A scene from the 2016 Chicago Home Theater Festival Credit: William Camargo

In a city segregated by race and class, one theater festival hopes to create meaningful relationships across identities and locations: the Chicago Home Theater Festival, a 15-day event running from May 14 to May 29. This year, the series takes place in 14 different Chicago neighborhoods. Unlike theater festivals that rely on established performing arts venues, CHTF takes place entirely in the homes of artists and activists throughout the city. Hosts open their residences to complete strangers in order to share a meal, experience performances rooted in social justice, and introduce community outreach organizations to audiences in an attempt to encourage involvement after the show.

The CHTF was created largely to disrupt the traditional theater experience, inspired by the International Home Theater Festival, founded by Philip Huang in Berkeley, California, in 2010. Huang launched the fest as a way to reclaim domestic spaces (as opposed to major institutions or galleries, which often work as middlemen and cut profits from artists) for cultural organizing. In 2012, local director Laley Lippard, actor Blake Russell, and artist and educator Irina Zadov decided to bring Huang’s mission to Chicago; they saw an opportunity to address the city’s unique issues surrounding art and segregation. Conducted annually during the past five years, the CHTF has organized more than 500 artists across 25 different neighborhoods overall. Initially the organizers simply sought to introduce audiences to new neighborhoods and redraw artistic maps in the city by shedding light on the artistic efforts of often-overlooked communities.

This year, however, is the festival’s most ambitious undertaking yet. Lippard and Zadov have partnered with the Hyde Park Art Center, Sixty Inches From Center, City Bureau, the Chicago Park District, and StoryCorps to create a Neighborhood Field Guide Project. Performances will begin with tours, which start at designated CTA train and bus stops and lead to the host’s home, in the process surveying neighborhoods ranging from Edgewater to Austin to Englewood. The field guides will feature oral histories, maps, collages, and interviews with community members each night.

“That is the foundation of the Chicago Home Theater Festival,” Lippard explains over the phone. “The neighborhood is the inspiration point for a lot of the work that the artists are making. The neighborhood and space is just as important a voice as the artists, hosts, and homes that the audience enters. An audience getting an understanding of a neighborhood from either activists, artists, or leaders in that community is so important. To smell the neighborhood, to talk to the neighbors . . . We want to give you a real sense of what it’s like to find your body in that space.”

Zadov believes the expanded goals of this year’s edition of CHTF encouraged organizers to think differently about how access works in the city. The hope is to take CHTF beyond the artwork produced within the run of the festival itself and give audiences the tools to build relationships with community members, local activists, and businesses. “In year five, everything we do is incredibly intersectional, and we really thought about accessibility in a lot of different ways,” Zadov says. “The leadership of women, queer folks, people of color, and artists with disabilities are really at the forefront of decision making at every single point of the festival.”

CHTF asks audiences to see who occupies the homes around them and why, but organizers also want people to examine which communities may lack such access, focusing on the “physical, political, economic, and cultural structures that prevent or dissuade equal access to spaces,” according to their vision statement. Five of the festival’s event locations are wheelchair accessible, and closed captioning will be available upon request every night.

Additionally, CHTF offers artists a platform to do work that combines social justice with vulnerability, action, and courage. “We’re really focused on creating structures that allow for our audience members, as well as the artists, to really invest in one another’s communities,” Zadov explains. “This is a really condensed opportunity to get into community organizing and build relationships with people. We really have a solid foundation of care, advocacy, and resistance that fuels the creative work this year.”

The diverse roster of artists involved in this year’s CHTF demonstrates that event organizers and artists took their goals seriously. Rapper-poet Mykele Deville will lead “a night of radical nourishment, immersive installation, performance, and soundscape engaging issues of forced migration and gentrification” in his Pilsen home, according to the festival’s program guide. In Humboldt Park, the codirectors of event and coworking space Reunion, Elijah McKinnon and Kristen Kaza, are opening their venue to feature performances by Alejandra Frausto, Darling Shear, and Tasha Viets-VanLear that celebrate family, femininity, ritual, and reflection. WBEZ reporter and author Natalie Y. Moore‘s Hyde Park home will be transformed into a performance space for DJs, spoken word, and youth theater. CHTF will even put on an artist-led block party that examines immigrant and refugee narratives through gardening and dance, starting in the Albany Park home of theater director Giau Minh Truong.

Well-known art spaces and neighborhoods like Logan Square and Wicker Park are nowhere to be seen on the festival’s list of events. CHTF’s dedication to neighbors, local businesses, and community organizers discourages voyeurism and asks audiences to get involved. During our conversation, Zadov put it succinctly: “How do we build relationships with community members and local activists?” she asked. “How do we make sure that after people leave the neighborhood it’s not just ‘Oh, I had this amazing experience in Englewood!’ but ‘Oh, I actually have relationships with people who live there, I am aware of organizations, I want to contribute’? We want to give people tools and connections to take action when the time is needed.”  v