What if in the not-too-distant future, an insurance company ran the world from a skyscraper the size of a city? That’s the premise behind Our Fair City, a dystopian radio play written, produced, and performed by more than 40 of Chicago’s storefront theater veterans.
If you haven’t heard of the popular podcast, which racks up 100,000 downloads a month and counts among its fans bestselling sci-fi author S.J. Kincaid and the creators of Welcome to Night Vale (who appear as guest stars on the show), now’s the time. Our Fair City launches its eighth and final season with a party on Saturday at Uptown’s Preston Bradley Center that promises to be just as geeky and theatrical the show itself.
The project began as a Kickstarter campaign back in 2011—yes, long before the explosion of popular podcasts like Serial. “We wanted to explore the consequences of climate change and skewer corporate culture,” says Clayton Faits, the show’s creative director and head writer, one of several creators employed at one time or another by the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park. “Climate change is very likely to end the world as we know it, creating scarcity and inequality that is unprecedented in human history. So we imagined a large corporation taking over as the de facto government when order breaks down.
“And then we imagined mad scientists and genetically engineered molepeople,” he adds.
In Our Fair City’s post-apocalyptic future, the building that houses the HartLife corporation is the only remaining safe haven for humans in the cold, barren “ruins of Old New England.” Atop the massive tower, “lightning riggers” capture energy from storm clouds while below ground, molepeople inhabit a vast series of tunnels. Worldbuilding is one of the show’s strong suits, calling to mind the isolated city from the Bioshock video game series or the dystopian society in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
In the early episodes, we meet Nathan Rourke, a young man who teams up with a waste collector named Neal Henderson to sell a valuable corporate artifact that could kill them at any second. Though the first season is a little rough around the edges as the show finds its voice, everything starts falling into place during the second season. The main characters become more distinguishable, the actors more subtle, the plot clearer, the laughs more regular, and the sound effects less distracting.
Rourke and Henderson run afoul of some powerful figures, including an encounter with one of the show’s most popular characters, the scientist and necromancer Dr. Herbert West of Lovecraft fame. Though West wasn’t originally intended to be a gender-fluid character, the show’s creators have embraced that fan theory because it aligns with their values. “Our Fair City is created by artists who are queer, straight, trans, cis, monogamous, non-monogamous, neurodivergent, neurotypical, male, female, non-binary, and people of color,” says Jeffrey Gardner, the show’s executive director and a Steppenwolf Garage alum.
Like Welcome to Night Vale, the series knows when to be funny, but the writers are also really good at tackling complex issues, albeit through the guise of molepeople, zombies, and insurance executives, brought to life by some really talented actors you’ve probably seen at a local storefront theatre at some point in the past decade. “The voice actors are incredible and instill the characters with genuine life,” author Kincaid says.
Also impressive is the show’s cinematic soundscape, including original music and custom effects from local foley artists. Instead of an audiobook narration, the creators liken the listening experience to watching a movie or a play through your ears.
Fans of the show—who call themselves “policies,” since that’s all humans would be to a soulless insurance company—are invited to the eighth season launch party Saturday, a.k.a 453rd Fiscal Cycle Gala, "hosted” by the HartLife company itself. You can expect an “immersive projection design, music with DJ Catnip, a robot photo booth, themed food and drinks, and a special live performance by the team who brought us giant ant puppet fights and a mad scientist’s laboratory at previous launch parties,” says Betsey Palmer, the podcast’s director of live engagements.
When asked why the podcast is coming to an end this year, Gardner says the story always had an end-point. “We wanted to create a story with a definitive structure and arc. We weren’t sure exactly how many seasons it would take for us to tell this story, but we always knew roughly where it was going, and eight seasons turned out to be just the right length,” he says.
However, fans can rest assured that the team behind Our Fair City isn’t done telling stories. Saturday’s festivities will include the announcement of their next big project with a new world and new characters, according to Gardner: “It’s really exciting to be starting fresh, knowing everything we’ve learned about creating audio fiction from the eight years we’ve spent making Our Fair City.”