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'The Storefront Project' shows local, devised work: An Interview with Olivia Lilley & Tara Willis

There are many perceptions about the Chicago theatre scene: bold, brash and usually involving some intense family dynamics. Your Steppenwolf, Goodman, Lyric Opera, musicals in Broadway in Chicago and comedy from The Second City—the big shots. But that's merely scratching the surface of the breadth of work this city has to offer.


Performance visionaries Olivia Lilley and Tara Aisha Willis have curated a limited series of programming that claps back at this notion. The Storefront Project plays in repertory at Prop Thtr and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, combining the resources of a punk, experimental, underground haven and a grand, international infused museum to showcase original work from local, devised artists who are known for their distinctive styles. We were lucky enough to chat with Lilley and Willis about bringing this project to fruition and why it functions as a testament to the experimental work Chicago produces (and has for awhile) while unmasking a history that's ingrained into the city's art scene.

How did this exciting collaboration between the MCA and Prop Thtr come together?


Tara Willis: So we met I think originally at an anti-racism/equity training that the League of Chicago Theatres was hosting. We sort of looked around the room and realized that we were the only among the few, if not the only people in the room, who were in charge of organizations that were doing more experimental work and that we had taken over leadership positions in these organizations that recently had been led by the people who also founded them. I think another thing we saw was that we were both like immediately invested in anti-racist work as far as our programming goes. And that was not necessarily for plenty of people in the room; that was like a new thing to be thinking about or thinking of things very differently before that workshop so we found that kinship as well.


Olivia asked me out for coffee and basically you know we chatted about all the things and the differences between our institutions. So you know where I’m leading a program that is primarily, historically has been a touring series of performing arts, not just theatre, in a museum setting in a sort of traditional proscenium theatre space downtown etc. You know the MCA’s one of the few performing programs where experimental work is coming from other places to Chicago. And yet I think sometimes we’re not always accepted as we’d like to be to those artists that are actually working in a similar way to artists elsewhere for various reasons. Partly because of our location, prices etc. And Olivia was really able to point out how that experimental approach to theatre, that more devised approach is aplenty in Chicago. It's just not the thing that gets as much attention or like honestly support because there’s such a different conception of what Chicago theatre looks and feels like. And then also this idea that Chicago artists aren’t necessarily touring or working towards touring. Is that even important? Who knows? But there’s a sort of for us by us ethos to Chicago theatre making and performance making.


Olivia Lilley: I definitely think that the genesis of this project came out of talking about how Chicago artists don’t tour or rarely tour in a way that the experimental artists coming to the MCA do. We talked a lot about why that is and where that comes from. And that started the first idea we had was what if people made (companies or individuals) work that performed the same piece, but performed in two wildly different spaces at the same time? There’s definitely a lot of companies that I’ve considered more experimental, but they didn’t necessarily think of themselves that way. So I felt like a better way of curation, and Tara shared this sort of perspective, was to like find lead artists that were gonna do that. And I’d say a lot of devised work is sometimes a director, but not always. As a director/deviser myself, I wanted to highlight that particular perspective because in the Chicago theatre storefront mentality we’re so focused on the playwright’s theatre or the actor’s theatre, directors don’t get that much thought or attention to what their practice is.


TW: Or to allow the artist to figure out how to locate themselves.


OL: Yeah, I think the really great point in that [is] a lot of experimental or underground practices pop up in different places all over the city, but they aren’t necessarily talking to each other so they don’t know each other exists.


TSP showcases the talents of Chicago directors Dado Gyure, Lucky Stiff, Denise Yvette Serna, Coya Paz, Sydney Chatman, and Mikael Burke with April Cleveland. What did the selection process entail to foster these collaborations?


OL: I have made it like part of my obsession since I moved here to find like interesting directors making weird shit. I don’t want to phrase it like that. Artists that when you go to their shows there’s a signature feel to what that show is that’s nothing like anything I see in Chicago. So, that’s how I found Dado. Well, weirdly a friend of mine knew Dado and then introduced me and then when I saw Dado’s work I was like, “Wow. This is an individual human.” A fair amount of them were I first heard about them through one or two people I know. Like Coya Paz ran Free Street and the work there and then experiencing that work I was like, “Wow. How did I not know about this forever?” Because it’s not widely written about or publicized or championed or given awards.


I remember I saw Mikael Burke direct like two shows last year and I didn’t know who he was. But I was very struck by that individual reality of those shows and we became friends from that. And then Sydney Chatman had gotten the Maggio fellowship and she was directing another play that a friend of mine had wrote. She’s making something that’s like so unique and involves children and adults all coming together to survive something. And then Lucky Stiff I met because they were performing in a house that with my friend we had curated like a little show. Lucky Stiff had performed as their drag persona and through that I learned more about their directing practice and got to experience that. So, yeah. It’s like a hodge podge collection of people, like misfit toys gathered here. I know Denise Serna because she gave a hundred dollars to a Kickstarter for a play I did in 2015 and then she was in the trailer. And I saw her work for a couple years. So she found me!

TW: Olivia has the relationships, the network and expertise to provide context for the artists she was suggesting and I was suggesting that I knew maybe a little less about.


My last experience working in a theatre was a high school play, but I am a professional performer in an experimental dance network that has a lot of compassion for Olivia’s world. I’m not an expert in Chicago theatre aside from all the plays I saw when I lived here growing up. That information is maybe a decade and a half out of date so being able to think through the ways that we can support each other through that knowledge she has and then from my end I also have. I think I bring a different perspective as a dancer to the table that has helped her contextualize what she’s fighting for in a way outside of the network of Chicago and sort of more underground theatre that she’s in.


At the same time, there’s certain things that Prop Thtr can just do more quickly than us [the MCA] cause we’re a little bit more of a slow moving, many part machine so finding the ways that we can kind of go back and forth and trade things off.


OL: It’s been interesting because every step of the way it feels like another level of like, what does it really mean for people to be working within a larger institution and a really, really small scrappy one? And then the artists have to work within these confines which there’s pros and cons to both of those approaches.


TW: It’s very much like we’re constantly negotiating for space especially with a show like this that is taking place primarily not in the theatre. It’s like we’re using the patio, the freight elevator and the dressing rooms as play spaces. We’re negotiating space constantly which is also true of the theatre with folks trying to rent it for events, to load things in and out of the building through the loading dock. Like there’s a million other things happening at the museum all the time and there’s a million other departments involved allowing some things to go ahead.


It just works in a different way and I think another piece of that to be honest is like we have an HR department. We have a limit of how many hours each week we can work which is not to say we’re not constantly going over that because performance. But there’s a really different reason many of us are working in an institution like this. It’s to have those benefits, right? And so most of us have worked in that really intense, small arts admin. context where it’s just like everything is life or death. Everything you just show up. You’re probably the one with the keys, you know what I mean? Like you just have to. And so that’s the ethos for sure of Prop Thtr and so for us to work with that there’s moments where I’m like, “Olivia. I will get back to you on Monday.”


OL: And that’s why I answer like all the emails at eleven at night.


TW: And that’s when you can, you know what I mean?


OL: But yeah, it's really interesting cause it all fits into each organization’s lives in a very different way. Cause like it’s been interesting also us all trying to figure out trying to learn more about these pieces. Because of my work schedule and producing Medusa I haven’t been able to see as much rehearsal as I'd liked, but that’s sort of just how the cookie crumbles. But at the actual event, I’m gonna be there every single performance. For a lot of my shows in the last seven years I’ve worked my own box office because I like building my audience one on one. And I mean last year I had a box office person for Neverland cause I had to go to my day job and stuff, but I’m excited because there’s only four days of this so I can do all of the things I like to do.

What preconceptions do you feel audiences possess about the Chicago storefront theatre scene? How do you hope to broaden or challenge these notions?


OL: Well, I started my morning reading this book called Steppenwolf Theatre Company: In Their Own Words and it articulated things that I was like, “Yeah. I don’t like that.” So, when we think of Chicago storefront theatre we think of men in plaid shirts like yelling at each other and it’s raw and really gritty and the fight choreography may or may have not been choreographed. And it’s also about stories and people in a living room and there’s like a realistic kitchen and it’s a narrative. I mean part of the reason I moved to Chicago was because it was a city where if you didn’t have a narrative that was strong, they wouldn’t forgive you. I personally was trying to figure out how to match that with more interesting visual and experiential styles and less realism styles. But it's in terms of like that as the overarching idea of what Chicago theatre and what a Chicago theatre experience is: raw, gritty acting on realistic sets with story. Like that is such a powerful mythos that is so hard to like drown out.


And Chicago’s experimental and underground [scene], the ethos and dichotomy of all that has been here for as long as New York, Lower East Side like downtown theatre. Like it’s been here, it’s just far less written about and frankly really erased by critics and a lot of the journalism and books that are written about the Chicago storefront. There’s very few things that are covered. There’s really mainly like Second City and Steppenwolf and everything that sort of shoots off from that. And this project is really awesome in that it takes all these makers that have been here and some have been here (like Dado and Coya) for so long in creating their work in different iterations in being a part of the scene; and then other people have been here for other different lengths also figuring out how to navigate the scene and be themselves and fit in and all that. To highlight them and their experience and what they’re making and what they want to be doing when they have twenty-five hundred dollars and just like freedom of adapt something that’s not in the public domain; to highlight that as this is what devised theatre looks like and this is what’s actually normal here is a huge dream come true for me.

All these pieces utilize text originally not written for the stage to devise new work. How was this choice essential to the production process?


OL: Tara was instrumental in coming up with what these rules were and I think I spit balled a bit. I was like, “How about this?” I don’t really remember, but I imagine that kind of happened. I don’t know.


TW: Well, we were trying to figure out how to make the process, the ways that the artists are making theatre be the content of the show more so than any individual piece in enough itself. Like we wanted to make sure that frame was really clear because otherwise it doesn’t pull together. And so I keep getting questions from colleagues like as the pieces are developing, “What is the content? Like we need to be able to sell this.” And I’m like, “But people are coming to see three shows and they’re all working radically differently and that’s the point.” Like the content is the frame of the fact that they each started from point A with a text that they chose that’s not a theatre text, not a play or a script that’s intended for performance, and they got to point B which is the performance. So that’s what I think I was trying to highlight was the prompt for them and the other piece of the prompt was work within the constraints of like, “Here’s the amount of money we can give you. Here’s the spaces. Here’s when the spaces are available if you want. If you’re planning to rehearse ten times and you wanna rehearse in this space and it’s only available three times, do you want to use that space or not? Which thing do you compromise and which thing do you prioritize?”


And what comes out of that? So we also have a video that’s going to be screened. We wanted to make sure that that process, what’s between point A and point B was visible, and so there’s a video of rehearsal footage from both spaces that’s like in the lobby that people can look at before and after the show. And so to highlight those things because we know people are gonna have thoughts and feelings of what each piece is, but to make the beat of how all these people are working differently and also similarly and to highlight how they got the how rather than the what.


OL: I think that because in the storefront we don’t have any money often times public domain texts are what get adapted more often than things that involve complicated rights situations. So I think that was really important to me that the public domain element was present so we’re sort of working within the constraints of what America is giving us right now where copyright is a real thing and we can’t live in a dream world. We have to live in a grounded world where you can get sued if you do something without a full understanding what the repercussions could be. So that’s where that kind of comes from. But yeah the artists are adapting everything from Sydney’s taking the writing of Ida B. Wells, not a biography, but it’s like really taking on this awesome book of writing and creating a piece. And then Dado is adapting a vacuum cleaner ad from the fifties into an opera. That’s an example of like the wide variety of stuff.


Especially operating in the underground spaces is the freedom of you can really choose whatever you want to do in a way than having to create within a lot of institutional weight. Like an institution has to pick something that fits or passes a lot of committees whereas this we were like, “Artists, what would you like to do?” And they were like, "I’m gonna think about it." They thought about it, then they made a choice and are seeing it through. And some of them threw a fundraiser to add extra funds. Someone thought more like, “I only have this much money so I’m gonna pay actors 'x' amount per hour and only rehearse for this amount of time.” So they're all handling the economics of the project super differently too. And that’s been a super surprising element because we anticipated people might do smaller scale things because of some of the restrictions, but that is not the case. Everyone’s been ambitious. Every single one of them in a great way and it’s been really cool learning how they’re trying to make what they want happen.


What has TSP meant to you and what do you hope audiences walk away with from viewing it?


OL: This is definitely the highest profile project I’ve ever produced. It’s also something that speaks to the heart of my core values of like people need to be empowered. Everyone needs to be empowered and be given a platform especially people making devised work. The idea of devised work is something that has a lot of negative connotations to people that like more storefront realism work. They think that it’s a bunch of people writhing around in black and not making sense. And this project explodes the idea of devised work in Chicago, and I’m really excited for everyone who sees these shows and comes to our panel to experience that and have like another perception of what Chicago theatre is blown a bit.


I’m really excited to see how people like young artists and emerging artists of any age see that makers are creating stuff in sound spaces and they decide because of that they’re gonna make something of art. Like I hope that this project is a big, “Yes. Do it,” to Chicago artists and performance that want to cross genres, that want to think theatre can be cool. I just hope this is a big gateway, a big gateway drug to more. Like, how do you say it? We rallied the army, the troops of experimental makers, that are just gonna like take over. We’re just gonna occupy and not wait for permission anymore. Like this is their permission to go and do it.


TW: I think for me it’s similar. I’ve always been in all the ways I’ve participated in the performance world I’ve always been interested in the spaces and places and people in ways of making performance that are kind of often being brought to task. My reaction to realizing at a certain point, probably in college, that there was weird work out there that didn’t fit what I was familiar with and back then, it was really about dance but my reaction to finding that out at first [was], “No. I hate this.” And then was to be like actually it’s really unique that people think that this is important to make and let me find out why people are even making this work and to go outside of my familiarity. And so once I realized that there was a whole context for why they’re making that work in that way, that there were traditions of experimentation that go way back, but also that there’s like something really fascinating about having a different kind of relationship to the starting point of the idea that you’re working with or how you get to the end point.


Once I had that second reaction of like, “Wait. Let me investigate this,” that never really ended for me. And so especially in coming back to Chicago for this job I was like, “Wait a second. What am I? This experimental dance person who was working in a really tiny organization that was full of amazing super weirdos making amazing, weird work. Like what am I gonna do in this position?” I suddenly have this fancy theatre, at a fancy institution and I have all this power and resource behind me and I’m used to making like a whole week long festival happen with like five thousand dollars and twenty-five performers involved and whatever and like no space, finding the space, the DJs, and everything, and you know seeing how many people I can not pay very much to do tech so that’s like my ethos that I think is very similar to Olivia’s.


In approaching this position, I was like, “What are the ways that I can look at Chicago?” The Chicago I’m entering now as an adult, as the artist that I am, the administrator that I am, and really find those nooks and crannies?


I can recognize the value in work that is not otherwise considered to be what the MCA should necessarily produce and so I’m interested in finding those nooks and crannies and also what it means to be making work for and by and about Chicago. And so what are Chicago specific nooks and crannies? And what can I do in an institution where it has this expanded vision of performance geographically outside of Chicago to actually build relationships with artists, venues, audiences that are seeing this experimental work that’s already here?


But it’s like when you sort of hear the same couple of artists over and over in that context it starts to become clear that there’s a gap that people are not being supported to continue their careers in that kind of process based aesthetic. And so how do you get from making really tiny work to making bigger work? And to me one of those stepping stones, not that this show by any means [is] getting any of these artists to make a giant show for the MCA stage in the typical way. But it’s to start building those networks with each other, with institutions like MCA and Prop.


So many of these artists are working in big institutions. They just aren’t working there as artists. They’re working there as administrators or doing some other job that keeps their artistic work afloat. That I see as one of the roles like, how does the MCA be a conduit for artists to be seen maybe for the first time eventually outside of Chicago? But also for them to connect to the ways they’re working are they already have peers elsewhere. I think that’s one of the goals for me and then in general I’m always gonna be seeing myself as an advocate where I can be, where it makes sense ethically to like really support those nooks and crannies to the people who are making work and I think that is what I hope it does from my perspective.

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