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Fire, Water, Danger, Spectacle at The Great Fire Festival

RedMoon Theatre has been providing Chicago residents with free events and entertainment for the past 24 years. The organization has partnered with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park district to bring the city their biggest event yet, The Great Chicago Fire Festival, on October 4th under the leadership of executive artistic director, Jim Lasko.

Laski explained the nuts and bolts of the Great Chicago Fire Festival.
Lasko describes the narrative and the scope of the Great Fire Festival event at Redmoon. Photo by Barbara Iverson

Lasko, a Highland Park native, has been with RedMoon since 1991. “We’ve never done anything of this scale before,” Lasko said referring to The Great Chicago Fire Festival during a visit to their facilities located on 2120 S. Jefferson St. The festival’s biggest spectacle will include setting fire to three, large pre-Victorian houses on the river.[pullquote]Here’s a Q & A with Jim Lasko[/pullquote]

The event is designed to commemorate  the 1871 Chicago Fire and to celebrate the growth and renewal of Chicago after the fire. For the event, RedMoon brought together a variety of people, who have worked over the summer as volunteers or actually had their hands on the objects being built for the Festival, according to Lasko.

[pullquote]Communities working with Redmoon[/pullquote]Thirty high school students have, also, taken a part in constructing the event. The participants -whose average age is 15- are Chicago Public School students from the After School Matters  program. They dedicated part of their summer to fabricating 15  cauldrons for the event.  They bent and welded these cauldrons for about a week, and then it took another week to work on the upside down legs. The students worked with Jacqueline Valdaz, a volunteer at a volunteer at the After School Matters program.

Photo Sep 17
Jacqueline Valdez, a volunteer at After Schools Matter program, shows students the blueprints of the caldrons. Photographed by Katie Berg.

“Our general engineering program is named: ‘Engineering Wonders.” Jacqueline Valdaz, continued, “we did a burning test outside after we hand-made them.”

Behind the smoke and fire the public will witness, is a narrative. it is the story of the main steamship, which will carry fire to the three, smaller helper boats. The main boat has a vintage base, with a 70s paddle boat exterior and original electrical work, but has been transformed to incorporate the Great Chicago Fire theme.

The upgrades took two months to complete, but include a giant, red water wheel, that will aid in propelling the boat forward, and industrial style column on top that looms over the water. Erik Newman, RedMoon’s technological landscaper, says the boat has a “sinister presence.” The boat, in terms of the festival, represents the dark forces of a pre-developed Chicago.

Side of Main Steamship
The side of the main steamship, used to carry fire to the smaller, helper boats. Photograph by Megan Ammer

“The Chicago Fire was somewhat of a cleansing process,” according to Newman. While walking to his enclosed office between a sky-blue wall filled with printed protypes of a steamship and a mock rusted-red ferris wheel, he presents his version of the Chicago fire. Newman explains that the steamboat he had been constructing was to bring fire as opposed to causing one. From his point of view, The Chicago Fire was a way to start everything over.

“Its presence was a dark force of development,” Newman says.Despite its tragedy, The Chicago Fire is looked at as a rebirth according to Redmoon’s crew. The aftermath had led to a series of renovations such as the city’s renowned skyscrapers. RedMoon’s work on reconstructing the  mock wooden skyscrapers that will rise 60 feet above the Chicago River only to burn, attempts to tell thus versus if the story if the fire.

One of the more nerve-wracking displays will involve mock firemen climbing up two ladders suspended forty feet in the air to put out a flaming house.

​“This is either a test to their bravery or insanity,” said Jim Lasko, the executive artistic director, referencing the courageous performers.

​Trying to replicate a scenario that happened in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the “firemen” will climb up the suspended ladders and continue to douse burning cedar shingles.

​Considering there will be no definitive rehearsal, it makes sense that Lasko would have some concerns regarding the actual event. While they are able to rehearse certain pieces of the event, Lasko expressed the need for caution when show time hits.

​“One bad fall,” stated Lasko, “could mean someone’s life.”

The Great Chicago Fire Festival takes place on October 4 at 8 p.m. Those who attend are sure to be in for a treat. The workers, volunteers and students put their blood, sweat and tears into the event. The event is sure to be one to remember that should bring people from all over Chicago together. Hutch Pimentel, artistic assistant to Jim Lasko believes that the audience will get the best view on the east side of the river because the coolest house is closest to the lake. “One of the great things about the Chicago Fire Festival is that it’s a platform for people,” Pimentel said.

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