Evanston festival stages plays in unusual spots from a brewery to the back nine

Northwestern University is taking bar room drama to a whole new level. Only this time, it doesn’t involve over-served patrons. It’s part of the university’s first-ever S.I.T.E. (Surprising Intersections of Theatre in Evanston) Festival, which will see Masters of Fine Arts students producing three plays in nontraditional venues — a craft brewery, a vacant storefront and an 18-hole golf course.

The festival runs May 23 through June 8 at an abandoned building on the Evanston/Chicago border, Temperance Beer Company and Evanston Wilmette Community Golf Course. It is the brainchild of Northwestern’s Michael Rohd, assistant professor of theatre at the School of Communication and founding artistic director of Portland Oregon’s Sojourn Theatre, which has earned a national reputation for participatory theatre.

“Taking our work outside of traditional theatre venues into different community settings and different spaces is a really kind of interesting way to challenge yourself and develop new relationships with the audience and community,” Rohd said.

Rohd said this is part of an overall trend in the world of performing arts. “I think that the relationships between artists and the audiences in theatres, as well as other art forms, are in a really interesting moment of expansion where there is more and more interest in participatory work — in work that doesn’t just happen in spaces made to present art,” he said.

Rohd believes that this experience “lets our artists get more a sense of the role that art plays in the lives of the community and the folks that they’re potentially making work for, as opposed to maybe a more traditional model where you just make stuff and then put up posters and hope people come.”

Another benefit of performing the plays in nontraditional spaces is that it gives students a chance to experience Evanston as more than just a college town. “It’s interesting for us to give them the opportunity to engage in the place they live,” Rohd said, “not just as a place where their campus exists, but as a community with a life of its own separate from the campus.”

Open to the public, the festival’s three plays are “Far Away” by British playwright Caryl Churchill, “American Dead” by Chicago playwright Brett Neveu and “Thou Proud Dream,” co-written by Northwestern MFA student director Damon Krometis and Northwestern alumna Jenni Lamb. Casts for all three productions will feature Northwestern undergraduates along with several guest professional actors from Chicago.

“Far Away” will be performed in a vacant building at 727 Howard St., a space that has been a church, a storefront and a proposed theatre space. The play describes a world where everything in nature is at war and tells the story of a young girl who witnesses something she was never meant to see. According to Rohd, it is a play about “the challenges we face in our society as we have less privacy, more surveillance and greater control from the powers that be.”

“American Dead” audiences will visit Evanston’s first microbrewery, Temperance Beer Company at 2000 Dempster St. As “a play about memory and grief and survival,” it tells the story of a man haunted by the murder of his sister who tries to uncover the truth of her death — as told in interaction with the light industrial warehouse space of the craft brewing company.

“Thou Proud Dream,” adapted from Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” guides audiences on an outdoor walk through the Evanston Wilmette Community Golf Course at 1030 Central St. in Evanston. According to Rohd, this is “a story that investigates the toll that war takes on our soldiers and their loved ones, but it also investigates how we glorify war historically.” Comfortable shoes are recommended.

The festival concludes with a June 8 party at Temperance Beer Company, where audience members can interact with the cast in a whole new way: over a pint.

S.I.T.E. (Surprising Intersections of Theatre in Evanston) Festival May 23-June 8 Various locations $5-$25 (847) 491-7282; Sitefestival.northwestern.edu

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