The Great Chicago Fire Festival

Redmoon Theater

Funding Received: 2013
Chicago, IL
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
April 22, 2014

Great Chicago Fire Festival Design Retreat attendees

By Hutch Pimentel

With spring finally arriving in Chicago, the winds of change have similarly blown through Redmoon: New projects, new staff, new ideas. My name is Hutch, and I’m one of those new staff members. I come to Redmoon by way of Chicago’s storefront theater scene, where I’ve worked for the last two years as a director and producer. I started working at Redmoon about a month ago, and since then I’ve been assisting Jim Lasko, our Executive Artistic Director. I could not be more excited about the growing group of passionate, diverse, and talented people who I get to work with here.

One of the greatest challenges and opportunities with the Great Chicago Fire Festival (GCFF) is that Redmoon—or any theater in Chicago—has never undertaken a project of this scale. Our solutions and projects are constantly evolving, which can be frustrating for us because they persistently demand flexibility and innovation. In our current placemakaing endeavor, we’re learning that holding things precious is both impractical and ignorant. But how often in our work is anything ever certain? Funding is dependent on the flow of assets through individuals and organizations that choose to fund our work. Valuable relationships are forged and offer new potential. Our choices with the GCFF are constantly impacted by the abilities and expertise of the community partners and artists we work with. With the landscape shifting beneath our feet, doesn’t it follow that our ability to problem-solve shift with it?

Our Great Chicago Fire Festival celebrates that spirit. Chicagoans built this great city twice. The second time we built it stronger, smarter, and taller. Our rebirth—phoenix-like—built the world’s first skyscrapers from ash and rubble. When our plans and ideas are no longer aligned with recent developments or become unfeasible, we’ve worked harder and smarter to come up with better solutions.

Recent Wins
Recently, we held a retreat with the designers involved with the GCFF to solidify our plans for the grand spectacle. We’re lucky to be working with some incredible collaborators, including scenic designer Walt Spangler and his assistants, pyrotechnic designers Kelly Sticksel and Matt Wood from Pyrotecnico, and mechanical designer Nicolas Gros from La Fabrique. It was inspiring to watch old plans be cast aside and have that loss inspire some truly spectacular innovations. For instance, we realized that our plan to initiate the fire spectacle with a figurehead lighting a cauldron that descended from a bridge to the Chicago River would be beautiful, it would take too long to move that fire down the river to the other four spectacle sites. Instead, we designed a solution that would allow the act of lighting to cauldron to be mirrored on all four bridges, which encourages more involvement from more of our community partners from the neighborhoods. We decided that the neighborhoods will be able to nominate community leaders to participate in the lighting ceremony, providing a great opportunity to strengthening community engagement in the spectacle—all of this from a simple production hang-up. Solutions like this are written in the framework of the festival.

How do we safely put out the fires we’ve lit on the river, and tell the story of how the Great Chicago Fire was finally put out? By celebrating the men and women of the Chicago Fire Department who risk their lives every day for our city, of course! As the fires rage on the platforms, firefighters will ascend and douse the flames. We’ve also thought about how we engage the residents of the official neighborhoods of the GCFF, not only during our summer series on their turf, but also on the day of the spectacle. We’re planning to create canopies in communal bazaars on the riverfront that community members decorate to celebrate their neighborhood in addition to making the celebration of these communities central to the finale of the spectacle—a reveal you’ll just have to wait and see.

When our organization took on a project beyond anything we had ever undertaken before, it was essential for us to look at the wide scope of the project not as a burden, but as an opportunity. In creative placemaking, there are often no footsteps to follow, which gives us the chance to forge a new path, full of obstacles, but each an occasion to break new ground.