At Home in the Theater

photo courtesy of the Chicago Home Theater Festival Facebook Page

photo courtesy of the Chicago Home Theater Festival

When dancer Christopher Knowlton busted a move to Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” clad in wild printed leggings and a midriff-baring mohair sweater, I was left with the distinct sense that he was reliving his 1980s adolescence, donning his older sister’s clothes and dancing in front of his bedroom mirror. Of course, Knowlton’s choreography was impeccable, and he executed his moves with the finesse of a professional. But the utter abandon with which Knowlton cavorted around the Logan Square living room, mouthing along with the words, imbued his performance with a flair usually reserved for the safety of one’s bedroom. This deep sense of intimacy, however, was precisely the point of the Chicago Home Theater Festival, of which Knowlton’s act was a part. Though not in his own bedroom, Knowlton was very nearly performing in someone else’s.

The Home Theater Fest, which has just wrapped up its inaugural year in Chicago, consists of a two-week long series of gatherings in which a variety of art, music, and dance performances are staged in homes throughout Chicago. It originated in California’s Bay Area in 2010–the brainchild of artist Philip Huang–as a way for his friends to circumvent the at times arbitrarily exclusive professional art industry and push their art into the (semi) public sphere.

The festival’s goal is “radical hospitality.” Neighborhoods and cities are re-unified when others are invited into the intimate space of the home, sharing artistic experiences and encouraging discourse. All performances are followed by town hall—style discussion forums, where attendees sit in a circle on the floor–harkening the halcyon days of elementary school–and engage in easy, open discussions about issues raised by the performances. As festival organizer Irina Zadov explained, “You want to go to your community, support your neighbors, and really support art in a grassroots kind of way.”

photo courtesy of the Chicago Home Theater Festival Facebook Page

photo courtesy of the Chicago Home Theater Festival

In Chicago, the festival spanned twelve neighborhoods from Streeterville to South Shore, with styles and discussions varying wildly depending on the location and the host. In South Shore, hosts Faheem Majeed and LaShana Jackson opened their doors to a group of racially and politically diverse performances–everything from a Bollywood short film about homosexuality and identity to a multimedia dance performance by Synapse Arts Collective–to raise issues of segregation and racial identity. Twenty blocks north, the Hyde Park event offered a radically different experience. Hosted by Laura Shaeffer, artistic director of Home Gallery, the family-oriented event featured a puppet show and live music, both of which were met with great enthusiasm by the many children in attendance.

The fact that this is the festival’s first year in Chicago heightens the diversity of the whole experience. In the words of Maya Safir, a twenty-something who worked on publicity for the festival, “There’s not yet necessarily a Chicago Home Theater crowd that has been to it in year’s past, so I think that most people who show up have been friends of the hosts…Each home that you go to ends up being a community of people and they’re really different depending on where the home is and who the host is.”

If there is not yet a single Home Theater Fest community, there are certainly the makings of one. The assembly of the Festival’s hosts represents a scattering of artistic collectives. Knowlton performed in a 1930s-era Logan Square home dubbed the “Lesbian Lounge,” a space occupied by three lesbian women who rent rooms to a rotating cast of exclusively female artists. “Everyone here works in some sort of art,” said Chris Abigail, a burlesque photographer and one of the core residents of the Lounge. “The home … is a place for us to express ourselves and express our art.”

In addition to dance, the Logan Square gathering featured a performance piece called “Dressism” by artist Sojourner Wright, commenting on the restrictive and false nature of women’s clothing. She writhed on floor, tugged at her dress, triumphantly removed her bra, and serenaded the crowd with short bursts of impassioned song. Irene Marquette, a performance artist, also put on a femme-focused performance, reciting a monologue about important women throughout history, followed by a karaoke rendition of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which she used as a vehicle to identify the overemphasis of male figures throughout the course of history.

Across the city, an entirely different conversation played out in the Bronzeville apartment of Tempestt Hazel, a documentarian, writer, and a member of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. Hazel’s roommates are equally artistically inclined: one is a photographer, the other a poet. This set of performances featured a monologue by Quinten Quintero, who addressed issues of social justice and financial inequality.

Disparate in content, the events of the Festival were nevertheless united in their respect for art of all kinds and a willingness to bring complete strangers into the intimate environment of the home. Across a fragmented city, the Chicago Home Theater Festival connected communities and communes of artists, laying a foundation for a home whose door now stands open.