In 2017, members of Chicago’s Theatre Y made an extraordinary excursion, walking across Spain’s Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile route that fellow pilgrims have taken for centuries. Starting on the French border and ending in Finisterre (or “the end of the world” in Latin), it inspired the creation of The Camino Project, a mini pilgrimage through Bucktown and Humboldt Park, directed by Melissa Lorraine, written and conceived by Evan Hill, and choreographed by Dénes Döbrei and Heni Varga.
It is a six-hour journey that involves a five-mile trek, theatrical experiences, dance, movement, performance art, and snacks, as well as a full meal. This is a theatrical experience unlike any other. While theater is communal, spending the better part of the afternoon and evening with a group of strangers walking, breaking bread, and experiencing art creates a unique bond. These are fellow sojourners and they, along with the vibrant, welcoming cast, become friends by the end of the day.
Upon first arriving to experience and be an active participant in The Camino Project in a park by the 606, you find a member of “The Bureau of Transient Affairs,” who wears a red hat and looks like a travel agent. She has your passport and will check you in.
The charismatic Tour Guide (Eric K. Roberts) welcomes everyone and shares the history of Camino de Santiago, the 33-day trek across Spain. His insights prepare the group for travel and set the tone for the day; daily life itself is tourism, now that the grand adventures are over and all the places explored; life has been reduced to two things, business and pleasure; and most Zen-like, you go on a journey in order to find out why you went. Roberts is a vivacious guide, keeping patrons safe by yelling “bike” whenever a cyclist sails past on the 606, or encouraging folks to yell “buen camino!” at passersby.
As the group journeys, they encounter various actors along the way. One of the joys of this walking performance is the reaction of people just walking by, or sitting as the sojourners walk past followed by a cast member pushing a cart with loudspeakers emitting music or sound effects. (This was the only downside, as frequently the volume was so loud I covered my ears.) Oftentimes, strangers would watch a particular performance all the way through from the fringes. Early on the journey, a couple inquired as to what was going on and after learning it was a six-hour artistic experience, and there was unexpectedly extra room, they joined the group. Both expressed delight at the end of the show that they had decided to make the spontaneous decision to embark on this adventure as accidental tourists.
While there is no clear narrative, more than 20 cast members weave together various experiences along their Camino journey. There is adventure, love, even tragedy. They explore what it means to be free, as well as the thresholds and borders that we choose to cross or why we avoid them. Yet it is as much a personal, internal journey as an external one. At one point, Roberts makes an insightful comment that each time you say something bad or good about yourself, you are at war or peace, respectively, with yourself. All the war and all the peace originates in our heads.
Many of the performances play with perspective, movement, and the tenuousness of the human body. The city becomes its own stage, and the experience of movement through it is cinematic. At one point, actors ask if the audience wants to experience the next part visually or through other senses. Naturally, I said the latter, and was blindfolded and led gently by Friendship (Alanna Gerardi) on a delightful walk, touching plants and catching various sounds and smells, safe in her steady hands.
The evening concludes at an artists’ collective made up to look like a Spanish albergue (hostel) where actors and audience members enjoy dinner and kibitz. The highlight is one of the hosts (Arlene Arnone) dancing and singing “My Way,” as well as photos of the actual Camino de Santiago. Through camaraderie, introspection, and an eventful journey, this secular art pilgrimage reflects the spiritual goals of the original. v