Andrew Park - Transcript

Transcript of Andrew Park
Interviewee: Andrew Park
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Place: St. Gregory’s 5455 N Paulina, Chicago, IL.
Date: November 9, 2016
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Time: 27:27

Copyright © 2017 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is November 9, 2016. This is Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater Historical Society interviewing Andrew Park, our 2017 Living Treasure. We’re very grateful for all of the work you do for the community. We’re at St. Gregory’s right now. You may hear some basketball noise. Let me start out by asking you how you came to Edgewater and when that was.

AP: I moved to Chicago in 2000. I finished undergrad and I was coming here from Ohio where I had been artistic director of a showboat, a nineteenth century American sternwheeler. I came here with a bunch of friends. We had decided when we graduated from school that we wanted to come to Chicago and make theater happen. We came to Chicago in 2000 and we got right to work. First we started working with a few other companies. Soon we found ourselves in Edgewater. A few of us – some friends and I – had this apartment over on north Broadway, the 6000 block, right across the street from what is now Whole Foods, but at the time was Dominick’s. We had this second story apartment. That is where the magic began. We started a puppet show called Blue Nativity. It was twelve foot tall blue puppets, an opera singer, and a guitar player, and twelve puppeteers. We toured that thing all over the city and eventually the world. At one point we found ourselves performing it at St. Gregory the Great. That was transformational for us because they offered the space. So we’ve been able to operate out of this gymnasium building. You can hear the basketball above. We’ve been operating out of here for about ten years now of Quest’s fifteen year history. This year, Blue Nativity on New Year’s Day, will perform for its fifteenth year. This show has been running for fifteen years and that is a huge accomplishment in the theater arts community. A lot of it is because of the Edgewater community and just how special this neighborhood really is.


DN: You have a particular vision for your theater that is unique. Can you share that with us?

AP: One of the things we brought, when we first came here from college, was a love for theater. That’s our passion; our art form; how we find our voice in this world. We couldn’t afford to go to it, even theater that was twenty bucks. We were living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. We couldn’t afford it. It started to become clear to us that maybe we weren’t the only ones. Maybe there were a lot of people in this city that would love to participate in the arts that just don’t have the access to the arts that they need. So we decided what if we become a free theater? A lot of people thought we would fail. Some people called us commies. Some people were just down on the idea because it is important for artists to get paid to get paid, to have a livelihood and they just couldn’t see that model working. But what we found was something that was tremendous: the neighborhood. Edgewater as a whole and beyond Edgewater started to look at Quest as their theater. In fact, one woman remarked after one of our shows that we were the people’s theater. That’s something that kind of stuck. Now whenever you see one of our shows it always says, “The People’s…” and then whatever the name of the show is. That’s something we hold on to. It keeps the reason that we do it visible because the second you put a price tag on art you exclude people. And we don’t want to do that. We think that art belongs to everyone and that everyone should have equal access. And because of that mission we have seen incredible things happen.


The folks that work with this company – we’ve developed this incredibly diverse acting base and designer base; diverse in every way you can imagine. And then our audience also shares that quality. Sometimes when you go to see a show downtown – they’re awesome; they’re beautiful; they’re highly produced, but the audience doesn’t look like Chicago. That’s different here at Quest. Our audience looks like Chicago, that diverse, incredible people from all over the world representing different viewpoints, ideas and perspectives. That’s something that we have here at our shows. We truly, doing our theater, bring a diverse group of people together to share a common experience. It just feels like in that moment that anything is possible, that everything is possible, that there’s a whole lot more in common than separates us.


DN: You had stated when we were talking about creating a better world and how that was a driving vision of yours. Could you discuss that a little bit?

AP: Yes, absolutely. How can you possibly create a better world until you can first imagine it? I think that’s what the theater can do. That’s what these puppets and props can do. They allow us to tell our story in a highly visible way, a highly visual way. I like to think of it as visual poetry. It’s a way to speak beyond the way we typically use language. When you see these puppets moving on stage they are almost like statues that are coming to life; to whisper something ancient; something that we used to understand that we don’t quite get now.

I think a better world is a world where we are all sharing it together; where everyone is accepted; where everyone is cared for and loved; where we value different perspectives and world views. I think that’s what Quest stands for but frankly that’s what this neighborhood stands for too. You see it when you go down Clark Street. You see it when you hit Devon. You see a neighborhood that looks like…. It’s diverse and it’s magnificent. It’s representative of so many different people and world views. That’s what we’re striving for. We’re actually making a concerted effort to make sure our shows from a production standpoint; from the people we hire to design and to act in our shows; and also the communities that we strive to reach toward – that we’re keeping an eye on diverse groups and maybe people that don’t have access to the arts.

One specific area is even elderly folks. There are a lot of people that don’t have access to the arts that are elderly. Maybe they’re in homes. So we strive to try to do a combination – to go to them and taking theater to them – and also making it clear – you guys are welcome. Bring groups. Bring buses. We have a blind group of senior citizens that come to all of our shows. We have other senior homes that bus folks in to see our shows. That’s important. That’s who we are trying to be – to be this inclusive, diverse theater that can serve all kinds of people.


You have said that you think Edgewater is unique among communities in Chicago. You pointed to its diversity. Are there other aspects of Edgewater that contribute to that and how does that play out in regard to support of the theater.

AP: Certainly Edgewater is this incredibly diverse community where you just feel everyone is welcome here. Everyone is safe here. But the other thing is that there is just an artistic energy here, especially when you think about Clark Street. When you walk down Clark Street you can see so many theater companies that are staples. You can also see improv troupes. You can see coffee shops, locally owned antique stores. Edgewater, in general, is this incredible neighborhood. And it’s not even on Clark St. It’s on Broadway. You can see the same thing. You can see new companies that are just starting out and trying to do things. You can see other movers and shakers like Artists in Motion that’s taking over empty storefronts and putting art there, just neighborhood art festivals and gatherings. It really is this electric neighborhood where just anything can happen. Edgewater is a special place.

(9: 40)

DN: I noticed in your biography that you’ve been nominated for some Jeff awards as well as the fact that you’ve been involved in other theater groups. What keeps you so connected to Edgewater when you could certainly fly away and be making a lot more money than you are as the director of Quest Theater?

AP: Quest Theater is extremely special. I do work everywhere. But really my artistic home is Quest. This is the place where I can have my new work performed. It’s where I have developed these relationships with these artists that work all over the city, all over the country really. They make it a priority because they love this mission. I love this mission: the idea that art belongs to everyone. Now we would never say that all the theaters should be free; that all the arts should be free. That would be wonderful. We know that’s not possible. All of us want to make a living in the arts somehow. But we can say is that our mission is to make our art free. The people that come into here, to us, work at some of the great theaters downtown; they perform at some of the top theaters here in town. But the fact is they love this mission. They know that it was some act of generosity that made the arts available to them that led them to a life and a career in the arts. They want to give that gift to the audience. It’s a special place that I will always be involved with for as long as possible.


DN: I’ve noticed that many of the plays I’ve attended here have some social or political significance. How important is that in your mission?

AP: Being a free theater automatically puts you in the realm of politics because you are pointing out an issue – that there is not equal access to the arts. For a lot of people the arts are a status symbol. It is something that is exclusionary and intentionally so. A lot of folks could never afford to go to the opera, to the Lyric Opera downtown. That’s why we try to make these accessible. That’s why Blue Nativity has an opera singer in it because it’s something that we can do to help make it available. The political aspect to our shows really just wants to make a better world, to look at who this city is; at who we are; at what Edgewater is; at making sure that we’re representing everyone; that we are doing a show with the widest possible audience. It really is a priority of ours to tell universal stories; stories that have a universal appeal. We try not to be too preachy or too overtly political; but on the other hand sometimes there are messages that we feel it necessary to share. Those are always about inclusion; about loving everyone regardless of our differences.


DN: We’ve just seen an election happen and a change in the political climate. How do you see that impacting on Quest Theater?

AP: Many of us involved with Quest are concerned about the recent presidential election mainly because we’ve heard things said over the course of the campaign that strike out at core members of our audience and people that we value, especially folks that are Muslim, our Mexican friends. There are just a lot of people that are connected to our theater that we are concerned about. The rhetoric that was coming out during the last election was concerning to us because we just think that there’s a lot more that we have in common than separates us. That sort of dialogue is not really useful. It’s really old school thinking that just really doesn’t belong in our neighborhood of Edgewater. It’s frightening actually to some degree.

The other thing that often comes with change like this is insecurity in art funding. Quest has already had a hit when it comes to city and state funding for the arts. In addition to the donations that we rely on from our audience, we do rely on grants, state funding and city funding. Those sources have dried out in this economic climate. That’s something that concerns us. One of the beautiful things is that whenever we’ve been in need, our audience has always stepped up. They’ve always come to our rescue.

We had this tour bus for awhile. Man, that thing was a black hole. It used to have so many mechanical issues. We were in the middle of a tour for Blue Nativity and the bus broke down on us. We thought, ‘Oh my goodness. What are we going to do? How are we going to make this happen?” We sent out a letter to our audience and the next thing we knew was not only was our bus repaired, but it was painted. They put our logo on the side. It was incredible.

Recently, someone broke into our theater and they stole our sound system. We had worked so hard to build it over time. It was worth a lot of money. They broke in and stole it. We were devastated because we were just about ready to open a show. We did a special cabaret fundraiser called The Grinch Who Stole Our Sound System and people came and they donated. We made up half of what we had lost in that single fundraiser. Our audience responded. I think that what’s beautiful about Quest is people realize that it’s bigger than me. It’s way bigger than me. It’s bigger than the actors. It’s the audience. It’s the people who support us. It’s the community. Whenever we’ve been in need the community has responded and that gives me hope. Despite the challenges of the last election and some of the fears we have about the way things might be changing, we will be able to maintain our values of inclusiveness; and the community will still support us; and we will continue to provide free theater to Edgewater for years to come.


DN: Are there any changes in direction or goals for the future that you might want to talk about?

AP: There are some changes that we hope to achieve moving forward. One is that we really hope we can expand our programming; that we can move into schools and reach students and to go to them; to make sure that students are getting access to the arts in schools; especially with state funding being cut. We want to make sure that students in Edgewater are getting access to the arts. That is something that moving forward we really hope to expand. We have some ensemble members that have just come into our fold that are very interested in making that happen. So it’s very promising.


DN: What advice would you give young people who are interested in getting more engaged with community?

AP: There is nothing that is more important than getting involved with your local community. I would just encourage young people that are just getting started; that have just moved to Edgewater or maybe another neighborhood to really get involved; to get to know the people, to get to know the people that own the restaurants that you frequent; get to know the people that maybe go to the church you frequent, or to the school that you go to or send your children to. Get to know these people because all of them are invested in the neighborhood. They all have so much to give. It is amazing. I used to go to a couple of restaurants here in town frequently. I got to know the owners. When they found out what we do with Blue Nativity, every New Year’s Day we have a performance and then we have a big reception afterwards. A lot of people come that frankly need the food and need the fellowship really – they come to this event. People started donating food from local restaurants in the neighborhood realizing that what we are doing is special. That comes from building relationships. It comes from not only what people can do for you but what you can do for them. You can create some really special moments. It really is about building relationships and moving beyond frequenting someplace andgetting to know the people that are involved there.


DN: What do you think is so special about Blue Nativity?

AP: I sometimes wonder what is so special about Blue Nativity. I don’t know why it captivates people so. At first some people may think it’s exclusionary – just the title of it – Blue Nativity, but then you realize, no. The story is told with these huge blue moon puppets. It’s not a religious theme. It’s about the idea that simple light can rise from complicated darkness. It uses folk songs. It uses Christmas carols. It just tells the story in a very friendly way that reminds you that everything’s going to be okay. That no matter what the challenges are you are facing; no matter what is happening in your life that light will come. I think that’s why people like it and why they respond to it so well.


DN: Now I’ve asked you a lot of questions and you’ve responded so well. We’re reaching the end of the interview and this is your time to say whatever you might to say or share with people.

AP: What I think is most important about the work I’ve been able to do with Quest is just the incredible people and the relationships I’ve been able to make, and the relationships are usually in the most unexpected places with the most unexpected people. Our air conditioner would go down and we need someone to come and fix it. And someone takes an interest in what we are doing. Or someone comes in the audience and their child has a disability or a health challenge and they realize that we are people that care in a way that’s different from what they are used to. Or someone will come straight out of college and the first show they audition for is a Quest show. They instantly find access into this remarkable theater community. For me, I have had the privilege of making the most remarkable relationships with people who genuinely do art and theater for the right reasons; for people who come to the theater for the right reasons; families that come as see shows multiple times; families that cannot afford to go anywhere else. These relationships matter.

Now that we’ve been around for fifteen years, I’ve seen little children who are now coming back. And they’re in college. They’re coming back and participating. One of our ensemble members, Justin, was a kid actor in one of our shows. Now he’s a college student at Columbia. He’s still coming and volunteering with Quest. He’s a company member now. Just to see these relationships you really realize it’s way bigger than you. It was never about you. It’s about the community; it’s about the relationships; and it’s about what you can create together.


DN: I’d like to ask you a little bit about the puppets you’ve created. One of the wonderful things about Quest is the puppets and the other objects in a unique way in the show. Could you tell us what each puppet is and what is the important message that they crystallize?

AP: Absolutely. This is actually one of my favorite puppets. This is Abraham Lincoln. He’s been in a few of our productions, but mainly in The People’s History of the United States, in the original production, and then the opportunity to do it for a university and for the university students to work on it. Recently we’ve remounted it as well. This [mask] is worn on top of you and makes the puppeteer about nine feet tall which is really cool. We are really able to bring Abraham Lincoln back to life to tell the Gettysburg address. It’s captivating and incredible. He was part of that show. Also we have Ben Franklin here. Ben Franklin was also in Peoples’ History. He comes in and flies a kite with a key on it. So it’s a way to reference history in a way that people already know and a character they know. It’s generally used to…

We have a saying here at Quest that we like to do theater that informs, delights, and inspires, and unites. These kinds of puppets really do that. This boat… we’ve used a similar boat in a few of our shows. One of the coolest shows we did that we used a boat like this was a show called The Haunted El. It had five different casts on five different train cars and it would go around the Loop doing stories including one called Ghost Pirates of the Lake. We had a boat that would go down the center of the CTA train. It was just incredible to see puppetry happen on a CTA train. These are some of the props. These are all paper mache. We use glue that we make out of corn starch, Elmer’s glue and a little bit of water. I think that the Jewel across the street probably knows when we’re working on a show because all of the corn starch disappears all of a sudden. We just make these puppets and we tell our stories with them. Hopefully it resonates with our audiences.


DN: In terms of the plays that you write, one from last year I think was based on the actors own personal stories, heart wrenching stories of loss and redemption. It was very unusual for Quest I think.

AP: Yeah. We are always experimenting. If you were to classify us as a theater, call us experimental because we are always looking for new ways to reach our audience, to impact our audience in a beautiful way. One thing we realized was we were inspired by Shakespeare’s monologue that all the world is a stage. It kind of goes through the seven stages of man. We realized everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has faced hurt, love, success, death, birth – all of these things that are part of the human experience. We wondered what would happen if we cast a show and in the rehearsal process we devised a piece that was inspired by that monologue but that told real stories from real people. What would happen if we showed videos from their past and images from the people that they were referencing? What we created was something I will never forget. It was one of the most moving and challenging pieces I’ve ever worked on. Every night was an emotional challenge during the rehearsal process. Then ultimately it was cathartic. It was a way to validate the experiences that real people have had in a way that is highly theatrical; that spoke to our audience in a powerful way.


DN: Is there anything else you would like to say before I turn this off?

AP: This is an incredible organization. Quest is an incredible organization. It is a free theater and it is bigger than any single person that is involved with it. It could never happen without the unbelievable dedication of the actors and the audience and the volunteers that give their time, talent, and treasure and make this thing happen. I hope that it continues for many many years well beyond me.

DN: Thank you very much. That’s certainly a very eloquent way to end.

AP: Well, thank you.