Overheard in the StoryBooth: Chicago’s Lake FX Summit + Expo

It’s Thanksgiving this week, and StoryCorps has launched a new project and app, with The Great Thanksgiving Listen Project. Earlier this year, Creative Exchange partnered with StoryCorps at the Lake FX Summit + Expo, a convening of artists, creative professionals, and entrepreneurs at the Chicago Cultural Center. At Lake FX, Creative Exchange invited attendees to record conversations about their art, their lives, and their relationships to each other.

Creative Exchange recorded conversations between Carl Atiya Swanson, editor of Creative Exchange and David Schalliol, sociologist and photographer; Larry “Cowboy Scotty” Scott of the 63rd Street Drummers, and Lavon Pettis and Dawn Posey, artists, Chicagoans, and friends of Cowboy; Sara Zalek and Alessandro Pintus, dancers and co-performers, Nicholas Ward and Fatimah Asghar, writers and partners; and Leah Urzendowski and Jay Torrence, theater collaborators and co-performers.

You can read the full transcripts here and here are some of the highlights from these artists’ conversations:

On being an artist

Sara Zalek: I came to art in a very naïve way. When I was young I was thinking when I went to the museum, those were artists in the museum. So I couldn’t relate, even when I went to look at art schools when I was making a lot of art in high school. I was thinking there is no way these artists I’m seeing in the museum — I’m not that, so I must not be an artist then. So it actually took me quite a long time to begin to be comfortable in making art as a profession.

Jay Torrence: I think it’s pretty exciting that [as theatre artists] we spend a chunk of our lives that we just really wanna do and are passionate with. Sometimes I gotta remind myself that though, but it is really true. I don’t have any regrets about the awesome, fun work that I’ve been able to be a part of in theatre.

Leah Urzendowski: And also choosing the work that we wanna create together and to collaborate with people we wanna collaborate with, tell the stories we wanna tell. That means that I can be fulfilled as an artist, and if it also means that I have to work front desk at a hair salon, that’s just the way it goes. And you just have to make peace with that, otherwise you’re just gonna be so mad all the time.

On performance

Lavon Pettis: So with the [63rd St. Beach Drummers] — to play with an ensemble, to play with a group you have to know how to collaborate with someone else. You have to be able to hear the other person and do the call and response. So tell me about what that’s like on the beach with 50 to 60 people. Someone might be amateur and the other one might be more experienced. What’s that like?

Larry Scott: It’s a great feeling to me because I know how to take people that start from the beginning like Jesus Christ did. We must walk amongst the thieves and everything else — the criminals — and take them and put them in a good world and give them music — something to put their mind into instead of being institutionalized. All they walk around and are talking about is jail. Let’s take that out of their mind and put them back on track. So what do you do? You teach them how to play the drum, and teach them how beautiful it is to look at the water and see the moon shadow come up across the waters.

Urzendowski: We don’t create by sitting down and you send a script and then someone looks at the blocking and someone blocks it and then someone directs. We get in a room and we figure it out physically together, and sometimes it takes a few minutes and sometimes it takes a few hours, but … I’m of the mindset that we could talk about it for a very long time, and then get on our feet and it’s total caca. Or we can get on our feet and figure it out now and know it’s gonna work.

Alessandro Pintus: I was doing theatre, but I was not very good in acting, so the director said please find your way through the body, because maybe he saw something in my body that could be better than just use of languages. … What I can say about Butoh [dance] is that it’s just a true way to find myself and to be more conscious of myself. There’s many things that I can’t explain about my being, but the body, it’s already into this kind of feeling. So the dance, especially Butoh dance, is my way to find the truth.

On connecting and relationships

David Schalliol: I was out with some friends in Detroit and we were out in a part of the city that I didn’t know very well, and we sort of stopped in the street and saw these murals that someone had made and asked someone on the street about them. They said, “I think that guy’s connected to the church over there,” so I wandered over and talked to the guy at the church and the guy at the church got really excited. It turns out he’s the minister and he knows the person who made it, and he commissioned this artist to make a painting of his wife on the side of the church. He took us all into the church and played music for us that he had recently recorded and was just — that experience of this openness, this sharing, this just like, “Let’s connect in this place,” is the kind of thing that happens all the time when you have the capacity to be open in that kind of way.

Nicholas Ward: The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve noticed how lonely everybody is in the world … I think part of the loneliness thing — when we were filling out our papers to be here [at Lake FX], one of the questions was “What is your own identity in your own words?” and that was very interesting to me. Partially because so many of the factors or so many of the reasons why we are lonely are because of definitions, or people asking you to define yourself in a certain way that maybe feels really counter to who you are as a person.

Fatimah Asghar: Sort of like the process of distilling your entire self into a few words feels incomplete, and therefore feels like a way that people naturally isolate themselves.

Ward: Right. But I think also working with youth and stuff and kind of seeing — hearing their stories and seeing in a lot of ways in which the high school cafeteria can be such a terrible place, such a terrifying place. Kids who don’t feel at home in their own definitions, whether that be queer or whether be trans or that be a different race — a non-white person when that’s a way that society makes you think of yourself as “this is the right way to be human,” and then suddenly you’re not that, and the loneliness that stems from that. It’s very interesting to me because I feel like in some ways if we got rid of some those definitions or those rules around how to be a human or how to be in a relationship even, we would have a much easier time not feeling so lonely.

On Chicago

David Schalliol: I just felt like the best way to understand the city was to go out and explore it, and so that meant going everywhere… But it meant particularly spending time on the South side because I felt like here I am, I’m in Hyde Park, we know that there’s a legacy of institutional — at least class-based divisions on the South side, and of course there’s persistent ethnic and racial issues too. And so I just felt like it was critical for me, as someone who was claiming identity as someone who’s living on the South side, who literally is living on the South side of the city, then I should have some deeper connection with what was going on around me and try to become part of a broader set of communities.

A piece of that meant going out to explore and to photograph — to use the camera as one tool, as an excuse to get to know people and to get to know a place, and walking down the street it was easy to say “I’m here because I’m a student; I’m here because I have a camera,” and it gave a really helpful opening for conversations. … And so that’s really how that piece of it started to merge with the city — just getting to know what’s around me.

Pettis: So you mentioned the [Black Panthers], and you also mentioned the fact that they were a tribe in your mind, but you also know that all of these different gangs came into effect during that time as well. What do you feel like was lost, if at one point the gangs were about some kind of protecting their neighborhood or looking out for their people, or just being regulated to their block, almost like a block club in some instances?

Scott: Absolutely. Actually the situation was set up for the black people not to have a gang, but more so a club of unity and watch over it, and mastermind taking care of our neighborhoods wherever they might have been, east, west, north or south. But we wanted it to be clear that it was a unity thing the way it started out. It was not started out as a gang or to kill one another. It was to bring unity to the black community.

Torrance: I feel lucky that we’re in Chicago to make theatre at this time. I think that there’ll be a thing where people look back at the art going on in Chicago, specifically in theatre, that’s run from the late ’80s till now that’s kinda unique to the country and maybe to the world.