Act I, Scene I from OPFT's The Tempest | Photo by Bryan Wakefield

I sat in a church pew, a couple of coats between me and the next couple. Just ahead were two women in lollipop red sweaters adorned with the doodads to qualify the knits as “ugly,” perfectly chosen for the holiday show that was about to begin a week ago. I looked around and all the pews appeared filled, although ticketing information said fewer seats were being sold to allow for social distancing.

Susan Stall, of Oak Park, left, and Tameka Wilson, of Maywood, stand for a photo together outside the Oak Park Art League on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

The lights flickered and soon a nonet of singers filed out onto the performance area. They launched into Pentatonix’s “O Come All Ye Faithful,” then a beat of silence before uproarious clapping filled the room. Sure, the song was done well – this was Chicago a cappella making their regular stop at Pilgrim Congregational Church on Lake Street in  Oak Park. But this was something more. An audience which was truly appreciative to be in the space with the performers, who might never take these kinds of experiences for granted ever again. Everyone was fully vaccinated — carded at the door — and the singers, unmasked, are tested every day in addition to being vaccinated. Throughout the concert, the singers took turns telling personal stories connected to the works, and they referenced the individuals in the crowd, who they said they could see smiling even with masks on.  

The first half of 2021 was not quiet before in-person events began. Virtual performance-arts offerings continued and access to visual art opened up.

The return of in-person performance began in the summer. Oak Park Festival Theatre staged The Tempest in Austin Gardens, the Shakespeare play they put off from 2020 due to the pandemic. Oak Park’s Open Door Repertory also embraced the great outdoors, partnering with Habakkuk Theatre to put on Coastal Disturbances in Brookfield. And the patio at FitzGerald’s Nightclub in Berwyn became a destination for live music. Compound Yellow in Oak Park launched its Side Yard Sound series for another outdoor music option.

Once fall arrived, many arts groups had their plans in place for the performing arts. Locals were getting vaccinated, and those oversized vaccine cards became the ticket into many shows along with the cost of admission. For those that could not (or would not) vaccinate, testing within 24/48/72 hours was an option. The Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest was first locally to announce their Covid protocols and the large orchestra played in-person, back at their prior home, the Chapel at Concordia University in River Forest, in mid-October. The masked, vaccinated crowd filled the pews. The orchestra didn’t only celebrate Beethoven at that concert but kicked off its 90th season. Unity Temple Restoration Foundation’s Chamber Music Series began again at Unity Temple. The Nineteenth Century Charitable Association resumed its programming, which includes arts and culture, at the Nineteenth Century Club. Henry Fogel Presents and The Free Readers Ensemble also resumed their shows there. Holiday shows were back, including the Michael Teolis Singers, Sing We Joyous, Ballet Légere’s Nutcracker and programing at Madison Street Theater.

Students performed again inside OPRF when Huskie Music Fest was held in October, It was the first in-person music performance in 20 months inside the high school. Hundreds of family members and friends streamed in at various times to hear young musicians in bands, choirs and orchestras. Prisms of Winter was almost not held at OPRF when there was a rise in those testing Covid positive at the school. Ultimately, three performances entertained all those who wanted to see this typically sold-out show. Fenwick staged Cinderella, too.

Tameka Wilson, of Maywood, stands for a photo in the Everyday Activists art exhibit the Oak Park Art League on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

The Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum brought back Friday@Hemingways, with entertainment from magic to jazz once a month. The Art Institute of Chicago exhibited the Obama portraits this summer, a reminder that the Oak Park Public Library has the only permanent Kinde Wiley painting on public display in the state. Wiley also painted Barack Obama’s portrait. Wiley’s “Easter Realness #2” is on the third floor of the Main Library.

Artists continued to use their platforms for social justice. Percy Julian Middle School’s virtual CAST Tells the Story informs on the lives of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis. The Everyday Activist exhibit at Oak Park Art League (OPAL) highlighted activists in Oak Park and Austin. It is now at the Austin Main Library through January.

OPAL celebrated its 100th anniversary with exhibits and programming. Their courtyard also now displays a sculpture of Bobbie Raymond, an influential Oak Parker in fair housing, the arts and more. Founder of Terrain Exhibitions and Oak Park artist, Sabina Ott, was honored with her art bestowed to Columbia College Chicago to be used for study and teaching.

Other locals had moments of note. Ali Barthwell won a writing Emmy for her work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. An accomplished violist, Bryce Kaiser (then an OPRF senior), recorded a video with a select group from the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, Peter Cottontail and others for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Oak Park children’s author and musician Jim Gill recorded on stage at Symphony Center for CSO for Kids in a project with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And Lux Cantorum received coverage and praise in Latvia for their virtual recording of “Dod, Dieviņi,” a Latvian piece.

But the year was not all about celebrations and a return to somewhat normal. As Michelle T. Boone and Claire Rice of Arts Alliance Illinois said in their write up in Crain’s on Nov. 22, “The true devastation to artists and cultural organizations gets obscured from the public, because throughout the pandemic, artists continued to do what artists do: create, make and inspire.”

Susan Stall, of Oak Park, stands in the Everyday Activists art exhibit at the Oak Park Art League on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Oak Park. | Alex Rogals

When the Federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was announced early in 2021, many locals were optimistic, but the reality was, not all qualified, such as FitzGerald’s due to the timing of the sale from the retiring FitzGerald family to the new owner, Will Duncan, even though the venue was closed for many, many months. At least one Oak Park arts venue was denied the grant.

When the Ernest Hemingway Foundation put out the call for support, locals answered and donations helped keep them, and the Birthplace Home they manage, afloat. But their mainstay source of revenue – tours – was greatly reduced, especially with the reduction in international travel. While OPRF theater held in-person shows this fall, everyone was masked on stage, necessitating funding for new microphones for future productions.

Hardship was also met with generosity. Symphony of OP/RF General Manager Beth Hoover and Music Director Jay Friedman donated their salaries, according to board president David Leehey. When Huskie Music Fest was cancelled in 2020, Applause, which provides arts-related programming and scholarships to OPRF students, had a major budget deficit due to a lack of sponsorships purchased at the event. After reporting on this in February, an outpouring of support put the group back into the black. A fire at Delia’s Kitchen that destroyed Oak Park Festival Theatre’s space last month has resulted in donations to help the troupe build back, but they are not there yet.

Throughout the Chicago a cappella concert, the uproarious applause continued. Local art groups and artists will continue to need support like they received this year – through ticket sales, subscriptions, donations and lots and lots of accolades for what they do.

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