Four Story Animal Plus Dessert, part of the 31st Rhinoceros Theater Festival Credit: Jeffrey Bivens

When Rhinoceros Theater Festival (or in more common local parlance, Rhino Fest) first started out in the late 1980s, it was a two-day add-on for the Bucktown Arts Fest, featuring many of the alternative theater and performance artists who called the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods home in those right-before-gentrification-got-crazy days. Over the past 31 years, the festival has moved around neighborhoods (including Andersonville, Rogers Park, and Lincoln Park) and the calendar. Originally a staple of the fall theater season, Rhino migrated to the seemingly less-crowded early January theatrical landscape several years ago.

Along the way, it’s grown into a much-anticipated weeks-long celebration of fringe work, including new plays, works-in-progress, collaboratively devised original pieces, and occasional revivals of past hits. Originally produced and curated by Curious Theatre Branch (cofounders Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus have been there since the birth), Rhino is now coproduced by Curious and Prop Thtr, whose two-stage Avondale venue began housing the festival in the mid-2000s.

Much has changed over the years—including the fact that the early winter slot that seemed to promise Rhino Fest a clear field (since most theater companies are on production hiatus between late December and late January) is now crowded with a slew of other festivals, including the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival and Fillet of Solo. But Magnus and O’Reilly continue to slug it out to champion the work that excites them the most. 

“I feel like it’s a money-where-your-mouth-is situation,” says Magnus. “If you say you are working as an artistic organization to build community, support new work and new artists, and provide a space that is open and safe, then you really have to do it. You have to actually do it.” That accessibility extends to audiences. Since its inception, Rhino (as with all Curious shows) operates on a “pay what you can” model.

This year’s festival features 48 shows (selected out of 100 submissions), most performing once a week during the six-week run. Companies pay nothing to participate, and receive 35 percent of their box office. 

In the earlier days, Rhino Fest also felt like an annual reunion of artists and companies who made the late 1980s and early 1990s a hotbed of new experimental work in Chicago theater. You could always count on seeing work by Curious Theatre Branch artists, along with work from Theater Oobleck, members of the Neo-Futurists, Prop, and now-gone companies such as Theatre of the Reconstruction—all of whom knew each other to varying extents and frequently collaborated at Rhino and elsewhere. (Full disclosure: I performed a solo piece in the 1993 Rhino Fest and wrote a piece that was produced at Rhino in 2003.) 

That feeling of familiarity in the lineup remains this year. Magnus reprises Office Hours: Aid and Comfort, which grew out of a residency she had a few years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Anyone is welcome to sit with her and simply share what’s on their mind, in an attempt to build community and a deeper relationship between artists and audiences. Curious also presents Four Story Animal Plus Dessert, part of an ongoing performance series curated by O’Reilly and featuring performances adapted from four texts. (This newest entry includes stories by Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Beckett, and Elizabeth Bishop.) Oobleck founder Mickle Maher’s much-praised 1999 monologue, An Apology for the Course & Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, gets a revival this year, performed by Emma Pauly. 

But as O’Reilly notes, the festival has also expanded its scope. “I’ve always tried to strike a balance between work by artists that I know and respect already, and artists who are new to me, and may or may not be doing work that I personally will enjoy. The last few years have seen more work by women, queer people, and people of color in applications for the festival, and I am enjoying that change,” he says.

Some of those new voices are due in part to Prop artistic director Olivia Lilley, who premiered a couple of pieces at Rhino Fest before taking over the AD job at Prop in 2018 from Stefan Brün (who is also Magnus’s husband). Lilley has been part of the curation team for Rhino for two years, joining Magnus, O’Reilly, and Curious Theatre Branch member Julie Williams in shaping the lineup. “I spend a good deal of my time going out and scouting talent and paying attention to people who are making stuff in the city,” Lilley says. Prop also used to host a new-play reading salon, the Church of the New Play, where Lilley would encourage writers she was interested in to submit to Rhino. 

Though the emphasis remains mostly on homegrown talent, Lilley also has helped bring in some out-of-town artists this year, including two shows from the Cleveland Public Theatre: Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation, which uses the stories of three women in the Black Panthers (Elaine Brown, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur) as an exploration of Black women’s experiences incorporating songs, movement, and poetry; and Emergence, which also focuses on radical change through groups such as Pussy Riot and pioneering writers and activists like Saul Alinsky, James Baldwin, and Black feminist Adrienne Maree Brown.

Magnus notes that Rhino Fest provides emerging artists and new companies with a low-cost way to bring work to full production in front of an audience, instead of being caught up in a long series of staged readings. Lilley adds that it’s also a way for established artists to branch out. “If you are a director who gets hired to do mostly Shakespeare, but you want to do a devised new work or a movement piece, you can submit to Rhino Fest and we’ll probably know who you are and give you a slot.” Some artists produced at Rhino in the past have gone on to great success, most notably 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok.

Taking risks on the unknown is also a big part of why Rhino continues to hold such value for emerging artists. Williams says, “My first-ever pieces of writing for theater were produced in the Rhino, where I got to meet and collaborate with the brilliant Sue Cargill. [Cargill has created such memorable past Rhino shows as Chameleon with a Stigmata and Feeling Sorry for Roman Polanski.] How did that happen? The Rhino committee sat around Jenny’s kitchen table and probably said, ‘We met this person, she seems all right, she’s got some writing and we don’t really know what it is. Sure, give her a slot!’ I think the ‘stay small’ mentality of the Rhino Fest allows those risks to happen. The ship isn’t going to sink if every show isn’t a blockbuster, because the ship is basically a canoe to begin with, rather than a steamliner.”

On the day I talk to Magnus, she notes that “everything is so annoying today.” She’s speaking specifically of the headaches involved with putting together a large festival on a shoestring budget (she estimates this year’s costs as coming in around $10,000). But it’s also a larger comment on the uncertainty and dread of the times. “The world is really hard right now,” Magnus says. “All we have is each other and the intention to do something good. Aid and comfort. We just need to be paid attention to and we need to be taken care of a little bit. Rhino exemplifies that.”  v