Jeff Park progressing toward becoming new theater district
by BRIAN NADIG
When the organizers of the "Chicago Fringe Festival" were looking for a new home for its annual 2-week theater event, the city Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events recommended the Jefferson Park area.
Now a theater district may be in the process of being created in Jefferson Park. In recent years nonprofit groups including the Gift Theater, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., and the Youth Company Chicago theater group, 5340 W. Lawrence Ave., opened in the area, and both of them later expanded by leasing additional storefronts.
The Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., recently converted a neighboring industrial building into a multi-purpose performance area. The center also has increased its programming at its 1,900-seat auditorium, including scheduling rock bands including Foghat and Blue Oyster Cult.
"We’ve more than doubled our programming and attendance," Copernicus managing director Gregg Kobelinski said. "We’ve always had our ethnic programming, Polish, Indian, German, Italian, Ecuadorian and more, but now we hope to bring in more people with the neighborhood with these rock concerts."
Festival executive director Vinnie Lacey said that event organizers never felt like they had the support of the Pilsen community where the festival had been held the last 3 years, but he said that has not been the case in Jefferson Park. Lacey said that Cyd Smillie, who serves as the art liaison to Alderman John Arena (45th), took him on a tour of the area, and "It just felt like home right away."
The festival will take place from Aug. 29 to Sept. 8 in several venues in the Jefferson commercial district, including the facilities of the Youth Company and the Gift Theater and the gymnasium at the Congregational Church of Jefferson Park, 5320 W. Giddings St.
The festival will feature about 50 live shows, including dance, comedy and drama.
Some of the festival’s performances may be considered out of the mainstream, and content information will be posted at each venue, Lacey said.
"It’s about being an uncensored festival," Lacey said at a recent meeting of the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce. "We don’t market this as a child-friendly festival, but there are some shows that are kid-friendly."
Fringe festivals, which are held throughout the world, got their start during a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, shortly after World War II. "Basically a bunch of Bohemians showed up along the fringe, and we were invented," Lacey said.
This summer also will feature live performance of Shakespeare’s "Comedy of Errors" at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, and Saturday, Aug. 24, at Wilson Park, 4630 N. Milwaukee Ave., and the Jefferson Park Advisory Council is working to bring an outdoor theater series to the park, 4822 N. Long Ave.
This fall the Gift Theater will present "Broadsword," which tells the story of the downtrodden members of a New Jersey rock band whose visionary leader has disappeared this fall, and the Youth Company will conclude its summer workshops with performances of Disney’s "Beauty and the Beast."