One could be easily forgiven for believing that theater is indeed “dead.” Every medium of culture and creativity struggles with issues of relevance and vitality, but the common conception of theater in particular seems to be one that has been most flagrantly geared merely toward parting tourists with their money. Of course, it’s not entirely true; the reality is far more complex. But the fact remains that there appears to be a gap between what we learn the live performing arts once were (or could be) and their present anodyne state. How is a play supposed to be relevant to working people? How can it be when it costs an arm and a leg just to go to one?
Oracle Productions is asking these questions in a bold way, and as a result is a sterling exception to what otherwise appears to be a sorry state. A small company tucked away in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, they have for the past five years been dedicated to what they call “public access theater.” All performances are free, supported by donations. What’s more, their seasons have been more and more geared toward the politically charged and aesthetically daring. A quick glance over past productions they have stage will yield, among others: Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, a critically acclaimed version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother and, more recently, an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Red Wedge had a chance to speak with some of the actors who have worked with Oracle over the past few years, as well as the company’s artistic director and outreach coordinator. We asked them about how what it means to create striking, relevant theater in contemporary times of crisis and instability.
Do you see the Oracle in the "tradition" of, or on the same continuum as the Public Theatre projects of the 1930s?
Max Truax (Artistic Director of Oracle Productions): Yes and no. The Public Theatre projects of the 1930s went a long way to build up an American theatre by laying the foundation for America's regional theatre circuit along with the collective of community theatres across the country. Though public funding for that initial project was cut long ago, the tradition of local or regional theatres producing work geared toward their respective communities continued and is still alive today. In this sense, Oracle is continuing the tradition as much as countless other local theatre companies in and around Chicago. I like to think that Oracle's mission takes it a step further by aligning itself with the spirit of the original Public Theatre projects and more deeply and consciously embracing our responsibility to serve as a catalyst for discourse about issues that directly impact our community, namely our audience. Oracle's theatre is local, topical, and thought-provoking. My hope is that Oracle is and will continue to be a place where our community comes to be challenged, to feel, and to think.
Stephanie Polt (Actor and Company Member): Oh my, I would love to be able to make that comparison. Our Chicago storefront organization is clearly smaller in scale in every sense when compared to the WPA's Federal Theatre Project. That said, I think both were born out of necessity. Short-lived though it was, the WPA managed to produce a new generation of writers, artists, and performers — during a scary, destitute time in our country — and somehow kept a number of those works free to the public. It blows my mind.
Oracle's core belief, and central to our mission, is that art is necessary to live a full life. And since it is necessary for life, everyone is entitled to access. Considering how many people in this country are living below the poverty level — and how frequently their basic rights to food, shelter, education, medical care, etc. hang in the balance — it is sad, but not surprising to me that art is spoken of as a luxury. We are fiercely committed to the idea that art is a right, and it is why we do not charge the public for any of our programming. So, in that regard, I think the spirit of necessity that drove the FTP and Oracle Productions feels similar.
The primary difference, as I see it, between the Federal Theatre Project and Oracle Productions comes down to funding. We receive almost no government assistance for our work (though we are grateful for what we do receive), and instead rely heavily on foundational support, and grassroots funding, like our monthly sponsorship program The Forty 4. I could go on and on about The Forty 4. These folks are our heroes.
How does Oracle’s focus on free, community theater impact its relationship with its audience?
Hannah Friedman (Community Outreach Coordinator): I think the difference between theatre companies that are dedicated to producing “socially relevant” theater and Oracle, which is dedicated to sparking social discourse, is that our shows aren’t “Oh, race is an issue! Let’s do a show which is vaguely related to race.” Which is not to speak ill of such companies; there are amazing theater companies in the city of Chicago which do exactly the kind of work I just described. But I think we’re doing is specifically producing plays where people are going to leave the theater and want to talk about what they saw. And that’s really unique, I think.
The way the outreach program has worked up until recently was that, over the past two years, we’ve produced a series of shows totally separate from the mainstage shows that are performed exclusively at retirement homes and hospitals around the city of Chicago. This program was called the Radio Movement. What we did was took half-hour long radio plays that were originally aired in the 30s, 40s or 50s, and repped them around these types of places. We were able to perform at VA hospitals and mental health facilities and did some really amazing stuff that I’m really proud of. In the future we’re thinking of bringing out more of the kind of mainstage work to those venues too and less of our “feel-good” radio work (although there’s a place for that too).
The amazing thing for me about running the outreach program has been the “access” part of “public access.” Absolutely, money and capitalism create all sorts of accessibility issues. Not being able to afford a ticket means you don’t see shows. But, taking that a step further, many of the people we were performing for in the outreach program were physically unable to leave where they were living without help. Even if they have someone whose job it is to, say, go and get groceries, that person isn’t available to them from eight to ten on a Saturday night. And many of these are people in their 60s and 70s who grew up with theater and love it, but they said to us that we were the only show they had seen all year or in several months. Because they can’t; even if they could afford it. That was a really incredible experience. There will be more of that. I don’t know exactly what it will look like yet, but there will be more of it.
Havalah Grace (Actor and Company Member): I remember going to San Francisco one year to work assisting my partner for some Pride events. We had some day time off and I really wanted to see this exhibit of Yoko Ono's work at one of the museums downtown. Yoko Ono's work has always moved me, and at the time I was a super poor queer. A lot of places have "suggested donations" and I figured that would be the same for this museum, but it wasn't. I couldn't get in. There was no way I could afford it (I also really believe people deserve a living wage, especially artists). I also personally believe that everyone should have access to art. I was stunned. What other experiences were not accessible to me because I couldn't afford it? To this day, there is so much art that I cannot experience due to lack of funds.
This is why I love Oracle. It's funny because as an actor, I have many friends in so many shows. I just can't afford seeing all of them, and after being in so many productions with Oracle it seems crazy to pay to see a show (even though I do). It is possible to make art free.
What drew you to working with Oracle?
Zachary Baker-Salmon (Actor): I saw a play called They Are Dying Out at Trap Door Theatre, directed by Max. I was drawn to the physicality of the show, the very detail-oriented, specific direction. I thought this was a person for whom I could work. So I auditioned for The Mother and was cast.
Stephanie: First, it was the art. I love being a part of work that challenges me as an artist and performer. I have immense respect for the people I've gotten to collaborate with, and learn from.
And then there are the projects we've gotten to tackle. Max has said that he is fond of "problem plays" or rarely-produced plays because they present a puzzle to solve. Currently, the size of our space can present a puzzle in its own right. But I think we're all of the opinion that constraints often yield more imaginative results.
In the last several years, since we stopped charging for tickets, I think this has naturally informed the kinds of plays we want to share as well. We have been trying to pose questions with our work that speak to contemporary issues of social justice. I love that Oracle gives me the chance to have these conversations with our audiences. And I mean, really have them. We invite audience members to stick around to chat, and have a beer with us. We want everyone to feel like they're a part of our community.
On a purely selfish level, it is a fun and truly supportive place to work. Oracle has become my family in so many ways.
Max: When I first started working with Oracle back in 2008, I discovered a group of artists and visionaries aspiring to create something that would make a difference. At the time, we didn't know what that would be or how to do it. And maybe we still don't. But we've pursued our ambitions and our ideas and honed our collective vision along the way, and there have been some incredible discoveries. Whether the goal is reaching a new audience, raising the level of discourse, or changing the way people engage the arts, one of the most exciting things about working with Oracle is the constant pursuit of greater impact.
Havalah: I auditioned for Oracle on a whim for their Radio Movement series that Hannah described. The show I was cast in was a recording of X Minus One. It was an old sci-fi radio show. As an actor i was particularly drawn to this project because the sound was always the same, and yet the choices we could make with our bodies was infinite. I loved working with my body, creating shadows to tell the story as well. It just really challenged me in creative ways as an actor.
Also, the things that the set designers do with the Oracle space is amazing. We are walking on tables where the audiences are sitting, or are flinging paint over the walls. I think oracle has something that pleases folks desire for traditional theatre, and excites people who want something more experimental. Aside from being excited about the fun acting opportunities, I was really drawn to their public access mission.
So, why Brecht? Why Sinclair? Why now?
Stephanie: Doesn't everyone love a good muckraker? I know I do. Although Brecht was writing for a German speaking audience, his work holds up because there's a lot of tough but important conversation happening right now about whether the American Dream is still attainable. There are countless articles about how young people are having to redefine their notions of success, and to think about the very real obstacles they are up against. The fact that The Mother and The Jungle were penned in the early part of the 20th century, and yet feel completely current after all this time, is both a testament to each man's literary talents as well as an indictment of our class divide.
Havalah: This is more of an artistic director question. Max could speak to why he chose to have these shows in our season. I do have to say, though, it is amazing the way people have connected to The Mother and The Jungle. I feel that they are very timely projects.
I remember auditioning for The Mother. It was the first day the Chicago Public School teachers went on strike. You could just feel it in the air. I can't tell you how many lines in that show just resonated so deeply. For me, it's amazing that such old stories ring true today.
Max: There are so many different ways to answer that question. When I choose a project for Oracle, I look closely at the relationship between the director and the source material. This relationship is where the discourse begins, so it's important that there's some tension and electricity between them. Too often, directors approach their craft with the primary responsibility being to serve the text, but I believe this to be a fallacy and a failing of the theatre. I believe the director's primary responsibility is to the audience. So I typically ask directors what the audience will take away from the show — what conversation will the audience be having in the bar or on the train ride home after the show?
That being said, I also look closely at the material and the directorial vision to determine whether a project's discourse feels immediate and important for our community, which is a complicated process that relies heavily on a gut feeling most likely inspired by my ever-frustrating exposure to local, national and global news (and the Ouija board I found in my parents' basement). The Jungle, The Mother, and other pieces we've produced have found traction with our audience for the same reason their source material found traction with their directors and with the other artists who worked on them. I've observed that artists in general have a knack for sensing the anxieties and frustrations that hum beneath the surface of their communities -- perhaps because they're trained to express what they feel, perhaps because they just like to complain. Either way, I take a lot of cues from the issues that feel immediate to directors and other members of my artistic network.
Hannah: I think one of the things for me as someone who wasn’t directly involved with the production of The Mother, who wasn’t part of the process or part of the rehearsals, is that it had this energy about it. You know, we had never done a revival before. And of course the staging was incredible; it was performed on tables that the audience sat at. So you’re at eye-level with the actors’ feet, or sometimes they’d go under the tables, notes were being passed to audience members. I think The Mother is what really broke the mold and really put us on so many people’s radar. And it was incredible to me that that was what did it. Because it wasn’t what you would expect. Here are these amazing reviews from people who go to Chicago Shakespeare, or go to these really big theaters that are very different from us, that don’t do the kind of political theater that we do. We were seeing everybody get excited about this. That’s why it’s important now: because people are excited about it.
What is the role of public art projects in creating social change? Or promoting revolution? Do you see Oracle as a space for radical activity?
Hannah: I really agree with the description of the Occupy movement as “theatrical.” I would elaborate on that and say that it’s not so much that the Occupy movement was theatrical it’s that our generation is inherently narcissistic. Not in a bad way either; I think it’s a kind of “productive narcissism.”
You think about the selfie, and you think about Facebook and the internet, and all of these people walking around; people who are old enough to have jobs and relationships and lives and kids, who are the exact same age as the word “internet.” And I think there’s an element to the world of being in the public eye that hasn’t existed before. “Friday night, home with my cat watching Friends” is a public event! So yes, Occupy was theatrical, but it was made theatrical by that narcissism, not the other way around. It’s this obsession with identity and self-creation that hopefully some day becomes obsession with the fact that we can create our own society and not just everybody in their own private pod.
So I think now’s the time for this kind of theater. I think the thing that Oracle is really good at, is framing potentially radical questions, but also walking this really fine line. Yes, we’re in rooms with people on the left and active in movements and are excited about Oracle from that front. But it also has people around it who come primarily from a theatrical perspective. Oracle wasn’t always about public access theater; it started out as just another theater company that did really good work and was really cool. I think this is year four or five for public access theater. And it wasn’t until that time when it decided to switch from being another theater company that tries to make money off of selling tickets and fails into a public access company that it really took off. But we should keep in mind that there are people who have been around from the beginning who have come to it from a theatrical perspective rather than a radical left perspective. So I think for the time-being, Oracle is going to be where the questions get asked rather than where people go to protest.
Max: On a fundamental level, I believe the primary responsibility of every artist is to engage their audience — to make them laugh, to make them cry, to make them take up arms against the phantom oligarchy. Whatever the goal, at its base is a desire to make a connection or have an impact. Theatre, as an art form, is particularly immediate by nature, because the audience and artists are in the room together for such a crucial part of the discourse that the art creates.
Theatre that promotes a specific ideology has great value in serving as a tool for that ideology, but it risks narrowing the minds of its audience or alienating them altogether. My vision for Oracle is to present art that raises important questions without supplying the definitive answers and that challenges our audiences to broaden their perspectives surrounding those questions. My goal is not to inspire revolutionaries, but to inspire thinkers -- thinkers who will become agents of social change.
Stephanie: Public art is a means to commune together, engage with each other, and challenge each others' ideas. I see Oracle as a welcoming place for everyone. My favorite quote on the power of art is from Jeanette Winterson in an article she wrote for The Guardian back in 2002: "Art reminds us of all the possibilities we are persuaded to forget."
Havalah: I think free theatre is absolutely radical. I think Oracle is a space for all kinds of folks. That's the wonderful thing about making shows for free. There are people of all kinds of political and apolitical stances, and they're all here to experience good theatre for free. We also work to foster community. At the end of every show we invite the audience to stay, grab a beer (if that's your thing) and hang out. As an actor and company member, it's great to learn more about the people who come to our shows. It's nice to build those kinds of relationships with our community. Not all theatres reach out like that.
In your opinion what is the relationship between the theatrical and performing arts and revolution?
Zachary: Live theatre performance is, at its very core, a vehicle for free, human expression. I believe that true free expression is the lifeblood of revolution, for any regime or societal construct, made up of human beings, which seeks to sustain itself at the expense of or in stark opposition to free expression is doomed to cave in upon itself, to cannibalize itself even. This is the reason why the very first target of any totalitarian or autocratic dictatorship is the press, followed by the theatre, followed by the musicians, and the rest of the dissenters along down the line. Of course these regimes are stupid and foolish to do this. To think that one can wield power effectively for an extended period purely out of terror and intimidation is, effectively, to slowly dig one's own grave, and without ever having a good night's sleep the whole time. That is not to say that every act of human expression is revolutionary, quite the contrary. A great many acts of expression are incredibly banal, reactionary, sympathetic and/or full of lies and deceit. Just like humans themselves, I guess.
If you look at the formulaic, repetitive drivel one might see on Broadway or in regional playhouses or at theatre schools across the nation you might be hard pressed to rationalize the concepts of "revolution" and "the theatre" at all. We see these types of expression for one of two reasons: One, nobody has anything new to say. And two, nobody is willing to take a risk to say it. The commodification and commercialization of theatre, as well as of art in general (giant Marilyn Monroe comes to mind) is the natural consequence of a capitalist, consumerist system. Instead of certain topics, themes, ideas or statements being outright illegal, they are merely deemed "unthinkable" in a climate where the arts are attempting to do something they were never meant to do, at least not since Medici Florence.
This places a theatre like Oracle in an unique position. On the face of it, you have a company that is bringing consistently quality work to the fore, not coincidentally work which seeks to stir proletarian emotions in its audiences, completely free of charge. Funds are raised by the generosity of patrons based on the merit of the work to which they have been exposed. This is a thing of great moral value. Nevertheless, Oracle operates, as any other theatre does, at the behest of a board of directors as well as a steadily growing collection of foundations. Within this system financial gains can be a serviceable indicator as to the efficacy of a theatre's direction, motives, and staff members. It can also, and inevitably does, tempt those very same well-intentioned artists to degrade their own capacity for risk, creativity, and ultimately expression. As it stands now Oracle has struck an excellent balance. They may even convince some other theatres to abandon their aging business model and take up this new one in the hopes of replicating Oracle's success. On the one hand, that could be seen as revolutionary, a shift, a mass movement in a new direction of accessibility, but on the other hand it isn't actually anything more than a different kind of business model which puts the power into the hands of a few, rather than many, also relying on a self-selected elite group of stylists and designers. Should art be primarily funded by a small group to be consumed by the masses? Should Oracle ever reach the point of having paid, full time staff? 401K options? Benefits? I suspect many long-time Oracle members would answer yes to that. Is this kind of free art simply a new kind of charity, a kind of goodwill to be purchased?
Stephanie: I think our generation is redefining what the relationship between art and revolution is. Arguably, we have a lot more noise to compete with when it comes to media, and various forms of instant gratification entertainment that are always available online, etc. But I am confident that people will continue turning to art, as people have always done throughout history, because it's part of our DNA somehow. And because we need to be a part of a community that actual spends time breathing together in the same room. Art is a meeting point for communities, and art is the vehicle to discuss change. I think discourse is a form of slow revolution.
One of my favorite moments working on Matt Foss' production of Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets was the first time we all saw the closing moments during a tech rehearsal. The Group Theatre's famous production inspired an audience to shout, "Strike!" Matt's version, in its place, had Joe feverishly scrawl the word, "strike" over and over with chalk on a wall, as a sudden deluge of water rushed down from corrugated plastic, erasing the word. If there's a call to action here, it doesn't manifest itself with the audience on its feet crying out against injustice. But it hopefully got everyone in the room thinking, "Okay, what now? What next?"
Max: Each of the arts can be an extraordinarily powerful tool able to communicate ideas, feelings, questions, etc. in ways that can be simultaneously more effective at reaching the target audience and more difficult for the opposition to thwart. For this reason, especially during a revolution, artists and the arts are typically perceived as an inherent threat by the dominant regime.
That being said, I believe it is imperative that we use the tool of our craft responsibly. There is an allure to creating work that incites a revolt, but what happens to the audience that goes home with a feeling of outrage only to find no productive outlet for that feeling? My hope is that, by seeking to broaden perspectives, Oracle's work provides its audiences with resources within themselves to allow the thoughts and feelings that arise from the discourse to inspire growth and to foster a deeper relationship with the community. Put more succinctly — our goal is not to incite anger; our goal is to inspire thought.
Havalah: How can any revolution happen without art? I would never be a part of any movement that doesn't value art. Art is the way I connect to and understand the world. I learn through experiencing and witnessing. (I'm always that person in an art museum that wants to touch everything.)
Although I don't agree fully with Abbie Hoffman's politics, he's always been an inspiration artistically. I love how he brought powerful messages through performance art that could not have been so powerful otherwise. He also believed in myth, which i thought was brilliant, which in turn fed his art. Hoffman's throwing money in the stock exchange stunt was genius.
Personally, in my performance life before Chicago, most of my work was around the queer body. I mainly was a storyteller and performance artist, and I considered it very radical. People connect to other's stories and experiences in profound ways. I remember doing this one piece that was about how I as a young queer found myself in an abusive relationship. It was an interactive performance art piece that was very subtle. I finished the show and while people were saying hello, this man came up to me very moved and crying. He said finally understood it. I was so taken aback. I realized that telling my stories gave others opportunities to do the same and also gave others opportunities to radically change their mind. I think that is revolutionary.
Any additions comments, statements, political tirades?
Zachary: Yes, you can't mention revolution and art without mentioning Brecht. You also shouldn't mention revolution and art without mentioning Vaclav Havel and his lesser known Charter 77 cohort, Pavel Kohout. It should be no surprise to anyone that an event like the Velvet Revolution and the subsequent extinction of the Warsaw Pact were brought about by a group of playwrights and philosophers. I don't think it can be said that any of Havel's plays decisively sparked a revolution. Nevertheless, you cannot find a better anti-Stalinist kryptonite than the mind, the charisma, the resolve and the humanity of a playwright who has won the respect of his fellow country-persons. It should also come as no surprise to anyone that the public enemy number one of the government lead by the swollen asshole that is Aleksander Lukashenko is a tiny, fringe theatre group. If you ever get the chance to see a production of Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe, or even to watch the film version, you will see at the end of the play The Protagonist, who has been humiliated the whole time, finally look up at the audience after biding his time throughout the Director's fussy, controlling nonsense. This is the Belarus Free Theatre; this subtle act of defiance, the refusal to succumb epitomizes their work.
Hannah: I was at this talk with someone from Critical Resistance hosted by Black and Pink — both are amazing prison abolition groups. It was right after there had been a walk to a town to stop an immigrant detention center from being built; some of the organizers of that walk were in the room. One of them, this amazing woman, stood up, and said “we’re talking about the prison industrial complex, we’re talking about imagining a better world, one in which we’re accountable to ourselves instead of being policed, where we don’t have this violent, horrible system.” And she talked about this kind of jargon that activists have a tendency to use, she asked how we breach that. How do we in this room, who are speaking in almost this secret language, get past that and organize beyond it? People raised their hands and said that they find it really effective when they use pictures, or tell stories about being in touch with their pen pals inside, and we had this twenty-minute long brainstorming session. And at the end one of the key organizers from the walk got up and said “okay so now we’ve had a really great conversation about how we can educate people; I was asking how we can learn from them.” I think within any community but especially within activist communities, there’s this idea that we’re different and special. And that’s true, but if our being different and special means we can’t talk to anybody outside of our special bubble, you’re never going to get anywhere. I’m all for these separate communities, but at the end of the day it’s a band-aid. And I think Oracle is one of the few places where we’re not just putting a band-aid on the divisions. Oracle puts all of these ideas together and makes them special and beautiful to everyone, even your right-wing father!
Max: Oh, I could wax at length about the commodification of culture and how it at once promotes and is promoted by class stratification, about how theatre in particular doubles down on this system of commodification by quantifying and increasing the perceived exclusiveness of theatre a cultural experience, and about how, if theatre is dying or dead, it is the commodification of theatre that stands holding the bloody knife... but I'll save that for another conversation.
To find out more about Oracle Productions, go to publicaccesstheatre.org.
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Zachary Baker-Salmon is an actor and director in Chicago. He appeared in the ensemble in Oracle Productions’ The Mother.
Hanna Friedman is Director of Community Outreach at Oracle Productions.
Havalah Grace is an actor and member of Oracle Productions. She recently appeared as Marija in The Jungle.
Stephanie Polt is an actor and member of Oracle Productions. She has appeared in several of their productions including The Jungle, Woyzeck, The Mother, and Waiting For Lefty. She has also worked in Chicago as a visual artist.
Max Truax is Artistic Director of Oracle Productions. He has directed several of their productions including The Mother, Woyzeck and The Ghost Sonata. He is also Resident Director at Trap Door Theatre, and has directed several of their productions.