Chicago

The Best Chicago Arts & Culture Experiences You Can Enjoy at Home

Stay safe and stay cultured at the same time.

Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Remember leaving the house? It’s been approximately 10 zillion months since the state of Illinois began implementing various forms of shelter-in-place orders and yet somehow the new normal still feels like anything but. And between waning sunlight and rapidly dropping temps, winter-fearing Chicagoans all over the city are desperate for something-anything-new to experience.

We recommend taking this opportunity to get reacquainted with your creative self. Thankfully, Chicagoland arts and humanities organizations, music venues and performers, and other dedicated local creators are weathering this never-ending storm by adapting to the current virtual reality. Because if you’re going to stare at a screen all day, you might as well get a little culture in the process.

Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Take a virtual tour of Chicago’s top museums 

Institutional big wigs like the MCA, Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry are going to great lengths to keep Chicagoans good and stimulated during the lockdown. In addition to a full calendar of digital events, the Field Museum teamed up with Giant Screen Films to present Movie Night with SUE the T. rex, a series of action-packed educational film rentals for at-home streaming. At the MCA, quarantiners can follow along as Manilow Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith treats them to the ultimate insider’s tour of The Long Dream, a brand new exhibition featuring the work of more than 70 local artists, while the Museum of Science and Industry is delivering dazzling live walk-throughs of their Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibit as well as hands-on science experiments directly to your computer screen.

Cult favorite American Writers Museum is encouraging would-be guests to dive into its newly revamped virtual hub, a one-stop shop for online exhibits, free webinars and author chats, podcasts, and a bounty of YouTube videos like Little Squirrels Storytime. Before bidding farewell, make sure to stop by the online shop and stock up on clever holiday gifts for the lit lovers in your life.

The Chicago History Museum, Adler Planetarium, and the Chicago Architecture Center have also expanded community-based initiatives aiming to foster a feeling of togetherness while we’re apart. The History Museum is staying busy with a host of immersive digital offerings like virtual reality exhibits and neighborhood tours as well as Zoom backgrounds and other fun downloadables while CAC is home to its own online exhibits plus live streamed events covering all aspects of Chicago’s built world from Wrigley Field to Tiffany glass. Over at Adler, science-minded folks can connect to the Zooniverse to jump head first into real research projects from the comfort of their couches, participate in weekly skywatches, peruse virtual exhibits, and more.

Calling all Wellington fans! The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved resident penguin has become something of a quarantine hero since he was first filmed roaming freely around the shuttered museum. Keep up with your boy and check in on his fellow tuxedoed pals Edward, Annie, Izzy, and Darwin via the aquarium’s free virtual reality penguin expedition or step it up a notch with a personalized Virtual Penguin Encounter. Meet and greets with other cuddly creatures like otters and sea lions are also available, as well as audio guides, live underwater cams, online camps, stories, and other family-friendly activities.

 

Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center
Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center
Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center

Transform your living room into an art studio

Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood has fully embraced Zoom life as evidenced by their massive roster of workshops led by esteemed artists. Sign up for adult-oriented classes on everything from hand-built ceramics, beginner’s cross-stitch, and drawing fundamentals to advanced bookbinding, oil painting, metalsmithing, and portrait photography or occupy the kiddos with seasonal crafting demos and painting tutorials just for them. And on the other end of town, Hyde Park Art Center has similarly pivoted into an online hub for all things creativity including virtual artist talks, open houses, and workshops.

As mentioned, major museums like the storied Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art have started pushing at-home activities inspired by their diverse collections and smaller outfits like the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago aren’t far behind. The Museum of Mexican Art includes activities in Spanish and English, as well as handicraft how-to guides, coloring sheets, and a full lineup of live streamed events while the Smart Museum has thrown their entire 16,000+ collection online for your browsing pleasure. 

 

Courtesy of Zine Club Chicago
Courtesy of Zine Club Chicago
Courtesy of Zine Club Chicago

Get up close and personal with bestselling books, build your collection, or pen your masterpiece

Burned out on Netflix? Satisfy your inner nerd by joining one of the city’s premiere virtual book clubs. Treasured indie venue Empty Bottle has taken a turn for the literary this year, featuring free monthly Zoom discussions on thought-provoking works like Dave Eggers’ “Monk of Mokha” and other choice picks. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago Reader is living up to its name with their own online lit collective featuring virtual chats with celebrated authors like Mikki Kendall (“Hood Feminism”), Riva Lehrer (“Golem Girl”), and Sonali Dev (“Recipe for Persuasion”) for just $20 a session. And if bible-thick novels aren’t your thing, try Quimby’s Zine Club Chicago on for size, a monthly online meet-up celebrating the latest and greatest in DIY publishing.
 
Those inspired to chart their own literary course will be happy to learn that StoryStudio Chicago’s entire fleet of classes is now available online. The organization, which supports writers in honing their craft, strengthening their voice, and communicating with confidence, launched “Pajama Seminars” led by authors in various genres, tackling topics such as playwriting, memoir, building imaginary worlds, crime fiction, and more. Seminars can be purchased as single session one-and-dones or more in depth multi-week programs.

Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park relaunched its Front Table newsletter since closing its doors to keep with COVID-19 precautions. Readers can browse and purchase the store’s Front Table Books (aka titles deemed current must-reads), discover its backlist, engage with university and small press books, and uncover future favorites.

 

Ditch the couch for a dance class

Battle the winter blues and get your blood pumping with interactive dance tutorials presented by some of Chicago’s top performers. Noteworthy pros like Alvin Ailey II’s Antuan Byers, Jazz Roots Dance Company Artistic Director Sue Samuels, Motivated Movers’ Elise Melendez, and others have been lending their showstopping talents to the virtual lessons listed on Dancing Alone Together, an online resource for the dance community created during the state’s first lockdown last spring. Students can sign on for contemporary ballet barre, Butoh training, West African dance, classic jazz steps, and everything in between.

 

Courtesy of Old Town School of Folk Music
Courtesy of Old Town School of Folk Music
Courtesy of Old Town School of Folk Music

Tune in to world class live music, film screenings, and onstage performances

It’s a well-known fact that Chicago is a music town, birthing house music, redefining modern day hip-hop, and influencing garage rock on a national scale over the past few decades. So when venues across the city were forced to darken their stages, the community quickly got to work adapting to this new normal. Nine months in, indoor gatherings remain off-limits and dropping into a live streamed show sponsored by one of the area’s many neighborhood gems is still an ideal way to spread the love. Keep an eye on event listing specialists like the Chicago Reader for the skinny on what’s (virtually) popping at the Hideout, Lincoln Hall and Schuba’s, the Bottle, Sleeping Village, Old Town School of Folk Music, and other much-loved haunts.

Elsewhere, Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts continue to deliver live sets and archival footage from Monday night performance showcase Option’s 5 year history through its website, with 100% of proceeds going directly to the artists performing each day.

Bring two of the city’s most beloved movie theaters, the Music Box and Logan Theatre straight to your living room. Music Box at Home is a revolutionary streaming service offering the venue’s acclaimed international art house lineup on demand. Current and upcoming selections include Zappa, Flowers of Shanghai, Frida Khalo, and Jindrich Polák’s pioneering IKARIE XB-1.

A night at the theater is tough to replicate during quarantine but, as they say, the show must go on. Get into the holiday spirit with festive streams like Manual Cinema’s puppet-fueled Christmas Carol, Porchlight’s Burning Bluebird, One-Man Christmas Carol from Writers Theater artistic director Michael Halberstam, Looking Glass Theater’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, two versions of The Nutcracker at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, and the Goodman Theater’s inventive audio-only adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Off the Christmas beat, indie darling Steppenwolf Theatre Company has rolled out a robust schedule of upcoming performances and the Belmont Theater District has banded together to keep folks entertained while at home, with programming from different improv comedy and stand-up acts and theaters across the North side neighborhood, available online for bite-sized yet effective respite. Remember, laughter is the best medicine.

Looking for something a bit less, er, tame? Quarantine Cabaret, brought to you by burlesque performer Michelle L’amour, features a titillating array of performance artists, illusionists, comedians, drag performers, circus acts, and dancers. Episodes and additional content are available through L’amour’s websiteSign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

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