Watch It Unfold

Community Created Performances Blog

The Community Created Performances program enables community groups from around Chicago to write, create and perform original music theater works that tell the untold stories of their communities using a core element of opera: story-telling through song. Use this blog to follow along with our Finalists as they complete the 16-week creative development process. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are Community Created Performances?

Community Created Performances are original music theater works created and performed by community groups using the core elements of opera: storytelling through song.

Chicagoans, regardless of background or experience, were invited to submit unique, untold stories from and of their communities. Applications are reviewed by an independent, community-based panel and up to 10 applicant groups are selected to be featured in individual video profiles on the Chicago Voices website. The public then views the videos and votes for the stories found to be most compelling. 

The top three groups with the most votes create and develop their original work, driven by the participants and supported by Lyric Opera professional artists and staff. Working closely with these professionals, the groups each create and develop original scripts, songs, and production elements for the performances, and take part in the culminating final performance of these works.

What kinds of community groups are you looking for?

The Community Created Performances are driven and developed by the participating groups. Groups are existing or newly-created. “Community” for the purposes of the Chicago Voices project is meant to be an expansive and inclusive term. Any group that meets the eligibility requirements outlined below, that gathers with shared interests, experiences or goals, and that has an interest in performing could apply. Prior performance experience is not required and preference is given to amateur groups.

Additional training and support provided by Lyric Opera of Chicago is made available in some cases. If chosen through the voting process, groups will have the opportunity to tell their unique story through the style of music, movement, and visuals that best defines their community.

Are there requirements for the group and group members?

Below are some parameters for group structure:

● Groups must be based in the city of Chicago.

● Groups must be comprised of at least 8 and no more than 12 core members. Additional participants for the performance may be considered. 

● Each participating member must be at least 12 years old.

● If selected as one of the final three groups, participants must commit to the full 16 weeks of the project  beginning in June 2017.

● The group must be willing to go through the process of creating an original work and taking part in the performance of that work. Each member should be comfortable
with the artistic requirements involved in the project, including singing. No prior experience is necessary.

● This program is intended for amateur groups.

Do the groups selected as finalists have to sing?

Yes. Chicago Voices aims to celebrate Chicago vocalism and share the stories of Chicago through singing. Part of the creative process will be enabling each group to develop and sing in their own authentic voice. This does not mean that groups have to perform opera or classical vocal music, nor do groups need any prior experience or training in singing.

How do I apply?

Applications for the Chicago Voices 2017 Community Created Performances are now closed. Sign up for the Chicago Voices mailing list for the latest information on semi-finalists and public voting for the program.

What are the Voting Terms and Conditions?

Read Voting Terms and Conditions.

How are groups selected?

After the application period has closed, an independent, community-based review panel of Chicago Public Library employees will select up to 10 semi-finalists based on the uniqueness and strength of the story,  diverse representation of Chicago, and group enthusiasm for the project. 

The semi-finalists selected will then be showcased through an online video profile. The profile will include interviews with group members sharing the story they want to tell. 

Video profiles will be posted on the website for public voting. The public will have the opportunity to view all of the semifinalists’ profiles and vote for the story that they want to see presented on the stage. The three semifinalist groups who receive the highest votes will be invited to participate in a 16-week creative development process to develop their concept into an original work.

What will the groups selected as finalists have to supply to participate?

The three groups selected as finalists will work with a team of professionals to create an original script, songs in a musical style of their choice, and a fully-staged production of their story. Each group will be assigned an animateur (facilitator), who will work closely with the group to further define their story, assist in identifying and supporting artistic resources from within the group, and facilitate group meetings and sessions. 

The three groups will work with a scriptwriter to create a narrative for their work, a songwriter/arranger to set the narrative to music, and a director who will support the creative design and staging of the final production. 

A public reading of the script will be presented in a neighborhood venue in August and a fully-staged culminating performance featuring all three groups will be presented at a major downtown venue in Fall 2017. All performances will be free and open to the public.

What are the benefits of participating in the project? Is there a winner?

The “winners” of the project are the three groups selected as the finalists during the community voting process. All three groups will receive the same benefits, including:

● Increased exposure for their community and story throughout Chicago via the Chicago Voices website, social media promotions, and performances.

● A professional creative team, a $10,000 stipend to offset costs and time required for the project, and accompanying resources provided by Lyric Opera.

● Strengthening their community through the creative process by developing a deeper understanding of the individual and collective stories within it.

● Professional training and experience in story writing, song writing and performing, supported by the creative team. 

● A fully-realized creative work that they will be able to continue using to share their stories with the greater Chicago community.

What will we have to supply if we are selected as finalists?

Lyric Unlimited will provide the majority of all resources needed to facilitate the creative process, the promotion, and the administrative support of the project. Participating groups will be responsible for providing:

● A Community Lead who will be responsible for coordinating information on behalf of the group and relaying communications between the group members and the Lyric artists and staff throughout the development process.

● Commitment from all members of the group for participation through the entire duration of the project. 

● Identification or provision of a suitable space for regular group meetings and rehearsals.

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Play Video - CCP_BLOG_Featured_FullDocumentary

Chicago Voices: Community Created Performances

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Staging with Harmony, Hope & Healing

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Scriptwriting with Tellin' Tales Theatre

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Songwriting with The Kirin-Gornick Band

Production Insights: More than Votes, Semi-Finalists’ Videos Have Stories to Tell

March 10, 2017

Written By: Melissa Fox, fig media inc.

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;
courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen," 
~ Winston Churchill

This is our second year filming the Community Created Performances program with Chicago Voices and Lyric Unlimited. At fig media inc. we tell stories for a living. We know the transformative power of turning the camera on and listening. We believe in the power of art and storytelling to shape communities, champion change, and bring people together. We witnessed this firsthand while filming the Chicago Voices Community Created Performances program with Lyric Unlimited. We couldn’t be more delighted to take that mission on for a second year.

At fig media inc. we tell stories for a living. We know the transformative power of turning the camera on and listening. We believe in the power of art and storytelling to shape communities, champion change, and bring people together. We witnessed this firsthand while filming the Chicago Voices Community Created Performances program with Lyric Unlimited.
Alexis Pettis of Kuumba Lynx (left) is prepped for her filmed interview by fig media Director Melissa Fox (center). Fig Production Assist and Editor Nicholas Sanchez (right) adjusts his camera in preparation for filming.

Our team interviewed all eight semi-finalists in February to help them craft their online video profiles. These profiles will be used for the public to vote. Our job is to give each group the best chance they have at describing who they are, what they care about and, if selected, what an audience might see, hear, or feel. Fig media inc. director Melissa Fox, in collaboration with the Lyric Unlimited and Chicago Voices team, spent time discussing each group and how we might best tell their stories. Our team transformed the Florian Bistro at the Civic Opera House into an interview set. Melissa then got to work coaching each interviewee through the process of telling their stories on camera. With patience and guidance she made sure each group felt authentic on film while hitting specific points for each application. It sounds easier than it is. It takes patience, listening, and lots of teamwork between the Lyric team and the fig team to capture each group.

Two things struck us as a commonality among all the groups this year. The first being that our current climate has affected everyone in our city. The groups applying this year are extremely diverse and passionate, and care deeply about making their communities stronger while educating others about their unique perspectives in the city. Stories of resilience, perseverance, and hope in the face of challenges are a theme across the board. The second is that each group had examples of how our current events are shaping their resolve to share their stories more openly.

As filmmakers, this gets us excited! We could see anyone of these groups creating show stopping content that is sure to move you. They came to play and they brought their courage, vulnerability, and passion to their video profiles.

As with the beginning of any project, the anticipation of seeing what will happen is building. We would love to see all the people we interviewed have a chance to tell their stories on the stage. We laughed, cried, were whipped up into passionate anger, and were moved by everyone we heard from. Our experience last year taught us that when a group goes through this process something amazing happens to them and their communities.

As Chicagoans ourselves, we know how important it is to tell the “untold,” stories of our city. Doing so will build connections and forge understanding between parts of our city that rarely interact, but are connected to one another so deeply. This unity is what makes the tapestry of our streets so beautiful. Rarely do groups like these have the opportunity to take the stage in such a famous public forum. For most of the applicants, this opportunity would be life-changing.

So we invite you to listen to each story presented and vote for your favorite.

We might be biased, but we think all of Chicago should know about this project so please share it with your friends.

Voting begins online at on Monday, March 13, 2017.

Thank you to the staff at Chicago Voices and Lyric Unlimited for having our team back a second year. We can’t wait to tell the story of the amazing journey three of these finalists will go on!

2017 Team Fig: Executive Producers: Michele Gustin, James Gustin, Director:  Melissa Fox,  Production Assist and Editor: Nicholas Sanchez.

See more fig media inc. projects here: 

Chicago Sings: Andrew W. Mellon Coverage of the Chicago Voices Initiative

December 16, 2016

Read the complete article online on the Mellon Foundation website

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies. To this end, we support exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work.

( ... continued from Mellon.orgSusan Feder, Mellon Foundation program officer for Arts and Cultural Heritage states that The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has worked with Lyric for 30 years and Anthony Freud, who arrived as Lyric's general director in 2011 after holding similar positions at the Welsh National Opera and Houston Grand Opera, has a proven track record in expanding an opera company's reach beyond its own walls. 

“The level of engagement with community members on such a large scale is unprecedented,” said Freud. “It is a clear indication of the direction min which major cultural institutions such as Lyric should be moving to provide a depth and breadth of service to our community, and to reflect the multitude of voices who define who we are as a city.”

“He was a trusted partner with a vision we had faith he could manage,” said Feder. The faith has paid off in various ways for the project’s three finalists.

“We did things we had never done before,” said Joseph Kirin, who helped found Kirin-Gornick Band approximately a decade ago. Like most band members, he is the latest generation in his family to play Eastern European folk music and instruments as a way to keep their centuries-old folk culture alive.

“They had us write out our stories,” said Kirin. “Then the musical director would say, ‘Take your instrument and improvise something underneath that story.’ We had never done that. They’d say, ‘Make up a story, and you have to tell the whole story in one minute. Now tell that story in 30 seconds, 15 seconds, five seconds.’ They were teaching us that you can tell a story in a very short amount of time. You can knock a lot of the fat off.”

“This was life-changing for all of us, to realize that we are one of Chicago’s voices,” said Marge Nykaza, a pastoral musician and teacher who founded Harmony, Hope & Healing in 2002. Using music to promote social justice, the group works with more than 800 Chicagoans through choruses and music programs it sponsors.

“We were so used to doing it ourselves” said Tekki Lomnicki, Tellin’ Tales Theatre’s cofounder and artistic director. “I personally needed to step back and see how our stories are seen through a fresh eye. I especially loved that the composer used our own words to create the songs. We had to write in a journal, and they had an intern transcribe all of our journals.”

The theater pieces developed with Lyric now belong to each group. Feder hopes they will have a life beyond the single September 24 performance, and that the groups will present them throughout Chicago.

“We didn’t know how this would land for people,” said Kirin. “We expect that someone who is Croatian and Serbian to say they love it. It’s their culture.” But he was surprised that the diverse audience at the Harris were moved by their stories and music as well.

“We were just being ourselves, about our life and our expression of it. That’s what may have really hit home to people, that it was real.”

Participating groups in the 2016 Chicago Voices Community Created Performances take their final curtain call at the Harris Theater in September, 2016. Chicago VOices Community Created Performances will also open to community theater groups in 2017 

A New World of Expression

December 12, 2016

Written By, Joe Kirin (pictured), Community Lead for the Kirin-Gornick Band 

Cheryl Coons, Animateur for Harmony, Hope & Healing align=

Participating in the Chicago Voices project left me and my colleagues exhilarated by an adventure that is still resonating with us today. 

I came to hear about this opportunity through a friend and family member and we were all quick to interest ourselves in what might be possible in creating music from the context of theatre—an arena we’ve never performed in previously. 

A sixteen-week development schedule looks a bit daunting as you begin but as you go through it, you discover all kinds of things about the music you perform, the people you share it with, and how we all interact and before you know it the performance is ready. The Chicago Voices artistic team was amazing in how they absorbed our stories and helped us to develop an original piece of work that delivered distinctly our message of traditions, family values, and how the power of music brings people together.

 In the first couple of weeks we experimented with new rhythms and melodies using musical tubes. Then on to creating stories that could be told in one minute or less and even as little as a couple of seconds! One of the most interesting moments was when we provided a background of improvised music to a line of dialogue. It opened up a new world of how to express not only your music but the stories of our lives as well. This all led up to a magical performance that left us and our audience happy.

 I believe any group who has a musical story to tell and a message to send will benefit greatly from participating in Chicago Voices. You will learn to better communicate what you have to say and express and it will teach you to do so in a way that leaves the observer touched, moved and inspired by what you have created and delivered on. On a more personal level you discover more about yourself and your colleagues in what you are capable of and leave being more related with each other and with a new and ever-expanding view of what is possible in the future.

Reflections from the process: there is more work to be done.

November 05, 2016

Written By Jacob Watson (pictured), Animateur for Tellin’ Tales Theatre

Jacob Watson, Animateur for Tellin’ Tales Theatre align=

 Pop quiz: how many popular musicals can you name that are written by, performed by, and about the  experiences of people with disabilities? I can think of one. It’s called, FREEDOM out of order, and it is the  piece we created with Tellin’ Tales Theatre for the Chicago Voices project. There are musicals about  disability  (“Next to Normal”) and there are musicals that have featured performers with disabilities  (“Spring  Awakening”), but all three of these things together? It’s rare. 

 So, why does that matter? It matters because the stories we hear affect our ability to understand and  relate  to one another. Stories build empathy. And a lack of access to stories about people who are  different than  us….well, you can figure out where that one goes.

 As Animateur my job throughout the process was to work with Tellin’ Tales to identify our “untold  story” –  the things that most people didn’t know or understand about our community. At our first  rehearsal back in  June, we considered the words of author Rebecca Solnit, who said that “people live  and die by stories.” We  talked about how stories of disability have played out politically and in our daily  lives – everything from the  ADA to anecdotes about well-meaning allies who responded to the sharing  of very real struggles with “tell me  something good.”

 Over the next ten weeks, we sifted through these ideas, distilling them into a tightly-crafted tale of  ordinary  Chicagoans navigating life in a unique way.

 Then, before our public reading in August – amid frantic scrambling to assemble scripts in binders and  organize chairs onstage – we gathered together to take stock of the impact we hoped to have on our  audience.  I shared a quote from Anne Bogart’s A Director Prepares, in which she talks about how  societies  need "new mythologies" in order to evolve, grow, and become more inclusive. She argues  that the artists are  the ones who craft these mythologies, which “always include ideas, cultures, and  people formerly excluded  from the previous mythologies.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “the history of  art is the history of  inclusion.” Sitting in community with a responsive and encouraging audience that  night, I could feel a shift in  the kinds of stories that might be possible.

 Magnifying that piece to scale onstage at the Harris Theater in September was nothing short of  revelatory. All  of a sudden, a wide swath of people – many for the first time -- were invited to consider  the journey to  succeed in school, career, and dating through the lens of disability. This is what  musicals can do for us: they  take huge, insurmountable topics and break them down into their most essential human components: the need to be loved, the desire to achieve, the frustration at being underestimated.

And by the way, I would like to be clear that our piece, FREEDOM out of order, is far from perfect. As an artistic team, we tried our best to create authentically and in partnership with our community, but there are things we could have done better. There always are. There are ways we could have been more inclusive; stories we could have dug into with greater complexity; darker aspects to the experience we could have explored. So, it’s not perfect. But it exists

After all, FREEDOM is not the first piece to take up this charge and it won’t be the last. (Tellin’ Tales alone has been sharing the stories of people with disabilities and their allies for over 20 years.) There is much more work to be done, and it isn’t easy. So, are we are up to the challenge? As Ambition says in the play, "don’t ask me if I can — ask me HOW.”

Harmony, Hope & Healing…Oh, What a Feeling!

October 03, 2016

Written By Cheryl Coons (pictured), Animateur for Harmony, Hope & Healing
Cheryl Coons, Animateur for Harmony, Hope & Healing align=

We’re at the Harris Theater, the day before the big performance. The members of Harmony, Hope & Healing are backstage for the first time, walking the maze of hallways. We round a corner, and Wanda catches sight of her name on a dressing room door.

“Look!!! My name!!!”

Soon everyone’s posing for pictures, pointing at their names on the doors.

“I feel like a star!” Amanda’s dancing in front of her dressing room door. Over my 10 weeks of working with the group, I’ve discovered that Amanda’s trademark candy is the Starbust, and she’s wearing all the colors of the rainbow today.

I remember watching HHH’s application video. It was all about Amanda for me. Her infectious joy. Her candor in sharing about the rough path of addiction and homelessness she had traveled to get to where she is today. As the animateur selected to work with HHH, I couldn’t wait to meet her.

I also had the joy of meeting Angie, Christine, Dave, Louis, Marcia, Tina, Wes, and Wanda, and Marge Nykaza, the founder and artistic director of HHH. Most of these ensemble members had survived unimaginable circumstances. Their lives were transformed through the healing power of music and this terrific organization.

During the time we were creating the performance, some of our cast continued to experience life challenges. The deaths of two family members. A recurrence of a serious illness. Financial hardship. One member’s home was robbed as she slept. Another member saw a neighbor gunned down and held him in his arms as he died.

Still, in the midst of all this real-life drama, the group members showed up for rehearsal every week, opened themselves, laughed, cried, played together, and created a musical presentation that captured their personal stories.

On September 24, on the glittering stage of the Harris Theater, the members of Harmony, Hope & Healing shone like the stars they truly are. I’ll never forget peeking through a curtain backstage, watching their flawless performance.

As Amanda said in HHH’s video, “What I love is that we start off as strangers, we remain as friends, and we’re forever musically connected.”

I’m forever musically connected to these beautiful people, and I’m sure no one in the audience on September 24 will ever forget them. As Christine says, “Harmony, Hope & Healing…Oh, what a feeling!”

Community Created Performances Partner