CHICAGO — The list of things born in this city includes the skyscraper, the Ferris wheel and (supposedly) brownies. And then there are its wonkier claims to fame.
Chicago was the crucible of 20th-century urban sociology. It was also midwife to today’s boom in audio storytelling, thanks to “This American Life,” which originated here.
Jeremy McCarter, the founder and executive producer of Make-Believe Association, a new nonprofit podcast production company, makes no claim to inventing anything. But he’s hoping that the company’s first season, which made its debut this week, might usefully combine those last two Chicago creations.
Each episode in the season, titled “Grown Folks’ Fables,” features an audioplay based on a traditional folktale representing one strand of Chicago’s cultural diversity, reinterpreted by a homegrown writer. The plays are recorded live and presented along with excerpts from the post-show discussion among an audience carefully selected to reach beyond the usual theatergoers, who in this deeply divided city (as elsewhere) tend torun whiter, older and wealthier than the overall population.
Make-Believe, as McCarter likes to put it, is a podcast that’s “one part live theater, one part TV production, one part social science.”
When it comes to bridging social divides, he said recently over breakfast, “stories have an important role to play.”
Stories, of course, are also easier to come by than ever, thanks to the internet. The podcast universe is vast, and the biggest challenge for any new offering isn’t getting people talking, but simply being heard.
But some important players in Chicago — where about 80 people turned out at the National Museum of Mexican Art to celebrate the release of Make-Believe’s first episode, “Brava,” a feminist update of a traditional Mexican tale — are already paying attention to Make-Believe’s model.
“We’re watching their evolution very closely,” said Brian Bannon, the commissioner and chief executive of the Chicago Public Library, who attended two Make-Believe tapings held at its flagship Harold Washington Library.
“Chicago has a very close-knit, collaborative culture,” Bannon added, noting that Make-Believe’s goals dovetail with the library’s own mission of engaging the broadest possible public. “What Jeremy is doing is an example of a lot of really cool things going on here.”
McCarter, 42, who moved here from New York in 2014, brings a résumé long on the civic engagement side of theater. He interned with Anna Deavere Smith after college, and more recently spent five years at the Public Theater, where he created the event series Public Forum. (His wife, Julie Bosman, is a reporter for The New York Times.)
He was the co-author, with Lin-Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton: The Revolution,” and last year published “Young Radicals,” a group portrait of five idealistic intellectuals wrestling with the challenges to American democracy posed by World War I.
McCarter’s approach to audio storytelling similarly mixes idealism and high-flown intellectual scaffolding. As an “overture” to Make-Believe’s first season, he posted an interview about the power of stories with the star Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel.
Describing Make-Believe, he weaves in references to the work of the political scientist Robert Putnam (the author of “Bowling Alone”), the social critic Jane Jacobs and the philosopher John Dewey — a Chicagoan, he’s quick to note.
“Grown Folks’ Tales” is also 100 percent local, starting with a core writing team of up-and-coming collaborators. (The first season, whose budget McCarter described as running into the low six figures, is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation.)
First onboard was Nate Marshall, 29, a South Side-born poet and editor who was commissioned to reinterpret the African-American folktale of Brer Rabbit, the trickster figure who was sanitized in Disney’s gauzy plantation reverie “Song of the South.” (Marshall’s title: “Bruh Rabbit.”)
Next McCarter recruited Nancy Garcia Loza, 35, a producer-turned-playwright with family roots in Jalisco, Mexico, who wrote “Brava,” based on a traditional Jalisco tale featuring a dragon-slaying heroine. Garcia Loza also wrote an original corrido, a traditional Mexican ballad form, which was performed by an all-female mariachi band.
Marshall and Garcia Loza had never met. They and McCarter spent six months developing the plays in the writers’ room: in this case, a space at The Den, a hub of Chicago’s storefront theater scene. The first rule: Drafts would only be read out loud, not circulated in print.
“Some of my theater friends were surprised by that,” Garcia Loza said. “But you learn so much by just hearing it.”
McCarter also had skin in the game. The third episode features his adaptation of Zachary Mason’s novel “The Lost Books of the Odyssey,” which imagines 44 variations on the story of Odysseus. (McCarter settled for five.)
The fourth, which has yet to be recorded, is an outlier: a presentation of “What Use Are Flowers?” — a little-known dystopian short play by Lorraine Hansberry (another Chicagoan), written for television in 1961. Subtitled “a fable,” it asks whether humanity, if nearly wiped out in a cataclysmic war, would be worth salvaging.
The episodes, to be released biweekly, are about an hour: a roughly 40-minute audioplay, plus audience discussion.
Marshall, also a co-organizer of the annual Chicago Poetry Block Party, said that it took a while for Make-Believe’s approach to storytelling to take shape. But where the shows would be taped (non-theater spaces, they decided) and “how the audience is built and invited into the space was something we talked about from the very beginning,” he said.
Daniel Kyri, 25, an actor, director and filmmaker who is directing the Hansberry play, grew up in the Jackson Park neighborhood on the South Side. He has performed at the city’s most prestigious theaters (the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Lookingglass), as well as in his own crowdfunded web series, “The T” (created with Bea Cordelia), which explores queer and transgender friendship across Chicago’s divides of race, class and geography.
The first time he ever interacted with a white person, Kyri recalled, was when he was 9, on a school field trip.
“Chicago is multiple cities,” he said. “The discourse becomes more authentic when you can bridge — let’s call it what it is — segregation.”
During the post-show discussion of “Bruh Rabbit,” Marshall’s mother talked about the “invisible line” on Rainbow Beach, a public beach in the South Shore neighborhood, where, in 1961, whites attacked an interracial group staging a “freedom wade-in.”
The excerpts from audience discussion included with “Brava” emphasize how Latina women in the audience identified with its heroine. But the experience also stirred some different jolts of recognition.
“There were people there who hadn’t heard a radio play since they left Mexico,” Garcia Loza said. “They recognized this kind of oral tradition.”
After “The Lost Books of the Odyssey,” the conversation gravitated in a different direction: toward the placeless place of the internet, and the way social media allows us to act out different identities, different selves, different stories.
McCarter hopes Make-Believe’s stories will get people who find them online talking too.
“We want to open up a space and try to get people to travel an imaginative distance together,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.