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Columbia College Chicago
Russo in Theatre, Opera & Dance

Russo in Theatre, Opera & Dance

Russo & Theatre in Chicago

William Russo and the Chicago Free Theater Improvisation Ensemble

Russo was instrumental in the development of Chicago’s internationally acclaimed Off-Loop Theatre movement in the late 1960s when he founded the Chicago Free Theater, which produced a popular string of multimedia rock music-theatre pieces by himself and other writers. The seminal troupe also played Off-Broadway and in London, and spawned sister companies in Baltimore and San Francisco. In 1969, Russo teamed up with Second City co-founder Paul Sills and arts activist Rev. Jim Shiflett to establish the Body Politic Theatre, one of the first professional Off-Loop theatres in Chicago. The theatre, carved out of an old meat-processing plant with a second-floor bowling alley at 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, is today known as the Greenhouse Theater Center.

Joan of Arc Poster

The Chicago Free Theater's 1968 "rock cantata" The Civil War, a politically charged multimedia piece for soloists, chorus, dancers, and rock band, paralleled the American Civil War and the martyrdom of President Lincoln with the turbulent civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. The Civil War premiered at HemisFair '68 in San Antonio on April 7, 1968, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; the work was dedicated to the slain civil rights leader's memory. Russo followed The Civil War with other rock music-theatre works, including Liberation, Joan of Arc, Song of Songs, The Bacchae, and Aesop's Fables, a family-oriented rock opera that ran Off-Broadway.

Russo's Operas

Isabella's Fortune poster

Russo's operas and other theatrical works include John Hooton, The Island, Land of Milk and Honey, Antigone, Paris Lights: The All-Star Literary Genius Expatriate Revue, The Shepherds' Christmas, The Pay-Off, The Sacrifice, Talking to the Sun, and Dubrovsky. He drew on his Italian heritage for a double bill of commedia dell'arte song-plays, Isabella's Fortune and Pedrolino's Revenge, which inaugurated Off-Broadway's Westside Theatre in 1974. His musical fairy tale for vocalists, narrator, symphony orchestra and dancers, The Golden Bird, premiered in 1984 at Chicago's Orchestra Hall under the auspices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Russo in Dance

Russo’s dance scores include including Les Deux Errants for the Festival Ballet of London, performed at the festivities for the wedding of Prince Rainier of Monaco to Grace Kelly, and Listen Beneath, choreographed by Randy Duncan for the Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre in Chicago. His Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra was used as the score for a dance work, Mother Blues, choreographed by Michael Smuin for the San Francisco Ballet.

Images courtesy of Columbia College Chicago Archives and the family of William Russo.