In my Top 10 list, I chose to explore plays and events that were innovative or extra-inclusive, that contributed to the vision I have for the types of theatre I aim to create, and that exemplify what I believe the future of theatre will be. This list includes a mix of plays that I worked on directly and plays that I attended.
Top 10 Theatre Moments of 2017:
1. WeFest at the Pride Arts Center with Center on Halsted
In my second time curating this fest (formerly known as LezFest and SheFest), I realized exactly what I loved about it when a performer approached me afterwards to personally thank me for creating a genuinely “safe space.” WeFest, this time hosted by Malic White and Molly Brennan, is a variety show celebration of queer female, non-binary, and trans+ artists through music, storytelling, poetry, burlesque, and other performance art. I love the energy in that space, where a sold-out house of nearly all queer, mostly young people experience an evening celebrating queerness. Lately I’ve noticed events like these- curated, safe, inclusive spaces where performers can truly celebrate their (often intersectional) identities and perform just about anything that speaks to them in a supportive environment- are becoming more and more popular in Chicago, and are becoming even more necessary.
2. Climate Change Theatre Action: A Curated Conversation at Global Hive Laboratories
What if we moved toward a kind of theatre that stretched beyond national borders, oceans, and language differences? Denise Yvette Serna started Global Hive Laboratories as a way to “pursue a greater understanding of one another and a radical empathy for those who are different from us.” The company’s first performance art installation, Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA), explored a collection of short plays, films, sound installations, virtual reality, and art curated from artists based all around the world. The pieces were connected by the throughline of climate change. Founder Denise Yvette Serna says CCTA created “space for the conversations that are vital to our future, promoting active engagement that will improve our communities.”
3. Hope: Wanted at the (Beat) Theatre Collective
In their inaugural production, the Beat Theatre collective created an original devised play exploring homelessness, utilizing research and interviews conducted by the ensemble. Artistic Director Justin Michael Dietzel says, “This production called to me because I found myself wanting to help those living on the street that needed it but I did not know where to start. I wanted to empower those around me to feel confident in doing anything they could to help, even if it was a smile while they walked by, as I noticed so many homeless were avoided, ignored, or written off as less than human even though each one has their own story that deserves to be heard. We are human. We are here.” Hope Wanted insightfully shows the many ways in which one could suddenly become homeless and the ways in which people experiencing homelessness can become invisible to society. It’s only the second play I cried a bit during. It will be interesting to see what the (Beat) does next.
4. Chicago Theatre Marathon
The Marathon featured 26.2 hours of new work around the theme “I am indomitable” by local artists, celebrating diverse and intersectional identities of Chicago. Highlights included That Last Light (a short play by Riley Mondragon exploring toxic masculinity in theatre), ABCD (a solo show where Rukmini Girish explored being an Indian immigrant in the United States), and new works by Monty Cole & Alysia Cole, Lily Be, Priya Mohanty, Gaby Labotka, Nancy Garcia Loza, and many others. These types of open spaces where emerging artists can showcase independent DIY work are absolutely necessary right now, and something to celebrate.
5. Jane by Paula Kamen
In the 1960s, before Roe vs. Wade, women in Chicago knew who to call: Jane, an underground abortion service run by graduate students, emerging political activists, and “hippie housewives,” who helped over 11,000 Chicago women of all backgrounds. This summer, I directed a sold-out staged reading (in partnership with the Chicago Women’s History Council and Shout Your Abortion 773) of Paula Kamen’s play Jane, a docu-drama about the real-life Jane organization. Jane is the ultimate case study of the feminist resistance, and the power of what can be done when women help other women.
6. The Civility of Albert Cashier at Permoveo Productions w/ Pride Films & Plays
OMG. Albert Cashier is the best musical I’ve seen in a long, long time. It tells the amazing true story of real-life transgender Civil War soldier Albert Cashier, as a memory play. The music told the story beautifully (and I’ve been binge-listening to the soundtrack on Sound Cloud ever since). Dani Shay (Young Albert) is an exhilarating, inspiring powerhouse performer. Katherine Conditt’s performance as Older Albert was chilling and memorable. This is the type of hero’s journey the world needs right now.
7. Men on Boats at American Theater Company
Also OMG. Will Davis is my directing hero. This show was pure FUN. The cast (particularly Kelli Simpkins and Lauren Sivak) were amazing.
8. Collaboraction’s Peacebook
This festival actively used theatre to bring peace to Chicago by not only presenting plays by Chicago artists that examined peace and violence, but also then touring the festival to some of Chicago’s most underserved communities.
9. For the Love Of (or, the Roller Derby Play) at Pride Films & Plays
There’s something awesome about seeing a cast of all-women (including mostly women of color and several queer women) totally rocking the fierce yet elegant sport of roller derby. Additionally, the protagonist (spoiler alert) doesn’t find true happiness and resolution through a romantic relationship, but rather through coming into her own self.
10. At the Table at Broken Nose Theatre
This is probably going to be on everyone’s list, but here I go. For me, this play was particularly impactful because it perfectly captured a feeling I’ve felt all too often, particularly since the 2016 election, that we don’t quite have a name for, that feeling of, “I know exactly why this person I care deeply about has this problematic viewpoint, and I know exactly where they are coming from, but that is also the reason why no amount of me convincing them will make them realize that what they just said was problematic.”
Honorable mentions: Lizzie at Firebrand Theatre, Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre, Wit at The Hypocrites, Native Gardens at Victory Gardens, Picnic at American Theater Company, the whole CORE series at American Theater Company, Little Red Cyrano at the Red Theatre, In Sarah’s Shadow at Pop Magic Productions, Punk at the New Colony, What of the Night? At Stage Left Theatre & Cor Theatre, Bea Cordelia’s Chasing Blue at Steppenwolf’s 1700 blackbox, The Invisible Scarlet O’Neill at Babes with Blades, All-Female Henry V at Babes with Blades, All-Femme Saint Joan at the Greenhouse Theater, Earthquakes in London at Steep Theatre.
Iris Sowlat is a director whose work focuses on queerness, (dis)ability, feminism, or some intersection thereof. Iris is a Company Member at Pride Films & Plays and an Artistic Associate at Stage Left Theatre. Iris recently directed Narratives of Achromatopsia, a docu-drama about her visual impairment, for the Chicago Fringe Festival. Next up, Iris will direct Joan of Arc by Alexandra Ranieri at RhinoFest.