Foreground, we see a Black woman in a light long skirt and blouse. She is dancing. Another woman is seated to her left on a wooden platform. Both are smiling. Shadows play on the skirt of the dancing woman.
Sold by Kuumba Nia Arts and Unlock the Chains Collective from the UK appears 7/21-7/23 as part of the Physical Theater Festival Chicago at the Den Theatre. Credit: Courtesy Physical Theater Festival Chicago

Global displacement comes to the stage with Theatre Lumina’s Song of Home, one of many acts of the 2022 Physical Theater Festival Chicago that invites a shared humanity within the immediacy of live performance. Throughout the week, organizations will present a range of pieces including theater, music, juggling, clowning, and more. Marc Frost and Alice da Cunha, the festival’s cofounding couple, curate the participation of international physical theater organizations with such a spread in mind. 

Physical theater lives in the articulations of movement and acting, physicality and theatricality. Da Cunha and Frost met studying theater in London and experienced the vibrant and broad theatrical world of the city and the festivals it offered. Attending live entertainment was rather common, and da Cunha would bring friends to the London International Mime Festival. Growing up in Brazil and Portugal, she attended festivals where she was invigorated by the atmosphere and busyness of multiple performances happening simultaneously, the audience moving about and witnessing as well as being a part of live theater’s irreproducibility. She worked at theater festivals while attending school. Just prior to moving to Chicago, she worked at the Casa Festival in London. 

When speaking with the couple, I imagine a Venn diagram in which physical theater nestles in the conjunction of various performance arts, including theater, dance, and more. When I tell her that, da Cunha says, “I think studying in Europe gave us a certain perspective on what physical theater might be and what those Venn diagrams might be.” She and Frost can define and redefine the bounds of physical theater each year in curating the festival, which is now in its ninth edition. 

Physical Theater Festival Chicago
Sat 7/16, 2-8 PM, Nichols Park, 1355 E. 53rd, free; then 7/18-7/24, Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee; see for complete schedule and ticketing information

The Physical Theater Festival features different theatrical organizations each year. 2022’s festival will welcome a circus company, clown performers, and groups that fuse drama, song, dance, and ritual. The festival uses an open call to seek submissions from organizations worldwide. Da Cunha and Frost reach out to friends and contacts to submit. They also read reviews of theater festivals such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, pursuing groups that were favored well. 

Says da Cunha, “The artists and the shows make us connect to different communities every year depending on the country where they come from or the subject of the show and that’s awesome. . . . We hope to keep everyone that we’ve gathered. And then we have other opportunities to reach out.” She continues, “I know that there are people that are very connected to their own communities and make suggestions.” 

They are supportive of popular groups from Chicago communities as well. Past festivals have featured the city’s own the Era footwork crew, which performed their original piece The Testament. This year, Company To X For, a Chicago-based grassroots contemporary circus company founded by artists Liam Bradley and David Chervony, will be performing Surface Tension, which explores queer friendship through juggling, weight sharing, acrobatics, and dance. 

As the festival has seen unconventional presentation formats in the last few years, the couple approaches this year’s iteration with a program that responds and anticipates. Combining virtual, outdoor, and formal indoor theater performances allows opportunities for unprecedented accessibility, and for the audiences who viewed the festival virtually in 2020 (many of whom were viewing from another country) to return. For example, that year included The Woman Who Dreamed by Cia de Teatro Manual, a company based in Brazil. The piece was constructed for a virtual audience, responding to the pandemic’s shifting demands on theater performance. Da Cunha hopes that communities of her native Brazil will be among those the festival has gathered as returning audience members.  

The festival in 2020, she reflects, “was the first time that I could have a Brazilian audience in a physical festival. Because it was virtual, and it was a Brazilian company. So, I had people from the city where I was born, which was Rio de Janeiro, attending the festival at the same time as some people that have always come to Physical [Theater Festival] . . . And it was what was possible, but it was good to market in some way and to learn those lessons right off the bat and the good that came from that.” 

The festival will open on July 16 with family-friendly shows in Nichols Park, such as a magic show by Alexander the Amazing (aka Alexander M. Knapp), an African drumming performance by Kuumba Nia Arts from Oxford, England, and hip-hop and street dance by the Chicago outfit BraveSoul Movement. The kickoff is part of the city’s Night Out in the Parks program. 

The festival then moves to the Den Theatre in Wicker Park for ticketed workshops and performances, including Song of Home (7/19-7/20). Performed in Spanish and English, it follows the lived experiences of three displaced women coming to the United States. Chicago-based Theatre Lumina, led by artistic director Monica Payne, fosters cross-cultural collaboration and international exchange by drawing from diverse artists, subject matter, and influences. This production will be sharing the stages of the Den Theatre with companies from the UK and Argentina, as well as local artists. Kuumba Nia and their fellow UK artists, Unlock the Chains Collective, collaborate on the piece Sold (7/21-7/23), about Mary Prince, a Bermuda-born enslaved woman who became an abolitionist and the author of a narrative about her life (the first such narrative published in the UK).

Virtual events, including two international panels and a performance, will be accessible for free on the festival website and the panels will be available on the Facebook page. Frost describes how virtual performance makes for a different relationship among audience members compared to live performance: “It’s not a natural audience interaction. So they’re so present and vulnerable with one another in a way that we’re not necessarily asked to be in a dark theater.” 

“The State of the Performing Arts 3.0.,” a conversation among theater producers, actors, and directors on the ever-changing performing arts world, will be on July 17 at 10 AM. At noon, da Cunha and Frost will moderate a panel discussion titled “Teaching Physical Theater.” A preview excerpt of Spain- and Israel-based company La Percha Teatro’s performance of Marrano, A Tale From the Inquisition is available for free on the website at any time during the festival. 

This year, past adaptations and iterations of the festival’s different formats will play out in real time. Frost explains how the pandemic has influenced him and da Cunha to organize the festival in a calmer way, as they have learned “not how to work harder, but to work a little smarter and just more intentionally. 

“And I think we were enriched. I’m not saying I thought of all this at the time, but in retrospect, I can really see how great it was to have a ten-day festival and do a virtual ten days indoors and do an outdoor fest. And so, everything is sort of finding its way into this latticework for the ninth edition.”