Redmoon harvest: A Harvard fellowship is letting a local theater artist take five

Jim Lasko

Jim Lasko, founder of Red Moon Theater, at the Arts Club in Chicago. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / August 10, 2012)

As you read this, Jim Lasko and his family, which includes his wife, two children and a dog named Beckett, are in a car heading east.

Or they might have already arrived and are now unpacking boxes of clothes and all the other things that will fill their new home in Massachusetts.

Lasko, who has been associated with Redmoon Theater since shortly after its founding in 1990 and has been a creative force on the city's arts and cultural scene ever since, is the recipient of a prestigious Loeb Fellowship, which means he and his family will be spending a year in Cambridge. Few artists get this kind of chance to stop and take stock of their careers, and so this seemed a good time to have Lasko talk about where he's been and where he might be going as an artist, and how that has and might affect the city.

"It's very exciting, an honor to have been nominated and selected," he says. "It gives me the opportunity and resources to reflect on my last two decades with Redmoon. I am looking to understand our work as a form of ephemeral urban design, a unique theater practice that alters people's experiences of public spaces and, in doing so, expands their vision of what is possible within the urban environment."

The Loeb is annually awarded to only a handful of people (nine this year): international architects, urban designers, landscape architects and, but occasionally, artists. These are professionals "in the middle of promising careers shaping the built and natural environment."

Loeb fellows are based at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and have access to all classes, events, and facilities at both Harvard and MIT. It is what is called a "lifetime fellowship," providing a community of fellows practicing in the field. (Former local fellows include Tim Samuelson, the city's cultural historian, and Theaster Gates, an artist and cultural planner.)

"I have been told that this will be the best year of my life," says Lasko.

It's a good deal for his wife too.

Tria, with a long history as actress/writer/director with Redmoon, is a Loeb Affiliate, and thus will have access to all classes and events and facilities at Harvard.

The couple's daughter, Talia, who will enter second grade in a few weeks, is, Lasko says, "ready for anything, bless her heart."

The son, Owen, preparing to enter eighth grade, not so much.

"When I broke the news to him, his immediate response was to cry," says Lasko.

"That was and is understandable," Lasko says. "He dreads leaving his friends and baseball team. But we have arranged for Red Sox tickets and are searching out a good youth baseball program. He also has cousins in the area, and it's a comfort for him that his best friend, Beckett, will be with him every step of the way.

"As a father, I am confident that he will look back on this year as a great thing."

And what does Lasko expect for himself?

"I will be keeping my ties to Redmoon," he says. "My commitment is steadfast. I'll continue to work with Frank (Maugeri, the company's co-artistic director) through regular communication. Our plan accommodates my distance away as both an artist and manager. In this no-longer-so-new digital world, distance is not the obstacle it once was."

Even if you have never been to a theater (Redmoon has performed at Court, Chicago Shakespeare and Steppenwolf, among many spaces), it is possible that you have seen a Redmoon show.

Over the last two decades, in keeping with its mission to present a "public art form that is equal parts pageantry, gadgetry, puppetry, robust physical performance and visual art," the company has produced all manner of outdoor events, from its annual (until 2005) "All Hallow's Eve Ritual Celebration" in Logan Square, to "Sink, Sank, Sunk," performed in Chinatown in 2004, to its current Urban Interventions (see redmoon.org for details).

"Redmoon is synonymous with innovation, spectacle and cutting-edge culture in Chicago," says Dorothy Coyle, executive director at the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, who has worked closely with the company for years. "They — Jim and Frank and all the others — have been able to activate spaces across the city in completely new ways and, as a result, others see new possibility in those same spaces. Redmoon pushes, opens and expands the imagination."

Lasko says that he views his Loeb Fellowship "as a validation of Redmoon's commitment to creating work that activates public spaces and augments community. We are proud of our theater pieces, but the work that has demanded most from us, the work that we've had to invent and reinvent entire systems to be able to support, is the outdoor, neighborhood-based spectacle work. There is no precedent for this work in Chicago and not really one in the U.S. in general."

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