Rhinofest at 30: Chicago theater fest endures as celebration of new, challenging works

 
 
Posted1/12/2019 7:32 AM
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  • The Crooked Mouth, led by Beau O'Reilly, second from left, and Jenny Magnus, center, perform during the 30th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival. The ensemble also includes Heather Riordan, left, T-Roy Martin and Vicki Walden.

    The Crooked Mouth, led by Beau O'Reilly, second from left, and Jenny Magnus, center, perform during the 30th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival. The ensemble also includes Heather Riordan, left, T-Roy Martin and Vicki Walden. Courtesy of Jeffrey Bivens

The Rhinoceros Theater Festival, the long-running, multi-arts celebration of Chicago's fringe running now through Feb. 24, owes its longevity to several factors. There's the talent of the participating artists, the vibrancy of the city and suburban theater scene, the enthusiasm with which audiences embrace new and non-mainstream works, and the commitment of the fest's true believers, many of whom have devoted decades to organizing and running the extravaganza.

Co-founder Beau O'Reilly has another explanation for why the fringe fest affectionately known as Rhinofest has lasted as long as it has.

"Stubbornness," said the Crystal Lake native. "Because we can do it, we will do it."

That, coupled with artist/organizers' willingness to adapt with the times, has helped sustain Rhinofest for 30 years, O'Reilly said.

The festival was the brainchild of theater lover Henry Seal, who had an idea to celebrate the theater scene in Chicago's Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood.

Asked why The Rhinoceros Theater Festival has lasted 30 years, co-founder and Crystal Lake native Beau O'Reilly responds with one word: stubbornness.
Asked why The Rhinoceros Theater Festival has lasted 30 years, co-founder and Crystal Lake native Beau O'Reilly responds with one word: stubbornness. -

Seal, whose boyfriend was a costume and mask designer, came up with the idea of a two-day theater festival (whose name is a nod to surrealist Salvador Dali) and got a local arts organization to donate $100 to the cause, said O'Reilly, 65. After a couple of years, Seal moved on, leaving the Curious Theatre Branch (founded in 1988 by O'Reilly and Jenny Magnus as the theatrical arm of their storied alt-rock band Maestro Subgum and the Whole) and Prop Thtr (founded in 1981 by Scott Vehill and Stefan Brün as an incubator for new talent and new works) to pick up the mantle.

"We all knew each other and were challenged by each other to make new work, better work," said the actor/producer. "It was exciting to be around it."

No one thought it would last.

"We didn't get grants or funding for the first 18 years," said O'Reilly, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who serves as co-curator along with Magnus. "The festival would end, I would take the money we made, put it in the top drawer in my living room and that would be the budget (for the next year)."

Julia Williams performs in Caryl Churchill's "The Skriker," a dark tale about a London shape-shifter, during the 30th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival.
Julia Williams performs in Caryl Churchill's "The Skriker," a dark tale about a London shape-shifter, during the 30th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival. - Courtesy of Jeffrey Bivens

Some years the fest lost money. One year, money got stolen. Gentrification priced them out of Wicker Park. But the mission of showcasing new, often risky works remained unchanged.

The lineup consists of about 40 new plays, about six of them solo shows that run in repertory over six weeks at Prop Thtr, which Rhinofest has called home for about 10 years. Performances take place every night but Tuesday, and audiences typically range from seven to 40 people, O'Reilly said.

For a work to be included in the festival it must: be new (or a unique production of an existing play); last no longer than 70 minutes and have minimal sets and props that can be set up and struck quickly. One more thing, adds O'Reilly: The artists can't be jerks.

"We don't have to work with people we don't like," he said, only partly joking.

From the beginning organizers adopted a pragmatic approach that balanced the fanciful with the practical. And while very few of Rhinofest shows are what one would consider commercial, they do attract audiences ranging in age from teens to seniors who share a similar fascination for new work, O'Reilly said.

Sweetback Productions examines bi-polar issues as part of 2019's Rhinoceros Theater Festival. The cast includes Diane Hamm, left, Robert Puig Cuevas, and Violet and Kelly Anchors.
Sweetback Productions examines bi-polar issues as part of 2019's Rhinoceros Theater Festival. The cast includes Diane Hamm, left, Robert Puig Cuevas, and Violet and Kelly Anchors. - Courtesy of Larry Hart

Some artists return year after year, he said.

"If you have a history with the fest, it counts for something," said O'Reilly, adding he and his fellow organizers are loyal, sometimes to a fault.

"We're enthusiastic about saying yes, but we're careful about saying no," he said.

This year Rhinofest boasts more female performers and directors, more people of color and more trans performers.

"It's a conscious decision on our part," he said. "These things matter to us."

When it comes to putting up shows, he and the other founders are less hands-on than they were in the beginning, which O'Reilly says frees him up to see more works.

"I like the shift," he said.

There was a period of time during the 1990s when O'Reilly says he felt momentum building for Rhinofest and hoped that would translate into wider recognition -- maybe even attract international attention.

"That really didn't happen," he said.

But after 30 years, O'Reilly says he's at ease and happy with Rhinofest's results.

"I have less of a need to have it recognized in the world and a willingness to appreciate it as it is," he said.

• • •

The 30th Annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival

Where: Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave., Chicago, rhinofest.com

When: Various times daily except Tuesdays, now through Feb. 24

Tickets: $15 or pay what you can

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