UChicago interns find connection between artistic life and community work

Celebrating the spirit of grit and resilience of Chicago’s people, the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival, undertaken by the theater spectacle company Redmoon Theater, is an ambitious project aimed at bringing together the city’s diverse neighborhoods. Eight University of Chicago students contributed this summer by organizing and staffing community events in neighborhoods around Chicago.

Redmoon Theater's partnership with the University was a collaboration between the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Theater and Performance Studies, UChicago Careers in Journalism, Arts and Media and the University Community Service Center. Working with TAPS, Redmoon offered a course on public spectacle during Spring Quarter 2014. Redmoon members then offered an opportunity to students to engage in one of its citywide projects and, with the help of the University Community Service Center and UCIJAM, invited eight Metcalf interns to work on the Great Chicago Fire Festival. The festival is split between a series of community outreach events, which occurred this summer, and a grand theatrical event on the riverfront on Saturday, Oct. 4.

“I’m very interested in the students becoming more engaged with and more passionate about the really rich diversity that exists in Chicago’s neighborhoods,” said Chris Skrable, associate director for community-based research and experiential learning at the UCSC, “and I really want them to have a clearer sense of how their individual commitment to the arts has the potential to be positively impactful on the city.”

The student interns took the photobooth, dubbed “Mobile Photo Factory,” into 15 neighborhoods to make personal connections with residents. The photo booth provided a space where residents could write what they have “overcome” or what they “celebrate” on a chalkboard and then pose with it. The photographic project will culminate in a huge display of pictures along the Chicago River during the festival.

“We’ve captured people’s stories by giving them a stage to present their own self-narratives in the form of a portrait,” said Michael Reinhard, AB’14. “Someone being able to tell their story feels like it’s not that big of a deal, but it can actually have very transformative consequences.”

A collaborative effort between the Logan Center and the Muntu Dance Theatre brought the festivities to Woodlawn for the United We Drum Festival. Community members and students celebrated the unity created by drums of different cultures and shared their stories through the photo booth project. “The Logan Center was pleased to be able to partner with Redmoon and Muntu Dance Theater—creating more opportunities for the arts to connect our students and the community in meaningful ways,” said Bill Michel, executive director of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

The mix of theatrical production and community work involved in putting together the Great Chicago Fire Festival gave the interns a new perspective on how the two could intersect. “I’d been involved with traditional forms of theater for a very long time,” said Alexandra Garfinkle, a fourth-year, “but this showed me that community work is interesting and important to me.”

For many of the students, the project took them to communities they had never before visited, and this exposure to the city’s diverse cultures provided an avenue for learning.

“I have formed ties and had ‘insider’ experiences in places that I would otherwise have been just a tourist. In Avondale, an ASM student and I were invited into the home of a local community leader to have a casual conversation about diversity and languages in the neighborhood,” said third-year Jeanne Liebermann, “and we shared an amazing buffet of fresh sauerkraut, potato pancakes, noodle salad, sausage and Polish desserts with the organizer of a church event.”

“It was fantastic to work with such a diverse group of passionate and forward-thinking students,” Yaniv Kleinman, AM’13, internship coordinator for the UCSC and Redmoon, said of the interns. “They all shared rich and sophisticated understanding of community engagement, social justice and the significant role that the arts play in Chicago.”

The students will return to the heart of the city on the Chicago riverfront on Saturday, Oct. 4, to help host the Great Chicago Fire Festival, which will feature floating house sculptures, fiery artworks and a fireworks display. The UChicago Arts Pass program—in partnership with UCIJAM—will be providing buses for University students who wish to attend the festival.