Things look different this year as Chicago festivals and outdoor events respond to stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Spring festivals like the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) would already have live and in-person events at venues across the city with impressive guest speakers and live audiences in an ordinary year. This year, they’ve had to make changes.
What began in November 1990 as a one-day affair with a keynote address delivered by Arthur Miller to an audience of 3,500 has since expanded to nearly 150 programs over two seasonal festivals attracting a combined audience of over 50,000. The Chicago Humanities Festival’s Spring Fest celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year and brought in speakers like Stacey Abrams, Jennifer Egan and Bill McKibben for programming concurrent with the theme, “Year of Power.” This year’s theme for year-round programming is “Vision” and invites people to ask themselves what it means to have vision for oneself, the world, or the future.
The theme was decided well before the pandemic derailed scheduled programming in local venues but it’s more poignant than ever, given current circumstances. Alison Cuddy—Chicago Humanities Festival’s Marilynn Thoma Artistic Director—along with the dedicated CHF team, quickly made the transition from programming public events to a digital festival platform.
The digital events have included a livestream chat with comedian and author Cameron Esposito regarding her memoir, “Save Yourself,” which is centered on the importance of queer visibility. A livestream with WBEZ Nerdette podcast host Greta Johnsen and “Divergent” series author Veronica Roth detailed her latest book, a dystopian novel set in Chicago, “Chosen Ones.”
“Right at the start we asked CHF audiences if they’d be up for this—they came back with a resounding yes—and what kind of content they were thirsty for,” says Cuddy. “We feel lucky to have an audience willing to go along on this experiment with us. They’ve shown up and really engaged with presenters during the live events.”
Celebrated singer-songwriter Tori Amos is known for facing controversial topics head-on through her music. Her forthcoming memoir, “Resistance,” addresses everything from sexual assault in “Me and a Gun” from her debut studio album “Little Earthquakes” and her latest album “Native Invader,” which explores political and environmental issues. Amos joined A.V. Club senior writer Katie Rife in early May for a livestream conversation about the album and how music can propel us through uncertainty.
The digital fest isn’t limited to livestream conversations. Opportunities to chat with some of the most influential creatives in their fields is one way CHF is keeping the festival spirit alive and thriving. With a thirty-year record of producing well-attended and celebrated gatherings, the CHF team is used to creative problem solving.
“Everyone, not just CHF, was on a steep learning curve those first weeks and now look at how many of us have adapted to interacting via Zoom or Twitch or YouTube live platforms,” says Cuddy. “Even though we plan the hell out of our events they’re still live and direct, we’re used to turning on a dime, and that experience and spirit has definitely helped move us through potential hurdles.”
It’s a cliché to say that social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation, but thanks to events meant to bring people together, like Spring Fest programming, Mayor Lightfoot’s Sunday Arts Takeovers on Instagram, or even DJ D-Nice’s Live Quarantine Dance Parties—plenty of people are working to instill a sense of community.
Recognizing how overwhelming things are now and that people have more free time than usual, the Chicago Humanities Festival team put together helpful videos, Q&As, reading lists, round-ups and presenter recommendations. “Round-up: How are we using the humanities to make sense of the pandemic” is an impressive collection of what to watch, listen to and read if you want to hear from and support Chicago creatives.
There’s even a video conversation between Alison Cuddy and Rachel Maddow on how to make the perfect classic martini. Hint: it’s stirred, not shaken. In coming weeks, CHF will release more live digital programs and fresh web content to keep folks coming back. The Festival has always been committed to connecting people and inspiring fresh ideas. Current circumstances offer CHF another opportunity to find innovative ways to do that.
“We’ll continue to encourage participation and exchange as a way to make sense of it all, to illuminate the impact but also show how people are gathering their collective strength and wisdom to figure out how we want to live on the other side of this,” says Cuddy. “The line between ideas and action feels direct and immediate right now and so it is ever more important that we gather in whatever way possible to help foster those transformations. We will continue to evolve how this looks via new digital formats—so stay tuned!”