Sometimes you come up with a great idea, and sometimes a great idea happens to you. This is a story about the latter. In 2004, I was director of the Guild Complex, and we’d received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to produce a festival of poetry theater. Festival was ambitious. Truth, we had enough money to bring in an artist or two to talk about a burgeoning form that focused as intensely on stage craft as the writing of the poems. Chicago has long laid claim to performance poetry, but a mic, a spotlight, two feet glued to the ground and a lot of arm gesticulation was not what we had in mind. We were interested in a true intersection of poetry and theater. There are still only a handful of artists working in this form with Danny Hoch being the grandfather of them all.
Through the nonprofit grapevine, which rivals any party line in Hooterville, Peter Taub at the MCA heard what the Guild Complex was up to. They wanted to bring the Bronx hip-hop theater troupe Universes to Chicago. Universes was on our list too, so we agreed to pool our energies and funds. Suddenly, this was looking a little more like a festival. The MCA has a beautiful performance space, and we were thrilled to partner with them, but the Guild’s focus has never been Michigan Avenue. We are itinerant so that we can move into historically marginalized neighborhoods that have less access to the arts. This partnership would satisfy our mutual interests and the NEA grant, but it wasn’t going to meet the Guild Complex’s mission. (Which, by the way, is looking at literary culture and asking "What’s missing?")
So Peter and I brainstormed. I also had a great conversation with Steven Sapp, co-founder of Universes, who completely understood my desire to get off the Avenue and into the neighborhoods. We planned an artists and activists townhall-style meeting at a Humboldt Park art gallery. But that wasn’t completely scratching my itch.
The idea that finally hit the spot was to bring a small group of poets—four to be exact—into an incubator with Steven. They would work together to write a poetic script, which they would perform themselves. They would have to learn how to write for others and how to perform work written for them. In other words, we were asking poets not only to learn stage craft but also to step outside the solitary world of writing into a complete ensemble experience. Because I knew Chicago’s poetry arena, I picked four poets who had varying strengths in writing and performance and who I thought had the potential to blossom in this project. Contrary to the Chicago tradition of patronage, I didn’t know any of the poets particularly well, so I had a certain amount of salesmanship to perform on them. Luckily, they bit.
Over the last six years, the Incubator (as it has come to be known) has gone through various iterations. Though Steven was wonderful, the logistics of bringing in a New York-based director to work with a group in Chicago became too cumbersome and expensive. In stepped the lovely and talented Coya Paz to direct. Her training as a poet, playwright, and actor couldn’t have been a better fit, and she believes in the ensemble process down to the shimmer on her lip gloss. Other shifts happened. Babies were born. New careers were launched. One member moved to New York City and another to Atlanta. Auditions were held. (Yes, poets auditioned.) The Incubator continued. Of note, Kimberly Dixon, who is currently director of the Guild Complex, is the last woman standing from the original group and a driving force of the project.
Funding has been a chronic battle. The legendary “backers” that arrive at the last minute to save the little show destined for Broadway haven’t popped up. We’ve written numerous applications for modest amounts to get the Incubator into production. The glitch is the project’s hybrid lineage. Theater funders don’t understand why a literary organization is producing theater, so they take a pass. The few foundations that fund literature have money committed to other projects at the Guild— which is a very small shop and needs to keep those funds in place—or they can’t figure out how to package the Incubator as literature to their boards, the Caesars of the funds, so they take a pass. We finally got two critical grants from the Woods Fund of Chicago, not because of the art form but because of the theme of the inaugural script: Tour Guides.
Chicago is an amazing city, but it consistently makes the list of the most segregated cities in the U.S. What makes this designation more complicated and heartbreaking is that Chicago has the most diverse population base of any of the cities on the notorious list. So, we have more different kinds of people not talking to each other. Tour Guides looks at this situation head on. The poets in the ensemble have different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and they come from different parts of town. Only in Chicago do we understand how the neighborhood card can trump even the race card. Each poet takes you on tour of their neighborhood—the corner bodegas, the ghost bike memorials, the difference between pickup lines on the North Side and the South Side. This is the Chicago that is never captured in the travel books. This is the Chicago that we all live day-to-day.
Tour Guides is finally set to make its debut this December. Every one of us who has been part of this project—even those who have had to move on—believes in its transformative power. It’s more than poets learning how to move or actors learning how to write poetry. We’ve all come to know and respect what it means to live inside someone else’s voice and to trust someone else with ours, even those of us sitting in the wings. I firmly believe it’s the first step to getting off that blasted list.
Incubator artists (current):
Jon Cofield, Kimberly Dixon, Steven Evans, Stephanie Gentry-Fernandez, Sage Xaxua Morgan-
Hubbard, Carron Little, Sandra Posadas.
Director and Developer:
Incubator artists (emeritus):
Amanda Furdge, Ricardo Gamboa, Tricia Hersey, sarwat rumi, Vicky Sanders, Rupal Soni,
Reign Star, Amanda Torres, Avery R. Young.
Ellen Placey Wadey is former director of The Guild Literary Complex. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College (cum laude), a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She was awarded the Scott Turow Fiction Prize in 2001, received two Ragdale Foundation residencies, attended the Centrum Writers Conference by invitation of the writer Michelle Cliff, and studied with acclaimed writers Antonya Nelson and Michael Martone at the Postgraduate Writers Conference. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago.