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Fifty Wards. Fifty Plays. One Day.

On June 23, Free Street Theater celebrates its 50th anniversary with pop-up performances across the city. Artistic director Coya Paz outlines the plan.

Photo: Gregory Dixon

Free Street Theater was founded in 1969 to address the realities of urban life. Fifty years on, the company is still crafting new material out of its headquarters at the Pulaski Park field house and a satellite space in Back of the Yards. On June 23, it will mark its anniversary with 50 in 50, a daylong series of free outdoor shows, one in each ward. Here, artistic director Coya Paz outlines the plan.

The pop-ups are related to Still/Here, a longer play that will premiere July 28. How did the project start?

We’ve been doing story workshops with lots of people — our goal is to talk to 500 — about their vision for Chicago, then turning those experiences into performances. It’s very rare for any theater company to still exist after 50 years, so we’re interested in what the past tells us about the future and how our city is changing.

Free Street created pop-up performances before we had that term, didn’t it?

That’s what I love about work that’s outdoors in public spaces: People are like, “Hey, what’s going on over there?” Our founder, Patrick Henry, would always say his ideal audience member was somebody who hadn’t planned to see a play that day. They were going to pick up their kids, or doing the grocery shopping, and suddenly they’re seeing a show.

How many actors will be involved in pulling 50 in 50 off?

We have 10 ensembles of seven to 10 artists. Instead of giving everyone a script, we say, “Here’s the stuff we’ve been thinking about and working with. What would you turn it into?” We’re working very hard to hire artists who are from the wards they’re going to. We’re not trying to parachute in. We’re not missionaries.

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