Isaly Viana appeared in the first Small Hours Festival. Credit: Courtesy Prop Thtr

When Aniello Fontano finished his MFA studies in dramatic writing from the University of New Mexico, COVID-19 was just getting started. The Chicago actor, director, and playwright had been away from the local theater community for three years but with the pandemic’s swift hit, now was not the time to go back. 

Isolated in his Albuquerque apartment, he felt compelled to contribute to the artistic community from afar and give voice to the discomfort brought on by the current times. He started by writing monologues for actors now doing self-tape auditions from home. “I was constantly looking for ways to feel like I was being productive and like I was helping people,” Fontano says. 

Through the large network of actors he knows, those creative efforts grew into the Small Hours Festival, a new monthly virtual festival produced by Fontano and Prop artistic director Olivia Lilley as a way to connect actors with each other, let them speak their minds about the pandemic, and give creatively to the world, instead of financially. 

For gig workers, sometimes donating money isn’t an option. As in other artistic endeavors, many theatermakers don’t have the luxury of getting paid to work solely in the arts, which means they have multiple jobs and must look for other ways to get involved and help communities in times of crisis. And when your industry is suffering, how do you cope? You create, Fontano says. 

“[We are] boots on the ground workers, we cannot donate money, it’s not a thing we can do, and further, our main source of income is gone,” he says. “The thing we love, the thing we are passionate about is changing drastically. For those people like myself, who really want to give something but can only give their heart and art and mind right now, [the festival] gives them an outlet to do so.”

The festival, which debuted May 21 on Instagram’s IGTV, pairs Chicago playwrights, screenwriters, and TV writers with local actors to create collaborative monodramas that highlight individual style and skills. It’s also a way to disrupt a local theater scene that can be cliquish and isolated, Lilley says. And as coproducers of Rhino Fest, Chicago’s longest-running alternative theater festival, Small Hours fits into Prop’s mission of showcasing new voices and work. “We wanted to disrupt [the theater scene] by introducing people who didn’t know each other who were awesome to each other,” Lilley says. 

The producers say the festival is meant to not only highlight new artists and amplify their voices but also create lasting relationships in the theater community that continue outside of Small Hours. That starts with the foundational pairings of talent and perspective to find people who can complement each other. “With submissions, it’s finding people that care about the same things, that are passionate about the same things and matching them together,” Fontano says.

The first festival featured monologue dramas about people coping with isolation, death and the cycle of life, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other emotional stories about our past and present. Fontano, who is also on the board of Prop, wants artists to have full creative freedom and write about whatever they choose and not be limited by any curatorial perimeters. 

Fontano and Lilley, who both have backgrounds participating in Chicago’s DIY scene, want the festival energy to be reminiscent of that familiar community that, at its best, transmits positivity, creation, and inclusion, rather than competition and status. “We are not competing with one another in Small Hours, we are creating,” Fontano says. “You are amplifying one another’s voices for the sake of the art and our collective enjoyment and sanity.”

The producers say the fest was created to fit the current time but hope it can transition to an in-person showcase once the pandemic is behind us. Lilley says the project was also built to partner with other theater companies in the future. “It has a brand unto itself and we want it to be flexible and malleable and go wherever it needs to go,” she says.

The experimental festival, cosponsored by Cape Horn Illustration, is back June 18 with a new lineup of actors and writers, featuring Chelsea Turner, Jessica Kearney, Kenya Ann Hall, Patrick Agada, Bernadette Carter, Derek Lee McPhatter, Aidaa Peerzada, Ada Alozie, Terry Guest, and more. While May’s festival featured 48 artists and 24 pairings that were invite only, the producers say the next round will have 24 people and 12 pairings, half of which will be invite only. Those who want to participate in the June 18 fest, which will begin uploading to the Instagram account at 8 PM that evening,  can e-mail a cover letter and resumé to  v