When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down Lookingglass Theatre Company's world premiere of J. Nicole Brooks' “Her Honor Jane Bryne” just a few days after it had opened, the theater also had to cancel everything it had scheduled around the production. This included a series of post-show panel discussions on topics related to the play's focus—the three weeks the mayor spent living in the CHA's Cabrini-Green—as well as off-site programs, such as one showcasing films from CHA residents.
Faced with the dilemma, like all theaters, of what to do when you can't be in the same physical space together sharing stories, Lookingglass was inspired by these ancillary programs. The result is a weekly podcast called “The Infinite Room” that launched April 10 with “Episode 001: Her Honor Jane Byrne and the Past, Present and Future of Public Housing.”
Led by ensemble member Andrew White, the theater's director of community engagement, panelists Brooks, the show's director as well as playwright; J.R. Fleming, a former Cabrini-Green resident an co-founder and director of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the National Public Housing Museum talked about ever-relevant housing crisis and the people and events featured in the play.
“The podcast came about as a way to get our work, or at least our artistic thoughts, in front of audiences and also as a way to reach out and be of value to the community organizations with whom we've developed partnerships,” said White, who came up with the idea. “It seemed like a manageable task, though it has turned out to be surprisingly time consuming. Producing half-an-hour of radio takes a full week.”
The second podcast, “Episode 002: Epic Adventures on Small Stages: David Catlin, Mary Zimmerman, and Why The World’s Great Stories Are More Relevant Than Ever,” which went up April 17, provided illuminating insights into the contrasting working methods of two ensemble members who have created many shows for Lookingglass. Founding ensemble member David Catlin's writing and directing credits have included the hit “Lookingglass Alice,” “Moby Dick,” and “Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,” Among Mary Zimmerman's many remarkable shows for the company: “The Arabian Nights,” “Metamorphoses,” “The Secret in the Wings,” “The Steadfast Tin Shoulder, and “The Odyssey,” an early work that's slated to return next season.
The third podcast, posted April 24, returned to Lookingglass' community partners and innovative ways to address social problems. “Episode 003: Gimme Shelter: Lookingglass Theatre and The Chicago Help Initiative” brought together Jacqueline Hayes, the Chicago Help Initiative founder; Susan Gold, the organization's Arts & Culture group coordinator, and a member of the Arts & Culture group, John Riley, who has seen every Lookingglass production since early 2017 when the ensemble started hosting a group of 20-or-so guests for a performance followed by a meal and conversation about what they had just seen. Hayes' description of how and why she started the CHI to help people in the area who were experiencing hunger and homelessness was especially compelling, as were Riley's reflections on his life during the pandemic and the relevance of theater.
White said the podcasts will continue on a weekly basis, possibly beyond the end of the pandemic. "Episode 004: The Theater of Spectacle: Lookingglass Designers Take the Stage," which posts May 1, explores the company's fully immersive, sensory events and why design matters with costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, scenic and lighting designer Daniel Ostling, and sound designer Andre Pluess. They are ensemble members who help choose each season and totally transform the theater for each production.
If you want to get to know Lookingglass ensemble members and artistic associates up close and personal while we're all stuck at home, check out “Through the Lookingglass,” a series of short homemade videos on the Facebook page. Songs and poems are the most common, but the funniest—at least the first time you watch it—is Joey Slotnick reading Richard Powers’ “The Overstory.” The sweetest so far is Phil Smith and Louise Lamson, with their sons Wesley and Guthrie (and their dog, Ivy), sharing “Ations” by Shel Silverstein.
For The Infinite Room:
For Through the Lookingglass: