Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Vision for Media in an Arts-friendly Community

Communication creates community. The exchange of ideas by speakers and listeners, or writers and readers, draws people together around a common task of understanding each other using the shared conventions of language.

For community to grow beyond two or three or ten or twenty, the community needs a medium that communicates across larger spans of time and space. For an arts-friendly community to flourish, it needs an arts-friendly medium. This is one vision for such a medium.
The medium is place-based, because the arts are place-based. Live performances, visual art exhibits, and film screenings exist in a shared physical experience space. 
The medium is physical and direct, because this connects it to specific places where the community gathers. Media such as bulletin boards, posters and handbills are physical and direct because they exist as print.
The medium is free, because communication flows best when it is unimpeded. 
The medium itself exemplifies beauty, freedom of expression, creativity, kindness, technical excellence and diversity because those are the ways in which the arts imitate some of the finest qualities of humanity.
The medium is sustainable, because the arts-friendly community benefits from the free flow of information, and comes to rely on it. It remains sustainable for as long as it carries content of value, and enables exchange of value among the members of the community: its creators, producers and consumers.
This vision describes a beautiful, free, ad-supported print medium, established in a specific place and serving a community which values artistic expression. Yet there are better and worse ways to realize such a vision.
The medium should support a free ideas marketplace. Artists seeking to share their expression with an audience need a platform for introducing their work and announcing their events. In an arts-friendly community, these announcements are considered intrinsically valuable. As long as the ideas marketplace is not primarily revenue-based, this communication should be free. 
The medium should support a small business marketplace. Revenue-based organizations — profit-seeking or otherwise — need an affordable channel for reaching customers, patrons and prospects. These organizations should share the cost of the medium among themselves because they derive the most immediate value from their own commercial messages. 
The medium should support public communication. Any community has a vested interest in a flow of information from their local, publicly-funded government. Public messaging, especially arts-based, should be welcomed in the medium on a cost-sharing basis whenever that messaging is paid for with budgeted public funds.
The medium should offer something to those outside of arts circles. Visibility is essential to all purposes of the medium, and culturally-relevant content of general interest will attract a diverse readership.
While this vision for a free medium serving an arts-friendly community promotes cooperation and participation, the practical reality is that direct ownership and control of the medium is likely to be concentrated in the hands of a few. They will hold a power over the medium that could easily by misused.
The medium should not become a vehicle for its own artistic expression. Once a publisher begins using the medium itself as an art product, it becomes overtly self-serving and may violate the trust placed in it by the community.
The medium should not become a vehicle for its own political expression. By using the medium as a megaphone for any one viewpoint in a controversy weakens the community by alienating part of it, and thus betrays the purpose of the medium.
The medium should not become overly commercialized. The presence of paid advertising which is not locally place-based (e.g. national brand advertising) primarily supports the medium and not the community. Commercial messaging disguised as a free flow of information will pollute the ideas marketplace and steal from the small business marketplace. Noisy, cluttered or overexposed advertisements detract from the beauty of the medium. Any and all forms of "selling out" are potentially harmful.
Arts-friendly print media are found all over the world in all styles and formats. Some attempt to combine arts-specific content with news, opinion, recurring columns, classified ads and personal ads. The vision articulated here does not preclude any of these kinds of content, but many of them add cost to the medium, and don't effectively contribute to the arts-centric community discourse.

Can an arts-friendly community grow and thrive without its own place-based direct physical medium? Probably, but the presence of the medium performs a vital function. It serves as primary evidence that an arts movement exists in the community; it documents the community's values; and it invites others into the community through its free and generous transfer of ideas.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Group Project at Elgin Fringe Festival

The art of poetic language and the power of the spoken word are a highly compelling opening to "Three Daughters Who are Not Daughters" by The Group Project. A woman in a chair, covered from the neck down by a denim quilt, delivers a vivid collage of voices without any movement, except for the rhythms of an on-stage drummer.

Group Project at Elgin Fringe Festival
In the second of three vignettes, a prisoner is visited by the spirit of her unborn daughter, carried by the warrior spirit of a woman lost during childbirth. The dialogue turns to a dance, accompanied by the exotic language of a solo flute.

Part three is a tense, multimedia mother-daughter drama surrounded by a four-piece band culminating in an all-female chorus, where it ends just before becoming too cluttered with material.

Outstanding individual performances by Samantha Hurwitz, Soli Santos and Sandra Fonseca, and live music by the Steins carry this study of women's experience of loss in a progressively less abstract sequence. It's a great addition to a fringe festival program in the multidisciplinary/experimental category that deserves more participation.

This piece is definitely worth your attention Sunday, Sept. 18th at 3pm at Next Door Theater.

Robert Frosty Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival

Big targets are the easiest to hit, but enough well-placed shots can bring down a giant. That's the idea behind the sword-swinging political send-up entitled "Capitalism: A Fighting Cabaret Musical" by Robert Frosty Theatre Company.

Robert Frosty Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival.

In a rapid-fire series of sketches, we see snapshots of capitalist atrocities from the past, present and future, accompanied two Dickens-era American businessmen. Wherever something can be bought and sold for a profit, the Capitalists move in and take control. Mineral rights, the media, pharmaceuticals, child labor, real estate and the democratic process are but a few of the assets they acquire with contracts, laws and paper money.

Caricatures of political figures, CEOs, Mark Twain, the Pope and even Jesus put a face on the forces of good and evil as Frosty sees them, and when you least expect it, a band of bloodthirsty Vikings enters and slaughters the cast.

It's a fully transparent theatrical agenda overflowing with zany humor, wigs, musical interludes and lots and lots of swords, leading to the unexpected conclusion that perhaps the only thing guaranteed to satisfy any group of people is random, senseless acts of violence.

This performance repeats Sunday, Sept. 18th at 1:30 pm and 4:30 pm.

Olive Juice Theatre at Elgin Fringe Festival

The finest show at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival might be the work of Olive Juice Theatre, whose musical production of "Jason and the Argonauts" excels on every level.

The original script and score by Ralph Krumins is superb, complete with memorable refrains, sparkling solos, part harmony, and dialogue that offers something for kids (its intended audience) and adults. Keeping an all-ages audience giggling for fifty straight minutes is not easy.

Keegan Cole, Hunter Nelson and Olivia Cabrera of Olive Juice Theatre.

The energetic cast of Hunter Nelson, Olivia Cabrera and Keegan Cole play more than twenty highly-animated roles with fast-paced costume and prop changes and distinct voice characterizations. Their exaggerated deliveries are well directed and rehearsed, and they are hilarious.

But wait, there's more. The Argonauts are child actors pulled from the audience, who join the action and improvise roles directed from the stage, even singing choruses with the ensemble.

It's an incredible success that could easily fall flat in the hands of lesser talent. Don't dismiss this show like a Happy Meal — it's an exuberant, excellent feast for the senses that you won't be embarrassed to love.

The last chance to see this show is Sunday, Sept. 18th at 3 pm.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Elaine Phillips at Elgin Fringe Festival

Elaine Phillips
The brick interior of Imago Creative Studios is a perfect set for stand-up comedy, and you'd think you were in a big city club with Elaine Phillips at the mic. She has all the right credentials: ex-wife, ex-history teacher, and self-described feminazi.

Throughout her set she criss-crosses through any and all dangerous subjects like human trafficking, genocide, abortion, imperialism, political correctness and public toilets. But Phillips can work both sides of the street on these topics, inserting political statements between humorous jabs at people and power structures. And she has no problem sneering at herself.

Though the 10:30 pm time slot might be after Elgin's mental bedtime, the audience giggled through bits on men's grooming, women's bathrooms, ketchup stains and Jewel grocery bags. Yet her show gravitates toward sharp commentary on bigger, tougher subjects that no "mom jeans"comic would even dare to touch.

For a classic urban stand-up experience of intellectual humor with an attitude, check out "Didn't Know I was Dangerous" Saturday, Sept. 17th at 7:30 pm at Imago Studios.

Jeremy Schaefer at Elgin Fringe Festival

The first introductory line from storyteller Jeremy Schaefer reveals he has a grasp of structure and sequence, which is the backbone of any great story.

In his four-part piece that begins and ends in the Arizona desert, Schaefer examines the origins, artificiality and even the merits of the modern institution of marriage, illustrated by scenes from his own personal experience. The material is well-researched, nicely composed, and delivered with superb timing and musicality that color each moment with the right shade of comedy or melancholy.

Jeremy Schaefer performs and Elgin Fringe Festival.

The tempo is fast and word-heavy, with occasional excursions into overthinking, but Schaefer's language is fluent, witty and conversational, with memorable nutshell lines like "I'm a skeptic, not an asshole."

His argument that marriage is not an essential part of love and commitment is summed up in the title, "What's a Wedding Got to Do With It?" Pulling references from 90's music, Mormon theology and evolutionary psychology, his analysis is as persuasive as it is amusing.

It's a great story, bro, and he'll tell it again Saturday, Sept. 17th at 1:30 pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at 6 pm.

2 Merry Men at Elgin Fringe Festival

Despite their billing, neither the Smothers Brothers, the Three Stooges, nor a drunken frat party fully captures the flavor of Rob and John as the 2 Merry Men. Picture the absolute bluest possible shade of Monty Python's Flying Circus, performed in renaissance costumes with several cocktails under the belt.

Rob and John can carry a tune and sing decent a cappella harmony, interspersed with raunchy comedic riffs and audience interaction. Nothing was off-limits in this delightfully bawdy romp, not even a gratuitous grope of their crushed velvet tights.

2 Merry Men perform at Elgin Fringe Festival.

From "The Day Pat Murphy Died" and "The Ballad of the Crimson Scourge" to "Good Ship Venus" and "I Like a Moose," a packed house sang along, clapped, screamed profanities and roared with laughter as the lyrics grew more and more obscene. The 2 Merry Men claimed it was the best live audience they've ever had.

If you've ever wanted to hear Andrew Dice Clay's nursery rhymes sung by pirates, you're going to love this show Saturday, Sept. 17th and Noon and 9 pm at Elgin Public House.

Elgin Theatre Company at Elgin Fringe Festival

Three stages of couples' conversation were explored in a series of sketches written by Carl Heitler, and performed by a versatile cast from Elgin Theatre Company, Friday at Imago Creative Studios.

A first date between two mature singles, comfortable with their own identities, highlights the wondrous and comical asymmetry of first impressions. A second vignette portrays a young married couple seeking equilibrium in their relationship by attempting to measure its temperature with a magazine survey.

The final sketch imagines the waiting room where you go after you die, where two strangers try to make sense of their past and present situations. Have a tissue ready when they experience one last chance to say goodbye with the words "Don't forget to write."

The minimally staged three-part suite entitled "Reflections and Perspectives" puts communication front and center but begs the question, "At what point do two reciprocal monologues become a dialogue?"

Performances repeat Saturday, Sept. 17th at 1:30 pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at 3 pm.

Huck Poe at Elgin Fringe Festival

In a closet beneath the stairs at Fringe Central, I meet a smartly-dressed man seated behind a small table. Holding out an origami fortune teller, he asks me to choose the handwritten name of a bodily humor, barely visible in the dim light: Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile, Black Bile. I choose Yellow Bile.

Huck Poe as Diagnostradamus at Elgin Fringe Festival.

The man called "Diagnostradamus" operates the origami fortune teller ten times with his fingers, once for every letter in yellow bile. "Choose a precept of Buddha's Eightfold Path to Arahtship," he says. I choose Right Effort. Beneath its flap of origami: a six.

"Choose a number between 27 and 259," he says.  I choose 856. I choose again: 156. Diagnostradamus produces a paperback book of medicine, describing sicknesses, illnesses and deformities. The sixth disease on page 156 is Hypothyroidism.  As he reads, I feel my energy flagging, my digestion coming to a halt.

From this, Diagnostradaumus divines for me a fortune. "This indicates a lack of vitality, a cessation of growth. You need to break out of your monotony and discover and experience new things."

I thank him without making eye contact and make my way south on Spring Street, with a backpack full of ice beer, rough drafts of performance reviews, a Fringe Festival program and an empty bottle of Aleve. His services were free.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Captain Ambivalent at Elgin Fringe Festival

When your socks are dirty, your bladder is full, and your hot crush is a thousand miles away, who ya gonna call ... Captain Ambivalent?  Maybe.

Captain Ambivalent performs at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival.

"Laundry Night" is the true musical story of Captain Ambivalent's glacial rise from total obscurity to international obscurity. It's a real-life saga punctuated by recurring scenes of unrequited love, noisy neighbors, and a relentless flow of song ideas. Career biography, yes — but this show is all about the music!

You'll sway to the rhythm of "Imaginary Breakfast," rock to the beat of "Laundry Night," and revel in lyrical genius of "Being Direct." You'll dance, you'll cry, you'll laugh and wonder why. 

Captain Ambivalent is a nerd-rock virtuoso on a sparkly gold accordion, as well as an array of toy instruments, augmented by multimedia, multiple costume changes, and a blast from the past animated by forced air.

Don't miss this returning Fringe Fest favorite at Elgin Public House Saturday, Sept. 17th at 6 pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at 4:30 pm.  Go to for more info.

William Pack at the Elgin Fringe Festival

In a show entitled "A Life Among Secrets," illusionist William Pack combines story-telling and quick-witted humor with classic sleight-of-hand and psychic magic. At first his friendly, laid back delivery may make you think you can outsmart him. And as he deconstructs a few basic tricks, he dares you to question "what's the point?"

That's the moment when two cards switch places, two handkerchiefs become one, and Pack produces secret words known only to the audience.

William Pack peforms at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival. Photo by Doug Hanson.

Numerous people share the stage at various times as assistants, and Pack's excellent showmanship will have you guessing whether he's working with a confederate. With a mind as sharp as his switchblade, he makes it all look smooth and automatic — perfectly ... magical.

The Chicagoland references and clever one-liners are a great use of space between tricks, but this is no warmup act. When you see the amazing recreations of famous tricks by Max Malini and Harry Houdini, made all the more mesmerizing by Pack's historical accounts, your disbelief will vanish into thin air. And he does it all without a wand.

See for yourself Saturday, Sept. 17th at Noon at Imago Creative Studios.  Go to www. for more info.

Creative Moves at Elgin Fringe Festival

Scenes of outward and inward transformation come into focus in a solo dance by Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves: Performance at the Elgin Fringe Festival.

Projected images of circular movements and coiled snakes were the backdrop to a piece entitled "Shedding Skin." The dancer used her own circular motion as a metaphor for a change process, and developed a clear narrative beginning with the concept of skin: is it restrictive or merely protective?

Julie Leir-VanSickle performs "Shedding Skin" at the 2016 Elgin Fringe Festival.

As the performance shifts from pure movement into theatre, the dancer employs costume as an instrument by peeling layers first from hands, then arms, then neck and legs. The body revealed beneath is unsteady at first but it strengthens.

Signaled by outstretched limbs and freer breathing, the shedding process is finished when the protagonist literally dances out of her costume. But there is still more work to be done.

"Shedding Skin" is a thoughtful and technically ingenious meditation whose language is clear and poetic, and execution is simultaneously elegant and visceral.  You can see for yourself what becomes of shed skin — and the memory of it — at repeat performances Saturday, Sept. 17th at 3pm and Sunday, Sept. 18th at noon at Next Door Theater.  Visit for info.