Crochet Meets Shakespeare in a Forest in Chicago

Sometimes this giant globe we live on seems as small as a marble. I had one of those days last month. It was just a few days before I was going to Chicago for a trade show when this photo from my alma mater showed up in my Facebook feed.

Yes, that is a tree stump with foliage made out of crochet. It’s part of the forest for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The reason this made my world seem so small is that my alma mater is The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, and I was arriving in Chicago that coming Monday morning, with no set plans until Tuesday morning. So what’s a girl to do when she sees her worlds collide, but join in the collision.

I contacted The Theatre School and was able to set up some time to interview some of the Midsummer tech students during my rare free time.

On Monday at about 11:30 am, I found myself out side The Theatre School. This was not the old Sunday school that housed The Theatre School in my day. This was a bespoke building designed by the internationally renowned architect César Pelli, and his firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, which opened in September of 2013.

It was glorious.

The Theatre School at DePaul University’s facility at night. © Jeff Goldberg/Esto. All rights reserved.

Soon I was escorted to the props shop where I met with Sam Smith (2nd year, Props Artisan) and Olivia Volk (4th year, Scenic Designer).

Jessie: Olivia, you’re almost done with your time here, aren’t you?

Olivia: I’m very close to done, my last hurrah is what this is.

Jessie: Where are you going after this?

Olivia: I’m going to stay in Chicago for a little bit, work some paint gigs.

What I love about the school is how many different things I get to learn. But at the same time, I don’t get to fully get into one thing, so hopefully after I graduate I’ll be painting a lot more, doing a lot more arts and crafts.

Something else I love is that our professors are very open to us working for them once we graduate.

Jessie: I got a lot of jobs through my professors when I was here.

Olivia: Yeah, which is so awesome.

Jessie: Tell me a little bit about how Midsummer ended up with yarn?

Olivia: Throughout the design process we were choosing: do we want to do original Shakespearian; do we want to do a modern retelling? Well, we kind of settled on a sort of vague in between, we just want magic to happen, whatever that is. So, my design theme was to find something that was kind of unrecognizable. This forest could be in anyone’s backyard. And anybody could connect to this story.

The fiber arts worked great for that because you can make almost anything with yarn, and depending on who’s making it it will come out completely different every time, which is really great. Also, the amount of kinds of yarn are just insane so I think the idea was to make something unrecognizable, but still have the same form, gesture, and shape of flora.

Jessie (to Sam): And apparently you’re the crochet person?

Sam (to Olivia): Didn’t you say you hoped for me to work on this show?

Olivia: Yes, we worked on a show over a year ago and I remember you backstage crocheting most of the time. And at the very beginning of looking online of the florals you can buy at craft stores, I was like, that doesn’t feel right, and all of my reference images were very vague. So, then I thought “Maybe I can get crochet”. But I don’t crochet. So, then I thought, selfishly, I’m gonna make Sam work on this project.

Sam: And I’m not even assigned to this show, but I have a work study position with props, so I was able to take some yarn home and do some work at home.

At this point we took a quick break to pull out some yarn and hooks so we could start making more flora. We continued the interview while we all crocheted.

Jessie: I’m looking forward to seeing how the costumes fit in with the set.

Olivia: We also have 2 wig hair and makeup designers with this show and we’ve been working really closely together. So some of the hair mushrooms are on the set and some of the set mushrooms are in the hair.

Jessie: Cool, I love it when everyone collaborates. Do you still have the Con-Fab class here?

Olivia: We call it Collaboration now, but yes.

Jessie: Good, that’s so important, because you get a more cohesive show that way. I imagine the lighting designer is going to have a lot of fun with all those shapes and textures.

Olivia: The lighting designer is my roommate, so from the beginning we’ve been very open about texture and everything.

Jessie: Sam, what do you think about being pulled into this show you’re not even getting a grade for?

Sam: Well, I get paid for it. So that’s almost better. I love whimsy and this show is really whimsical. I’m really glad I got the opportunity to do some crocheting for it, I wish I had been able to do more.

I’m so excited, I can’t wait to see it in its final form. Today was the first day I got to see any of the crochet on the actual set.

Olivia: We just started putting it all on the set, and it’s really fun to be doing it while they’re dry teching while the actors are getting into costume, and random tech people are walking by going “here you go, I made this thing” as they hand you a piece of crochet and you just grab it and staple it on the set.

Jessie: How many people have you taught to crochet?

Sam: Well I only taught Olivia, but Alex, the props director for the show, has taught a lot of people.

Olivia: Alex has taught upwards of 10 people during the build of the show.

Jessie: Olivia, what are you most excited about with graduating from The Theatre School of DePaul University, formerly The Goodman School of Drama?

Olivia: I feel really good. This school has taught me so much, not only about being a designer, but also as a person. I feel like I’m so much more prepared for problem solving and I think the confidence the school has instilled in me is really great too.

Obviously, I have to give kudos to all of the staff here. It’s really great to feel supported. It’s really great to have an open space where you can be like “hey, I’ve never done this thing before, can we try it?” And we try it, and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t oh well.

Photography by Michael Brosilow.

Jessie: What are you hoping for your next 2 years here?

Sam: That’s a good question. So next year I’ll be working more on production practice, so I’ll be focused more on one specific show at a time. Then my senior year I want to do more directing and taking on the whole thing.

I’m excited about taking more of the costume craft classes.

Olivia: We’re in a fabric aging and dying and painting class and it’s so fun.

Sam: It feels like potions class.

Olivia: It is potions class.

Sam: I’m really excited to use the knowledge to dye yarn. Being able to hand dye my own yarn will be so fun.

Jessie: So where do you see yarn fitting into your life as you move forward and face the impending real world

Sam: Like I’m sure most crocheters, I’ve often wondered if I could just stop everything and make crochet my business, but I’m also a little scared to make my hobby my business. I think it would be a dream job to do crochet, but I don’t think that will be in the works for me unless I make a major shift, but it’s always in the back of my brain.

Jessie: If you only knew a fellow Theatre School Alum who was also a crochet designer and owned a crochet magazine, you could ask them all your questions and get some advice.

At this point, we did just that. Then we took a tour of the set and the new-to-me Theatre School building.

We stopped at Jason Beck’s office, he’s the Assistant Dean and one of my former classmates. He took me backstage to sign the alumni wall. I found a spot between Ben and Andrew, who were acting majors a year ahead of me and used to serenade me with the song “Jessie (paints a picture)”. It seemed like the right spot.

They say you can never go home again. For the first time in my life, I had an experience different from that. Even though this was an entirely different building, with entirely different people, it was still home. There’s a magic in The Theatre School at DePaul University that follows you your whole life, and it will always welcome you back.

Or maybe drag you back.

Photography by Michael Brosilow.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays May 11- June 01, 2024, in The Theatre School’s Watts Theatre, 2350 N. Racine Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are now on sale at or by calling the Box Office at (773) 325-7900.

​Produced by special arrangement with Plays for New Audiences.

Run-time: 1 hour and 30 minutes.

​Environmental Warnings: Fog and haze.

Location: The Watts Theatre at The Theatre School at DePaul University, 2350 N. Racine Ave. Chicago, IL 60614

Dates: Regular run: Saturday, May 18 at 2 pm, Saturday, May 25 at 2 pm, Thursday, May 30 at 10:10 am, and Saturday, June 1 at 2 pm.

Special Events: ​Saturday, May 18 – Post-show discussion, Saturday, May 25 – ASL Interpreted, Saturday, June 1 – Audio Description.

Photography by Michael Brosilow.

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