one step at a time like this – undreamed shores

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On a hot summer night a couple of years ago, I arrived at a certain designated corner in the Loop and waited. After a few minutes my phone rang and the caller spoke to me by name even though we had never met. She patiently guided me down the street until suddenly the doors of the grand Cadillac Palace Theatre, which I happened to be passing, were swung open to me and I was ushered inside its vast, empty lobby. There a woman in an evening gown descended the staircase and sat beside me to explain how to work the special smart phone she gave me as a guide through the rest of my evening. From that point on, the city opened to me in the most remarkable ways as I moved through it: People emerged from alleyways and crevices between buildings to give me secret messages. In a luxury high-rise apartment I found myself climbing into bed with an anonymous stranger. I was driven, blindfolded, down Lower Wacker and through downtown and when the blindfold was removed I found that I was on the stage of another grand historic theater, dozens of blocks from the one where I’d started, with blinding stage lights glaring down on me. This was Since I Suppose, an immersive audio and video tour of downtown Chicago based loosely on Measure for Measure, which was created by the Australian company one step at a time like this, and commissioned by and developed with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions in 2014.

So when I arrived at Navy Pier on a cold and windy afternoon not long ago for the newest audio-guided tour from one step at a time like this, undreamed shores, I was ready for Navy Pier to similarly come alive once I put my headphones on and started walking. But undreamed shores was a decidedly more atmospheric and solitary affair, a moody wander for one in which, as the sole audience member, I was encouraged to pretend that the people around me were not really there and to move through a world inhabited only by myself and the disembodied voices in my headphones. There was a twinge of disappointment when I realized the pier was not going to become a responsive, immersive, fictional world the way the Loop had two years earlier. I imagined being beckoned onto a gondola as I approached the Ferris wheel and being lifted into the sky. I hoped, as the audio track instructed me to pause near the entrance to a seafood restaurant, that I might be invited in for a specially prepared amuse-bouche. I wondered, as I approached the doors of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, if they would be flung open to me for a special command performance for one in the Courtyard Theater. But none of that happened. Navy Pier had not been stocked with carefully planned encounters and surprises, it remained itself, a place to be discovered and observed as it is. This made for a more furtive and subdued, though perhaps no less strange, experience. Instead of riding the Ferris wheel, I was instructed to lie down on a ledge beneath it and look up at it turning against an ominous sky while the voice in my ear talked to me about the mechanics of the universe.

I remembered then that some of the most effective moments in Since I Suppose had occurred just between myself, the soundtrack, and the city: a pause on a bridge over the Chicago River as music swelled in my ears; the view from a rooftop poolside balcony of fireworks going off over the lake across downtown, tiny but visible; collaged fragments from Measure for Measure enveloping me as I walked down the street. These quiet, reflective, essentially internal moments, when the strategically composed audio overlaid and altered the ordinary environment, recruiting the city into a private and subjective spectacle, best made the case for the unique potential of the immersive audio tour, or sound walk, as a theatrical form. undreamed shores was made up of such moments. Framed simply as a journey down Navy Pier, it comprised a series of opportunities to notice the pier and its environs, including parts of it one might never visit—lovely and decidedly unlovely, both. What each lone audience member made of that journey was ultimately up to each of us. “Take your time,” the person who had handed me the headset at the beginning of undreamed shores had told me, “whatever that means to you.”

Even though it took an abstract, fragmentary approach, Since I Suppose had Measure for Measure as a structure and reference point, but the structural device for undreamed shores was markedly less well defined. Its themes and ideas washed over me along the journey like the concept of water that vaguely flowed through the piece. The voices guiding me wanted me to think about the pier itself, particularly its history at almost 100 years old, and about the city that surrounds it, and about the relationship of that city to the lake it sits beside. And they also wanted me to think about Shakespeare and his time 400 years ago, and how people then thought about the world and bodies of water and the universe and death. And still more, they wanted me to think about aquatic ecosystems, and pollution, and climate change, and the loss of sea life, and the environmental changes evidenced by the water. They wanted me to think about all of these things together—mortality and longevity and relative lengths of time. A walk down the pier of an hour or so is vanishingly brief from this perspective, but it is nonetheless time passing, just as the years that make up my life are time passing, or the 100 years since Navy Pier was built, or the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, or the 14,000 years since the lake was ice, are all passages of time at the end of which we are each located. When was a long time ago? Before I was born? When the pier was built? When Shakespeare lived? The last Ice Age? And when is a long time from now? What will this all be like then?

It was difficult to put my finger on any of this, though, as I climbed stairs, rode elevators, walked through closed doors, lay down on benches, and gazed out windows. Philosophical musings on facts about the lake, the pier, the city, Shakespeare, and the environment paired with snippets from Shakespeare’s plays—some about water, some about death, some about cities—floated in one ear and out the other. There was a lot from The Tempest, unsurprisingly, though surprisingly not only about water and islands and shipwrecks, plenty of love and death, too; the description of Ophelia drowning from Hamlet, of course; and the Chorus in Henry V envisaging the sails of ships as a city on the sea; but there was also Macbeth at his metatheatrical bleakest. The quotes were tossed in incidentally, riffing tangentially on a particular nearby feature—window, city, ship—as much atmosphere as anything else. Sometimes they washed over me, at other times one hit and stuck, capturing something meaningful between the physical place and my subjective headspace. But the factoids and Shakespeare snippets hardly seemed to be the point.

The point was that the point was the journey. Emerging onto the north side of the pier midway through the tour, I was guided to a particular bollard and instructed to tie a bit of rope I found in an envelope I had discovered secreted in a little mailbox on top of the parking garage half an hour earlier to the chain running along the water. I tied it beside all the other lengths of rope tied there by each successive audience of one who had made their way along the pier before me. I paused and looked down at the water. There was no significance to this sequence of actions other than having gotten to the same point as everyone who had come before me. I found something one place and I left it another, where I saw evidence that others had been there and had done the same thing. Now someone else would come along and tie their length of rope next to mine. No need for a narrative or metaphor, this was life being lived, making connections and hitting milestones and seeing evidence that I am in the world with others, some of whom have gone before me, and doubtless some who will come after. And because I took this journey and was curious and attentive and followed signposts and the advice of those who showed up to guide me along the way, I found many things I otherwise would not have, and saw things that I did not expect to see.

By the time I reached the very end of the pier, I did feel as if I had been on a journey. It was not exactly strenuous, but I had been in motion almost the whole time (I found myself aware of the privilege of having a relatively able body—there were many places where someone with impaired mobility would not have been able to go, and no alternatives were offered.) Reaching the end, I got to sit down and rest and look out at the lake, reflecting on where I was and where I had been. It helped that in many ways I had literally gone back in time, from the shiny new and getting newer layers of redesign and renovation on the west end of Navy Pier to the east end, where the solid brick buildings remain seemingly unchanged from the pier’s original construction almost 100 years ago. It was a cold and blustery afternoon, and the benches at the end of the pier were empty except for me, and the bronze statue of Bob Newhart (check it out)! In the ballroom just behind me, though, an elaborate graduation ceremony for new firefighters happened to be taking place, and young people dressed for the special occasion hurried in and out of the hall, eager to see their loved ones embark on a grand new adventure. Excitement was in the air as the sky darkened and the ballroom emanated the kind of golden light that made me think of wintertime parties, flushed cheeks, warmth from food and drink and dancing, pleasures that could have been indulged at any time during the pier’s 100-year history.

I had reached the end of my journey. I sat on my bench and looked out at the gray expanse of lake and sky and listened as the voices that had guided me all that way asked me to imagine myself, the pier, the lake, the world 100, then 400, years from now. What would still be here? The pier? The city? The birds? The lake? I felt myself fading into insignificance, just a blip on the horizon of all that time passing, a brief jaunt down a short pier, before their voices stopped. I remembered the advice to “take my time” with which I had begun and, as I sat there, looking out at the lake, I felt that was exactly what I was doing, taking time—this time, the only time I had. I remained there, even after I had pulled the headset off and someone had come by to collect it, even after undreamed shores had ended I remained there for just a little while longer, taking my time.


Ira S. Murfin is currently completing his doctorate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the relationship between language, perfor­mance, and media across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University.

one step at a time like this – undreamed shores

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Australia-based performance group one step at a time like this has returned to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a third time, with a specially commissioned audio exploration of Navy Pier and its environs for Shakespeare 400 Chicago. In 2011, one step at a time like this brought their pedestrian-driven exploration of a series of cities, en route, to Chicago, and, in 2014, collaborated with Chicago Shakespeare Theater
to produce another ambulatory, immersive interaction with Measure
for Measure,
 entitled Since I Suppose. A departure from both of these previous immersive experiences, undreamed shores confined itself to a smaller geographic area, even as it ranged across a wider array of Shakespearean texts.

Participants in the audio-guided journey were directed to convene at the large, orange letter “P” at the easternmost edge of Polk Bros. Park, across from the main entrance to Navy Pier. Once there, a guide took the participant off to a mosaic-decorated concrete banquette to the north, (I noticed the word “walking”—a key part of the experience—in the mosaic near where we sat down together) to orient them to the use of a Motorola hand-held audio device and headphones. Once oriented, the participant was on their own, with only the audio, the sensory input of the Pier, and their own thoughts for the next seventy minutes.

The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors, both of which use shipwrecks as plot points, loomed large in the audio pastiche that directed the journey. One of the earliest quotes, however, came from Titus Andronicus: “For now I stand as one upon a rock, / Environed with a wilderness of sea” (3.1.93-94). As participants stood at the western edge of Polk Bros. Park, facing the main entrance to the Pier to the east, they were invited to contemplate the fact that the place where they were standing did not exist a thousand years ago. A thousand years ago, it would not even have been a rock, environed by an inland sea, but the inland sea itself. The audio narrative reminded us that we were standing on landfill, the silver lining pulled from the dark cloud of the Chicago Fire, and an isthmus of land (re?)claimed from the water as the debris from that disaster was shoveled in, clearing out the old, burned city to make way for the new, modern one. The rock environed by the lake is manmade: concrete.

And there are shipwrecks in this inland sea, too. As the participant progressed east, onto the Pier, the audio guide discussed the thousand shipwrecks—some as yet undiscovered—strewn across the bottom of the lake. Zigging and zagging through the Pier, the participant started out like a slightly eccentric tourist: climbing stairs outdoors, lying down beneath the Ferris wheel to contemplate its breathtaking sweep from the maximal angle, going in glass doors that give onto the interior pedway, pausing outside of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater lobby. Eventually, the journey became less conventional: the participant was directed onto elevators that took them to abandoned corridors where they were eerily advised to try all available elevator buttons for the return journey since “at least one of them never works”; concrete service stairs in which your footfalls echoed in the empty, uninhabited space, spray-on insulation overhead, banquet tables stacked to your left with the haphazard remains of some social event; two wine glasses incongruously sparkling in the gloom.

Outdoors again, on the northern side of the Pier, the participant was asked to contemplate the lake as a living thing, sending distress calls through its changing surface. The audio guide included an interview with someone unidentified explaining that people in Chicago (including me) exult in the lake’s color shift from briny green to “Caribbean blue.” However, this color change, while perhaps pretty, actually conveys grim news about the state of life in the lake. The lake was green when the plankton that lived in it were thriving. It turned blue when the invasive zebra mussels, who hitched rides into Lake Michigan on cargo vessels from Asia, gained the upper hand and ate their way to dominance.

“All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It, 2.7.139) the participant heard Jaques explain, describing the seven stages of man, as they stood in an empty meeting room overlooking the Skyline Stage. I amused myself as I listened by trying to match the seven stages of man described in the audio to the hula hoop performer, juggler, and living statue scattered across the square below me, tourists photographing them and/or themselves with them, and Navy Pier staff in reflective vests and nametags actually approaching the charcoal gray living statue to knock on her face, tap on her hat, to see if they could disrupt her silent, still performance with their antics, but they could not. She remained immovable as the concrete slab of the Pier beneath her feet.

The performance ended outdoors, at the easternmost edge of the Pier, facing the lighthouse, and the breakwater that separates the harbor around the Pier from the deep blue wilds of the lake. Midway through the experience, however, the participant was asked to stand just east of the Ferris wheel, on the upper level of the parking deck, and take in the skyline to the west. Here, we heard a description of Tarsus from Pericles applied to Chicago:

A city on whom plenty held full hand,
For riches strew’d herself even in the streets;
Whose towers bore heads so high they kiss’d the clouds,
And strangers ne’er beheld but wondered at.

(1.4.22-25)

In the old English elegiac verse form ubi sunt, the poet offered a lyric catalog of personal connections and material possessions in order to record their loss. An ubi sunt lyric in reverse, undreamed shores asked us to contemplate the riches strewed in our streets, the cloud-capped towers, the almost obscene opulence of natural and manmade beauty all around us, none of which was here a thousand years ago. What will be here a thousand years hence? Turn, now, and look at the deep blue of the lake. Full fathom five nothing remains but what suffers a sea change into something whose strangeness we would do well to contemplate, lest we, too, fade into the blue.


Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest Ameri­can reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.