The Great Chicago Fire Festival

As the spring semester  started  7 out of  the 9  Loeb fellows  skipped out on Harvard shopping days and flew to Chicago to support Jimmy Lasko , the co-artistic director of  Redmoon Theater Company.  The reason was a good one if not a little unusual. Our task was to brainstorm about a festival that would celebrate the legacy of a city raised from ashes in 1871 during the great Chicago Fire and it would be aptly named The Great Chicago Fire Festival.  Prior to the big day the city would bring outside and local artist and deploy them throughout neighborhoods in Chicago to create a series of collective sculptures.  These would be launched on the Chicago River on the anniversary of the fire encased in luminous lotus like shells that would process along the river. When the floats reached the mouth of Lake Michigan the shells would explode into flame revealing the collaborative creations behind. It frankly sounded ambitious and I didn’t see the fire Marshall anywhere but thought that if anyone could pull it off it would be Redmoon.

Despite it being 15 below we toured the banks of the river to understand the conditions along the water that would need to be accommodated.  Even though I thought I would die from cold I was glad we went. I was finally able to understand Jimmy’s vision of fire, light and activated bridges that would bring Chicago’s diverse community together to celebrate an amazing city that has for the most part turned its back on the river.


After defrosting myself I was fortunate to facilitate the groups on different types of spaces that are conducive to different types of participation and methods for engaging across the water from floats to banks. I was lucky to be facilitating my favorite kind of group; passionate and feisty with a touch of humor. We had a children’s story book publisher, representatives from The Chicago Community Trust and Chicago Parks department as well as the other co-artistic director of Redmoon, Frank Maugeri. Together we generated a strong range of ideas that built on capturing the 5 senses through the basic elements of earth, air, fire, water, metal and wood.  Ideas included everything from creating bonfires honoring the death of Chicago’s dying ash tress to extendable bridges that allows spectators to touch the floats. Creative collaborative sessions with these kinds of participants are amazing and energizing for me. I also realized facilitating is something I enjoy almost even more than generating ideas alone. There is something enriching and powerful about holding the space for creativity that fulfills me beyond just being a participant. I made a note to myself to do more of it before we were lucky enough to be whisked off to a Redmoon for hire party with men and women in mechanical costumes that poured glasses of wine and doled out hors d’oeuvres with very good fake English accents. The trip so far was proving to be quite a unique experience.

Working Session


The next day we met with illustrators, makers of every kind, musicians, playwrights and social media technologists to develop specific portions of the festival. I worked with a talented playwright and illustrator named Dav to envision the many of the ideas we had come up with the day before. How would we fasten a manually operated crane to the edge of the river bank for swinging large balls of incense? How would an inflatable slide get participants from the road to a raft on the river?  Now I love re-envisioning justice architecture for peacemaking and reparation but this was the kind of creative fun I had been really missing.

In other rooms at the Redmoon headquarters in the south side of Chicago we stopped to hear everyone’s progress on the design of the floats, the digital media strategies and how to improve the rivers ecosystem.  Listening to all the amazing ideas and watching them come to life through illustrations was like witnessing a kind of birth. I felt humbled to have assisted Redmoon in creating a new ritual on par with the great carnivals of the world. I couldn’t wait so see the festival come to life, feel the fire and maybe feel just a little bit proud about being a part of its vision.


One thought on “The Great Chicago Fire Festival

  1. Your article on the effort to create The Great Chicago Fire Festival is inspirational. It not only shows what it takes to create such an awesome and unique memorial, but also what the unity and collaboration of such talented, creative, knowledgeable, and community-minded participants can accomplish!!! Congratulations and best wishes for much success to Jimmy Lasko and all of you who are working to help make this wonderful memorial become a reality.

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