Milestone moments require us to reflect upon where we’ve been and consider where we might be headed. And while certain aspects of the last decade may feel like a bad dream, I can say with great confidence, that our local arts scene deserves a standing “O” for a solid ten years of artistic accomplishment ranging from advocacy to artistry, and from live theatre to the written word. It is said that the number ten represents change and energy flow, and that has been especially true here in our arts scene. If there is a common thread that runs through these “best of the decade” arts achievements, it is that they demonstrate the power of coming together, town and gown, student and professional, and artist and audience. The arts are perhaps our most robust and resilient locally-grown produce. As we look back, we should so with pride, but without complacency. We must safeguard what we have created and continue to support it with our words, our deeds, and our dollars.
— Debra Domal, Arts Editor
BEST Local Theater Production(s): Silent Sky + Elephant’s Graveyard
Choosing a single representative play or musical as the “best” thing produced in what we can confidently call a busy and ever-expanding theatre community is nearly impossible and definitely subjective. What one reviewer finds important and moving, another finds merely long. Some shows might have stellar production values (set, lighting, costumes) while the acting doesn’t quite hit the mark, while others contain brilliantly detailed performances of a merely mediocre text. Add to that the sheer number of productions that take place each year, multiplied by ten… You get the idea.
All of that having been said, I did my very best. What show best satisfies and represents the (to me) necessary qualifications of great acting, solid direction, strong writing, and an overall affecting experience? I did my best, but I still had to proclaim a tie. Limiting my choice to the four Champaign-Urbana community theatre outlets (CUTC, Station Theatre, Twin City, and Parkland College) and keeping in mind that — try as I might — I cannot see everything, the following are my picks for the strongest overall productions of the past decade:
The first is the Station’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, directed by Katie Burke. This was an altogether engrossing production: lyrical script, strong directorial concept and staging, and not a weak link in the cast. The humor, intelligence, and heartbreak present in the play’s writing was expertly translated to the stage, and I found myself drawn to it and into it from beginning to end.
The other, equally strong production was more recent. Latrelle Bright’s imaginative staging of George Brant’s Elephant’s Graveyard this past fall was a transporting endeavor and one of the finest pieces of work I’ve ever seen at Parkland College. Featuring a drum-tight ensemble and the incorporation of choreography, puppetry, and choral vocalization, Bright and her actors made the grim story as enjoyable to watch as it was devastating to absorb. (MG)
Elephant’s Graveyard photo by Bryan Heaton
BEST Arts Advocate: Kelly White
It’s no exaggeration to say that our current arts scene would not exist without the advocacy of Kelly White, 40 North’s extraordinary Executive Director. In the years that she’s been on board, White has grown 40 North’s programs from two to well over a dozen. Her energy, kindness, dedication, vision, and deep commitment to the belief that arts make communities thrive have made Champaign-Urbana a better place to live. Those lucky enough to have studied art history with her at Parkland, or to have seen her intensely beautiful paintings, know that her talent and vision infuses everything she does. She has helped make this a place where artists of all flavors feel appreciated and engaged. She has brought art into public and commercial spaces in meaningful and mutually beneficial ways. She has proven that engagement in the arts is good for the soul and good for business. From the wildly successful Boneyard Arts Festival to the Sky Gallery and MTD art gallery programs, proof of her commitment is all around us. I am happy to know that come 2020, Kelly White will have an additional staff member on hand to help continue and grow the vital arts advocacy work she began 10 years ago. (DD)
Photo from 40 North’s website
BEST Celebration: Krannert Center for the Performing Arts’ 50th
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts knows how to put the golden in golden anniversary: so many amazing performances to celebrate, as well as the teams of people behind the scenes who have helped make it all possible. I was fortunate to celebrate the big night right there in the Krannert lobby. I toasted the signature glittery golden Champagne cocktail with friends old and new. I enjoyed the sounds of the Jupiter Quartet and the inspiring words of Mike Ross, Krannert’s visionary director. But the party did not end there. The 2019-2020 anniversary season has been a continued source of joy and inspiration. From dance to theatre to music, this celebration has been both transformative and transcendent. Remaining true to the spirit of its founding donors, Krannert Center for the Performing continues to bring us together to celebrate what is best in us. It provides a welcoming space in a time of deep divisiveness. It holds a space for wonder, learning, and healing. I hope you are as excited as I am to experience the rest of the celebration. (DD)
Photo by Kwamé Thomas
BEST Muralist: Langston Allston
One of the truest bright spots of this past decade in the arts here was the emergence of Langston Allston as a prolific muralist in Champaign-Urbana. The list of places you can see his work is long by now: in the alley behind Sipyard and Courier Cafe; on the side of the old Mike N Molly’s / Seven Saints beer garden; inside of Pixo, on the sidewalks in front of Esquire; on particular homes in Champaign. Now living in New Orleans, and working near and far, his export continues to grow and pay dividends and make us proud. (SF)
Photo by Grace R Kenney
BEST Annual Art Event: Re-Fashioned
Last spring, Re-Fashioned, a re-use student fashion show helmed by University of Illinois School of Art + Design faculty member Susan Becker, celebrated its 12th runway season. This show, and its evolution, is a testament to the School of Art + Design’s commitment to research and finding creative solutions to global challenges. Think Project Runway’s unconventional materials challenge meets eco-awareness. When I spoke with Becker in May she told me she’s been teaching a version of this class since the 90s. Clearly ahead of her time, Becker shared that students whose budgets were limited really appreciated the thrifting/re-use course requirement. But now, facing a new decade bound to be filled with increasing awareness of consumer waste and the need for ecological awareness, re-use fashion has become, to quote Becker herself “a moral imperative.” I have watched this annual event grow in scale and in artistic vision, and I’m excited to see it evolve as more designers and artists jump on the re-use bandwagon. Kudos to Becker and her students for leading the way. (DD)
Photo by Melinda Edwards
BEST Discussion-inspiring Public Art: Mr. Eggwards
Typically, there’s a discussion that goes alongside a piece of artwork, regardless of the form it takes. We’ve been doing this as humans for a very, very long time. The fact that we have a piece of art that looks like this in the center of Champaign, located right next to Esquire Lounge, has not only garnered attention because of the location itself, but the fact that there’s a Humpty Dumpty-looking piece named Mr. Eggwards that is perched for all to see.
This was my thought process when I saw this initially:
Wait, a what? Humpty Dumpty? His name is “Mr. Eggwards”? I am not sure what to think here. This is throwing me for a loop. Do I love it? Hate it? Both? I’m going to need to take some time to think about this.
As soon as this went up, it immediately got people talking (yes, not just the voices in my head). Some absolutely love it. Some despise it. But that’s how it goes, you know? We’ve recognized it both as BEST and WORST in the same year. Mr. Eggwards had to get some work done because it had been vandalized at one point. But the point of highlighting it here is to showcase that people actually do care about our public art and what it means as a representation of our community.
That’s a good thing — getting a discussion started about a piece of art in this day and age. Mr. Eggwards has been the best source of public discourse, because regardless of what you think about it, at least you’re thinking about it. (PS)
Photo by Seth Fein
BEST Author: Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Over the years, Champaign-Urbana has been lucky to play host to some of our nation’s great authors. Add Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ name to that list. With an ethical position that sheds stark light on the American experience and a highly-rewarding prose style, Thompson-Spires’ fiction has earned well-deserved praise from casual readers and literary standard bearers alike. With her debut collection, Heads of the Colored People, Thompson-Spires introduced herself as an essential voice for a generation witness to the gruesome and dehumanizing quote-unquote post-racial politics of our time. Longlisted for the National Book Award, winner of the PEN America Literary Award and the Los Angeles Review Book Prize Award for First Fiction, Thompson-Spires has given us an indispensable artifact with Heads of the Colored People, a collection that will surely endure as a vital text for this moment in our history as it sets the stage for career we’d all be wise to follow closely. (CC)
Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz Photography
BEST Kid’s Program: Pens to Lens
Few programs bring together such a wide variety of talented artists as Pens to Lens’ yearly screenwriting and filmmaking competitions. Started in 2013, Pens to Lens inspired young filmmakers and screenwriters to work hard enough to get the chance to see their film shown or their screenplay brought to life. By connecting K-12 schools throughout East Central Illinois with the resources of the CU Film Society and Champaign-Urbana Moviemakers, Pens to Lens has shown us what’s possible when working artists come partner with educators. Kids dream bigger, work harder, and experience things that they might not otherwise have access to. Replete with red carpet and movie posters designed by local artists and designers, the Pens to Lens yearly gala has been a celebrated family event for years now. Looking ahead to 2021, Pens to Lens plans to expand the student filmmaking competition to enable more students to bring their stories to the screen themselves. With this as its primary focus, the screenwriting program will take a hiatus, with the promise of a future return. We look forward to seeing our local film screen grow with the continued efforts of Pens to Lens. (DD)
Photo by Steve Pratten
BEST Artist: Deke Weaver
Deke Weaver’s Unreliable Bestiary performances are clever, moving, humorous, and devastating. They are transformational: You are not the same person at the end of the performances as you were at the beginning, unless you’re dead inside. Is there a visual and performance artist who utilizes the immense talents and resources of the community better than Weaver? The answer is no. His performances are elaborate works of art that are possible because he has a team of amazing people working with him, most of whom live and work here (or once did). He stages his work in and around C-U: The Stock Pavillions at the University of Illinois, Krannert Art Museum, The Station Theater, Meadowbrook Park, Allerton Park. Each performance transports you somewhere else, and yet you are acutely aware that you’re still home in Central Illinois. Make an effort to see his next show; you won’t be disappointed. (JH)
Photo by Scott Wells
BEST Creative Design: Champaign Urbana Adventures in Time and Space
I’ve done my fair share of gushing about Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space here on Smile Politely, and that is not without merit. In my experience with local “escape” rooms — which is a bit of misnomer…you aren’t trying to escape anything at CU Adventures, you’re solving puzzles — there really is no comparison in terms of design.
A portion of the Smile Politely crew took on The Cabin, one of their original games at the original location, and the attention to detail was astounding. As a longtime fan of the horror genre, they had it nailed from creepy clowns to the overall “something is definitely off here” nature of the inside of this roadside cabin we were supposed to be navigating. Beyond the physical design of the space they created, I was blown away by the intricacy of the clues, and how the innovative minds of Anne and Chris Lukeman and their team were able to string them together into a wholly immersive adventure.
The move to their current location has expanded their ability to flex their creative muscles; it’s a bigger space that can accommodate even more elaborate sets, designed with the help of Joe Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Studios in Rantoul. Heck, even the lobby of the new space is something to behold.
40 North felt CU Adventures was worthy of an ACE Award back in 2017, and we feel they are worthy of a distinction in BEST Arts of the Decade. (JM)
Photo by Anna Longworth
BEST Dance Performances: Cynthia Oliver
Here’s the truth: I don’t really know much about dance, but I know about art, and I know what I like. Cynthia Oliver’s choreography and performances are art that I like. They engage with the history of dance in ways that are obvious to me and ways that are not obvious to me because of my limited experience intellectualizing dance. Yet all of her performances are accessible to viewers without dance knowledge, but there are layers upon layers to mine for meaning. Oliver works with members of our community to embody her artwork and present masterful, immersive experiences for her dancers and the audience. There’s music. There are visuals and graphics and singing and language and text. The costuming is incredible. Every single detail is considered equally, and that shows in each and every performance she stages. (JH)
Photo by Valerie Oliveros
BEST All-day Art Event: 8 to Create
Eight artists with eight hours to each create a work of art live in and front of (and often in collaboration with) an audience of local art lovers, this all-day event gets everything right. It represents the perfect collaboration between town and gown. 8 to Create is run entirely by University of Illinois students, yet features a wide range of local artists, including one lucky undergraduate artist. By putting the public front and center for the entire creative process, this event breaks down the myths and mysteries surrounding the making of art and replaces it with real experience and engagement. There is nothing as satisfying as watching a creative vision gradually emerge into being. 8 to Create is the closest thing visual artists and their fans come to the kind of interaction and energy exchange that live theatre inspires. Let’s be sure to keep this program growing by supporting it with our attendance, or by donating to their various fundraisers throughout the year. (DD)
Photo from 8 to Create Facebook page; artwork by Anat Ronen
BEST Annual Dance Program: Urbanite
For the past decade, Urbanite has consistently been the most energized and culturally diverse display of artistic engagement in Champaign-Urbana. Executive Producer Douglas Layne, with tireless help from Ashley Taylor and their team, has developed an event unlike any other, and each year, the crowds grow and the program becomes more intense. Dance teams from all over North America converge here in C-U to showcase five minutes of expertly choreographed and synchronized dances, mostly set to hip hop, but frequently throwing curveballs, slicing up and cutting in jazz, pop, classical, and more.
To witness it, you instantly find yourself overwhelmed in all the right ways. If you are a dancer yourself, you’re probably comparing their moves with your own, thinking about what it means to improve. If you can’t dance for shit, like myself, you are reminded that the human body is capable of so much if you ask it to show patience and learn step by step.
The bad news is that the next Urbanite won’t play til late 2020, as it just staged a banger of a show on Saturday at City Center.
The good news is that the funding is still coming in, and it has expanded to Mexico City, and that relationship means more cross-cultural vision is being shared, and developed together.
Mark this on your calendar now for next year. It is one of the best $20 you will spend on an “art show” all year. (SF)
Photo from Urbanite’s Facebook page
This article was compiled by Caleb Curtiss, Debra Domal, Seth Fein, Mathew Green, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.