Culture on the cheap

    With winter comes the doldrums of a slow quarter. On your days off, instead of bumming around campus watching reruns of that sitcom you've memorized by line, volunteer your time for more fruitful results while rubbing elbows with the cultural elite around Chicago. From getting involved in welcoming creative communities to sweet perks like free admission to shows, there are many ways to be a part of the fertile Chicago cultural scene by unleashing your inner Basquiat or sitting back and leaving it to the professionals. Additionally, many of these opportunities welcome interested people regardless of skill level, so you just need to be equipped with an eagerness to learn and be challenged and then reap the rewards. Whether you’ve got a hankering for inspiration, or wish you did, these opportunities are worth scoping out.

    Smart Bar

    Smart Bar is a cool place to check out rising local DJs. Regularly frequented by DJs of Streetbeat, WNUR’s own live DJ show for house and hip-hop, Smart Bar offers many opportunities for student participation, the most prominent of which is during WNUR’s annual winter quarter Phoneathon. Streetbeat DJs host a live fundraising broadcast from the venue to increase awareness and support for the station. Smart Bar also has special DJs almost nightly for club music ranging from house to techno to dance. Most shows are extremely cheap or free with student ID.

    Blue Man Group

    If clubbing isn't your schtick, you can cover your basics with a classic Blue Man Group experience. The group is one of those nostalgic acts that you’d love to see live but you sure aren’t going to pay upwards of $70 to do so. However, you can see the show for free just by volunteering three hours of your time. Every show relies on four volunteer ushers who have responsibilities such as pointing patrons to their seats and cleaning up after the show. During the show, the ushers can just sit back and enjoy the Drumbone. Call the Briar Street Theatre box office to sign up for their current season in Chicago.

    The Neo-Futurists

    If you prefer experimental theater to blue mimes, consult the Neo-Futurists, who perform a new kind of theater with a basis of honesty and brevity. Their signature show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, is a showcase of 30 performer-written plays in 60 minutes and is the longest-running show in Chicago today. Tickets usually run around $20, but volunteers can see the show for free and share some grub with the cast afterwards. Contact the group to sign up.

    Music Festivals

    If you own more mixtapes than Playbills, you can still get rewarded for volunteering. It’s no news that Chicago is a labyrinth of music festivals throughout the year. By giving a few hours to usher, direct concert-goers, sell merch, or clean up, you can gain free admission to an eclectic mix of festivals, including big names like Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. Others have unique offerings other than free admission, such as the Old Town School of Folk’s Chicago Folk and Roots Festival, which compensates volunteers with credits for free classes at the School.

    CHIRP Radio

    Prefer spinning vinyl to moshing? The Chicago Independent Radio Project, powered by an entire staff of volunteers, is an engaging opportunity for those looking to join the broadcasting industry to get a head start. Focusing on the local arts and independent music, CHIRP caters to the Chicago area with commercial-free programming. Want to join but have no experience? No worries, CHIRP offers a DJ training process. Other behind-the-scenes opportunities include marketing, business, tech, events and online media.

    Chicago Scratch Orchestra

    If you'd rather be on stage than behind the turntable, check out Chicago Scratch Orchestra. More Cage than Beethoven, the Orchestra focuses on avant garde music performance. If you’re into reading music scores that look more like geometric shapes or watching for conductor cues that have more semblance to interpretive dancing, the all-volunteer Chicago Scratch Orchestra has your back. With a setup that ranges in number of performers and instruments, from trumpet to bicycle, the idea of the Scratch Orchestra is to take performance to the next level with improvisation and experimentation. They can be a bit hard to find, but track them down at a performance and inquire about joining.


    For experimentalists who work with other media, Multikulti in Wicker Park is a community arts and activism collective that has all the facilities and support that artists of all walks could possibly need, including a darkroom, art studio, multimedia production studio and impromptu jam sessions. With a mission to foster a multicultural community, Multikulti is a great networking opportunity for budding artists in a welcoming environment grounded in grassroots creativity and activism. Head to their regular open houses or potlucks to meet the group.


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