It is all but impossible to think about Redmoon’s Great Chicago Fire Festival — the grand-scale movable spectacle set to unfold Saturday night along the Chicago River — without invoking the admonition of this city’s fabled architect and planner, Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
Without doubt, Redmoon has made some very big plans. But here’s the catch: The company that has made its mark creating gargantuan theatrical events has just one chance to get this event right. Although the free festival (with “Chicago Fire” stars Taylor Kinney and Jesse Spencer serving as “grand marshals”)is the culmination of more than five years of dreaming, planning, community engagement (it worked with 30 organizations in 15 neighborhoods this summer), construction and “shipping,” it must be realized over the course of a few hours on a single night, when the weather, the audience, and the mechanics and pyrotechnics must all coalesce to create a perfect synchrony.
The weather certainly cooperated this past Monday morning as a giant barge floated along the river carrying three blue towers of steel and wood. These crucial elements in the spectacle — constructed in Redmoon’s vast Pilsen workshop and now moved to the final staging area between State Street and Columbus Drive — got a rousing welcome as the city’s bridges were raised to let them pass and curious passersby stopped to watch the armada, wondering what it was all about.
REDMOON’S ‘GREAT CHICAGO FIRE FESTIVAL’ When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4(with many activities beginning earlier); rain date is Oct. 5. Where: Along the Chicago River, between State and Columbus Tickets: Free Info: http://www.redmoon.org
As Jim Lasko, Redmoon’s executive director and “master of ephemera” explains it: “The goal of this event is to create a citywide celebration that is by, for and about Chicago and that will be as distinctive to this city as the annual Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, or Las Fallas [another big fire festival] is to Valencia, Spain. We want to create a signature event uniquely bound to this place — one that grows out of our founding ‘myth’.”
And if all goes as planned, that myth will be manifested in one great blaze of glory witnessed by thousands of people, and will become, according to Lasko, “a wider beacon attracting visitors from all over the United States and the world in years to come.” (According to the festival’s publicists, the event is to be covered by reporters from Great Britain, Mexico, Belgium, Japan and National Geographic, with aerial photos to be taken by Getty Images and AP.)
In fact, it is no myth that fuels this Festival. It is the fabled Great Chicago Fire — the conflagration that burned from Oct. 8-10, 1871, and destroyed much of the city’s central business district. But that fire also led to a remarkable rebirth — the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes as Chicago was rebuilt and quickly became one of this country’s most populous and economically important cities.
VIDEO BELOW: “Chicago Fire” star Jesse Spencer talks to Sun-Times television critic Lori Rackl about the Great Chicago Fire Festival:
The festival’s first edition comes with a suitably formidable budget of $2 million, partly underwritten by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (about $300,000), but mostly with funding from corporate sponsors and foundations, and promotional support through the city’s tourism initiative, Choose Chicago (which has even reached out to audiences for The Burning Man Festival, the Nevada desert event, via social media). The city plans to back the festival for two additional years. Along the way, the Riverwalk project should be completed.
“This year we are really discovering how the whole thing can work,” said Lasko. “Our hope is that the festival will grow over coming years and we will be able to reach out to other artists for content. A ‘skyscraper’ might be designed by [Chicago architect] Jeanne Gang, or the flag [which this time takes the form of an illuminated glass sculpture ] might be designed by a different artist. We are performing with the Chicago Children’s Choir this time, but maybe we will expand the roster to other groups.”
What will no doubt remain crucial are the efforts of a vast army of volunteers who have done everything from help build the show to help participants into kayaks, to hand out leaflets.
From its founding in 1990, Redmoon, under the direction of Lasko and Frank Maugeri (the company’s producing director and creative engineer), has thought outside the box, and that box has grown ever bigger and more complex. Though it initially presented intimate puppet shows crafted by Blair Thomas, early on it also began to devise massive public events that fed on its neighboring communities, from the much-loved indoor Winter Pageants and outdoor Halloween festivals it staged in pre-gentrified Logan Square, to a 2004 riverfront spectacle, “Sink…Sank…Sunk,” set afloat from Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park, to its 2010 show, “The Astronaut’s Birthday,” a graphic novel projected onto the facade of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The burning question in all this remains: Is The Great Chicago Fire Festival — along with the master plan for lighting up the city, or Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk over the Chicago River in November — nothing more than what Juvenal, the ancient Roman satirist, called “bread and circuses,” a beautiful distraction from the city’s real problems of crime, budget woes, a fractured educational system and all the rest? And would the investment made on all these starry events be better spent by promoting the cultural life that exists throughout the city year-round?
It might be best to reserve judgment for now, and wait to see the festival’s “birth of a skyscraper,” as Redmoon sees to it that an underwater structure rises to the surface signaling Chicago’s resurrection in the wake of the fire.
NOTE: For a complete rundown of festival logistics and related activities visit www.redmoon.org.