Nearly 15 years after its 1969 founding, Free Street Theater moved its offices to an abandoned, rat-infested funeral parlor in the shadow of Cabrini-Green.
Just two blocks from the public housing project that became a national symbol for urban decay, institutional neglect and all the social ills that accompany both, two dozen Cabrini residents came together and, with Free Street’s help, wrote a musical about their lives.
“Project!” debuted in 1985. Its 26-member, all-Cabrini cast toured the United States for years. The show played Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and London’s Theatre Royale in Stratford East. It was broadcast locally on cable.
“We didn’t see the [cast] as victims; we saw them as artists,” said Ron Bieganski, who assisted Free Street founder Patrick Henry on “Project!” and was the company’s artistic director from 1995 until 2011. “It’s the most important work I can ever imagine myself doing to make change in our society.”
That mindset has prevailed throughout Free Street’s sometimes tumultuous 50-year history. The company has undergone seismic changes since Henry died in 1989. But the revolutionary model he put in place in 1969 remains intact: Bring the theater to the people, not the other way around. Make it free, so it’s accessible to all. Make it relevant by having the artists create their own scripts focusing on problems that affect their lives.
Over a half-century, Free Street productions have addressed everything from police brutality to gender identity to immigration policy, taking on the knottiest topics woven through Chicago’s social fabric.
For the company’s silver anniversary, it has undertaken some ambitious projects. Among them was last month’s citywide “50 in 50,” in which more than 80 artists performed 15- to 20-minute pieces in all 50 of Chicago’s wards over the course of one day.
The audaciousness of Free Street’s programming belies its tight budget. It is no longer generously funded by state and federal grants and local institutions that once made it possible for the troupe to perform not only throughout the United States but also in Thailand, Norway, England, Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, as well as providing full seasons and youth programs in Chicago.
Paz estimates the company’s yearly budget at $356,000, which comes from a patchwork of grants and donations. Much of the money goes toward paying Free Street’s artists —including their youth troupe.
“We’ve always prioritized paying the people who work here, including our student artists,” Paz said. “They’re creating art. That’s worth something.”
In 2017, Paz moved the company into a former refrigerator repair shop in Back of the Yards, determined to create a theater that wasn’t just in the community but also a part of it. After the building’s tenant/owner Jose Guadalupe Ornelas Guerro died, his daughters leased the space to Free Street for $1 a month.
Bolstered by funding from the Joyce Foundation, Paz and Ricardo Gamboa turned the old repair shop into a 40-seat theater and launched the new Storyfront space with Gamboa’s “Meet Juan(ito) Doe,” a play by, for and about “brown and down Chi-towners.” As Free Street’s Storyfront curator, Gamboa looks out into the neighborhood when he’s weighing how to fill the space.
“We don’t want to just represent communities that have been historically underserved; we want those communities to self-represent,” said Gamboa.
That’s what was happening on a recent summer night, when nine teenagers in Free Street’s Storyfront Youth program debuted “M.A.T.A. (or) Make America Teen Already / A Play About Coming of Age in the Age of Trump & a Manifesto for the Future.”
Under the direction of Gamboa, his partner Sean Parris and Free Street teaching artist Keren Diaz De Leon, rehearsals began months earlier with the teens — most them students at Back of the Yards College Prep — gathering to talk about President Trump’s rhetoric and policies on immigration and how both had affected their lives. From there, the students wrote dialogue, comic sketches, poems and songs, eventually arriving at a genre-defying, 75-minute show that was part musical, part docudrama, part poetry slam and part dance concert.
“We’re not aiming to change the world,” Gamboa said. “We’re aiming to change the way our artists move through the world. We always start with sharing stories, whether they’re about fears that ICE is going to come take you away or bullying at school. We let people know they are not alone, they aren’t crazy, they have support. It’s a true collaboration.”
Cast member Britney Quiroz, 16, came to Free Street as an audience member at “Space Age,” Gamboa and Parris’ 2014 salute to queer, Latinx pride.
“As a queer, brown person, it blew my mind to see someone like me on stage,” Quiroz said. “When I saw ‘Space Age,’ I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever was happening with this theater.”
What’s happening next is a production that began with Free Street artists fanning out across the city to ask hundreds of Chicagoans three questions: What’s still here? What isn’t? What does your joy require?
Paz directed and developed the piece with dramaturg/co-director Tanuja Jagernauth and a squad of young singer/dancer/writer/actors. Performances were scheduled for 3 p.m. July 27 in Humboldt Park, 1400 N. Humboldt Dr.; 6 p.m. Aug. 1 at Cornell Square, 1809 W. 50th St.; and 3 p.m. Aug. 3 at Walsh Park, 1722 N. Ashland.
As for Free Street’s next half-century, Gamboa is aiming to change the world — at least Free Street’s corner of it.
“People think of revolution as an event, a onetime thing,” Gamboa said. “It’s not. It’s ongoing. It’s in the work we do with every show. It’s a way of moving through the world, of embodying alternatives. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.