For over a year, the Harris Theater has loomed like an abyss in the center of the Loop, darker and more cavernous than it’s ever been: no drinks in the lobbies, no coats in the checkroom, no tickets ripped, no programs leafed and loosed on the floor. No hum of human gathering, no line out the restroom door, no echo of exhaust in the parking structure, no us. Though it has opened its rehearsal studio and its stage for artists to create digital works and hosted a steady stream of virtual content, its 1,525 seats will remain empty until (according to the latest calendar) October.
“The piece we are making is about the potential and the sadness and beauty of big empty spaces like that,” says Julia Rhoads, artistic director of Lucky Plush Productions, which is a resident company at the Harris. “What is that, to be in that huge empty space alone?”
And what now are we after a year of not sitting in the collective dark of the theater? Pixelated? Low-resolution? Two-dimensional? A little stiff? The Map of Now, a digital festival presented by Lucky Plush, is a tour of Chicago cultural venues designed to be experienced over Gather.Town, a platform that graphically mimics an 8-bit video game, offering a playful interpretation of our recalibration to space, ourselves, and others. Audiences will roam a map of Chicago as avatars, exploring dance, theater, music, and comedy performances filmed at the Harris, Links Hall, Logan Center for the Arts, and Steppenwolf.
In March 2020, Lucky Plush was rehearsing in preparation for a tour of its most recent work, Rink Life, when the pandemic put a halt to their plans. With a repertoire of devised work that combines repartee with movement and occasional bursts of song, all hinging on the fine timing common to comedians and trapeze artists that tips performance from crystalline order to cacophony, Lucky Plush was initially at a loss for how to proceed (“We tried rehearsing over Zoom, but singing, casual dialogue, it just didn’t work,” recalls Rhoads).
Yet even without performing, the company has remained on the map through its Virtual Dance Lab, a series of online classes taught by Lucky Plush artists and dance artists in the city and beyond. “I think that that became logical when the pandemic happened,” says Rhoads. “I was already planning my cocurricular programming for the University of Chicago”—where she is a lecturer in dance in the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies. “I’ve got all these teachers who are lined up to do cocurricular work, and they’re expecting to be paid, and I need to keep these students moving.
“At the same time, Lucky Plush was looking at shutting down. We have community classes and we do a constellation of classes when we’re on tour. So it made sense to combine efforts and keep not only our artists employed, but all the people that I’ve been engaging with through UChicago, where I try to connect students with a broad range of artists”—artists who have taught classes including Cuban salsa fusion, breaking, tutting, voguing, Graham, Dunham, and more. Lucky Plush also began a blog series, focused on their creation process from the past 20 years, as well as that of other artists in Chicago. “It just made sense, with all that was going on, to really lean into that expanded family, and to point to other artists’ work—and to their Venmo handles. Maybe some money came in. I don’t know.”
Collaboration and Lucky Plush’s context in a broader community of dance and theater is also the organizing principle behind The Map of Now. “We make devised work,” says Rhoads. “Collaboration is really exciting to me. It’s hard to always come up with the next thing, so I really lean into and love all the people I get to work with, because they’re smart, and they make the work better. The Map of Now is an extension of our want to be in a studio together as an ensemble—and being on a map with these other partners and these other artists feels really significant and important.”
Lucky Plush’s Happy Returns, recorded at the Harris this month, draws material from older works, such as Cinderbox (2007), and includes ensemble members returning from past productions, as well as a few who were born in the last year. “We had two babies this year in the Lucky Plush family,” says Rhoads. “They’re going to star, because babies should. We’re creating a piece that is about a coming together of a group and the process of navigating touch again. We’re playing with cameras with our ensemble members and these little tiny, beautiful beings, to crack open being in a space and coming together in a space like that.”
Creating dance for the camera—and attending a Neo-Futurists benefit hosted on Gather.Town—piqued Rhoads’s curiosity about other Chicago venues that Lucky Plush had partnered with over the years. “I asked them to curate artists that have relationships with those venues—whatever that means to them. And then we could play on this digital map”—a custom-created map of Chicago by Dragon Productions Theatre Company in Redwood City, California, working with UChicago students. “A very idealistic way of thinking about it would be, people will be like, ‘I didn’t even know about the Logan Center.’ And now my little avatar gets to walk there, see what it looks like on the inside, click on interactive objects in the theater space and see avery r. young, Sam Trump, Bril Barrett and the whole M.A.D.D. Rhythms crew—then teleport to Links and see some work there. Hopefully people will have fun with the unknown of it. For me, the performance is equally about the experience of running into people on this little retro gaming style world as it is seeing the works that are in these spaces.” To that end, the map features theater lobby spaces and other gathering points where audience avatars can meet and converse privately.
The deliberately low-tech first-generation 1980s Legend of Zelda-esque vibe of Gather.Town might be viewed as an extension of Lucky Plush’s prepandemic exploration of 1970s roller rinks in Rink Life. “It’s nostalgia for before everything was so in an electronic space,” suggests Rhoads. “There’s a familiarity to songs of that genre that even kids now know so well—classics, disco, or 80s pop—something anchoring about that across generations and across experience. I think there’s also something to imagining times when you’re just doing the thing and not watching yourself have the experience of the thing, or capturing a selfie of yourself doing the thing, that’s compelling.” v