Rhinofest Back for 27th Year; Beau O’Reilly Tells About It


Rhinofest is about to kick off its six-week run at Prop Thtr, from January 16 to February 28. As usual, it will provide all manner of thespians, musicians, playwrights and performers an opportunity to showcase their new works. Rhino has been doing the ‘fringe’ thing since long before fringe was a thing. In fact, it’s the 27th year.

I spoke to Beau O’Reilly, festival organizer and curator, about how things have changed over the years and what audiences can look forward to this year. Spoiler: Eugene Ionesco’s work is the theme, and there will be a full staging of Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros this year. There will also be music on Tuesdays and a Faux Lecture Series on Mondays, which promises to be very entertaining. Tickets are $15 per show or pay what you can.

Can you give a short bio of Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus as it pertains to your festival making? What led you there?

We have been making theater together for 30 years, primarily new work with a strong tendency towards language-driven material, influenced by performance work and songs, with a blue collar do it yourself discipline .We have a theater company, the Curious Theater Branch; with more then a dozen writers and actors in it, we work with group decision-making. As a company, we create and encourage a large body of work, a theater festival is a natural extension of that.

How did you get the idea for Rhinofest?

The festival was founded and named by Henry Seale, a big advocate of small theaters. Twenty-seven years ago in Wicker Park, there were a dozen small theater companies located in a six-block radius. Henry thought to bring them all together in a one-day event out of the Bucktown Fine Arts Fest. By the second year Curious, the Prop, and Latino Chicago had joined, and the fest had expanded to two weekends. By the third year I was on the curatorial committee, by the 5th year I was the curatorial committee and the fest grew from there. For a couple of seasons, we had a Winter Rhino and Summer Rhino. The fest was produced in three different north side theaters simultaneously. For the last decade or so we have produced it in and with Prop Thtr, in both theaters, in winter time.

What did it look like the first year?

Tiny and earnest.

How has Rhinofest evolved over 27 years?

It has become home for a lot of established Fringe artists, whose work is sharp and sure of itself, as well as brand new writers and makers who are just figuring out how to do it. This combination ups the possibilities of failure and surprising success, of a variety of artists seeing the work of people they are new to. In the Wicker Park era, all of us knew each other and were in a similar place in terms of risk taking and surviving.

How fringe is Rhinofest and why did you want to reach the fringes?

I could just say look at the answers to the other questions, but I will add this: new work is always fringey in the theater, unless it has gone through the calcifying workshop process that the Equity theaters prefer. I think we who are making fringe work, prefer to think of it as making good work, filled with zest, thought and integrity.

What are you looking forward to seeing at this year’s festival?

New pieces from Justin Botz, Mark Chrysler and the Billy Goat Experiment, Jenny Magnus’ lecture, Matt Rieger turning into a Rhinoceros. The Full Moon Vaudeville. And Ira Murfin, and Rick Paul and…and…

What are the criteria to apply to Rhinofest?

Normally it’s pretty open. This year it was very curated because of the focus on Ionesco. Our standard is something like this: is it a new work? Is it good?—a very subjective criterion, admittedly. Does it fit the festival format? i.e. is it technically simple? Are the makers decent people to work with?

Who is your key audience?

Right thinking people, of any gender or age, with a taste for story telling and a smile on their faces.

Is the Lecture Series a new feature? Is this a nod to Live Lit or more of a spoof of it?

We have been having lectures, or its kissing cousin—the faux lecture—recently from the marvelous Ira Murfin, and in the past, others; like Robin Cline, Michael Martin, John Starrs and Ian Belknap, but have really expanded it this year just to see if there is more of an audience for it. Plus we all dig it as a way to spend an evening. As for Live Lit, I don’t know what that is but it sounds lovely and I would be happy to spoof it.

Anything else you wished I had asked that you’d like mentioned?

Who keeps the physical space humming throughout the fest? Stefan Brun and his crew at Prop. Is there music this year? Why yes, every Tuesday, the Crooked Mouth and guests.

Kim Campbell
Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.