institute students praised that element of the production. Michael elaborated, “We’re so inundated with technology that the live, simple, and direct has great appeal.” This sentiment was echoed by Chris as he described how storefronts such as his cut the fat off of a product leaving only a lean meat and that’s what this millennial audience is hungry for. During our conversation we discussed what it meant to be working in the Garage, a space emblematic of Steppenwolf’s founding as a storefront theatre company. “Steppenwolf’s story is alluring and romantic,” Joel says animatedly. “We have the same lofty dreams. I want to get a big space and make art and the place we’re going to do that is in Chicago. It can be done because Steppenwolf did it.” “I want to put new things out there and I want to try risky things. If we’re not still risking something, attempting to make something new and profound, we have failed.” Chris wants The Inconvenience to be a platform for new trends in theatre to be explored. Joel hopes that after Garage Rep people will recognize the name LiveWire and associate it with awesome new plays. “Since we produce Chicago premieres, we can’t bank on a proven track record.” Michael pauses for a moment before responding. “I feel like we are at a very crucial time historically and what is at stake is something as profound as the dignity of human beings, and I think as artists we have a tremendous responsibility to speak to that with our work because it’s going to take the efforts of many, many people to fight to hang on to human dignity. I hope that Theatre Zarko speaks to that and helps to bolster or support the idea of dignity really in any way it can.”