Blaze of Glory: How One Innovative Theatre Troupe Set Out to Recreate The Great Chicago Fire

News   Blaze of Glory: How One Innovative Theatre Troupe Set Out to Recreate The Great Chicago Fire
 
The Great Chicago Fire will blaze again Oct. 4 when Chicago's Redmoon Theatre, known for its large-scale, site-specific productions, recreates the historic event in an unprecedented free spectacle on the Chicago River, replete with working steamships, floating houses, cauldrons of fire and a mechanical skyscraper.

* The fall season on Broadway may be heating up, but it's an experimental theatre company in Chicago that will be on fire this weekend. Redmoon Theatre Company, headquartered in a large warehouse in the Pilsen, a Bushwick-like neighborhood on Chicago's lower west side, has been bringing their over-the-top productions out of the confines of the theatre and into the community for over 20 years. Part industrial inventor's workshop, part theatre company, Redmoon has done everything from produce a play on a forklift to build a three-tiered pedal-powered "drum cart" to perform for the Obamas at the White House, but their latest and most ambitious endeavor to date will be the Great Chicago Fire Festival—a live performance involving enormous handmade contraptions like actual working steamships, floating houses, cauldrons of fire and a rising mechanical skyscraper—taking place on the Chicago River this Saturday.

"I will admit that I have rediscovered fear," admitted Redmoon executive artistic director Jim Lasko just a few weeks before the event. If all goes well, Lasko hopes the project—which celebrates the resilience and grit of the people of Chicago and is produced in conjunction with the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District—will become an annual event. "When Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel's administration came in, they had some amazing cultural initiatives like the Riverwalk Development Project and the Cultural Plan that really emphasized Chicago's neighborhoods," said Lasko, "so working those two initiatives into this concept of creating an event that would celebrate the distinction of Chicago is what finally formed the Great Chicago Fire Festival."

But for him, the ideas for an epic, city-wide event started flowing back when Chicago was applying for the 2016 Olympics. "I was trying to imagine what Chicago's Opening Ceremonies would look like. How would they make an Opening Ceremonies that was distinct to who we were—one that wouldn't look like Atlanta's or L.A.'s or anybody else's in the country, but it would look like Chicago's?" said Lasko. "That was really how the thinking began about creating an event like this. Obviously we didn't get the Olympics, but I just became obsessed with the idea that our city needs a signature event that celebrates our distinct character."

Grand Spectacle rendering by Ryan Bardsley
Grand Spectacle rendering by Ryan Bardsley

Named after the 1871 fire that devastated nearly four miles of the Midwestern manufacturing hub, the festival will focus on the city's rejuvenation. After the smoke cleared, Chicago became an architectural destination—home to what is considered the first-ever skyscraper: The Home Insurance Building and host of the World's Columbian Exposition.

Redmoon started spreading news of the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival last summer through events held in 15 Chicago neighborhoods, where they encouraged residents to share their personal stories of grit and resilience in the Mobile Photo Factory, a photo booth-like structure designed by photographer Sandro Miller. The participants were then photographed holding up chalkboards where they'd written about the obstacles—from homelessness to gang violence to depression—they'd overcome. Those photos will be displayed Oct. 4 at the Neighborhood Bazaar, which opens the festival and will feature performances by local bands, dance troupes and spoken word artists as well as food and retail vendors.

At 8 PM the spectacle begins with "Chicago Fire" stars Taylor Kinney and Jesse Spencer lowering a flaming cauldron from the Michigan Avenue Bridge that will signal 14 other cauldrons to be lowered by kids from the non-profit organization After School Matters, who also helped Redmoon to build many of the structures involved in the festival. The cauldrons will be met with fire buoys being dragged down the river by volunteer kayakers as well as a steamship (dubbed the S.S. O'Leary after Mrs. O'Leary, whose cow was rumored to have started the Great Chicago Fire), built from an old pontoon boat, that will pass by three floating purple houses, set a block from each other, as they are set ablaze.

Rising from the houses' ashes will be three different symbols of the city's rejuvenation: One will reveal a skyscraper; another, a large illuminated Chicago flag made of glass by Ignite Studios; and the third will make way for hydraulic arms holding actors playing firefighters—ensuring that no one section of the audience, lining the river between the State Street and Columbus Drive bridges, will have the same experience. The whole show will be followed by a fireworks display and a fleet of sailboats with projections of the photos from the Mobile Photo Factory on their sails.

Redmoon's Fire Festival Houses on the move
Redmoon's Fire Festival Houses on the move Photo by Evan Barr

"One of my many egotistical fears is the thing that will be most interesting or exciting or just spectacular, will be the amazing fireworks show—the thing over which we had no artistic control and almost no collaboration," admitted Lasko. "But that's fear talking. The burning of the houses is just going to be amazing. The orange of the fire against the purple shingles of the houses is really powerful, and what's exciting to me is that nobody's going to see all three [platforms], so you can go talk to your friend who might have seen a totally different one. I'm hoping that that generates buzz and excitement."

Although Redmoon has been planning and building this project for over a year, they haven't been able to actually rehearse the show. They made sure the steamship and houses float ("That was huge relief," Lasko lauged) and have done fire tests, but because of the large public nature of the project, they won't see how their vision will all come together until the audience does. "We can talk about it all we want, but until [the event] is actually here it's hard to get a full grasp of the scale of it," explained Lasko. "[At Redmoon] everything looks so great because it's just filling our space, but we're in the middle of pulling it apart and taking it down to the river, where the scale feels different again, so each layer is revealing.

"For me, the project of Redmoon over the past decade or so has been: 'How do we translate all of the technical know-how of theatre and its narrative power, and its spectacle to public spaces?'" said Lasko. "As soon as you move theatre outside of the controlled box that is the theatre space, it introduces a whole lot of elements and variables that are never a part of a traditional theatrical production, and by doing so it becomes not theatre. I live in the tension of that."

Helping Lasko bring the fiery event to life will be an army of volunteers and Redmoon company members, including kayakers, steamship captains and cauldron droppers as well as the Chicago Children's Choir. The city's firefighters will be on hand to make sure the flames on the river are put out at the end of the night, but as this event is sure to prove, there's no extinguishing the fire in Redmoon's belly.

Learn more about the festival here: chicagofirefestival.com.

Redmoon's Steamboat
Redmoon's Steamboat Photo by Rob Walton
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