You Are Here with Theatre Y visits several different Chicago neighborhoods. Credit: Courtesy Theatre Y

In 2019, Theatre Y presented The Camino Project, an engaging five-hour miniature pilgrimage through Bucktown and Humboldt Park featuring experiential pieces intermingling dance, theater, and performance art. The adventure culminated in a group meal with audience members and actors breaking bread. It was a delightful experience and an ambitious endeavor having actors guiding guests through a variety of “happenings” inspired by the ensemble’s 2017 journey along Spain’s Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage route dating back over a thousand years.

This year, however, Theatre Y has flipped the script. Like many arts organizations, the pandemic has given them the opportunity to reevaluate their priorities, as well as relocate, and to completely recraft The Camino Project. “As a free theater, what were we doing in Lincoln Square providing free theater for people who could have paid for their ticket?” asks artistic director Melissa Lorraine.

This epiphany led them to start the process of relocating to North Lawndale and has helped them absorb other realizations in the past year and a half. The most salient lesson from the pandemic, Lorraine says, was that people on Zoom don’t make eye contact. So even with audience members and performers in masks, she says, “at the very least, there’s still eye contact. Suddenly eye contact became this extraordinary gift, this thing that we’ve been deprived of for over a year; eye contact is kind of the height of intimacy in some ways.”

However, watching footage of the 2019 show, Lorraine noticed a section where she was touching everyone’s faces. She realized with sadness that it was like seeing a dream, something that would never happen again. The most encouraging thing she learned, though, was that as a free theater they were set up to survive. Their membership model supported them in creating virtual content during the pandemic. They never knew that adopting that model in 2018 would be their salvation.

Other lessons struck at the core of their very mission. Lorraine always thought her role as a theater director was to hold a mirror up to society, to highlight its faults. But watching the pandemic unfold, as people in Italy sang from their rooftops seeking the synchronicity they were lacking, and watching Americans march in the streets for racial equity, she saw a distinctive purpose for her art. “We woke up in a different place,” Lorraine says, “and the text of 2019 was no longer appropriate. Instead, I now want to focus on a way forward, to create networks of love.”

This new, even more ambitious incarnation, YOU ARE HERE: The Emerald Camino Project, was created in partnership with nearly 80 artists, community leaders, and organizations across the “Emerald Necklace,” the famed boulevards that link the public parks on Chicago’s west and south sides. Each walk will seek to explore one of a dozen different neighborhoods and feature local artists, beginning in a green space and ending with a picnic in the same spot. Their intention is to have the audiences be made up of half local residents and half residents from other neighborhoods, creating a “curated conversation with the neighborhood,” Lorraine says, as well as with each other. The walk will cover a four-mile loop and visit historic, cultural, social, and religious sites in each neighborhood. Each Theatre Y castmate has spent a year connecting with artists and activists in a single neighborhood that they wanted to learn more about, finding partners to collaborate with on this endeavor.

It will essentially “cast Theatre Y as the guest and our ‘audience’ as the guides. So the bulk of your experience is a conversation with a stranger that we are curating and guiding you through,” Lorraine says, adding, “The text is mostly yours. You bring your own theater.”

The irony of city planners like Daniel Burnham creating these boulevards to make the city walkable, versus the reality that they are not seen as walkable today, is not lost on Lorraine. “We’re doing this project because we can’t,” she says, in recognition of the present difficulties with walkability, and adds, “We are not pretending that the city belongs to us in some colonizing way, but to recognize that it’s not acceptable that the residents of these communities can’t walk their own boulevards. YOU ARE HERE is acknowledging that we are the guests, that we need to be invited and guided through these neighborhoods and that we are there to listen, essentially.”

This is the opposite of how they approached their 2019 iteration of The Camino Project. “We were giving ourselves the microphone and making declarations to our city,” Lorraine says. “Any kind of declaration to our city doesn’t feel quite appropriate anymore, so we needed to invert the model and create a container to listen to the public. So, this is really the opposite production in some way.”

YOU ARE HERE will be directed by Lorraine with choreography by Serbia-based Heni Varga. The entire project will be documented by Worldview Solutions, a social enterprise spin-off of WBEZ headed by host Jerome McDonnell and senior producer Steve Bynum that seeks to carry forward the mission of the radio show Worldview without WBEZ. Documenting The Camino Project will be their first project, notes Lorraine. It will also be documented by National Geographic‘s Out of Eden Walk-Chicago, and by Berlin-based Nigerian photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi, also known as Bode.

8/21-9/26; see for schedule of tours and reservations; free for neighborhood residents (nonresidents encouraged to purchase a Theatre Y membership for $60 annually or $5/month sustaining membership).

“Pilgrimage has a rhythm that is so beautiful,” Bode says, “and theater tells us something peculiar and particular about our lives.” Cited in articles as having “the wanderer’s gaze,” Bode documents city life through his black-and-white photography in cities like Lagos, Nigeria, where he captures lives impacted by racism and colonialism. He was presenting his work at a photography exhibit with the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2019 and more recently at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago when he came to Lorraine’s attention. They connected immediately and she invited him to document the pilgrimage.

Walking through neighborhoods on the south and west sides will be a new experience for some, let alone sharing six hours with strangers, but Theatre Y believes people are ready to connect and branch out. “People ask all the time if this is even theater we’re making,” Lorraine says, “and maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it’s something that I know we can do as a theater company with our community.”

As part of the documentation, actors will be wearing microphones and recording something like 700 to 940 hours of conversations between Chicagoans, creating a plethora of archival materials. “We’ll have podcasts throughout the year of various conversations, little snippets, and documentary filmmaking,” Lorraine says.

“I think theater in every aspect is about connection. I have the privilege of falling in love with sections of the city that I have never even been to and then hopefully assisting in that process for others as well. It is really thrilling.”