In 2012, then 16-year-old Collaboraction Theatre shifted its mission to become a theater of social change dedicated to ending all forms of oppression. The catalyst, according to artistic director Anthony Moseley, was its hit production of "Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology," a work about the epidemic of violent crime in Chicago that was created by the ensemble and community activists. It toured city parks for four years, with 125 performances drawing more than 25,000 people.
“A confluence of events including advances in technology and the media coverage of the increase in homicides made me really think about how to best serve our audience,” Moseley explained. “I realized that theater can bring people together to share stories and create empathy that can be turned into action.”
Fast forward to 2020 and the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and social injustice, and Collaboraction felt the need to push through the challenges by doubling down on programming. The goal: to cultivate knowledge, understanding, dialogue, and action regarding oppression and the ensuing poverty and inequity. So, rather than just going online, the company has inaugurated its own digital platform called the Together Network.
The network has launched several programs, among them The Prodigy’s Workshop, Crucial Connections, and Becoming: Unlearning White Supremacy and Creating a Path to Active-Anti-Racism. Crucial Connections, a digital talk show on subjects of social justice and equity, got the company started on Zoom and continues on the third Thursday of each month. This fall marks the debut of “Lift Every Voice,” a play about the complexities of racism and social media that was originally produced at Kennedy-King College, where Collaboraction has been the theater-in-residence since the fall of 2019. It is being rewritten and recorded as a Zoom conversation among high school students about an actual racist Snapchat post.
The digital centerpiece is the 2020-2021 season dubbed “Transcendence” for Moseley's vision of the company not just surviving but transcending what's going on and emerging transformed. The opener is the second incarnation of “The Light: A Chicago Youth Theatre Festival” that began last year as an outgrowth of “Crime Scene,” when Luis Crespo, one of the performers, started the Collaboraction youth program. “Originally it was just a training initiative, but then we decided we really had to give young people more of a voice,” Moseley said.
The first year, the theater relied on open-source submissions but also recruited submissions from the hundreds of contacts it had developed from touring and on social media. Applicants had to be 21 or younger and were asked to keep their projects to 5-7 minutes long. “It was a combination of relationship-building and detective work,” Moseley said. “We knew that in order to find artists who were normally left out of the conversation, we'd have to reach out to them.”
Moseley said that 45 submissions the first year ranged from poems and spoken word to full scripts, and some were just ideas waiting to be fleshed out. Sixteen of them were produced at the Pentagon Theater, one of Collaboraction's two spaces in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building. “We were blown away by the quality of the work,” he said, “but we also liked those that weren't finished pieces, because they allowed for the collaborative process.”
The call went out for submissions for the 2020 edition of “The Light” before Covid-19 struck, and about 60 came in—but close to half of the young artists had to pull out, especially in March and April. “The main issues were related to the pandemic and remote learning,” Moseley said. “Home life and school added a whole new level of work and stress.”
For the theater, the problem was how to safely video the ten pieces that were selected. Although the main criterion for inclusion remained diversity—of form, theme, and demographics to make sure a wide profile of perspectives was represented—Moseley admitted that film-ability became a consideration. “Some were just too ambitious to shoot,” he said. “Most are solos, and one is a duo. The largest has eight actors, and that was shot outside with masks, whereas last year, one piece had twelve dancers from the South Side.”
While a few artists made their own videos, most were shot in Collaboraction's Flat Iron studio using two main cameras and a third one just for wide-angle shots. Elaborate safety protocols based on CDC guidelines included the crew setting up cameras for the actors, then leaving the room while the taping took place. “I was at my home most of the time watching the recording and giving notes to the performers,” Moseley said. “The youths really took to video easily because they're thinking that way to begin with. They basically directed themselves, but each had a recording director to help bring out his or her vision.”
A couple of the artists are back from last year, among them Teh'Ray Hale Jr., who grew up in Hyde Park. His “Make Your Mark” is about a young man stuck in an office job who daydreams about a life pursuing his love of dance. Other performances range from Antwon Funches' “Perceptions” about the Black American experience of being racially profiled to “The Nightly Show with Dani Mauleon,” the Chicago artist and undocumented immigrant's news satire program about the tragic irony of her adventures in the U.S.
“The Light” is being live-streamed on the Together Network on Aug. 22 with introductions for each video and a chat room including the artists during the performance. They'll also be on hand for the post-show Crucial Conversation, an audience-participation session that follows most Collaboraction performances.
Next up on the Together Network is the fifth annual Peacebook Festival on Oct. 2 and 3. This online version includes two programs of world premieres of short videos illuminating artistic visions of peace. “Essential Perspectives” features five self-made videos about community resilience to Covid-19, and “Perspectives on Peace” offers five fully produced videos about peace.
In December, Collaboraction presents the premiere of the second annual “All I Want For Chicago Is...,” its winter show about the hopes and dreams of Chicago youth, written and performed by the young people on the Together Network and directed by Crespo, who is the director of youth programming.
Spring of 2021 brings the postponed world premiere of “Red Island” by Carla Stillwell and Moseley at Kennedy-King College if health guidelines permit, or virtually if they don't. The satire with music by Shawn Wallace sheds light on the country's legacy of colonialism, classism, and racism, as well as current events surrounding Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. A Crucial Conversation led by executive director Dr. Marcus Robinson concludes each performance.
Even if “Red Island” is staged live, Moseley said he hopes to bring parts of it to the Together Network, a format he fully embraces, “Having a digital platform enables us to reach people all over the city, state, and country who might never come to our shows,” he said. “Our potential audience has grown exponentially. It's like when major league baseball went on radio for the first time.”