Sue Ontiveros: Shakespeare in Chicago is more than theater

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Audience members in Hamilton Park watch Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks’ performance of the “Twelfth Night.” Photo/ Chuck Osgood

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It would be easy to look at the Shakespeare in the Parks series that wrapped up this weekend as merely good outdoor theater.

That’s not a surprising assumption. After all, we’ve only seen the surface of what’s been going on these last four weeks, with people dragging chairs and blankets out to the 19 city parks that hosted the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s traveling show, “Twelfth Night.” But go behind the scenes and you’ll see a lot more has been going on, and continues to happen long after the set has been broken down. It’s the kind of community-building that often gets overlooked.

Don’t assume that the minute word gets out that there’s going to be a free performance of one of the Bard’s works people line up. That’s not always what happens. In a lot of the neighborhoods, Shakespeare can be a tough sell for those who’ve only been exposed — if at all — to his plays in written form. Someone’s got to get people onto the seats, err, lawn.

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That’s where the program’s Tony Vega comes in. The 24-year-old isn’t some downtown suit; he’s a neighborhood guy, born and raised in Chicago Lawn. He gets that the Bard’s not always a familiar fellow; but he also knows that once you get the Shakespeare bug — as he did in high school — you realize these are stories anyone can relate to even 400 years after the playwright’s death. (That love triangle in “Twelfth Night”? Is that not the sort of drama playing out in the halls of any high school?)

Organizers discovered getting an in-person invite from other neighborhood residents convinces many to give the performances a try. So in each park’s neighborhood, Vega and community leaders fan out with local teens to encourage people to see live theater right in their own park. It’s also a way to get them to consider their park as a place for culture as well as physical activity.

Here’s what’s happened at Hamilton Park, in Englewood, over the years. The first year (2012) at Hamilton Park, Vega says some 80 people showed up. Last week there were close to 300.

Those Shakespeare performances kicked off a renewed interest in the facility, according to Vega. Cultural groups started using it — including what Vega describes as a “beautiful” WPA-era theater in the park house — for instruction and performances. How cool is that?

Claudette Knight is a community policing officer in Englewood.  It means something to the teens that she doesn’t just give them fliers and send them on their way. She walks right along with them. Afterwards, Knight says, they “know a little bit about you and you know a little bit about them.” They see beyond her uniform.

She, in turn, encourages them to get involved in other community activities she knows about, something most agree to do.

Seeing Knight and her young team handing out the fliers sends the message to neighbors that both the police and local teens are supporting this effort. It “relieves” them, Knight says, and then they’re willing to make an exception to venture out in the evening, something some folks don’t always do.

Long after the performance is over, Knight will see the various teens in the community and because of their time together they can and do connect.

It’s encouraging and inspiring that Shakespeare in the Park has been “very beneficial,” Knight says, in ways “that you wouldn’t even think about.”


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