9:31 AM PDT, August 10, 2012
As you read this, Jim Lasko and his family, which includes his wife, two children and a dog named Beckett, are in a car heading east.
Or they might have already arrived and are now unpacking boxes of clothes and all the other things that will fill their new home in Massachusetts.
Lasko, who has been associated with Redmoon Theater since shortly after its founding in 1990 and has been a creative force on the city's arts and cultural scene ever since, is the recipient of a prestigious Loeb Fellowship, which means he and his family will be spending a year in Cambridge. Few artists get this kind of chance to stop and take stock of their careers, and so this seemed a good time to have Lasko talk about where he's been and where he might be going as an artist, and how that has and might affect the city.
"It's very exciting, an honor to have been nominated and selected," he says. "It gives me the opportunity and resources to reflect on my last two decades with Redmoon. I am looking to understand our work as a form of ephemeral urban design, a unique theater practice that alters people's experiences of public spaces and, in doing so, expands their vision of what is possible within the urban environment."
The Loeb is annually awarded to only a handful of people (nine this year): international architects, urban designers, landscape architects and, but occasionally, artists. These are professionals "in the middle of promising careers shaping the built and natural environment."
Loeb fellows are based at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and have access to all classes, events, and facilities at both Harvard and MIT. It is what is called a "lifetime fellowship," providing a community of fellows practicing in the field. (Former local fellows include Tim Samuelson, the city's cultural historian, and Theaster Gates, an artist and cultural planner.)
"I have been told that this will be the best year of my life," says Lasko.
It's a good deal for his wife too.
Tria, with a long history as actress/writer/director with Redmoon, is a Loeb Affiliate, and thus will have access to all classes and events and facilities at Harvard.
The couple's daughter, Talia, who will enter second grade in a few weeks, is, Lasko says, "ready for anything, bless her heart."
The son, Owen, preparing to enter eighth grade, not so much.
"When I broke the news to him, his immediate response was to cry," says Lasko.
"That was and is understandable," Lasko says. "He dreads leaving his friends and baseball team. But we have arranged for Red Sox tickets and are searching out a good youth baseball program. He also has cousins in the area, and it's a comfort for him that his best friend, Beckett, will be with him every step of the way.
"As a father, I am confident that he will look back on this year as a great thing."
And what does Lasko expect for himself?
"I will be keeping my ties to Redmoon," he says. "My commitment is steadfast. I'll continue to work with Frank (Maugeri, the company's co-artistic director) through regular communication. Our plan accommodates my distance away as both an artist and manager. In this no-longer-so-new digital world, distance is not the obstacle it once was."
Even if you have never been to a theater (Redmoon has performed at Court, Chicago Shakespeare and Steppenwolf, among many spaces), it is possible that you have seen a Redmoon show.
Over the last two decades, in keeping with its mission to present a "public art form that is equal parts pageantry, gadgetry, puppetry, robust physical performance and visual art," the company has produced all manner of outdoor events, from its annual (until 2005) "All Hallow's Eve Ritual Celebration" in Logan Square, to "Sink, Sank, Sunk," performed in Chinatown in 2004, to its current Urban Interventions (see redmoon.org for details).
"Redmoon is synonymous with innovation, spectacle and cutting-edge culture in Chicago," says Dorothy Coyle, executive director at the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, who has worked closely with the company for years. "They — Jim and Frank and all the others — have been able to activate spaces across the city in completely new ways and, as a result, others see new possibility in those same spaces. Redmoon pushes, opens and expands the imagination."
Lasko says that he views his Loeb Fellowship "as a validation of Redmoon's commitment to creating work that activates public spaces and augments community. We are proud of our theater pieces, but the work that has demanded most from us, the work that we've had to invent and reinvent entire systems to be able to support, is the outdoor, neighborhood-based spectacle work. There is no precedent for this work in Chicago and not really one in the U.S. in general."
Earlier this summer, Redmoon's custom-made vehicle traveled around the city, with an opera singer on an elevated platform. Her songs were hooked through a computer interface to fuel-injected organ pipes, and so notes of her songs released bursts of propane, creating a visual representation of the music in fire.
"One evening we followed the Night Ministry Bus through Pilsen and parts of Bridgeport creating spontaneous dance parties. There were no reviews of this 'show,'" says Lasko. "No cultural mavens validating the enterprise. But it's that experience that powers our work. It's the source.
"The cultural conversation has turned to embrace the integral role that the arts play in creating a vital community, whether city or neighborhood. This is clearly reflected in Chicago's new cultural plan, but also in national arts initiatives like Arts Place and NEA's Our Town program. One of the major pushes in the cultural plan is to get culture into the neighborhoods. What things can be done to make the arts part of people's actual lives, their everyday, lived lives?
"We've been in the great houses of theater and I feel incredibly blessed to have had those collaborations, to have worked in those venues. The reason we get those opportunities, I believe, is that the currency of our work, the heat and attitude and value of it, is all derived from our other work, the work that happens in communities, that interrupts people's everyday routines and asks them to see one another and their environments and even themselves anew."
I asked Lasko to reflect on the men in charge of the city that has been his canvas.
"Mayor Daley had a big vision, but it was a downtown vision," he says. "No one can deny his impact on creating a vital and exciting cultural community downtown. Millennium Park has got to be one of the greatest public works initiatives in the last 50, 100 years. The museum campus. And whatever you want to say about the process, Northerly Island is a gift to this city's future that people haven't begun to comprehend."
He and Redmoon were part of some of that, performing on the museum campus, creating an opening event for Millennium Park.
"But the work that we are particularly charged by, and capable of, is to take some of those same artistic goals and standards and apply them to the neighborhoods, to the under-recognized areas of the city, like the river."
Ah, the river.
It was in 2009 that Lasko took a leave from Redmoon to become the first artist in residence for the Chicago Office of Tourism, which was then a division of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. His initial wild and wonderful plans starred the river.
He envisioned neighborhoods and their residents coming together over the summer of 2011 to help internationally known artists create massive towers filled with lights and other huge sculptures that would then be paraded downtown and placed on display on barges in the river.
"And all the bridges rising at the same time and revealing undersides painted or lit, who knows?" he told me at the time.
Six months later his job vanished and dreams were tabled in the face of city budget cuts.
But back to our mayors.
"I believe in Mayor Emanuel. And I believe in Amy (Rule, the mayor's wife)," Lasko said. "I see their genuine love and appreciation of our city and its arts community. I can't tell you how often I've seen them at a show or event. When he was first elected, I spent some time talking with him and he shared his history of Redmoon's events. He had seen work dating back to his days as a congressman, Halloween shows, winter pageants. He remembered them better than I did. He's the real thing."
Others have different opinions of the mayor, but there is little doubt that Lasko will return to Chicago full of ideas he will want the mayor to hear.
In the meantime his family will settle in and find a nice place to walk the dog.
There are some who might reasonably guess that the Laskos' playful, 2-year-old goldendoodle is named for playwright Samuel Beckett.
He is not. He is named for Josh Beckett, who pitches for the Red Sox in Fenway Park, now conveniently located about four miles from the Laskos' new home.
Listen to writers Allan Cox, Julia Keller and Jimmy Greenfield, anti-smoking specialist Carol Southard and actor/impresario Bob Swan on "The Sunday Papers With Rick Kogan," 6:30-9 a.m. Sunday on WGN-AM 720.
A look at some memorable shows produced by Jim Lasko and Redmoon Theater during their more than 20 years of mounting large, innovative spectacles, often in public spaces throughout the city.
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