Founded in 1982 by Lawrence Basgall and Michael Schwabe in Schaumburg, Illinois, Hystopolis Productions began as an outgrowth of The Experimental Puppet Theater of The Schaumburg Park District which was created and directed by Michael Schwabe under Val Silverman, the Program Director of The Schaumburg Park District. The Experimental Puppet Theater explored the art of puppetry through classes and performances and in 1982 was awarded the first ever grant to a park district in Illinois by the Illinois Arts Council, a State agency.
Late in 1982, Hystopolis moved to Chicago and continued developing a keen philosophy and strong artistic style in puppetry that has served it to this day. The company built its first production and n 1985, with help from The Lawyers for the Creative Arts, Basgall and Schwabe along with Nicklas Gray, incorporated Hystopolis Productions as an Illinois not-for-profit corporation and in 1988 achieved tax exempt status under section 501 (c) (3) of the internal revenue code. Hystopolis moved its office and studio to the Free Street Theater, under Patrick Henry where the fledgling organization was greenhoused and allowed to develop its not-for-profit philosophy.
Hystopolis built two new productions during this period and began touring with them around Chicago. Hystopolis worked with The City of Chicago, Office of Special events, performing at Taste Of Chicago in 1985, and performing at The Celebration marking the 150th anniversary of The City of Chicago. The group was on hand at the public birthday celebration of then Chicago Mayor, the Honorable Harold Washington.
During that period Hystopolis also created programs for the Chicago parks working with The Chicago Park District and The Friends of the Parks. Hystopolis' outdoor puppet theater travelled all over metropolitan Chicago performing at many of the neighborhood festivals that were a hallmark of summer activity in and around the City.
Hystopolis was also active with the local puppeteers, donating performances to The Chicagoland Puppetry Guild, hosting meetings for the members and coordinating events in puppetry with the group. Around that time the national puppetry organization, The Puppeteers of America, became aware of the work of Hystopolis and in 1987 Hystopolis was honored with an invitation to perform two of its productions at the groups national festival "Hands to Enchantment" in Frankfurt Kentucky. The performances were critically hailed as fine works of art and Hystopolis was thrust onto the national puppetry scene.
After years of building and performing touring productions, outreach workshops and custom projects for outside groups, in 1988 Hystopolis expanded its operations by opening a permanent puppet theater for public performances in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood, on North Avenue between The Second City on Wells Street and The Steppenwolf Theater on Halsted Street. The offerings were well received in Chicago and Hystopolis' plays for children were honored with promising reviews by Chicago critics.
Hystopolis Puppet Theater ran performances on the weekends for the general public and hosted educational programs and performances for schools groups during the week. With the success of its children's work and inspired by the reactions of their parents, Hystopolis began production for main stream theater going audiences, and in 1989 Hystopolis Productions created its first offering for adult audiences.
Hystopolis' evening performances were met with wide acclaim. The critics were generous with their praise of the art of Hystopolis. In article after article the group was hailed as a creative force to be reckoned with; its productions were considered insightful, provocative, daring and entertaining while maintaining high standards in the Art of Puppetry. In 1990, the company was awarded a "Citation of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry" by UNIMA-USA, the American Center of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, its highest honor.
In 1994 Hystopolis Productions moved its operations to Rosary College (now Dominican University) where it became part of the programming of the college, bringing a unique artistic experience for the students, by offering classes and internships in theater through the Art of Puppetry. In the coming years Hystopolis hosted puppetry festivals, workshops, master-classes and performances for Chicago area schools and the general public in the Lund auditorium of Rosary College and brought promising theater students to engagements where they could be a part of the professional theatrical experience.
In 1998 Hystopolis moved to The Red Hen Theater in Chicago where the company continued its programming and outreach. Working with The Red Hen Productions and The Chicago Jewish Theater, Hystopolis produced puppets, sets, scenery and props for their plays while continuing to produce cutting edge productions of it own for the Chicago theater-going community.
In 2019 Hystopolis Productions created KuklaFest, a professional puppetry conference at OxBow School of Art and Artists’ Residency, celebrating the legacy of Burr Tillstrom and his connection to Saugatuck, Michigan.
In 2021 Hystopolis Productions joined forces with parade organizer Erin Wilkinson, to become the producer of the Douglas Halloween Parade for Adults in Douglas, Michigan.
The organization, relying mostly on the revenues generated by its outreach programming and the support of private donations, has also been awarded funding through The City of Chicago, Department of Cultural Affairs; The Illinois Arts Council, a State Agency; Arts Midwest, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Jim Henson Foundation for its excellence in the Art of Puppetry.
Over the past 39 years, Hystopolis Productions has headlined at many local, national and international festivals, most notable among these engagements being The Federal Theater Project Festival at George Mason University in Alden, Virginia and The 1992 and 1996 International Festival of Puppet Theater, a co-production of the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Jim Henson Foundation at The Joseph Papp Theater in New York City.
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