Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Speak Out Elgin!

A couple of days a go, I mentioned a story that staff writer Harry Hitzeman wrote in the Daily Herald. In it, he asked readers to stop criticizing Elgin. He was so adamant in his story, he told people to complain to him if they had something to say.

Well, he got his wish. As of this blog post, 26 comments have been posted to his story, many intense and all passionate. Some were actually removed because they violated the paper's rules for civilized discussion. Needless to say, Hitzeman struck a nerve.

The comments at the Daily Herald have subsided. And fortunately, it appears they've ended on a positive note. The one below is from someone with the user name Mencken. It says:

"I would like to thank the Daily Herald for sending a reporter to cover the "Walkabout: Theatre on Your Feet" event that Elgin hosted. This event is a very positive thing for Elgin, and for all the people who participated in it, even those from neighboring communities who may have spent money in Elgin stores. Through events like these communities grow, and when the people become active, communities flourish. It is a step in the right direction, and Elgin should do more like this. The best way to fight crime is for the people to develop a sense of place and ownership of their community, and be on the streets living and working, creating no dark corners for crime to thrive.

Illinois has a poorly designed sales tax where the city that collects it keeps it, thus pitting town vs town in sales tax wars. Thus strip malls everywhere. The Walkabout brings people from other towns into Elgin, they spend and the sales tax goes into the city coffers. With enough events, enough spending, more businesses opening, etc, the city might actually improve.
Thanks again to the Herald for covering this good news."

So what are your thoughts? Do we need more events like Walkabout to help downtown Elgin improve its image? Do events like these help to create safer neighborhoods?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad

Well, we said a prayer and avoided the rain yesterday, which was a great thing, because Walkabout grew by almost 50% in one week.

That’s right. We were sold-out on our first Saturday (8/16), and we felt that the second Saturday would have more people, which meant we needed to accommodate the demand for new audiences, so we added a 2:15 pm tour and expanded our capacity to 20 per group instead of the normal 15.

We were right to make the changes, because we had over 100 people attend Walkabout yesterday, and that didn’t include people that came out to see the Alley of Art show and hear the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Quartet.

PHOTO: This tour group of 20 makes its way into Lily Falls for a Walkabout performance.

It was a wonderful. Perhaps a little too muggy, but still, we were able to get all the tours in, despite some small drops from some rain clouds above.

The day also had some backstage drama when the Independent Players production of “The Morning Report” was cancelled because the actor performing the piece broke his arm. Fortunately, he’s going to be alright.

As well as Walkabout has gone, last week there was a follow-up story in the Daily Herald (8/17) by Harry Hitzeman that praised the event. Unfortunately, some people responded to the paper’s website with some snarky comments.

Today, Hitzeman addressed those comments along with others directed toward Elgin in general.

In a story entitled “Readers Need to Stop Criticizing City of Elgin,” Hitzeman said:

“One of the buzzwords for newspapers these days is ‘interactivity’. You can see it on the Daily Herald website…and you can experience it and voice your opinions by commenting on stories. Some comments…are really moving and refreshing. But other comments are often so mean spirited they make me want to puke. Like last Saturday [8/16] for the “Walkabout” live theater event in downtown Elgin.”

Hitzeman goes on to say how people have no problem teeing off on what Elgin does as a city. And he admits that there are good things about Elgin and things that need improvement. However, he says, people should take care and be mindful when they make comments. At the end of the story, he challenges readers to send negative comments to him in the future.

What can I say to all of this? To quote a famous phrase from the past, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!”

Sure, there are things in Elgin that need to be better. However, what’s important is that things are happening in Elgin. We’ve come a long way in the last few years.

PHOTO: Josh Raddie and Patricia True perform for Janus Theatre al fresco at Al's Cafe. Next week they will be back inside.

Recently, I was talking to Pat Jamin at Al’s Café and she said this year has been unique, because she’s seeing so many new faces walking downtown and checking out her restaurant.

And one thing I’ve noticed is all the people attending Walkabout that don’t reside in Elgin. Many people are hearing about the event and coming in from Chicago, Algonquin, Northbrook, etc.

If you couple this with the loyal Elgin audience that is already making its way downtown, you begin to see how things are taking a turn for the better. Again, it’s all about getting people to hit the streets and take a walk – anywhere.

All of us at Walkabout are looking forward to this weekend, which will be our last performance of Walkabout and the Alley of Art. Maybe we’ll be able to generate some more positive feedback, avoid any injuries, and keep the rain away.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Daily Herald Day After Story

We were fortunate to have the Daily Herald come out last Saturday and check out Walkabout. Here's what Harry Hitzeman at the Herald had to say.

Live Theater Comes To Elgin
by Harry Hitzeman Daily Herald Staff Writer

Published: 8/17/2008

The Elgin Cultural Arts Commission served up a smorgasbord of the live theater that the city has to offer Saturday - and made plenty of folks hungry for more.

The first day of "Walkabout: Theatre On Your Feet," was a hit Saturday, with organizers selling out all five tours.
The first-time program, which continues Aug. 23 and Aug. 30, takes participants on a one-hour tour of downtown to five locations for five short plays by five different theater companies.

PHOTO: Janus Theatre mixes it up with Playwriting 101: The Rooftop Lesson by Rich Orloff at Al's Cafe.

"I liked having the opportunity of being able to sample the different theater companies in town," said South Elgin resident Jude Cavallaro, who went with her husband Dennis Matheson.

Sean Hargadon, producing director of the Elgin-based Janus Theatre, said all five tours completely sold out. He said organizers tried to limit each group to 12 to 15 people, but they expanded it to 20 so no one would be turned away.

The tour ends at Al's Cafe and Creamery, 43 DuPage Court, emptying groups onto an "Alley of Art" that included live music and artists' displays set up along the brick sidewalk.

"The next two Saturdays, there's going to be more artists out here," Hargadon said. "This is great. We're getting a lot of positive feedback."

The performers also enjoyed the change of pace.

"It's a very different feel from what I'm normally used to. But it gets us actors closer to the audience," said Adam Krause, who played Vincent van Gogh in a two-person play with fellow Vex Theatre member Debbie Dennison at Ravenheart Cafe, 126 E. Chicago St. "You can interact more. It really enhanced the experience for myself and the audience as well."

Elgin resident Mike Cain and his wife, Laurie, both enjoyed the activity.

"It was really interesting, a lot of fun," he said. "It's good on a lot of levels. It gets people downtown, (the plays are) the right length."

That's music to the ears of Sylvia Grady, city liaison to the Cultural Arts Commission, who said organizers hope to make the Walkabout an annual event.

She also noted the downtown streetscape improvements in the Walkabout area should be done next year, allowing for more artists and making it easier for people to get around.

Monday, August 18, 2008

One Down, Two To Go

What a weekend! Sorry about this belated post, but Sunday was a day of needed rest with the family.

But I'm happy to report that the first weekend of Walkabout: Theater on your Feet and the Alley of Art in downtown Elgin was a huge success. Yes, we had some minor issues when we arrived at Du Page Court. The court was a mess due to the previous night's festivities generated by the Pub Crawl. And we also had no power for The Rory Miller Band. But thanks to the help of Elgin Cultural Arts Commission liaison Sylvia Grady, the stones were swept and the lights were turned on.

Much thanks also goes out to our wonderful volunteers. They helped us set up the whole event and they also made their way through a downtown that's still under construction. Actually, we had to adjust our route because the sidewalk at the corner of Chicago Street and Dundee Avenue was out of commission and not even one person could pass, let alone a group of people.

Needless to say, it was an eventful day - where the weather was fine, the people were excited, the actors performed, the musicians played, the artists displayed, and the malts flowed - at Al's Cafe.

PHOTO: Lynn Wirth can't contain herself during her Walkabout performance.

Oh, did I also mention that we filled up all the tours? That's right. All five theater walking tours were packed with people ready for anything.

I will be posting more this week, featuring stories about people's perceptions of Walkabout. In the meantime, take a look at the picture above. It's actor Lynn Wirth, who performs in Face-T-Face's "Mrs. Sorken." At this moment in the play she has a revelation and is elated. (Actually, I didn't quite get the shot right because she was coming right at me.) Regardless, that photo captures the excitement of the day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Theatre In The Round, All Around Elgin

It's been a busy week getting Walkabout up to speed, so here's another story - this time from the Pioneer Press - about taking in some theater on your feet.

Experience theater on walk around Elgin

August 14, 2008

By LILLI KUZMA Contributor

Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage," and he would've been pleased and impressed with "Walkabout: Theater On Your Feet."

An idea developed by Sean Hargadon, "Walkabout" presents a variety of artistic entertainment, including five short one-act plays, music and mixed media art. The event will entail groups being led by guides to various venues in and around the revitalized downtown Elgin area. Like a progressive dinner party, the audience will partake of artistic offerings at one venue, then move on to another at regular intervals. The event will be held on three Saturdays, Aug. 16, 23 and 30.

PHOTO: A downtown map of Elgin where Walkabout will be performed.

Inspiration in Paris
"The seed was planted along these lines when I was on a trip to Paris with my wife a few years ago," said Hargadon, who is the producing director for Janus Theatre and a member of the Elgin Arts Commission.

"There was this Festival of Music going on in Paris, and everywhere, on streets, sidewalks, cafes, there was music of all types, even Rage Against the Machine," he said. "It was hip without trying to be hip, and I thought why not do something like this in downtown Elgin. We have lots of history, and it is being revitalized, changing before our eyes."

"I pitched the idea to the Elgin Arts Commission and, with their blessing, started putting this together," he said.

Starting out
The theater walk begins at the Elgin Art Showcase, then proceeds to Lily Falls, Ravenheart Coffee, Elgin Books, Elgin Public House and Al's Cafe. The local theater groups involved in the event are Face-T-Face, Vex Theatre, Independent Players, Nothing Special Productions and Janus Theatre. The theater group with the best show will receive $500.

Live music will be provided by The Rory Miller Band (folk) on August 16; the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Quartet (classical) on August 12; and the Ain't No Nothin' Jazz Band (traditional, pop) on August 30. Thirty-two artists are involved in the Alley of Art showcase area at DuPage Court, with about 10 displaying each week.

One of the plays, "Netherlands," presented by Palatine-based Vex Theatre, concerns the tragic final days of Vincent Van Gogh, as his mental illness progresses to his (implied in the play) suicide. Van Gogh (played by Adam Krause) meets up with a mysterious "Dutch girl" in a park, played by Debbi Dennison, of Schaumburg.

Audience intervention
"Van Gogh is obsessed with his painting, and my character is obsessed with everything Dutch, but the underlying thing is they're trying to connect, and play a kind of tug of war game for attention," said Dennison. "How it ends is left up to the audience. She may not be real, just a figment of his imagination."

Hargadon added: "The audience is your extra character in a play, and has an integral part of the performance. Some of the pieces talk directly to the audience."

Cathleen Ann, co-founder of Vex Theatre, commented on the unusual event: "We like that the audiences will be exposed to many different theatre groups with different styles in one afternoon. It will be a novel experience for most theatre-goers."

Hargadon noted an incentive for early advanced registration will be goodie bags with items like coupons and cover programs. Some of the businesses also will be offering samples for visitors. There will also be a limited number of T-shirts available.

"When they're gone, they're gone," he said.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Daily Herald Starts The Press

It has begun. The Daily Herald ran a story last Friday by Contributing Theatre Critic, Jack Helbig. (And much to my surprise and excitement, they also ran stories on Sunday and Tuesday. That is a very rare thing in the newspaper business, but appreciated from all of us here at Walkabout.)

Helbig is all about fringe theater. Historically, he's been a proponent of what theatre director Peter Brook likes to call the "Rough Theatre." This is the type that is "down to earth and direct."
As Hebig said to me in our phone interview, "I like theatre that has a little chaos in it." And I'm sure Helbig likes to take a leisurely walk. In any case, he had some nice things to say about Walkabout: Theater on your Feet.

Elgin Walkabout Showcases Local Theater
By Jack Helbig Daily Herald Contributing Theatre Critic

August 6, 2008

Downtown Elgin hosts a mini-theater festival of sorts, "Walkabout," Aug 16, 23 and 30. Five theaters will participate in the event in which participants walk around downtown Elgin, and step in to see short performances by participating theaters.

The Walkabout was the brainchild of Sean Hargadon, a member of the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission. There are a lot of independent businesses in downtown Elgin," Hargadon says. "This was a way to showcase both local theaters and local businesses."

Hargadon has an interest in showcasing both. He is not only a commission member, he is also a founding member of the Janus Theatre Company, one of the more successful and long-lived theaters in the western suburbs. Janus was founded in 1999 and has performed in various spaces across the suburbs(from Arlington Heights to Elgin) and Chicago.

Hargadon got the inspiration for the Walkabout during a trip several years ago to Europe. "My wife and I went to Paris in 2005," Hargadon says. "We were there during a street music festival. There were bands playing on all the sidewalks. And you could hear any kind of music you wanted. One group was playing jazz. Someone was playing the accordion. One group was playing "Rage Against the Machine." "It was very cool," Hargadon says, "and I thought, wouldn't something like this be great in Elgin."

Hargadon pitched the festival to the Elgin commission. "Originally I was going to pitch the idea of an Elgin fringe theater festival," Hargadon says, "but that was too much to bite off at this point." So he scaled it back to five theaters, each performing a short play in a venue in downtown Elgin.

Hargadon sent out invitations to all of the theaters he could think of, asking for proposals for shows. He ended up with a cross section of suburban Chicago's smaller, scrappier theaters: Janus Theatre Company, Vex Theatre Company, Nothing Special Productions, the Independent Players. Each theater has been given a performance space and a spot on an ongoing tour of downtown Elgin.

The Walkabout begins at the Professional Building at 164 Division St. Tour guides will lead patrons to spaces where different local theaters are performing. "We have a show in a pub. We have a show in a cafe," Hargadon says. "We have a show in a store. We have a show in a bookstore."

"The Walkabout will then end at the Alley of Art," Hargadon says, "at DuPage Court next to Al's Cafe where we will have art and live music. The Walkabout runs Saturdays Aug. 16, 23 and 30 starting at 1 p.m. with tours every 15 minutes until 2 p.m. The starting location is the Professional Building, 164 Division St. Elgin. Reservations are essential: (847) 841-1713.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Taking A Walk On The Dramatic Side

Yesterday we had the Tour Guides and House Managers out for walk around downtown Elgin. We were getting a lay-of-the-land and seeing how everything would flow when we had an actual audience.

I have to say, I was pleased everything went so smoothly and we had some excellent suggestions.

However, one thing struck me throughout all this, and I talked about it briefly with Nancy Guthrie, who is one of our guides.

Just walking through the downtown is an adventure. Seeing the old buildings, new buildings, cracked sidewalks, new streets, empty and filled storefronts, reminds you of what is happening here. Or rather what happened and how it is trying to change – for the better. “It’s actually pretty cool,” Nancy said.

PHOTO: This is Du Page Court, where the Alley of Art will be along with live music. This is best viewed from on top of the hill by Dundee Avenue.

Upon entering the various venues where plays will be performed, our group received some curious looks. People kept saying: “What’s going on?” There seemed to be a little excitement generated by our collective presence.

Of course, there will be some challenges to our Walk, like the uneven pavement between sidewalks and storefront entrances, or the Chicago Street sidewalk, which currently is under construction. Oh, it can be navigated; you just have to walk single-file. I think Erin Conroy said we might “need a rope, so everyone could stay connected.”

That didn’t stop one person, who came out of Elgin Books proclaiming it to be “a great place with lots of atmosphere.”

“Did you pay him to say that, Sean,” someone said in our group. “I never saw him in my life,” I said.

That guy must be onto something, because all of this construction can be celebrated when you get to the top of the hill at Du Page Court and Dundee Avenue. From there, you look down and see where the Alley of Art will be, right next to Al’s Café. Last year, this area was ripped apart. But now, it’s very appealing with new streets, freshly planted trees, and wide sidewalks. It’s a nice site and hopefully everyone will appreciate it in when they get to that point of the Walk.

Later, after finishing the practice walk before the real walk next week, Vex Theatre began rehearsing their play “Netherlands” in Ravenheart Café. The Daily Herald showed up to take some photos. According to Cathleen Ann of Vex, people outside were stopped in their tracks, wondering what was going in the café. They were curious and excited, so Cathleen gave them some postcards.

And that’s the kind of reaction we want. From the guides to the walkers, to the pedestrians and the business owners, we want them all to be curious and excited. “We’re all very psyched about this,” Cathleen said. Well, so am I.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"All Art Leads To Light"

Not all art is painting, sculpture, wood or glass. Some can be classified as installation. This doesn't mean the work is less appealing or interesting. It just provides a new way at seeing things.

And according to Christopher Durang's play "Mrs. Sorken" - soon to be presented by Face-T-Face Productions - "All art leads to light." The pictures below concur. They are titled Replication of System.

This work is by artist Ann Marie Cernoch, who uses multiple metal rings, thousands of wire of copper, and a variety of electronic elements to create her work.

"My work is an exploration into how technology is an extension of the human mind," Cernoch says. "Using our brains as inspiration, we are expanding technological systems and creating the impossible."

You can see her art installations on August 16 at the Alley of Art.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Meet Mrs. Sorken

She’s looking forward to meeting you. And she wants to talk to you about theater. Now if she could only find her notes.

Say hello to Mrs. Sorken, a.k.a. Chicago actor Lynn Wirth.

Lynn has played some tough roles in her acting career, like Sally in “Talley’s Folly,” Beline in “The Imaginary Invalid,” and Sonia in “Life X 3.”

Photo: Lynn Wirth

She’s also worked with some veteran Chicago theatre companies, such as the Raven Theatre, Bailiwick Theatre and Cobalt Ensemble Theatre, to name a few.

But now award-winning playwright Christopher Durang has given here a whole new challenge with Mrs. Sorken. Durang is known for his outrageous and often absurd comedy that has a healthy does of satire in it.

“Mrs. Sorken” is no different. The set up is simple: a woman waits to greet a group of theatergoers, so she can talk to them about why people go to the theater. As it turns out, the question is harder answer than she thought.

I caught up Lynn to see how things are going with the show.

How does it feel playing Mrs. Sorken?

It’s a great joy any time you get the opportunity to play a role written by Christopher Durang. He’s a brilliant comic writer. This particular play reminds me of one of his well-known one-act plays called “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.” When Mrs. Sorken, like Sister Mary Ignatius, first starts talking to the audience, she appears to be a completely reasonable person. But as the play goes on, the discussion disintegrates into pure absurdity. After a while the audience has no idea what will come out of the character’s mouth next. As an actor, that is great fun!

What is Mrs. Sorken like?

Mrs. Sorken initially comes off as someone who the audience members might like to engage in a lively discussion over a few cocktails. She is friendly, enthusiastic and isn’t shy about expressing her views. But by the end of the play? Well, the audience might have a slightly different perspective of her!

What do you think about doing a play at Lily Falls?

I am excited about the opportunity to perform in the unique setting of Lily Falls. It is a lovely shop and I’ll be integrating the space into my performance.

What can the audience expect from your performance?

Unlike a traditional theatrical setting where the audience is passively watching, the audience for Mrs. Sorken will actually be a part of the play. I will be interacting with them and bringing them into the theatrical experience.

How do you feel about doing theatre without lights and sound?

If you think about it, this type of performance has been around since the beginning of theater. The ancient Greeks or the actors in Shakespeare’s time didn’t have lights and sound. They only had themselves—and what they could convey to the audience through their voice and actions. That’s exciting and terrifying at the same time because it’s totally up to me!

Well, there you have it. Another actor courageously prepares to face the audience in what Shakespeare would call the “undiscovered country.”

This short play will be presented by Face-T-Face Productions at Lily Falls off Douglas Street, across from Villa Verone.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

It All Begins With The Sidewalks

It’s been a few days since I posted something. Much of this is because I spent a lot of time at Fox Fire Fest at Festival Park in downtown Elgin.

I’m always excited to see crowds of people making their way around the downtown. In this case, they were all heading south to the park.

This got me thinking. One of the reasons to produce Walkabout: Theater on your Feet and the Alley of Art was to create more action in the downtown.

In essence, theater on your feet is all about getting people on the sidewalks; walking and talking, interacting and mingling, thereby creating a pulse that you can feel. This might sound romantic, but it sure beats the heat of empty concrete in the summer. What’s more, its fun to watch the various faces downtown. That’s why the French face all their café tables and chairs towards the street: the entertainment is right in front of you.

PHOTO: Where the sidewalk ends? No, that's where it all starts.

In recent months, downtown Elgin featured Rib Fest, the Festival Of Balloons and, Fox Fire Fest, just to name a few. While these events are exciting and important, they were all based in Festival Park.

Getting people to experience other places is also necessary. This means having events in local neighborhoods. Events like the 4th of July Parade off Douglas Avenue, The Amazing Race throughout downtown, and the Elgin Cycling Classic in Lord's Park, help to create foot traffic in different places.

This idea of people walking on sidewalks seems fundamental. But in some suburbs, you won’t find a sidewalk to save your life. In downtown Elgin, many of the sidewalks, and the plumbing underneath them, are being replaced in favor of newer construction.

To understand the benefits of people walking on the sidewalks, all you have to do is take a look at “The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs was considered one of the most outspoken critics of urban development in the 20th century. When reading her work, it sounds refreshing today. Here’s an excerpt:

"The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. ... Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity."

For me, that quote says it all. And hopefully Walkabout: Theater on your Feet and the Alley of Art will help to bring more “street activity” downtown.