Sign up for a free Courant newsletter for a chance to win $100 P.C. Richard gift card

Great Chicago Fire comes to the river

The Redmoon Theater will use the Chicago River as its stage for the Great Chicago Fire Festival.

In the beginning was the notebook, and the notebook was filled with dreams, and those dreams, against all sorts of odds and in the face of red tape, carping, money-hunting and alterations, will come to fruition Saturday with an event that will become either an annual enrichment of our lives or an expensive one-time-only experiment in bread and circuses.

It is called the Great Chicago Fire Festival, and it is the doing of Redmoon Theater and the city of Chicago, supported by $350,000 from city coffers and more than $1.5 million from the wallets of a couple of dozen sponsors and donors such as the Pritzker Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Allstate, WMAQ-Ch. 5, Boeing, the Chicago Fire soccer team and Wendella Boats.

That's a lot of money, and there are some who would tell you that there are better uses for it: public schools, potholes, more police officers … the list is long.

Jim Lasko, the executive artistic director of Redmoon, has heard that talk, and he will tell you, as he said last week, "I don't believe that we can afford to think that these are choices. We are trying to build a vibrant and healthy city, and in a healthy city one cannot be asked to choose between education and culture, or between health care and housing, or security and freedom. A city is an ecosystem; each of these essential services is related to the next."

It is only fair to take a wait-and-see-what-happens-Saturday stance before making any final judgment, but the theater company does have a solid history of civic engagement, for nearly two decades bringing its large-scale productions into many of the city's underserved neighborhoods and actively involving their citizens.

This event is not meant to be a celebration of the greatest disaster in the city history — the fire that began on the hot Sunday night of Oct. 8, 1871, and leveled much of the city and killed as many as 300 people (and, no, Mrs. O'Leary and her cow did not start the fire) — but rather to celebrate the resilience and determination of those who survived.

There are some who might argue that the city's troubles are much greater now than they were in the fire's wake, but the aim here is to echo the sentiments expressed by a fellow named William Kerfoot, who, the day after the fire ended, opened his real estate business in a shack on which was tacked his crudely written sign: "All gone but WIFE CHILDREN and ENERGY."

So, judge for yourself Saturday. It all starts at 3 p.m. with a bazaar along the riverfront featuring crafts, food and entertainment from some of Redmoon's neighborhood partners. At 8 p.m. the real action begins, as "fire caldrons" will be lowered from bridges onto boats waiting below in a river filled with kayakers pulling flaming buoys and prairie gardens. The boats will take the fire to three floating sculptures meant to evoke 1871 homes. These will be set ablaze, burning to reveal symbolic interiors. It all will take place on the water between the State Street and Columbus Drive bridges, and will involve a couple of hundred performers, singers and volunteers. It will culminate with a fireworks display. It's all free.

(The Tribune's Doug George will provide a more detailed look at the particulars and offer some advice for how best to partake of it all in Friday's On the Town section. And look for Chris Jones' review after all has been burned and done).

This all started with Lasko and that notebook. When he first showed it to a reporter, he was sitting in Grant Park. It was August 2009, and Lasko had just been named the city's first artist in residence for the Chicago Office of Tourism, a division of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. He was called by then-Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg "one of Chicago's most creative individuals."

He had filled his leather-bound little notebook with drawings of his dreams, plans for what he imagined could become the elements of an event that had no budget, no staff, no name. His dream was to create in October 2011 an event of epic scale, "equal parts public spectacle and urban festival (that) will unite the city in a common celebration," he said.

With the notebook on his lap, he talked of neighborhoods and their residents coming together to help internationally known artists create massive towers filled with lights and other huge sculptures that would then be paraded downtown and placed on display on barges in the river; of acrobats twirling from steel contraptions as they set fire to buoys; of music, poets, people … and "all the bridges rising at the same time, revealing undersides painted or lit, who knows?"

Those plans and dreams (sharing some chauvinistic civic space with then active Olympic Games aspirations) came to a halt only a few months later when Lasko was told the city no longer was confident that it could raise the funds necessary for his project.

"This was not wholly unexpected," Lasko said in 2009. "But (it was) made clear that this decision was not made out of a lack of enthusiasm for the project."

He said he was "encouraged by people coming out of the woodwork to offer assistance and encouragement. Every cultural institution I approached was unqualified in their support. Cultural leaders were eager to participate, and the response from artists was likewise enthusiastic." He was convinced the time was right.

Not exactly. He put his dreams on hold, and in the fall of 2012 was awarded a Loeb Fellowship, given annually to a handful of people: international architects, urban designers, landscape architects and, but occasionally, artists; all 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 can take advantage of all that institution and nearby MIT have to offer. (Former local fellows include Tim Samuelson, the city's cultural historian, and Theaster Gates, the artist/cultural planner.)

Lasko returned from Harvard and, with the notebook still in hand, found a receptive ear for his dreams on the fifth floor of City Hall. As he had said, before leaving town and shortly after Rahm Emanuel became mayor, "I believe in Mayor Emanuel. And I believe in Amy (Rule, the mayor's wife). I see their genuine love and appreciation of our city and its arts community."

Nothing has happened to change his mind, and he was there when the mayor announced the Great Chicago Fire Festival in late March, tossing off such phrases as "truly unique" and saying this would be "an event worthy of our world-class city."

And so here we are, or more precisely at Redmoon's 58,000-square-foot space near the banks of the Chicago River in Pilsen, and Lasko is wandering among the many elements of the upcoming festival, most still being built. Even under construction one can get a sense of the massive scale of the project. Hammering and welding, painting and soldering, people are making things that are undeniably colorful and striking, even beautiful.

Said Lasko, "We're OK, but we'd like to have another 10 days, always more days."

He explained that most of the construction and fabricating has involved a core force of 40 people but has also included nearly 100 kids from the After School Matters program.

All eyes will be centered on Saturday's event, but much has been going on without pomp and press releases. During the summer, Redmoon worked with 33 community-based groups on a series of weekend public events in 15 neighborhoods across the city, among them Englewood, Uptown and Roseland. Lasko says that more than 10,000 community members participated in these, and there is no question that the experience has had a profound impact on him.

"We were in what some people would consider really dangerous parks," he says. "You know the best thing to make parks feel like safe places? Populate them. Create experiences that help people understand the parks are their parks. And that was the feedback we got there. People came to us and said how great it was to be playing in their park again.

"You want to support the education system? Let's provide children with creative opportunities that foster their curiosity and empower their minds. We want a healthy city? Let's create experiences that feed pride of place, where people can feel their city respond to them. Public gathering and celebration is an intractable part of a healthy city, not a luxury only for those neighborhoods that can afford it."

Internationally known local photographer Sandro Miller was in those parks, too, there with his Mobile Photo Factory, a traveling photo studio in which he captured portraits of more than 7,500 neighborhood residents holding signs on which they finished sentences that began with either "I celebrate" or "I overcame"; many of these photos will be displayed along Wacker Drive, and there is talk of gathering many into a book.

There already is a book. "The Great Chicago Fire," arrestingly written by Lasko's wife, Tria Smith, and handsomely illustrated by Shawn Stucky, was distributed free this month to 30,000-some third-graders in the public schools.

But the show's the thing.

"There will be no rehearsals for this," Lasko said. "Will it all work? We won't see it until we see it. It is exciting and nerve-wracking. On some level it really is a form of madness."

On Monday at 10:30 a.m., three barges carrying the bright blue "houses" set to go up in flames will move north and then east on the river. Bridges will rise, and people will gawk as the barges make their way to a spot just west of Columbus Drive. That is where the barges will sit, like something out of a dream, quietly awaiting their fiery fate.

rkogan@tribune.com

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
20°