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Interview Fri Sep 09 2011

Briefing Room: Interview with Pitchfork Fest and Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Producer Mike Reed

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Briefing Room is a new series produced for the Gaper's Block Arts and Culture section showcasing notable figures in Chicago art, culture and letters (scroll down for photo credits). In advance of next week's massive and unique Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival in Eckhart Park, September 16-18, we sat down with Pitchfork Music Festival and BCOPA Producer Mike Reed to ask him a few questions about his concept to reinvigorate the variety show. Here's what he had to say.


How did you become interested in organizing this fest? And specifically, what intrigued you about recasting the variety show/vaudeville concept?

I was really interested in seeing events as unique situations, you know, you have this idea of a music show, and there are a lot of really great people putting on events, all these fests and things in all these different places, and I want to do something a little different in how it all gets packaged and presented, bring in a movie or a reading. Usually it's all segregated out. It's rare to get that sort of variety aspect or even one of those pieces all together on one bill, that's similar to what vaudeville used to be, you'd have a musical performance, then somebody'd come out and do a bird act. When movies and theaters came into play, you'd have a short animation, then a reel of Movietone news, and then a feature film. There was a lot of different stuff to see. All these ideas, they're all these little bits of entertainment that would go into these shows, and like with these old film, there's dance, some drama involved, all these little things that dealt with entertainment, so I liked taking all these ideas and wanted to create this unique environment, with circus tents, a little bit of a throw back, but circus is not on the fringe of people's idea of a social gathering, we took that idea and went about ornamenting it out with different types of entrance options. If you want to, you can go into a tent and be involved in a different way, you pay one fee to go see a band or dance act or some live performance or whatever you like and if you want to, you can go outside and walk through a free farmer's market. But you pay a little and you get to see a featured band, it gives you a lot of different ways to be involved, and that's a little different from a traditional festival. With this festival, it's all there, and this is involving in a different way, it's more related to how you want to commit to it. I think when I talk about this as a variety bill, that sums up these ideas really quickly for people...it's a new version of vaudeville...that's how the idea for all this came together...

I'm a jazz musician, so I'm accustomed to thinking about these older time periods, you know, I think of things like the shows they used to have at the Cotton Club when you'd have people like Duke Ellington come out to play, and before he came out you'd maybe have a dance troupe that came out to perform first, and before that, maybe they'd have the house group that played. I would go see these different variety shows in town that were playing, studying this idea of their take on the talk show model, shows like You, Me, Them, Everybody at the Hungry Brain, and the shows at the Hideout, they allow people to get exposed to a lot of different acts and sample a lot of different things, depending on how they feature it, putting all these different things you wouldn't usually have showcased together in one place. Maybe it's just me getting older, but I don't want to see just go and see three bands anymore.

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How did the tie-in with some of your affiliate organizations come about, i.e., The Renegade Craft Fair and etc.?

I feel like I really appreciate the value of an event like this, where no one has complete ownership over something. If you have a lot of partners involved in it who are all really great at what they do already, and they all have a stake in wanting it to be cool, and they already have their own relationships, you know, you get talking about it and they're like "Oh yeah, I know so and so," or you should talk to so and so, my wife, my brother, and you have an instant little community, and out of that, they each all have their own function within this little community. I mean, could we do our own craft fair? Sure, but then its going to get presented as an alternative to one that's already out there, and why do that when these people are already experts at organizing and doing it, and have their own personality and performers that they bring? They already have all these things and that just adds to it, and you want to be a part of it. See, that way it's not just me or us, its better to be bonded-in with a community that already exists there together, and it's a lot more powerful that way, and brings along an already much larger group.

Could you tell us a little about the way the lineup was chosen? Bands, dance performances, etc. Was there a curatorial team or are these all staff-selected or how were they chosen, exactly?

Okay, so, this is how it really all got started, how this idea really came together: I went to see this El Circo Cheapo Cabaret, who does a monthly circus show on the Near West Side, and I had been trying to see them for years. This is one of the reasons that this all got spurred. I went and talked with them, and I had a conversation with their Artistic Director, Shayna Swanson. I talked with her, and she put forth this variety show idea and said, bring in different circus troupes with their own personalities. We talked a lot about the classic European style of circus, which everyone recognizes, and about bringing in more of the dance artists, and about combining that with more of the George Orange type performance--and he's more of the Buster Keaton performer type. So yeah, then of course El Cheapo would bring in their own variety show, and she suggested things and would say to me things like "These guys are really different," and we'd discuss all these different performers together. And so, from a music standpoint then, I was really looking at building these little nights, we have a whole day stage made up of Chicago performers, and I was wishing we had different venues to book in, and was also looking for ways to have these night time performances that I wanted to book, and there were links that were sort of indirect but also obvious when you consider them...doing like a Bill Callahan set, who's this Modern day quintessential folk singer...and then we started thinking about moving from that into something like a dance act, from that into a James Brown vibe, or into a sound like A Hawk and Hacksaw, then Dan Deacon's sound. Then on closing night, right, we have Shellac who is this influential and legendary rock band, paired with this newer, and up-and-coming band A Lull, and we put these pairings together, it's obviously not an off-the-cuff sort of an idea you would think of, but then it also makes a lot of sense....we wanted the whole thing to have eclectic nature and really showcase the variety, and get help from a lot of people. It's even built into the music sets, because while they're breaking down and setting up, between the music sets, there will be these little circus sets that perform between them.

Why Eckhart Park?

Well it's really convenient for me since it's only four blocks away from where I live, but it's also just a big enough park, which is kind of rare, and it's very close to a blue line stop. It's also this very lively district with a lot of families around it, and that's great because we'll have this element of the atmosphere of a circus and this idea of rides and things. I also have a very good relationship with the alderman, who is the same one for Pitchfork, and we have a good relationship, so we can then build on that relationship, and they have been very supportive of me with this project.

What are the future plans for BCOPA?

Well, the next thing I'd like to do with Brilliant Corners is to try and do a one night theater version. I've kind of started out with this large version and if we do this again, I'd like to see some variety in that. Instead of saying okay, let's see what the possibilities are of moving the festival to what park, what time of year, and all that. I'm thinking about some kind of one night version. But right now, really, it's all about just trying to get through next week, then we'll reinvestigate how we can take it in another direction...ideally we'll do it again and before we do it again on this this scale, maybe just do something small.


The Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusement Festival takes place September 16, 17 and 18 in Eckhart Park. Tickets are available online, with a full schedule of events at the festival's website.

Image credits (in order of appearance):
Amanda Crocket, a performer at the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusement Festival. Photo by Jim Newberry.

Helena Reynolds (left) and Laura Lippert, performers at the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusement Festival. Photo by Jim Newberry.

 
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