Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks performances begin July 25 and run through August 5. Credit: Ty Optix Photography

CHICAGO — Shakespeare in the Parks is back next week, bringing an all-new production and free performances throughout the city.

Shakespeare in the Parks, a collaboration among Chicago Shakespeare and nine neighborhood arts organizations, returns Tuesday to Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave. with “The Hero Within.” Then it will start on a 10-day tour of free shows on the South and West sides. 

In the past three years, since the pandemic, Shakespeare in the Parks has abandoned its original strategy of performing full Shakespeare plays in as many city parks as possible. It’s now partnering with neighborhood arts groups on original productions inspired by Shakespearean themes, and then performing those shows in the neighborhoods where they originated.

“It’s more about process than product,” said general manager Paige Whitson-Martini. The ultimate goal is to make Shakespeare more accessible to Chicago kids.

“The Hero Within” director Tor Campbell said he empathizes with young people who find Shakespeare’s language daunting. “I’m not that experienced with Shakespeare at all. Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand what he’s saying. But when I’ve watched Shakespeare, even when I don’t understand the text yet, if someone puts it to a song or a movement, I’m like, ‘That’s what he’s saying!’ It’s about creating the sensibility first.”

Campbell, an actor, dancer and choreographer who is currently a student in Northwestern’s directing MFA program, started by thinking about the theme of heroism and selecting a few popular songs that engage with it, like Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” Then he met with experts at Chicago Shakespeare who suggested speeches from various Shakespeare plays, including “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Campbell strung them together into scenes, translated some of the language into more modern English and added segues to the pop songs.

Once rehearsals began, Campbell and his ensemble of six professional actors and two dozen performers from the community partner organizations began integrating movement and dance with the words and music to create an hour-long performance. Each community group will have a showcase during the production.

There will also be pre-show activities, including crafts, a DJ and a dance lesson so that audience members can join the performers during the show. The cast and crew, including Campbell, will stick around to answer questions after the final curtain.

For Campbell, the theme of heroism has special resonance for Chicago in 2023. “There are so many stories of people being hurt,” he said. “We need a hero, and it starts with individuals: heroes from the bottom up. Change has always started that way.”

Credit: Ty Optix Photography

This is the third year that Move Me Soul, a youth dance company in Austin, has participated in Shakespeare in the Parks. The group’s executive director Diana Muhammad said she liked the mission of bringing a more accessible version of Shakespeare to the city’s neighborhoods. She also liked that Move Me Soul and the other community partners were allowed to retain the spirit and essence of the work that they do: the neighborhood becomes part of the show.

It’s also a great opportunity for the young adult performers. “It puts them in a different platform as dancers,” Muhammad said. “It exposes them to Navy Pier as well as other neighborhoods the show is performed at. They’re part of the cast. They meet different people, have different experiences.”

Last summer’s Shakespeare in the Parks tour was cut short after shots were fired 15 minutes into the performance at Columbus Park in Austin; that show and two others in Ogden Park in Englewood and Ping Tom Park in Chinatown were canceled. No one was hurt, but audience members were rattled. Move Me Soul later participated in a community healing event.

“Onstage and offstage,” Muhammad said, “we were using art as a way not just to entertain, but to reach people who were healing from that event.” For her, that sort of community connection is a form of heroism. But she hopes the show will give people a chance to reflect on their own idea of what makes a hero.

Campbell hopes they’ll do more than that. “This is a call to action,” he said. “I want people to do something, whatever that means, even if it’s something as little as helping somebody across the street. Little things are contagious. You do something that can make a change in the world. The hero within … is you.”

And if it piques a kid’s interest in Shakespeare, so much the better. “I hope they go off and learn more about it themselves,” he said.

This summer’s Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks schedule is below. All performances are free:

Tuesday, July 25 at 6:30 p.m. – Polk Bros Park (600 E. Grand Ave.) on Navy Pier

Wednesday, July 26 at 6:30 p.m. – Polk Bros Park (600 E. Grand Ave.) on Navy Pier

Thursday, July 27 at 6:30 p.m. – Piotrowski Park (4247 W. 31st St.) in Little Village

Friday, July 28 at 6:30 p.m. – Columbus Park (500 S. Central Ave.) in Austin

Saturday, July 29 at 6:30 p.m. – Blackhawk Park (2318 N. Lavergne Ave.) in Hermosa & Belmont Cragin (Audio-⁠described performance)

Thursday, August 3 at 6:30 p.m. – West Pullman Park (401 W. 123rd St.) in West Pullman

Friday, August 4 at 6:30 p.m. – Ogden Park (6500 S. Racine Ave.) in Englewood

Saturday, August 5 at 6:30 p.m. – Ping Tom Memorial Park (1700 S. Wentworth Ave.) in Chinatown (American Sign Language (ASL) interpreted performance)

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