Uptown ushers in old-fashioned fun with Pivot Multi-Arts Festival

Sammy Caiola, Reporter

It’s Reading Period. The weather is beautiful, it’s too early to study for your tests, and you’re thinking how it’s a shame you don’t get into Chicago more. Well, you’re in luck. There’s probably a 28-piece punk marching band playing just a short El ride away.

Our North Side neighbors in Uptown and Edgewater are launching the Pivot Multi-Arts Festival, a two-week celebration of innovative music, theater and dance. The festival, which incorporates about 30 dance groups, theater troupes and musicians, will provide free or cheap programming almost every day from June 6 until June 22, utilizing 13 neighborhood venues and partnering with small businesses and vendors on top of that.

Pivot Arts, founded in September 2012, serves as the primary “pivot point” between dozens of arts-invested organizations within the community, said director Julieanne Ehre (Communication ’02), who received her MFA in directing from Northwestern. The nonprofit made its first move last spring with the Fable Festival, which drew audiences from far and wide with its fairy tale and puppetry theme. This year, the festival aims to highlight some of Uptown’s history by performing in spaces that were active during the vaudeville era, such as FLATStheatre and Essanay Studios at St. Augustine College, which used to screen Charlie Chaplin films.

“There’s so much going on in Uptown now with rebranding as an entertainment district,” Ehre said. “If you look at the history, there were a lot of entertainment spaces in the early 20th century. So we’re reigniting the spirit of vaudeville.”

The artistic freedom and whimsicality of the vaudeville era live on in this year’s selection of performances, which Ehre said are “pushing the envelope” and “blurring the lines between music, theater and dance.” Highlights include Mucca Pazza, the aforementioned punk marching band; the Backroom Shakespeare Project; the Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak Dance Company and more. The Neo-Futurists, famous for their signature production “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” now the longest-running show in Chicago, will perform “The Carter Family Family Show,” a four-man production about country music, on June 9.

“Family Show” director Chloe Johnston (Communication ’11), who received her Ph.D. in performance studies from NU, said being part of the festival means a lot to the company, which has been in Andersonville for more than 15 years.

“Andersonville has really changed in that time, and the Neo-Futurists are definitely a part of that growth,” she said. “We’re proud long-term residents. … We feel tied to this community”

Community members of all ages are encouraged to attend the June events, especially children, who can join in on “Ice Cream and Improv” with Storytown Improv or with Second City alumna Jen Bills. Ehre said she hopes the low prices and wide range of times will also help to draw young parents and college students.

Heritage General Store, a participating vendor traveling from Lakeview, may draw particular attention from the college demographic because of its dual focuses on home-brewed coffee and hand-crafted bicycles. The store, which is accustomed to hosting local musicians and artists in its own space, will bring its merchandise June 8 to FLATStheatre, alongside Glazed and Infused doughnut shop, Goose Island Brewery and Dimo’s Pizza.

“It’s going to be music and beer, coffee and doughnuts and pizza, so what’s better than that?” Heritage manager Delaney Nichols said. “We saw the space and we’re really excited about it. … One of the things we’re really devoted to as a business is selling local wares from people who are doing really creative things in Chicago. That’s our contribution to the creative scene.”

When not planning a festival, Pivot Arts fosters a partnership with Loyola University, in which Pivot mentors and cultivates budding artists in exchange for use of the university’s Mundelein Center, a national historic landmark. Eventually, Ehre said, she would like to see Pivot Arts expand into a physical community space, possibly attached to a restaurant or coffee shop, which would include classrooms, rehearsal spaces and performance venues. In the meantime, she will keep focusing on pop-up performances.

“Using spaces that were underused is a great way to bring out the community,” she said. “Using a storefront that might have some gang activity really felt like it was serving a need.”

Pivot Arts held a kick-off event Wednesday and will launch an Indiegogo campaign to raise more awareness about the festival. The next event will be a performance June 6 by RE Dance in the Nicholas Senn High School Auditorium.