Making a Spectacle

Strange figures glide past you on six-foot stilts. Mythical creatures pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Clouds billow in the branches of a tree. An enormous head leans over a wall and greets you in a deep foghorn voice. Eerily beautiful music surrounds you. It might seem as if you have wandered onto some strange, magical planet. But in fact you are experiencing a performance by Chicago’s popular Redmoon Theater. This company’s diverse spectacle-based performances include massive public celebrations played out in neighborhoods, parks, museums, and formal gardens as well as traditional theater venues. Versed in mask work and many different forms of puppetry, from bunraku (a traditional Japanese form in which multiple puppeteers operate the puppets in full view of the audience) to marionettes (puppets that are controlled from above by strings) to shadow puppets, the gifted folks at Redmoon create visual and aural worlds to engage the hearts and minds of children and adults alike.

Redmoon is one of a handful of local theaters that combines its storytelling with spectacular visuals and special effects. These theaters—using techniques involving clowning and circus acrobatics, computer, lighting, video effects, and more—have found loyal audiences in Chicago. Perhaps the best-known of the spectacle theaters is Lookingglass Theatre Company. Formed by a group of Northwestern University grads in 1988, Lookingglass combines a physical, improvisational, ensemble-based rehearsal process with training in theater, dance, music, and circus arts. The company’s powerhouse ensemble includes internationally renowned director and MacArthur grant recipient Mary Zimmerman and television, film, and stage actor David Schwimmer. Housed in a sleekly designed theater in the historic Water Tower Pumping Station on Michigan Avenue, Lookingglass offers audiences eclectic theatrical fare composed of new plays, adaptations, and re-envisioned classics. But the company has long been involved in theater education as well; a vast amount of its programming goes toward training and outreach. In fact, its earliest workshop level, Tweedle Tots, is designed for children eighteen months to three years old. One of the most successful Lookingglass programs is the Young Ensemble, which is selected annually from a diverse group of performers aged eight to eighteen. Participants take part in an intensive audition process. The talented young artists who are selected spend the next schoolyear training with Lookingglass ensemble members and guest artists free of charge. In the fall, the Young Ensemble members are trained in a wide variety of theater techniques. In the winter, they divide into two smaller ensembles to research and create a pair of new works for the stage. Past shows include Pocketful of Posies, a musical about children in the Middle Ages during a time of plague, and Stories from the Attic, a piece about memory and aging based on interviews with older adults. The final step of the process comes in the spring when the Young Ensemble members rehearse and perform the collaborative work they have made. The Young Ensemble is one more part of Lookingglass’s overall mission "to redefine the limits of theatrical experience and to make theater exhilarating, inspirational, and accessible to all."

Less well known but no less artistically daring is the small performance company known as 500 Clown, whose mission is "to use circus arts, improv, and action-based performance to produce theater that catapults the performers into extreme physical and emotional risk." Their work shifts the audience from passive to active observers and creates a charged environment that underscores and celebrates the unpredictable power of the theatrical moment. The company is made up of only five members: Molly Brennan (performer), Adrian Danzig (performer), Leslie Buxbaum Danzig (director), Paul Kalina (performer), and Dan Reily (master builder and designer). In addition to performing, 500 Clown offers high school-, college-, and professional-level workshops in clowning, mask work, and adaptation. All workshops flow from a series of questions that address the company’s basic performance principles: What does it mean to take risks? To follow impulses? To discover? To be resilient? Working in partnership with institutions such as Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the University of Chicago, 500 Clown has carved out an impressive niche in the city’s theater community and has won legions of loyal fans along the way.