Quest Theatre Ensemble in Mail Order Brides (photo courtesy of Quest Theatre).

Chicago has lost another company offering free professional theater, as Quest Theatre Ensemble—founded in 2002 by Amanda Banden, Buck Blue, Jason Bowen, Andrew Park and Nick Rupard—has ceased operations. The Quest announcement was made last week by Jason Bowen, president of the company’s Board of Directors. Chicago’s other free theater company, Oracle Productions, ceased operations back in December 2016.

Banden, Blue, Bowen, Park and Rupard – fellow alumni of Indiana State University – conceived the idea of a company that would offer free theater, where they could perform for the widest possible audience, tell stories that had universal appeal and engage audiences of all ages, “excluding no one, no matter what.” Quest’s inaugural production was Blue Nativity – an original pageant featuring large-scale puppetry that was performed in nine different churches its first year and continued with tours of area churches every year up through 2016.  Another show, Children of the Light--a retelling of the Passion story with large-scale puppetry--was created after multiple requests from churches for Quest to return. The first tour of the play prompted St. Gregory the Great Church in Andersonville to invite Quest to become a member of their Artist in Residence program. For the last 14 years, the parish has housed the company's office on the third floor of its school building at 1609 W. Gregory Ave. (at Ashland Avenue) and allowed the lower level Bingo hall to be re-imagined as The Blue Theater, named for founding company member, Buck Blue.

Over its 16-year history, Quest Theatre Ensemble became known not only for its ability to provide professional productions without charging admission (donations were solicited and welcomed as patrons left the theater), but also for its innovative visual designs employing puppetry and masks as well as imaginative sets and costumes. This aesthetic was applied to original plays, musicals and pageants as well as to licensed properties like the musicals Into the Woods, Little Shop of Horrors and Barnum.
Many of the original pieces developed by Quest were written and directed by Park, who was the company’s artistic director from its founding until January 2017, when he left Chicago to become artistic director of Nebraska Repertory Theatre at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Frequently, Park collaborated with composer Scott Lamps to create musical theater pieces, including pageants Drum Circle Pandora, Evolution/Creation and the musicals Return of Neverland and All The World’s a Stage.

Evolution/Creation, produced in 2010, consisted of two acts performed simultaneously in a theater split into two halves for an audience similarly split in half. In one half of the theater the piece depicted theories of evolution, while the other half’s performance depicted the biblical story of Creation. The two audience segments would switch sides at intermission to see the performance they had not seen.  The production was one of Quest’s most lauded, earning five Jeff award nominations – for Musical, Director, New Work, Musical Direction and Puppetry. Another memorable Quest pageant was The People’s History of the United States, first produced in the election year of 2008 and remounted in fall of 2016. The original production received Jeff nominations for New Work and for its mask design.

In an effort to expose everyone of all walks of life and ages to the beauty of live theater, Quest’s repertoire was generally family-friendly and sometimes included less weighty productions like Barry Manilow’s musical version of the melodrama The Drunkard and Alas, Alack, Zorro is Back– in which patrons were encouraged to throw popcorn at the villains. Most recently, the company produced two of off-Broadway’s longest-running hits. The Fantasticks was staged in February/March and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which ran in September and October, became Quest’s final production.

While Quest drew audiences from throughout the area, they will be particularly missed by residents of Andersonville, Edgewater and other north side neighborhoods. In May, Park was honored as one “Edgewater’s Living Treasures” by the Edgewater Historical Society. 

“Quest added much to our community and many of our parish made it a tradition to attend their holiday spectacles.  They continually added flavor to our events and donated time and funds to many of our fundraisers.  They will be deeply missed.” Father Paul Wachdorf of St. Gregory Parish.

​​Jason Bowen noted, “We felt it was imperative that everyone be exposed to live theater, we were up to the task and it has been an amazing run.  We want to thank our loyal audience, the amazing artists who shared their talents with us, St. Gregory the Great and all of the people who donated paper and glue to make our puppets a reality! We only hope that another group can have as much success as Quest did, all the while making art accessible.” 

Quest Theatre Ensemble Closing its Doors after 16 Years