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Video: Hamby named Peoria Independent Hometown Hero in Trailblazer category

Inquisitiveness ‘sparks’ creativity, innovation at Peoria theater


Theaters across the country were dark in 2020, into 2021, and have only recently begun to find more widespread life since COVID-19 began to spread.

In the early days of the pandemic, Peoria-based Theater Works’ fundraising gala was canceled and rehearsals stalled, but Artistic Director Chris Hamby and his team did something that would eventually lead to sustainability during a pandemic that stopped theaters across the nation in their tracks — they asked questions.

“It became clear that theater was not going to happen like usual,” he said. “The mayor said that there would be no gatherings of 10 or more. That was the spark. I asked myself what have I done as a theater person with less than 10 people? I have been a fan of immersive works for years. I went to them in New York and Los Angeles. Could we do something like that? I started thinking about what could our spaces be and how would we move people through those spaces?”

“Curiouser & Curiouser” was born, performed under pandemic protocols, leading participants through the entire Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, a culmination of innovative thinking and quality productions that Theater Works has been staging for more than 35 years.

The creative process of bringing “Curiouser” to life was rather organic, Hamby said.

“We created this crazy experience, part theater, part art installation, and part Escape Room,” he said.

Shaped by his superior work ethic and career progression, Hamby has developed and implemented viable plans, created scalable strategies, integrated improvements, and driven years of defined experience to meet goals for the theater.

For his work in bringing theater and art into the community, Hamby has been named the Peoria Independent Hometown Hero in the Trailblazer category.

The Hometown Heroes Awards are a celebration of individuals who live or teach in the city, and Peoria businesses for their local achievements and distinguished contributions to the community.

Hamby will be honored at an awards luncheon next year.

In partnership with the city of Peoria, he was interviewed by the city and aired on Channel 11.

“Curiouser” was a hit that resonated with people across the Valley, selling out in three different iterations of the show, and bringing a completely new audience to the city — 67% of attendees had never seen a Theater Works show until “Curiouser.”

Hamby has brought home numerous AriZonis to Peoria and created multiple programs across all age ranges. Theater Works also has inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities: dance, puppetry, and outreach programming to schools and parks.

Peoria City Councilmember Vicki Hunt said Hamby is largely responsible for bringing Theater Works back from the edge of closure through his skillful handling of board selection, as well as programing for both youth and adults.

With his skill in working with people and choosing plays that speak to a wide variety of audiences, Peoria has seen the theater grow into a hub of arts and education for the West Valley and beyond, Hunt said.

Hamby’s skill and professionalism are in awe of theaters all over the Valley, yet he chooses to remain in Peoria, she added.

“Perhaps one of Chris’ best strengths is his ability to problem solve,” she said. The arts are, by nature, messy. Anyone attempting to work in this arena must be able to anticipate problems and solve them. Nothing happens in a straight line. There are many ups and downs, twists and turns from the time a play and cast are chosen to the final stage performance. Chris remains calm during crises, and handles each as it comes — and they will come.”

Part of the job of a theater director is to trust those he puts to work. Once hired, Hamby steps back and trusts them to do their job — to bring the high level of professionalism and knowledge that they were hired for. This goes for adults who are professionals in the arts, to young people just starting out in one of the many aspects of stage production.

Valley actor BJ Garrett, who played Tweedle Dum in “Curiouser & Curiouser,” said he is a big Chris Hamby fan.

“In the face of a pandemic that shut down most theaters in town, he and his team not only persevered, but evolved and adapted in a stellar way. They made something beautiful, something wondrous and fun for both the artists and patrons,” he said. “His team’s infrastructure and safety is on point, and he’s a good dude to boot! He uses his platform for good and puts on consistently elevated, quality productions. I can’t say enough great things about Theater Works.”

Get to know Hamby here.

Philip Haldiman can be reached at phaldiman@iniusa.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.