Olivia Lilley and Tara Aisha Willis Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Tara Aisha Willis and Olivia Lilley both moved into prominent positions at Chicago institutions within the past two years, but the budgets and physical scale of those institutions could not be more different. Willis is a Hyde Park native whose career in dance and academia took her to New York for a time, before she returned in early 2017 as the associate curator of performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Lilley, who moved to Chicago in 2012 after a stint doing theater in New York, took the reins as artistic director at 38-year-old Prop Thtr in 2018. 

The MCA is of course an internationally recognized institution, and Prop has largely stayed true to its scrappy roots (its two-venue home in Avondale is cozy, but not luxe). But when Willis and Lilley met at a League of Chicago Theatres event, they realized they had more in common than just being two of the youngest curators-producers in town. Over coffee, they also realized that they both had a love of devised performances. By reaching out to theater makers with similar interests, they’ve cooked up the Storefront Project, running two consecutive weekends in repertory at both MCA and Prop.

The catch is that the pieces—six in all, three per program—will switch venues from one weekend to the next. So the pieces in Program A that will be at Prop this weekend will move over to MCA next weekend, while Program B makes the reverse commute from MCA to Prop. 

The artists invited to participate include Sydney Chatman, founding director of the Tofu Chitlin’ Circuit; Dado, a director and visual artist particularly well known for her work with A Red Orchid Theatre; Coya Paz of Free Street Theater; Denise Yvette Serna of Pop Magic Productions, whose production of Medusa recently toured various venues in the city; Lucky Stiff, a performer and director who works in both Chicago and New York; and a joint effort from directors Mikael Burke and April Cleveland.

For inspiration, each of the directors-devisers were asked to take a source text as a point of departure. Lilley notes that the only requirements for what they chose were that “it had to be in the public domain, and it had to not be a theatrical text. They’re allowed to make whatever they want out of that depending on what their script, quote unquote, looks like.” The points of departure for the creators include Karl Lagerfeld’s obituaries and an early advertisement for a vacuum cleaner. From these seeds, the creators came up with everything from an opera (Dado) to a piece involving 30 schoolchildren on roller skates (Chatman).

Adapting between the two venues is one of the challenges, but it’s not necessarily a case of switching between big and little. Though the MCA has a large theater space, Willis points out that it’s mostly not being used for this project. “We’re using our freight elevator, we’re using the dressing rooms, we’re using the plaza and the lobbies of the museum and the back lawn.” Lilley notes that the Prop performances will also utilize nontheater spaces, such as the back courtyard. 

One of the reasons for doing the Storefront Project is to highlight the importance of devised work in Chicago performance. MCA has a long history of presenting experimental performance work, much of it from high-profile national and international artists. When she joined MCA in 2017, Willis says, “I suddenly needed to understand theater in a way that I hadn’t needed to in New York because I was really in the dance world.” And while devised work is, as Willis notes, “such a robust and influential scene in the context of the world and the country,” she wanted to continue a commitment to Chicago artists. “I felt a kinship with Olivia in that New York-to- Chicago experience, but also just in kind of hopping across these different worlds.” She adds, “One of the things that we’re trying to highlight is not only that devised theater has been in Chicago already and that it’s not some kind of external invading force, but also that the landscape includes a lot of different strategies and approaches to making theater, and the results can be superdifferent.”

Before taking over at Prop, Lilley had run DIY performance spaces and toured some of her devised work in apartments and other nontheatrical venues. But she emphasizes that, while she is interested in working against the still-powerful tide of realism in theater, she’s not antinarrative. “I would define the dominant storefront ethos as being word driven. So it’s like story as told through people having conversations. Whereas I love narrative in my work and I love it in other people’s work, but I love when narrative is told through multidisciplinary approaches. I don’t want people to think ‘oh, you hate story.’ I just don’t think story can only be conveyed by words.”

As Willis notes, the partnership between Prop and MCA also aims to highlight the breadth of devised work being created in Chicago by building bridges between their respective patrons. “The work is here. It’s just a matter of really making it visible and really connecting the audiences that care about it.”  v