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 watch as new theater works unfold and our finalists and artists undergo this artistic journey.

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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

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!”

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!”

Tellin' Tales Theatre

September 01, 2016

The group members of Tellin' Tales Theatre worked together with their Animateur, Scriptwriter and Songwriter to generate material for the script of their original work for Chicago Voices Community Created Performances.

Over the course of the first 5 weeks of the program, they participated in community-building and story-generating activities led by the artists, who then guided the transformation of those stories into a formalized script and musical score. According to scriptwriter, Erin Austin, they were able to gather "all of these stories and all of this emotion and all of these question marks" which helped them find ways to "tell [them] dramatically and theatrically on stage." The final staged version will reflect the personal stories of each of the participants from the group relating to their lives in Chicago.

Kirin - Gornick Band

August 24, 2016

The Kirin-Gornick Band's story has been heavily influenced by their traditional folk music of the former Yugoslavia, combined with a flair of modern-day Chicago. As they moved into the songwriting process, their original script was brought to life even more by the vibrant and deeply emotional connection they each have to the music. They worked closely with their artistic team to make sure that the script reflected the themes of their story and their music from the beginning, making it even easier to flesh their stories out further with the addition of the music, which includes "a mixture of the folk music that they perform already, [combined] with original pieces that they're composing especially for this piece" (Sophie Wingland, KGB Animateur).

Harmony, Hope & Healing

August 11, 2016

Harmony, Hope & Healing (HHH) has taken the real-life stories of their participants and other organization members to bring to life on stage. As said by HHH founder and Executive Director, Marge Nykaza, "if we do not transform our pain, we will transmit that pain."

The work that they have created is all about how they have been called by the power of music to transform their pain. As they prepare to present it at the performance at Harris Theater, they are readying themselves to share their stories "with people who are strangers, who come from different parts of town" (Tony Santiago, HHH Director). Their weekly rehearsals are full of understanding and compassion, and their performance will enable everyone in the audience to see how that transformation process works for them everyday.

Members of the Kirin-Gornick Band practice a song as part of their production. The final piece that the Kirin-Gornick Band is creating will be a true representation of their stories and their experiences as a mix of first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants from Serbia and Croatia in the Chicago area.

Positive Energy

July 25, 2016

Chicago Voices Intern Sage Pope, Kirin-Gornick Band

As an intern for the Chicago Voices program, the main component of my job is assisting with Community Created Performances.  With the Kirin-Gornick Band, I am there to assist Sophie and the rest of the artistic team with rehearsals and note-taking, setting up the space and gathering information and pictures.

Before beginning work with the band, I had never heard of tambura music. Coming in as a complete outsider, the first rehearsal felt a little surreal—here was a group of people speaking so passionately and comfortably about a style of music that I had never even heard played. Even before Rachel (our scriptwriter) came in, every single member was telling incredibly personal and heartfelt stories about the ways tambura music had connected them to family members, friends, and people who were somewhere in between, bridging people across time, space, and literal oceans.  And when they gave us a little snippet of some of the music they play on the first rehearsal, I couldn’t help but smile at the commitment and positive energy displayed by every member of the group.

Our scriptwriter Rachel has done a beautiful job of creating a piece centered around the connecting power of tambura music. The script pulls words from stories about family, life, and death, and pulls inspiration from the songs the members play for their loved ones and for strangers at weddings, funerals, christenings, and picnics.  

Now that the script is almost settled, however, I can sense the excitement as the focus of the piece turns to music. Every Sunday I am struck by the level of enthusiasm and willingness in the group to try new things, to compose new songs and reimagine old ones. The band is filled with extremely talented musicians who genuinely care about what they do, and that is the most exciting thing for me to observe.

The final piece that the Kirin-Gornick Band is creating will be a true representation of their stories and their experiences as a mix of first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants from Serbia and Croatia in the Chicago area. Most importantly, their piece will include plenty of tambura music of all kinds, original and narodni (so old no one even knows who wrote it!), joyous and sad. I cannot wait for the rest of the world to see and hear the beautiful stories I’ve been hearing and recording from the very beginning. Zivio!

Just a Conduit

July 21, 2016

Chicago Voices Songwriter Megan Elk, Tellin’ Tales Theatre

Each of the three finalist groups working with Chicago Voices Community Created Performances was provided with a professional team of artists to assist them in the creative development process. This team included an animateur (facilitator), scriptwriter, songwriter and director. In this post, the songwriter working with Tellin' Tales Theatre describes her experience collaborating with the group on the development and creation of their original score.

My impression of the group from the first session was that I had just walked into a creative space where people held each other in incredibly high regard and approached both the creative work and the life experience of their fellow ensemble members with tremendous compassion and respect. This kind of wonderful generosity has definitely laid the groundwork for some truly inspiring collaboration.

For me, their stories are incredibly eye opening. I don’t have the life experience of dealing with limitations or challenges to my mobility. I don’t know what it is to be treated differently by others as a result of those challenges. But sitting in the circle, listening to stories and writing music with the group allows me to see the human being instead of the hardship, and helps to foster empathy, rather than sympathy.  [You may] think you’re in for a bunch of heart-wrenching stories, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I mean, we are talking about life, so of course there are sad elements to the stories. But mostly, these stories are refreshingly honest and funny in a really unexpected way.

The stories and music from Tellin' Tales Theatre aim to show the audience the human being instead of the hardship.

I had relatively simple objectives at the outset of the process: try to understand who the people are and what kind of music they like, listen to the melodic contours of the conversation within the group, derive as much lyrical inspiration from sourcework and writing prompts generated by the group as possible, and try to rely equally upon my gut musical instincts as I do the input and inspiration of my team of artistic collaborators.  A huge thing that I’ve noticed as I’m putting the final touches on the score is that these songs don’t sound much like anything I’ve ever written before. I like to think this is because I didn’t really write them. The words aren’t mine and the stories aren’t mine either. Somehow, the emotional through-lines of their narratives leapt into the ether and became song and I wrote them down, but they don’t belong to me. I’m just a conduit.

Tekki Lomnicki,  Tellin’ Tales Theatre Group Leader, is seen smiling while work on the group's production is underway. 

All About Collaboration

July 18, 2016

Group Leader Tekki Lomnicki, Tellin’ Tales Theatre

1. How do you think the participants of TTT have been responding to the program so far?
The participants are really having fun in the program and it has given them a chance to dig deeper into their stories. I have found that it has gotten a little scary for some of our participants to open up and yet they are doing it. 

2. What has been your favorite part of the work done up to this point?
Personally I love the sharing of stories and seeing how they are incorporated into
the script and lyrics by outside eyes. It shows me how very in touch the Lyric team
is with our group and that they are really listening to us.

3. How has the creative development process begun changing with the addition of the music and songwriting element?
It has gotten really fun. I see team members really enjoying coming up with lyrics.
Megan has really given us the space to be collaborators in the musical process which
is really fun and satisfying.

4. How does the program fit in with the work TTT does on a regular basis?
This program totally fits into the work we do and yet because of the length
of the program, it goes deeper. We devise quickly and then rehearse and 
have the show. It’s great to have the luxury of time to delve even deeper.
What’s different is that we write our own shows and now Erin is gathering
the stories and writing the script which is really cool. We’re all about 
collaboration and this is just another layer.

5. What new or different opportunities is this program providing for TTT?
It’s providing us with a chance to do more music than we normally do.
Also we are doing more physical movement than we normally do and
I feel that that really stretches people.

6. How have your artistic team members changed or added to the process?
All of them have added a tremendous amount of ideas and have infused our work
with new energy.  Jacob, our animateur is a wonderful leader and leads members
gently into new areas they may not have explored before. I love that both Erin and Megan have really listened to our stories and get who we are.  It’s so fun to see how they translate our
lives into the script.

7. Is there anything else you would like to say that is not addressed in the previous questions?

This is proving to be an amazing experience for us. Personally, I love being involved as a team member and not leading. As Artistic Director of Tellin’ Tales I never have that luxury…and I love putting the process in the hands of the Lyric team.  In fact, Jacob and I did a very touching ritual where I gave up artistic control of the group to him.  We did this in front of the group so that they understood that they needed to look to Jacob to lead this process and think of me as a
colleague. It has worked so far!

A Chronicle of Harmony, Hope & Healing

July 14, 2016

Chicago Voices Intern Courtney Cintron, Harmony, Hope & Healing

My experience as an intern for Community Created Performance’s (CCP) Harmony, Hope & Healing (HHH), has been brightening and transformative. I have witnessed and documented incredible work reflecting a potent blend of deep honesty and charisma from the HHH ensemble. I am greatly looking forward to seeing how their work materializes. As an intern with CCP, I have had the pleasure of facilitating the work of our creative team and of the HHH ensemble, primarily through the documentation and archival of developments in story, script, and song.

Harmony, Hope & Healing group members tell their stories to help heal one another and others. 

The process of documentation has been insightful. When people go to see a movie or a show, they don’t often think about the parts of the story that are edited out, condensed, or reimagined; the process of creation is a distant concern. As HHH endeavours to collectively devise a musical production over a ten week period, ensemble members have opened themselves up to sharing some highly personal and transformative stories. Many of these stories will be reflected in the final product. However, some of their stories and interactions can only be captured through the process of documentation; a process that I am happy to lead. Through photo, audio, and written documentation, I am capturing not only the ensemble member’s personal and created stories, but the process by which they have arrived to deliver them. Each week ensemble members engage in song, scene work, story sharing, brainstorming, improvisation, and discussion. All of these shared moments prefigure the world that they imagine they might live in. Preserving and sharing humanity’s stories is a powerful element in CCP’s initiative to share Chicago’s voices.

On a personal level, I have been deeply touched, not only by the stories of HHH members, but by each individual’s extreme willingness to share and transform other’s lives through their own stories and song. The level of compassion and openness at each rehearsal facilitates the development of the work and creates a uniquely organic experience. I have also been happy to partake in many activities alongside HHH. These interactions provide a special understanding and perspective that I could not be happier to convey.

Harmony, Hope & Healing share the triumphs, the failures and the continued challenges of overcoming personal situations that inspire their production. They take their own healing process and used it to inspire others.

Passing the Torch

July 11, 2016

Chicago Voices Songwriter Dayna Lynn Nuckolls, Harmony, Hope & Healing

1. What has been your overall impression from your time thus far working with Harmony, Hope & Healing?
I am truly amazed by transformation their organization has helped to facilitate in the lives of so many Chicagoans struggling to get on their feet. The sincerity of heart, fearlessness, and love I’ve experienced and witnessed is inspiring.

2. What about their story and their voice is most unique?
Harmony, Hope & Healing does not purport to be a savior or magic elixir for the downtrodden. Instead, they create an environment where those in need of healing have the tools and support they need to make it happen.

3. What do you find most compelling about the story the group wants to tell?
The individuals we’ve been working with have been honest and forthcoming in a way that has been jarring at times; to see people share their stories and not sugarcoat it. They have shared the triumphs, the failures, and the continued challenges and difficulties. Additionally, they have taken their own healing and used it to inspire and work with others. I love that those who have been through the HHH programming in turn become facilitators and interns, effectively passing the torch to the next one in need of healing.

4. What sort of approach are you taking to help them build their score?
The scriptwriter and I have been working in tandem to generate lyrics beyond the storylines and plots in the script. Digging into their personal experiences, emotional transformation, and the process of healing has allowed me to use their words verbatim in the lyrics. I’ve truly felt like the lyrics sing themselves. Because their work is mostly centered around singing, I have able to observe and participate in their rituals and processes. And that has been my inspiration for the sounds and rhythms used in the score.

Striking A Balance

July 7, 2016

Chicago Voices Scriptwriter Rachel Claff, Kirin-Gornick Band

Each of the three finalist groups working with Chicago Voices Community Created Performances was provided with a professional team of artists to assist them in the creative development process. This team included an animateur (facilitator), scriptwriter, songwriter and director. In this post, the scriptwriter working with Kirin-Gornick Band describes her experience developing and writing the original script with the group.

I’ve been really touched and honored to work with the Kirin-Gornick Band. I’m also humbled to find that my assumptions about the group – that they might be uncomfortable with or resistant to our working style and directives – have been deeply incorrect. They’ve handled everything we’ve asked of them with grace, humor, curiosity, and willingness. I learn just as much from them as they learn from me (see below).

Their deep belief that music is a unifying agent - across cultures, across generations, across social groups [is most unique to them and their story]. They are so passionate about the deep historical, cultural, and emotional significance of tambura music and how it can bring people together. The most compelling thing about the story the group wants to tell is the way that music is diegetic to the story. It makes them a natural fit for the project, and (maybe I shouldn’t admit this) it kind of makes my job easier! In places where scripted words might be inadequate or frail, the music will speak volumes.

Sophie and I finally settled on a write-tell-record-transcribe-translate method: We have them write or story-tell in response to prompts in rehearsals and we record them telling the stories. I transcribe them, and then I write, blending their direct informal quotes with a more formal, scripted style. As I go, I make note of where songs and dances may happen.

The members of the Kirin-Gornick Band all speak very eloquently and lyrically. The group's natural chemistry allows Chicago Voices Scriptwriter Rachel Claff to blend their direct informal quotes with a more formal, scripted style.

It’s a good approach with this particular group, I think, because they all naturally speak very eloquently and lyrically about their music and what it means to them and others, but are also very funny and loose with one another. I think both of those “modes” are important to their story and their personas on and offstage.

The biggest challenge of helping them through this process is creating a piece that is performative and engaging, while ensuring that they feel like it is wholly truthful to them. I’ve been trying to strike a balance where the words I’m putting into their mouths feel natural and authentic to who they are, but are also disciplined and intentional and getting a larger message across. I think some of this will be addressed through the music. When they play, you just immediately see who they are and what the music is all about.

I think the mark of a good artistic collaboration - any collaboration, really - is where you feel like you’re learning from your collaborators as well as teaching them. I find that at every rehearsal, I come away learning so much. It helps me remember that my own little carefully curated world is so small and could always stand to be expanded, as it’s always a joyful, challenging, rewarding experience when that happens. 

A Broader Scope

July 4, 2016

Group Leader Joe Kirin, Kirin-Gornick Band

How have the participants of KGB responded to the first few weeks of the program?

Joe Kirin, Community Lead for KGB: The participants have responded warmly to the program and are all engaged in participating fully.

What has been your favorite part of the work done so far?

JK: The exploration and interpretation of song and storyline, incorporating both together into one.

Kirin-Gornick Band members use music to accompany their stories.

How has Sophie, your Animateur, worked to create a sense of collaboration and story development with the group over the first 4 rehearsals?

JK: Sophie has been great in both listening and leading us down a path.  There is always a sense of working together and discovering our best ideas and which paths to go down.

How does the program fit in with the work KGB does on a regular basis?

JK: It has us look beyond what we normally do in that our music can take on a much broader scope and also the possibilities it can create.

Animateur Sophie Wingland leads band members in an exercise focusing on movement.

What new or different opportunities is this program providing for KGB?

JK: It is not clear or obvious yet how this will impact us but we do see that it will definitely influence how we do things and perform [as a band].

How has your Scriptwriter, Rachel, changed or added to the process?

JK: Rachel has definitely been interested in what we do and how we do what we do so she can absorb fully and deliver a script that will hit home on many levels and with many people.

Thinking Outside the Box

June 30, 2016

Chicago Voices Scriptwriter Erin Austin, Tellin’ Tales Theatre 

As a member of the group aptly pointed out, “For people living with disabilities, every moment of the day is improvised.”  Not only is this an astute insight into living with a disability, it also explains why this group is so fantastic at reacting in the moment.  They’re drawing, they’re dancing, they’re communicating using sound and poetry. They’re also doing a lot of talking and a lot of listening. 

My personal goal as Scriptwriter is to help shape the group’s story in a way that conveys the issues and themes that are important to them, while celebrating the ideas of each member of the ensemble in one way or another.  There’s enough content and heart in each of these stories to create 200 full-length musicals.  Unfortunately, we’re going to have to take some of this material and, as our Animateur says, “Save it for the Broadway production.”

Not only do the members of Tellin' Tales Theatre want to share their perspective but they ask that we respect that perspective - by thinking outside the box and freeing ourselves from the idea of things only being able to be done one way.

At this point in the project’s timeline, we have come up with a general outline for the piece. Now we’re exploring the many ways we can articulate each of the piece’s overarching themes and the character’s journey, while driving the action forward in a way that is dramatically satisfying.

I’m most compelled by the group’s no-nonsense and self-aware approach to their abilities and their disabilities. Not only do they want to share their perspective, but they demand that we respect their perspective. The way we can do that? Thinking outside the box and freeing ourselves from this idea of things only being able to be done one way. This beautiful quote came out of our last session from one of the members of the ensemble: “Don’t assume if you don’t have a voice you can’t speak. And if you can’t move that doesn’t mean you can’t dance. Don’t ask if someone can or can’t do something. Instead, ask how they can do it.”

This demand is so necessary, and it also lends itself to theatricality. I’m excited to help the ensemble create a musical that conveys their message and also challenges traditional performance. Tellin’ Tales comprises a group of individuals who are strong, intelligent, and self-aware. I’ve learned so much from working with them and I’m thrilled they’re taking the time and energy to share their stories with each other and the artistic team. Their collective energy and eagerness to take artistic and emotional risks is unparalleled. Everyone should know their stories.

First Take on Tellin' Tales Theatre

June 27, 2016

Chicago Voices Intern Sage Pope

As an intern for the Chicago Voices program, one of the main components of my job is assisting with the Community Created Performances. I am there to help Jacob, the Animateur for Tellin’ Tales Theatre, and the other members of the TTT artistic team facilitate rehearsals.  This includes taking notes, setting up the space for each meeting, assisting in activities, and gathering information for the CCP blog. 

Before the first rehearsal, I didn’t know much about Tellin’ Tales besides what had been posted on the Lyric website and what I had seen online. That day, we played icebreakers and theatre games, designed to help the Lyric team and the company members become more comfortable with each other. The company members already knew each other quite well, and they were incredibly welcoming towards all of us.  It was clear from the very beginning that they were ready to work with us and to take this opportunity to tell their stories in a new way.

For the past three weeks, every Saturday I look forward to the next story I will hear. Every single member has surprised me with the stories they’ve shared, the vulnerability they’ve bravely exposed, and the openness they have to new ideas, approaches, and activities. It is difficult to open up to strangers, especially when one of them is sitting there with a laptop typing up every word, but each member of TTT has been eager to not only share, but explain and develop the stories they’ve shared.  

The piece Tellin’ Tales is creating will simply be the stories of the people involved, from daily routines as simple as taking the elevator to life-changing experiences involving topics like “coming out” as disabled and the moment a person realized how hard she was working to make others feel comfortable around her. Over the next several weeks, the script will be finalized and we will then begin incorporating music and staging.  I absolutely cannot wait for the rest of the world to hear these stories.

A Community of Healers

June 23, 2016

Chicago Voices Scriptwriter Derek McPhatter, Harmony Hope & Healing

For his role in Chicago Voices Community Created Performances, Scriptwriter Derek McPhatter endeavors to capture the most compelling elements of Harmony, Hope & Healing’s story. “This isn’t the story of one person; this is a story of a collective, a community of healers, a family. HHH is shifting and growing all the time - but unified in purpose,” notes McPhatter. “Each individual brings their unique gifts and perspective to bear as they create musical experiences. These experiences are quite literally helping people turn the page on some of the darkest chapters of their lives. The story we’re trying to tell is a glimpse into the process that makes that possible.“

In order to help the group build their script McPhatter acts as an open vessel, soaking in dialogue, movements, and emotions as they share their stories – thus, independently, the script begins to unfold. “For me, it’s important to come into this project with a completely open mind, to not lean too heavily on my professional experiences as a playwright, which suggests that there’s a right or wrong way to do this or that,” reflects McPhatter. “So with the early sessions, I’ve been quiet; I’ve been listening and observing, letting the HHH team show us the story as much as tell it to us.”

McPhatter’s inclusive and distinctive approach to script development is paving the way for a truly authentic story. Rather than taking ownership over the vision for the piece, he allows space for the narratives to reveal themselves.

Scriptwriter Derek McPhatter uses the traditional drums and songs of Harmony, Hope & Healing to help develop their story into an original script.

“This approach means the HHH team is providing input in every step of the process organically, and with each decision we make together, the vision and intention of the piece becomes sharper – not just in the content of the story, but the WAY it is being told,” remarks McPhatter. “Making sure the performance is clear to a general audience, people who aren’t living these stories day to day… that’s my job. The HHH team is doing the hard work, creating the vision, and our entire Lyric Unlimited creative team is helping articulate and shape it. But the story is there, and it’s theirs.”

Although musicality and talent are integral to the HHH story, the group’s collective experiences serve as an enthusiastic catalyst on to the stage. Their uplifting and open approach to healing through music creates a safe haven for those seeking solace. McPhatter takes note of the group’s unique advantages, “The HHH approach is meeting people where they are, without judgment. Many of the core team members have their own personal experiences of crisis and/or trauma. This fuels the work they do.  Having “gone through the fire” themselves, the HHH team is a living, breathing, walking, SINGING testimony that there’s another way. The team brings a humility, wisdom and perspective to the work which you wouldn’t get if you hired some “professionals” to do a similar project.”

“Harmony, Hope & Healing shows us what’s possible when we come together. If all goes well, this Community Created Performance will give each of us a glimpse into a way forward -- helping each other, respecting each other, supporting one another. When I listen to their chorus, I hear the echo of a vision for America I hope we can embrace again.  And I’m eagerly anticipating what others will hear when this project comes to life, when audiences are invited to heed the call and join this circle of Harmony, Hope and Healing.”

Lifting Heavy Hearts

June 20, 2016

Community Lead Marge Nykaza, Harmony, Hope & Healing 

Marge Nykaza is the founder and Executive Director of Harmony, Hope & Healing.

Each of the three finalist groups working with Chicago Voices Community Created Performances selected a group member to act as their Community Lead. This participant communicates with the Lyric throughout the process to ensure that all information is passed to the group and also works with the artistic team to ensure that the group's voice is being authentically represented in all aspects of the work. Marge Nykaza, Community Lead for Harmony, Hope & Healing, is the founder and Executive Director of the organization and has worked to bring together a wonderful representation of the group for this project.

Harmony, Hope & Healing, a Chicago-based organization that utilizes the restorative properties of music to provide people in social crisis tools for holistic healing at 10 sites throughout the city, brought together 10 of its core members to work on this project together. Marge Nykaza is the founder and Executive Director of Harmony, Hope & Healing (HHH), a Chicago-based organization that utilizes the restorative properties of music to provide people in social crisis tools for holistic healing at 10 sites throughout the city.

Greatly complimenting the work that HHH does on a regular basis, Community Created Performances provides a unique opportunity for the members of HHH to share their stories of transformation through the creation of their own original music theater work. Marge feels that the process of sharing stories for the production has been a healing experience in-and-of-itself, connecting all involved. “The program is fitting well into the work-week of HHH. I must say, meeting on Monday mornings gives all of us a wonderful opportunity to start our week together. We all leave the sessions on an HHH High Note! In addition to this new experience of meeting and working with very talented people from the Lyric Opera Community, this opportunity is elevating the awareness of the work of HHH to a new level in our city!”

As HHH makes stride in the rehearsal process, Marge reflects on her personal excitement, “My favorite part has been listening to the stories of our HHH Program Assistants/Ensemble as they share how it has impacted their lives and families. I can hardly wait to witness the collective HHH Story! All of the HHH participants involved in this program have truly enjoyed the process of preparing to craft and perform the HHH Story. It has been a time of great introspection for individuals and a time of great joy for our community.”

Harmony, Hope & Healing’s rehearsals are being facilitated by Animateur Cheryl Coons, who works to create a sense of collaboration and story development within the group. “Cheri has been incredible to work with over the past two weeks. She skillfully engages all of us to share our ideas, stories and truths; before our very eyes, the HHH Story is unfolding! Everyone involved loves her as a person and Animateur!,” exclaims Marge. She also notes that story development and the creative process has also been largely influenced by Scriptwriter, Derek McPhatter. ”Derek has been very attentive and diligent during this process of crafting the HHH Story. Based on our recommendations, he will be writing the script this week. We are looking forward to reading it next Monday.”

As the Lyric Artistic Team and HHH embark on a musical odyssey of transformative practices, there is no lack of gratitude from either end. “All of us in HHH are forever grateful to the Lyric Opera for this incredible opportunity!,” said Nykaza.

Members of the group engage in a shadowing activity, experimenting with perspective and viewpoint while getting to know themselves and each other.  One of the most important goals of Tellin' Tales is to highlight stories that are often overlooked.

We Are Unique

June 16, 2016

Chicago Voices Animateur Jacob Watson, Tellin’ Tales Theatre

What is your overall impression of Tellin’ Tales Theatre after the first session?

I was so inspired by the sense of community that already exists within the group, a lot of which I have to credit to their artistic director, Tekki, who has clearly created a strong sense of ownership, trust, and purpose within the participants. 

As we began to talk about our experiences, I was impressed by the level of authenticity and honesty present, given that this is only just the beginning of our process. I take it as a sign that we have an opportunity to really dive deep and explore something compelling, difficult, and truthful in our work together. 

What are you most looking forward to working on with Tellin’ Tales Theatre in this project?

What I think is so exciting about this group is that no two people share the same history, skills, abilities, or interests. For our opening warm-up ritual, I needed the group to complete the phrase “we got the power because we are ___.” The word we used to fill in the blank was “unique.” Already I can tell that this is a group that thrives off the uniqueness of its participants, and benefits from their ability to work together to enliven a wide variety of perspectives. 

I am looking forward to being challenged, to learning from their stories, and to finding new ways to look at familiar ideas. 

Why does the Chicago Voices Community Created Performances program speak to you?

Sharing stories is really at the core of everything I do -- both as an artist and as an educator/facilitator. And that can sound like a sort of trivial thing; but the truth is that stories are fundamental to how we engage with the world: socially, politically, economically. Laws get written because of stories. People who have experienced trauma can survive and thrive because of the stories they have access to. 

And in a city like Chicago, it’s very complicated who gets to tell stories. For a lot of reasons, we often don’t hear from the communities that are most in need of this kind of change. And the arts can function sort of like a megaphone for a community -- they can amplify a story, expand its reach beyond the same familiar audiences. And especially at a large cultural institution like the Lyric, you often have a lot of people’s ears. So it matters what you use that for. Chicago Voices is an incredible use of that opportunity.  

Please provide an overview of the work you accomplished in your first session.

It occurs to me that this is work that requires a lot of patience; it doesn’t happen overnight. And so our first session was a bit like laying the foundation of a house. We got to know each other as people, and as artists. We talked about what our values are, what kind of space we needed in order to do our best work, and how to hold each other accountable to those expectations. 

We explored physical space together, which included some dancing, and some quick, improvisational storymaking. We also used theatre games to build relationship and trust. I believe that when we explore something through game space, we allow our impulses to take over, and our (often overly-critical) thinking mind recedes a bit. This allows us to be freer, more open, and more curious -- both about each other and about our ideas. 

We ended the session with some free writing and a skills inventory, which will help us as we move forward by illuminating who might like to play live music, or choreograph a dance, or offer any number of performance skills for the sake of developing our final piece. 

What are you anticipating the next few weeks of your work with Tellin’ Tales Theatre to look like?

I think I am anticipating a lot more laughter. I think we’ll probably share some pretty funny stories, along with some sad ones. I think we’ll have moments of connection, of -- “that’s exactly how I feel!” -- as well as moments in which we are surprised by how another member of our community interprets an experience. 

I’m also anticipating the unexpected! I’m sure I will continue to experience new thoughts and ideas as we work together, and I look forward to seeing how the group will shape and mold this process

A World of Refined Tradition

June 13, 2016

Chicago Voices Animateur Sophie Wingland, Kirin-Gornick Band

Members of the Kirin-Gornick Band dress in traditional clothes like the ones shown in this image.

When I first walked into the room [with the Kirin-Gornick Band], there was a palpable excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation.  I could tell that the band members had a lot of questions, but they immediately opened up and started talking about themselves and their tight knit community. The members are fiercely intelligent and speak about their community with eloquence.  I know only two of them are actual brothers, but they all seem to have the closeness of family.

The members of the Kirin-Gornick Band (KGB) are fantastic musicians whose love for what they do is strengthened by generations before them. They are very comfortable musicians onstage, and I’m looking forward to helping them feel more comfort and ease in a theatrical context.  I started with boomwhackers because they are a great tool for building non-verbal communication and teamwork.  Then, I worked a bit on physicality and moving around the space with different intentions.  We finished off with an improvisational storytelling game, which was meant to show how much you can say in just a few moments.

I think the group is most excited about having outside eyes see their community stories in a new light, and Rachel (our scriptwriter) and Mike (our songwriter) will certainly do that.  In the future, we will be opening up the perspective and trying to take a step back in order to see the entire fabric of stories vs. the individual threads, which to me means working with what you have in as many different ways as possible.  

I think it’s a very powerful statement for a huge, distinguished opera company to stand behind three little community groups and say, “Hey, you are valid and your stories deserve the stage just like Figaro and Tosca.”  This project has the potential to build so many bridges between never-before-connected groups of people.  Sharing our passion and letting others have a glimpse into our own lives is the best way to build understand, grow love, and create a better place for all of us to exist and create in.

Tellin' Tales Theatre

Tellin’ Tales Theatre provides unique opportunities to performers both with and without physical and mental disabilities to perform together. Their original programming relates the personal stories of their company members about the daily struggles of life, both with and without disabilities, pointing out the ways in which our differences make us the same. TTT has been successful in creating a sense of community for its performers, while also providing traditional theatrical skills. Through the Community Created Performances program, Tellin’ Tales will share the personal stories of people with disabilities to break down barriers and bring awareness to the commonalities in all communities.

Play Video - CCP2016_Kirin_Gormick_Band

The Kirin-Gornick Band

The Kirin-Gornick Band

The Kirin-Gornick Band is a group of musicians who keep alive the rich history and tradition of Eastern European tambura music by relating it to life today in Chicago. Tambura music is deeply integrated in the culture and community of the former Yugoslavia and has long been responsible for helping bring together people from disputing backgrounds. The band has continued that pattern here in Chicago by maintaining their lifelong connections to both their Chicagoan and Croatian roots. They bring these connections to life throughout their community by performing at many cultural events and celebrations across the city. KGB will share these cross-cultural traditions and stories through Chicago Voices Community Created Performances program.

Play Video - CCP2016_Harmony_Hope_Healing

Harmony, Hope & Healing

Harmony, Hope & Healing

Harmony, Hope & Healing is a non-profit organization that facilitates access to the arts as a means of providing social justice for the homeless and underserved communities in Chicago. HHH has programming throughout many neighborhoods in the south and west parts of the city, training their more than 800 participants in holistic healing methods through music and the arts. Using the curative power of music, HHH offers participants the means to develop the inner resources to break the cycles of poverty, addiction, and abuse. These stories of transformation and hope are what HHH will feature in the Chicago Voices Community Created Performances program.

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.

How do I see a performance?

All performances will be free and open to the public. Sign up for our mailing list or visit our website frequently to hear about the different performances.

How can I vote?

Voting for the 2017 winners is closed. Follow their journey as they develop their stories for the stage at

Stay in tune: Join the Mailing List

Community Created Performances Partner