Part 1: Studs Terkel Festival

Last night was the start of “Let’s Get Working” Chicago Celebrates Studs Terkel” at the University of Chicago. It was fantastic. It’s a wonderful mix of film, performances, interviews from wonderful organizations in Chicago and esteemed people in media. I’m very excited about going back there today. Congrats to Paul Durica and Leigh Fagin!

I’ve talked previously on the Studs Terkel festival blog about Studs’ role in my life. But I’ll briefly summarize. Studs changed the way I thought about history since he valued everyone’s voices and experiences. His works like “The Good War” and Division Street show the beautiful diversity of people’s lives and feelings about the world.

Friday night, we attended Buried in Bughouse Square: A Studs Terkel Festival. It’s circus and oral history combined into a play that was both acted and written by students. It was lively and had its sublime moments. The play managed to effectively combine circus performance and narrative, which in my opinion is rare. Most circus shows don’t have dialogue or it’s awkward and stilted. But here they made it work.

Throughout the play, they performed various works from Studs’ own books, like the proud waitress from Working or people’s experiences during the Depression from Hard Times. So there was a wonderful trapeze act of the socialite. The performer wore elegant black leotard and was talking about her experiences in the 1930s. As she did wondrous tricks around the trapeze, she explained that she didn’t really know what people were making such fuss about during the time. She didn’t see bread lines or poor people. For her, the 1930s was a sparkling time. While she gave her interview, below her, the rest of the cast in overcoats and hats are walking back and forth on stage. It was really a wonderful piece.

But the play wasn’t just piece after piece of Studs (though I would have been okay with that). They strived for the spirit of Studs. One actor sat down a tape recorder and interviewed the cast and even one audience member. What I liked so much was that it seemed that the actors didn’t really know what questions they were going to be asked. It felt unrehearsed which I think was perfect. Maybe the actors are just that good at acting unrehearsed but it was effective. It made it raw like Studs’ work. Actors talked about their homes, their friends, and what they loved about Studs. It was really beautiful.

They also combined Studs’ work and their own experience. In one of the most haunting pieces, a worker talks about a huge rally during the Depression where people were demanding jobs, food, and housing. This was paired with a young man talking about attending a rally in Moscow where riot police took anyone away who talked or sang. All he could do was clap. Absolutely fantastic.

The circus is playing today and tomorrow. Go see it if you have a chance.

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to be interviewed about our experiences with Studs as part of “Capturing Studs: A Pop Up Studio by Ben Chandler.” It made a lot of sense. This is what Studs would have wanted. We had a conversation with a young man about our first awareness of Studs, what we loved about him, and more. Then our photo was taken. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the interviews but I’m excited to find out. For me, that’s the wonderful thing about research, you ask questions and listen to learn things about the world.

Then we attended a “Conversation with Dave Isay and Alex Kotlowitz.” IT was incredible. Dave Isay is a founder of StoryCorps, an organization that strives to collect stories of people in America. They have booths where people can record their stories and a mobile booth where they go to small towns, prisons, to take down people’s stories. There is a radio broadcast and they take some stories and animate them. I’ve only recently become aware of their work but it’s awesome. To date, they’ve conducted 50,000 interviews.

Alex Kotlowitz is a journalist, author and producer. I know him for his production of the documentary The Interrupters, about Ceasefire, a nonviolence organization, in Chicago. He also wrote There are No Children Here and Never a City So Real. They presented some of their or their organization’s work. I think the most moving piece for me was Dave Isay’s work at a NY flop house. He went there years ago to talk to the inhabitants and learned about this little world. He was showing one of the gentlemen the book he had put together with photographs. The man saw the photos of himself. He then grabbed the book, and ran down the hallway, yelling “I exist! I exist!” Powerful. Alex Kotlowitz presented a wonderful excerpt of an interview of an artist who painted murals on people’s apartments in public housing in Chicago. He talked about the trends in the murals he was asked to paint. At first everyone wanted a panther. then someone asked for a landscape and then everyone wanted a landscape. And then on. It was funny and charming.

Another thing that I loved was that David Isay brought up a wonderful fact about Mr. Rogers. He apparently kept a slip of paper with the following quote on it: “”Frankly there isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” Beautiful. I feel that Studs would have loved it.

We caught the tail end of Late-Night Storytelling. It was a cabaret style performance where people came up stage and presented a story in words, dance, and/or even song. We only really caught the last act of the night but it was perfect. A young man (whose name I don’t recall. Arg!) came on stage and talked briefly about the violence in Chicago. Then he sat down and played an incredible piece at the piano, with breaks for snapping of fingers. I think he composed it himself and he’s brilliant. Then the hosts interviewed him about his work teaching art at a juvenile detention center. He combines his art with activism. Well, he’s going to be someone famous someday.

So that’s all for now!


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