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Event Mon Sep 21 2015

Interview with Jim Lasko of Redmoon on the Great Chicago Fire Festival

Great Chicago Fire Festival
Photos by Sam Doyle.

New Orleans has Mardi Gras. New York has New Year's Eve. Now Chicago has the Great Chicago Fire Festival, an event that is unique to us and highlights Chicago's talent at reinvention in the face of adversity. This coming Saturday, the Great Chicago Fire Festival will kick off its second annual event, this time on the terra firma of Northerly Island, a hidden gem nestled in the museum campus right on the lake. The bold concept of the festival is from Redmoon Theater's executive artistic director and co-founder Jim Lasko. He has a way of getting large groups of people to collaborate and produce amazing spectacles--and his dream is to give Chicago an annual one. Last September the festival packed both sides of the Chicago River, but it was beleaguered by false starts and misfires. This year will be different though, because it's a whole new event, from location to activities and even to accessibility for onlookers. I interviewed Jim Lasko to get some insight in to the plan, Redmoon's philosophy and what we should expect.

Tickets are free to the Sept. 26, 5-to-9pm event at Northerly Island, 1520 S. Linn White Dr., but it is recommended that you reserve tickets early.

Jim LaskoI loved your article in the Chicago Tribune this past January about embracing failure! It was insightful, cathartic and also useful information--hopefully for both your kids and Chicagoans who were so eager to celebrate last October with you. In particular, this quote stands out: "It is not failure or the frequency of failure or even the scale of failure that is the deciding factor in the arch of a career or project, but the response to it. How one absorbs and assimilates the failure is the crucial measure."

My question is, how did you respond to failure in this instance? What changes have you instilled in the preparations of the Great Chicago Fire Festival? How did you rally the troops for these improvements? How did that experience make you grow? And what did your kids say?

I am still responding to that failure and I may be responding to it for... the duration. It was a defining event for me and, like all real life narratives, it is ongoing. My job, as an artist and a collaborator, is to be present to the challenges of the moment. That is and has been my focus throughout this year. The mayor called me the day after the event last year. He said two things that I will never forget: 1. We will do it again and we will do it better. Second chances are what made Chicago great; and 2. I don't want any crying in your soup. I took that counsel to heart.

The Great Chicago Fire Festival is built upon the same principles, but is also entirely different. First and foremost the "closing ceremonies" are on land and, logistically, that makes for an entirely different process and product. It is much easier now to highlight all the strands of programming that were the focus of the summer. You'll see stages where we have curated amazing collaborations between unlikely teams: breakers performing to the live music of Bomba con Buya. Or, on our Double Fork stage, the music duo of IDYLL performing alongside a group of musicians from the Chicago Civic Orchestra. Local voices collaborating for unique performances. In addition, you'll see the work of two ongoing After School Matters programs; the Fire Cauldrons they welded and the photographic portraits they have adorned. You'll be able to walk up to a video portrait created during our residencies in seven different cultural centers. Finally, you'll be able to read the 30,000 or so shingles on the house that represent the obstacles in people's lives that will be torched when the house takes flame.

So the event is different in that the land has allowed us to truly highlight this closing ceremonies as a Festival of Chicago's Neighborhoods.

You have spoken before about how you find theater to be wonderful but limiting and prefer a civic enterprise for reaching the most people. Can you explain how theater is limiting and why reaching more people is important to you?

I love the theater. I love being in the theater and I love making theater. One of the things that I loved about the theater as I studied it was its position within the cultural conversation. For millennia theater was at the center of the cultural conversation, as a storyteller, as a cultural commentator. I'd like it to regain some of that currency and I think it needs to reach a broader public and weave itself more meaningfully into the public consciousness.

Can or should Redmoon be categorized as street art, street circus, performance art or physical theater? In other words, how should we describe it to our friends when we are asking them to go with us to see it?

I'm not sure how Redmoon should be described. Redmoon is an experience. It is oftentimes immersive and site specific, so it can be totally different for each person and different night by night. It is as much about what happens to you as what we did to create it.

Tell us a little about how Redmoon began and some ideas and events that drove its expansion.

Redmoon grew out of an impulse to create a new form that wedded the artistic enterprise to social utility. We wanted to make really interesting art that leaned into the living nature of theatrical events and also powerful art that had the possibility of affecting social change. The belief was simple: effective art can be interesting art. And the more the two enterprises feed one another, the more exciting the endeavor.

What should the public expect from this year's festival?

They should expect that house to burn! They should expect a celebration of Chicago, of our resilience and our grit, of our determination.

Do you hope to make the Great Chicago Fire Festival an annual recurrence and if so, what should it symbolize to Chicagoans?

The dream has always been for this to become an annual event for the city to celebrate itself. In the media we here so much about what is not working, what is scary and bewildering and awful. There should be a day a year when we gather people together to celebrate all that is working, to celebrate the stories of everyday Chicagoans, their struggles and their successes.

What is next for Redmoon?

We do a Halloween Party that will blow your socks off. And then there's a community collaborative Winter Pageant. But the thing I'm really excited about today is that in the Spring Frank Maugeri has conceived of a new theatrical event: a shadow re-telling of a classic film Western. You get to see it from both sides of the screen, the making of and the resulting spectacle. I think it's going to be great. And, always, unique.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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