Free Street Theater offers 40th-anniversary "Flashback"


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As a slew of recent 40th-anniversary commemorations has made clear, 1969 was a landmark year in American culture. It was the year of Woodstock, the moon walk, Stonewall—and in Chicago the blossoming of an off-Loop theater movement that emerged from the grassroots community theater activity of the mid-1960s. In 1969 the first professional off-Loop theater, the Body Politic, was established at 2257 N. Lincoln by Second City co-founder Paul Sills, composer William Russo, and community activist (and United Church of Christ minister) Jim Shiflett. Today known as the Greenhouse Theater Center, it's the oldest continually operating off-Loop theater space in Chicago. The same year saw the founding of Free Street Theater, a unique organization devoted to bringing theatrical entertainment and training to disadvantaged populations in Chicago. To mark the event, the company is hosting Free Street Flashback on Thursday, October 1, at Steppenwolf's Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted.

Free Street Flashback will feature live music as well as reminiscences by past and current company members. (Notable Free Street alumni include Jackie Taylor, founder and artistic director of the Black Ensemble Theater; jazz singer and impresario Geraldine de Haas, founder of Jazz Unites; and her son Darius de Haas, now a Broadway performer.)

Free Street began life in 1967 as an outreach program of the Goodman School of Drama, but in 1969, Goodman teacher Patrick Henry shepherded the program into an independent, professional performing company. In the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, 1969—the year the Chicago Eight trial began and Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton was murdered by police—was marked by turbulence, tension, and deep distrust along racial and political grounds. But Henry—a direct descendant of the famous Revolutionary War patriot after whom he was named—had a vision: "Our goal is to cut through the layers of political, social, and religious philosophy that have separated people from one another and to concentrate on the rhythms and energies common to all people," he said. Reacting to a report that only 3 percent of the population attended live theater, he decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed: Free Street's "Showmobile" brought free original shows into the neighborhoods—a multiracial troupe touring into ethnically segregated communities.

"Patrick was sort of an odd duck," recalls former company member Doug Lofstrom, the composer and Columbia College music teacher who will lead the jazz band for the October 1 event. "He had very high artistic standards, and he carried himself in an elegant, almost patrician manner. But his vision of bringing theater to underserved communities was new—even slightly radical—back then."

Free Street's revues combined live rock and blues with theatrical vignettes about urban life as well as adaptations of fairy tales. To some it was a sort of cross between Hair (sans nudity), Up With People (but hipper), and Paul Sills's Story Theater. "One of the regular things was to bring an audience member onstage to tell a story," says Lofstrom. "The actors and musicians would improvise based on the story the person was telling. Some of the full productions grew out of those improvs."

"Free Street Theater was my first professional acting job out of college," recalls Lynn Kearney, a company member in 1973 and now a cabaret singer and TV producer in New York. "I found the work to be exhausting—sometimes three weeks on one-night stand tours with one day off—but satisfying. The cast was integrated—ten white kids and ten mostly African-American. At that time we toured eight states in the midwest and both years we also performed outdoors at Lincoln Center in New York. We played the inner city of Chicago, farm communities, and underneath the arch in Saint Louis."

Though the company performed primarily in parks and housing project plazas, they also did indoor shows at institutions such as mental health centers and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where they entertained physically disabled children.

In 1985, Free Street set up a long-term residency at the Cabrini-Green housing project, out of which evolved Project!, a bona fide hit. Described as "a musical documentary," the show was created with the collaboration of Cabrini-Green residents; Patrick Henry directed and cowrote the libretto with singer-songwriter Tricia Alexander, Doug Lofstrom served as principal composer and musical director, and choreographer Donald Douglass staged the musical numbers. A crucial component of the multimedia production were videotaped interviews with community members. After performing at Cabrini-Green and then at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Lofstrom recalls, "we started getting gigs all over. We even played Lake Forest College." A glowing New York Times feature generated international attention, resulting in Project! being invited to the 1987 London International Festival of Theatre. Two years later, Project! returned to the UK for a tour—but by that time, Patrick Henry had died, at age 53 following a long battle with AIDS.

Patrick Henry had been Free Street Theater, and some observers feared the troupe's artistic drive—and funding—would dry up after his death. "But we had a very strong urge to keep it going," recalls Lofstrom. He, Alexander, and Douglass agreed to serve as co-artistic directors until a full-time AD could be hired. In 1991, they turned over the reins to David Schein, an actor and director with a strong interest in solo performance. In 1995, Schein moved to the managing director position, and Ron Bieganski, a long-time company member and teacher, assumed the artistic reins.

"They [the board] called me while I was touring in Europe with the company," Bieganski recalls. "They said, we had a meeting tonight and we made a change, but we didn't ask you. Would you like the job? I said, is there a pay raise? Because as a teacher I was making about $175 a week."

"I started out in Milwaukee," says Bieganski, "where I worked at the Ark Theater in Madison with people like [Steppenwolf ensemble member] Eric Simonson and [the late comedian] Chris Farley. We did work with a community purpose, so when I came to Chicago in search of more opportunity I naturally gravitated to Free Street." The first show Bieganski saw was a performance by Free Street Too, an ensemble of senior citizens. "I introduced myself to Patrick and said, I'd like to work with you. Pretty soon I was driving the bus for the seniors."

In the early 90s, under Schein and Bieganski, Free Street began focusing primarily on working with youth, training teenagers to create and perform original pieces (sometimes under the name TeenStreet). Productions from this era include Standing Out (in a Drive-By World), the highly acclaimed Mad Joy, and Held Captive by Daydreams, of which Reader critic Adam Langer wrote: "The issues TeenStreet tackles in this collectively written script—gang violence, project living, suicidal fantasies, prison experiences—are sobering but not particularly surprising. The play's authors and performers come, after all, from Chicago's high schools, housing projects, and homeless shelters. What makes this production so engaging is its complex, sophisticated treatment of these issues: it daringly interweaves cathartic dance numbers, eerie songs, and intensely personal stream-of-consciousness monologues."

Today Free Street operates under the leadership of Bieganski and managing director Mica Cole, who started with the company in the summer of 1998 as a 15-year-old. After majoring in theater at the DePaul University theater school, Cole returned to Free Street as a director, then spent three seasons as director of education at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe before stepping into the managing directorship of Free Street last February.

"Each season we create two full productions with our year-round ensemble of about 25 youth, whose members spend two years with us, delving deeply into acting training while developing their skills at creating original work," says Cole. "We also support a summer ensemble of about 50, most performing for the first time; they spend the first half of the summer in acting technique classes with Ron and the second half appearing all over the city with what we call 'microperformances'—short, improvised shows." With two ensembles, Free Street reaches audiences of thousands of people a year—ranging from residents of communities like Wicker Park and Humboldt Park to tourists and downtown workers taking lunch breaks in Grant Park. In January, Free Street presents its first full production of the 2009-2010 season: To Kill a Teenager, a play "based on the Seven Deadly Teenage Sins," running January 9-February 6 at Free Street's home base in the Pulaski Park field house, at 1419 W. Blackhawk.

"Kids come to us from the age of 12 up to 20," says Bieganskl. "These are all low-income youth. They're not the high school stars—the kids who are starring in their high school musicals aren't at Free Street. But out of the eight high school seniors who went through our two-year training and left us this fall, seven have full scholarships to college—and one of those is at Juilliard." Still, Bieganski cautions, "You try not to be focused on where they end up. The focus is on where they start and where they're going, on working with full commitment and integrity. We are determined to break down what George W. Bush called 'the soft bigotry of low expectations.' Oh my god, I can't believe I'm quoting George Bush, but on this one thing I do agree with him."

"There are many reasons for poverty and they all make the work difficult but also tremendously exciting," he adds. "The ability to develop youth over several years, working ten hours a week with them, turns out an incredibly gifted person with a lot of knowledge about creativity and community building. It's about developing inspired human beings, but we are an arts organization first. We are not a social organization. The youth come here not to be 'socialized' but to learn. We demand that you become a high quality artist—anything less would be patronizing."

For tickets to Free Street Flashback on October 1, call 773-772-7248 or go to

Here's a doc on the group narrated by Studs Terkel.


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