While theaters and theater artists have been coming up with all sorts of inventive programs to connect with each other and audiences on the internet, a key element has mostly been missing: live theater.
Random Acts of Theater hopes to remedy that—in an ingenious way safe enough for the age of COVID-19.
Started in mid-April, the loose collective of theater artists and musicians presented its first performance in Loyola Park on June 6. The hour-long procession called “The Future” featured three actors in flowing white costumes and oversized masks representing the elderly. Their expressions were infinitely sad, and one carried a doll of an equally distressed baby; the other two had signs that read, respectively, “The future” and “is watching.” They traveled silently around the park accompanied by violinist Greg Hirte and guitarist Andre Pluess playing music they had composed.
“The idea was that the future is watching us now, in this moment in time, and it is very important for us to act,” said Jessica Thebus, who directed the pageant. “Plenty of people in the park stopped to watch. Some loved it and thought it spoke to the current situation. Others were confused.” She added that the actors wore mouth-and-nose masks under the larger ones and both they and the viewers maintained social distancing.
The three actors were David O'Donnell, Willa Marie O'Donnell, and Tria Smith. David O’Donnell crafted the masks using cardboard found in an alley, and Smith pulled the costumes together from clothing the players already had. Everyone volunteered their efforts, and Thebus estimated that the cost was zero. No attempt was made to collect any money.
“Part of the point is that you can make theater with anything,” said Thebus, who has directed numerous shows in Chicago (“The Clean House” at Goodman Theatre, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” at Northlight Theatre, “Sex With Strangers” at Steppenwolf Theatre) and also is an associate professor of theater and director of the MFA directing program at Northwestern University.
Thebus spearheaded Random Acts of Theater along with playwright Julie Myatt and playwright/director Shana Cooper. “When we discussed it, we decided we wanted to do live theater, not virtual, and we were convinced we could create small pieces that could be performed in open spaces anywhere for anyone who wanted to see them,” she said. “We also felt we should not be silent.”
The trio put out the word to friends and colleagues, and the group soon grew to include directors Jerrell Henderson, Kristen Osborn, and Tasia Jones, as well as ensemble member Chloe Johnston, consultant BJ Jones (who is Norhlight's artistic director), puppeteer Maddy Low, and those in “The Future.” The collective is still growing.
Random Acts also wrote a mini-manifesto outlining its objectives. Expanding on the notion of “random,” it concludes that these acts “might be the work of one theater or creative organization, more than one, or simply a few artists who have made a scene, procession, dance, piece of visual poetry or speech that is easy to share safely. Endless variety, endless simplicity, endless beauty – offering moments of joy, community and connection – this is the goal.”
Though the locations will vary, the second performance was at Loyola Park on June 20. A half-hour-long celebration of Juneteenth entitled "Feed Your Soul," it was directed by Henderson and performed by him, Rachel Martin, and Pluess. The holiday actually was on June 19, but Thebus said that Saturdays bring out more people in the park and that the audience seemed to be very involved.
Thebus said that the processions tend to be put together on the morning they're performed. She'd like to present one every week but every other week is more likely because they depend on “who wants to do what when.”
The plan at the moment is to have Random Acts of Theater performances through August but that, too, is up in the air. “If no one is doing indoor theater by then, we will try to keep this going longer,” she explained. “I'm very happy so far. The whole thing is a gift.”
And, in case we forget, Cirque du Soleil started as street theater.