Interviews | Pilsen | Stage & Screen

We Show Up with Big Machines

A Q&A with Redmoon Theater

Swings at the concluding summer celebration. BEA MALSKY.

Swings at the concluding summer celebration. BEA MALSKY.

At Redmoon Theater there is little separation between construction and performance; it’s an animal that willingly rolls over and offers up its mechanical underbelly, equal parts absurd and endearing. After a summer of workshops and parades in Chicago parks, Redmoon is preparing for a winter season in its new 57,000-square-foot warehouse in East Pilsen. This is a turning point for the company—Redmoon’s business has been in immense ephemeral events, art interventions that trespass into public spaces and create scenes on a massive scale. This summer’s centerpiece was the Sonic Boom, a giant rolling podium of speakers with a fifteen-foot flamethrower in the back. Past projects have included a lantern procession along the Chicago River and a five-story tall shadow puppet show on the façade of the Museum of Contemporary Art. The new headquarters, nestled by the river in the Cermak Creative Industries District, offers Redmoon, for the first time, a home to stage indoor shows that match the scale of its outdoor work.

Part of Redmoon’s trick is bringing fantastic creations into mundane places; the shift to an indoor space brings with it the challenge to translate this spontaneity to a static stage.

Frank Maugeri, now producing artistic director, has been with Redmoon for the past eighteen years. He is brash but well-spoken, calm amidst the chaos of a Redmoon soiree. He took a moment away from the company’s concluding summer party to munch on some pistachios and chat with the Weekly about soapboxes, spectacle, and Redmoon’s future.

South Side Weekly: I was looking at your schedule for the upcoming series—it looks really exciting—and I’m wondering how the new space will influence what Redmoon is and what you do.

Frank Maugeri: One of the struggles that Redmoon had in the past was that we were doing two things, really. We were doing big, grand, outdoor spectacle events, and then we were doing more intimate productions. Those were for 150 or 200 people, and they felt much more like theatrical experiences, and what was confusing for our audiences was that it felt like the brand was being blurred. People weren’t sure: was Redmoon a mask and puppet company that did these little shows, or were they a big spectacle company that did enormous work, most often for free, in public spaces throughout the city? So this space permits us to now do one type of work, which is massive, mammoth, spectacle productions, both indoors and outdoors. So there’s no confusion about what we are in the world, which is fundamentally a Chicago spectacle company that’s doing very grand, ambitious productions, both here in this space and then out in the world.

SSW: Is “spectacle theater” a formal category?

FM: Yes. It’s a formal genre in Europe, where there are many large-scale spectacle companies doing big, outdoor work for the masses. It’s less common in America, in large part because it’s not a funded medium in America. We’ve had to develop, over many years, a bunch of different revenue models for work that we’d like to do around the world, principally for free. The indoor work that we’re doing in Pilsen between late October and early May is during a season when free outdoor work is impossible. The core mission of the theater is to do that free outdoor work. This building is here to do that. These shows, our open-access build shop, everything that we’re doing is driving towards summers of urban interventions, which this party is the culminating moment of.

SSW: Can you tell me a bit more about your work this summer?

FM: What we set out to do over the past four months, at sixteen different events, was to devise a machine—the Sonic Boom—that would be a platform for people in various neighborhoods. We’ve added onto it a bunch of our general aesthetic, so there’s drums all over it; it’s a parade item. It lifts up and down, and it shoots fire, and it’s a really wild machine. And that machine, alongside free drumming and poetry workshops for close to 100 people, would parade through neighborhoods. We’d eat together, and then we would do a show using the drummers from the workshop alongside our professional rappers and singers and poets and artists. We went there, one could argue, because those were the neighborhoods that people were not going to. The idea is that we can take that same product, the Sonic Boom, and take it to Englewood and to Bucktown Arts Fest.

SSW: When you’re going into these neighborhoods that aren’t otherwise getting this kind of arts programming, how do people find you?

FM: We show up with a big machine, and we show up many hours in advance. So we start constructing the machine and running the workshops. We gather people to us. We build trust. And then we host celebrations. We don’t just show up and do a show and then leave. We spend time wherever we go and really build trust and relationships with people, and find ways for them to really engage with the experience.

SSW: Someone called the Sonic Boom a “soapbox” during the ceremony. Is that accurate?

FM: Yes! That was the original intention of mine. I love Studs Terkel; I’m that kind of guy. I’m a first amendment guy. I really think you should say what you think, in public places. And express yourself however you want in public spaces. The Sonic Boom was, in my mind, a giant mechanical soapbox. Now, it’s a twenty-first century interpretation of a soapbox, which is pretty wacko, but nonetheless fairly accurate and cool.

SSW: There’s something fairly steampunk about your aesthetic. Where’s the mechanical inspiration coming from? Why do you reveal your gears?

FM: Our tagline, our motto, our statement, is “engineering wonder,” and we firmly believe that when you reveal to people how things work, it helps them understand better two things. First, that our contraption is not in any way magical; it’s a man-made device that has magical results. And secondly, it says to people: “you could make this too.” So one of the major reasons we don’t disguise anything is so that we can say that anyone can make something amazing. You just have to sit down with the stuff and start putting it together and see what happens.

Speakers atop the Sonic Boom in Redmoon's new Pilsen space. AL ZAYED.

Speakers atop the Sonic Boom in Redmoon’s new Pilsen space. AL ZAYED.

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