Artistic Advisory Council

High Concept Labs’ Artistic Advisory Council (AAC) is composed of an experienced panel of arts practitioners, critics, writers, and thinkers who work with our staff to guide the artistic direction of our programs. The AAC is instrumental in the selection and growth of the Sponsored Artist Program, making HCL a prime resource for artists who lack the support structures of Chicago’s larger cultural institutions. Council members also recommend artists to the program, devise creative methods and partnerships, and support occasional large-scale creative projects. The AAC provides invaluable contributions in support of HCL’s mission to support working artists and audiences.


Sara Black, sculpture/visual art
Majel Connery, music
Rachel Ellison, Council Chair, performance and visual arts
Marc Frost, theater
Ted Hearne, music
Meida McNeal, performance
Julia A. Miller, music
Jaxon Pallas, multi-discplinary visual arts
Javier Rivera, theater
Molly Shanahan, dance
Casey Smallwood, film
Walkabout Theater Company, theater
Philip White, music
Zachary Whittenburg, dance


Artistic Advisory Council Bios


Sara Black

Sara BlackSara Black works broadly as an artist, artist-teacher, arts organizer, and curator. She received her MFA from the University of Chicago in 2006 and is currently Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was a founder of the artist group Material Exchange that was active in Chicago until 2010, working closely with artists John Preus and David Wolf, and has since been engaged in a number of collaborative works with artists Jillian Soto, Raewyn Martyn, Amber Ginburg, Lia Rousset, and others. Her work uses conscious processes of carpentry, wood-working, and repair as a time-based method along with inherited building materials or other exhausted objects as material. This results in works that aim to expose the complex ways in which things and people are suspended in worlds together. In the fall of 2012, Sara and her collaborator J Soto were Sponsored Artists at High Concept Labs, working on the exhibition Two Histories of the World.


Majel Connery

Majel ConneryMajel Connery is co-founder and Executive & Artistic Director of Opera Cabal, an arts think tank for the conjunction of academic and creative work on opera. Connery is a scholar, vocalist, actress, and stage director, and has performed with Opera Cabal and other ensembles. Current and recent collaborations include the world stage premiere of G.F. Haas’s ATTHIS with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (The Kitchen); Hong Kong Graft, co-created with Ken Ueno and Thomas Tsang (recently presented by High Concept Labs); stage direction for Kurt Rohde’s Death With Interruptions; Hecuba and Passionate Pilgrim, albums in progress co-created with Alexander Overington and Oracle Hysterical (Doug and Brad Balliett, and Elliot Cole); and the recent commission of a new opera by Sarah Kirkland Snider for Shara Worden.

As a scholar, Connery holds degrees from Princeton University and from the University of Chicago. She recently served as Visiting Assistant Professor and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley, where she was also a fellow at the Townsend Center for the Humanities, and at the Art Research Center. Connery is pleased to serve on the Artistic Advisory Council for High Concept Labs, which has headquartered many of Opera Cabal’s past and current commissions, including works by Caroline Shaw, Lewis Nielson, Elliot Cole, Phyllis Chen, Ken Ueno, Teddy Rankin-Parker, and Alexander Overington.

Rachel Ellison, Council Chair

Rachel EllisonRachel Ellison is an artist, writer, and sculptor of experiences based in Chicago. She served as Manager of Artistic Planning and Administration at High Concept Labs for three years, working closely with the Sponsored Artists and Artistic Advisory Council. Currently she is focused on building Bat Sarah Press, an arts platform that aims to evaluate generative roles religion can play in contemporary life. As an artist, Rachel creates performance-events called Rehearsals for Ways of Being using strategies to rethink, recontextualize, and reperform scenes of everyday life. She has exhibited works at venues across Chicago including The Museum of Contemporary Art and Comfort Station Logan Square and in cities across the US and Canada. Her projects have been featured in Fanzine and on CBC Radio One in Toronto. She received her MFA in Visual Arts from the University of Chicago in 2012.


Marc Frost

Marc FrostMarc Frost is an actor, deviser, educator, and native Chicagoan. He has performed and produced work in Brazil, Ireland, Spain, the U.S.A., and the U.K. His company Theater Unspeakable has created and performed three original works, which have toured to Lincoln Center Education in New York City, the Chicago Humanities Festival, and Chicago Children’s Theatre, among other venues. The company’s work has been selected for juried showcases at both the International Performing Arts for Youth and ArtsMidwest booking conferences. Marc also serves as co-Artistic Director of Physical Festival, one of the only international festivals in America dedicated to physical theater. He currently teaches at Columbia College, The School for Theatre Creators and the Chicago High School for the Arts. He graduated with his M.F.A. in Lecoq Based Actor Created Theater from Naropa University in cooperation with the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA).


Ted Hearne

Ted HearneComposer, performer, and bandleader, Ted Hearne draws on a wide breadth of influences ranging across music’s full terrain to create intense, personal, and multi-dimensional works. Hearne’s newest theatrical work, The Source, sets text from the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs—along with words by Chelsea Manning (the U.S. Army private who leaked those classified documents to WikiLeaks)—and was premiered to rave reviews in October 2014 at the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn. Hearne’s Katrina Ballads, a modern-day oratorio with a primary source libretto, was awarded the 2009 Gaudeamus Prize in composition and was named one of the best classical albums of 2010 by Time Out Chicago and The Washington Post. Recent projects include commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, Roomful of Teeth, eighth blackbird and Yarn/Wire, performances with his vocal-electronic duo R WE WHO R WE (with Philip White) and Wet Ink Ensemble, and collaborations with writer-filmmaker Dee Rees and soul music icon Erykah Badu.

Hearne has twice been a Sponsored Artist at High Concept Labs. Alongside composer-performer Philip White, with whom he forms one-half of R WE WHO R WE, Hearne has taken full advantage of HCL’s resources in the development of new musical material.

Meida McNeal

Meida McNealMeida McNeal is an Independent Artist and Scholar of performance studies, dance and critical ethnography. Dr. McNeal works with the Chicago Park District as Arts & Culture Manager supporting partnerships and programming initiatives across the city’s parks and cultural centers. She is also faculty in Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia College Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education. Recent performance projects with Honey Pot Performance (Sponsored Artists at High Concept Labs in 2014) include The Ladies Ring Shout, The Sweet Goddess Project, Price Point, and Juke Cry Hand Clap: A People’s History of House & Chicago Social Culture. HPP’s newest work, Ma(s)king Her, will premiere in April 2016 at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and is supported through residencies with the Arts & Public Life Initiative/University of Chicago and Propeller Fund.


Julia A. Miller

Julia A. Miller is a guitarist, composer, improvisor, sound artist, visual artist, curator, and educator. In 2013, Julia received the Meier Achievement Award, an unrestricted grant given for the work of a significant mid­career artist. Since 2014, Julia Miller and Volcano Radar have collaborated with painter Lewis Achenbach on multiple iterations of his Jazz Occurrence Series. In 2015, Julia initiated the Art of the Guitar concert series. Art of the Guitar spans the history of the modern guitar and related instruments from the Renaissance to the present, with a particular focus on the avant­ garde. Art of the Guitar is particularly concerned with a synthesis of styles and techniques, and cross pollination. Julia is pleased to serve on the Curatorial Board of the Ragdale Foundation and on the Advisory Board for High Concept Labs. Julia is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and is Guitar Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Julia received a DMA in composition from Northwestern University in 2005.

Jaxon Pallas

Jaxon PallasJaxon Pallas is an artist, archivist, curator, and educator primarily concerned with projects at the intersection of the personal, the popular, and the political. His collaborative, community-based projects have been produced and presented nationally and internationally. He was a Sponsored Artist at High Concept Labs in 2011, and a Curatorial Resident with the Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s HATCH program in 2014-2015. He serves as the Manager of Community Engagement and Arts Learning at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. His other projects include the Teen Creative Agency at MCA Chicago, and the Institute for Encyclopedic Amalgamation. He earned a MFA from the University of Chicago, BA degrees from Rice University, and certificates from NYU and the European College of Liberal Arts (Berlin).


Javier Rivera

Javier RiveraJavier Rivera received his BA in Theatre and Education from American University in DC. He completed his MFA in Acting and Directing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2004. As an actor some of his favorite roles include Michael Evans in Dancing at Lughnasa, the wild boy in Wildboy The Musical (world premiere), Daniel in Kissing Fidel (world premiere), and Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. As director he most recently tackled Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, The Who’s Tommy, and Glengarry Glen Ross (ACTF recommended) for American University’s Department of Performing Arts. Professional directing credits include The Taming of the Shrew for Lean & Hungry Theatre (WAMU/NPR broadcast), and I Am the Gentry (world premiere, Intersections Festival, DC). Javier was awarded with the Princess Grace Faberge Award for Acting in 2003, was inducted into American University’s Hall of Fame in 2004, and received the 2014 Best Actor award at the United Solo Theatre Festival (Theatre Row, NYC) for his original one-man show, Salve Regina: A Coming of GAY Story. Javier is a proud member of Actors’ Equity.

Molly Shanahan

Molly ShanahanMolly Shanahan is the Artistic Director of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak, the Chicago-based company she founded in 1994 to support her research in choreography, performance, and collaboration. Through her career, Molly has developed a distinctively fluid vocabulary with a singular purpose: to find and express the most unbridled of inner impulses. She continues to deepen and hone her singular approach to movement and the body, which feeds her multi-modal collaborations and the public performance of her solo and ensemble dances. Shanahan is recognized as a “singular voice in Chicago dance,” (Zac Whittenburg, TimeOut Chicago) who has been “distilling the essence of performance—the relationship between audience and artist—for years, exposing the honest beauty of the body in its natural state: fluid, organic motion” (Sharon Hoyer, New City Chicago). Molly’s work has been supported by two NPN Creation Fund Awards, a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist Award, an Illinois Arts Council fellowship for choreography, and a 2010 Meier Achievement Award, among others. My Name is a Blackbird was listed as one of the “top ten dance moments of the decade” by TimeOut Chicago. Shanahan was included in New City’s 2010 and 2012 feature “The Players, 50 people who really perform for Chicago: “discarding the rules of modern dance, Shanahan puts movement under the microscope, cultivating gorgeous organic phrases by observing motion at an atomic level.” (Sharon Hoyer, New City). In 2012 Molly received a fellowship from Temple University (Philadelphia) for doctoral research focusing on her embodied transformation through the freeing of abdominal musculature to move, rather than control, the pelvis and spine, a transformation that subverts normative employment of a “core” to centrally control the body and, related, conformity to aesthetics of ideal fitness and femininity. She is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States and currently splits her time between Chicago and Philadelphia, where she teaches at Temple University and Bryn Mawr College, and is writing a dissertation on My Name is a Blackbird.

Casey Smallwood

Casey SmallwoodCasey Smallwood works with performance through lens-based media, exploring the kind of acting we do in everyday life—looking at the things around theatre and film: interviews, auditions, rehearsals, etc. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago; College Art Association’s ARTspace Media Lounge, New York; Angels Gate Cultural Center, San Pedro; El Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, The Institute of Superior Arts (ISA) and The National Salon of Contemporary Cuban Art, Havana, Cuba. She was a Sponsored Artist at High Concept Labs in 2011, a resident at the Banff Centre’s thematic residency Our Literal Speed in 2013, and a resident in Chicago Artists Coalition’s HATCH Projects in 2014-2015. Casey received an MFA from the University of Chicago in Visual Arts and a BFA from Missouri State University in Photography.


Walkabout Theater Company

Walkabout Theater CompanyFounded in 1999 and dedicated to the production and development of new and arresting theatrical events, Walkabout Theater Company continues its legacy of producing the highest quality of unique performance work. Highlights from its history include The Wild (Steppenwolf Garage Rep), a sumptuous and provocative collaged deconstruction of the work of playwright Charles L. Mee and ancient Dionysian rituals that questioned the savagery and civilization within us all. The sold-out production at Steppenwolf was made possible and developed through a residency at High Concept Labs and was met with critical and artistic acclaim: “A daring, stunningly surreal ritualistic feast,” “altogether brilliant,” “a monumental work,” and “a wild ride, indeed,”. The Wild was highly recommended by TimeOut and the Sun-Times and received three stars from the Chicago Tribune, and is currently touring. A summer spectacle interpretation of The Wild, renamed Wild Summer, was presented through partnership with the Chicago Parks District Night Out in the Parks programming in August 2015. In 2014 Beach Party at the End of the World—a flash mob, guerrilla beach-party spectacle created by the Walkabout ensemble, 5 Chicago choreographers and 40 performers—performed over three weekends at 7 Chicago beaches up and down the shore of Lake Michigan. Walkabout Theater’s ensemble is comprised of ten multi-disciplinary artists that live and work in Chicago. Artists Nigel Brown, McCambridge Dowd-Whipple, Al Evangelista, Cooper Forsman, Dina Marie Klahn, Katie Mazzini, Kendra Miller, Dana Murphy, Thom Pasculli and Paul Scudder train and practice together in a laboratory theatre setting. The ensemble leads monthly Open Trainings, inviting fellow Chicago theatre artists to participate in Walkabout’s physical artistic practice.

Philip White

Philip WhiteComposer, performer and improviser Philip White works with electronics at the intersection of noise, jazz and contemporary concert music. Current music projects include R WE WHO R WE (with Ted Hearne) and duos with Chris Pitsiokos, Paula Matthusen, Bob Bellerue, and Taylor Levine. He collaborates with Ralph Lemon, Nora Chipaumire, and Urban Bush Women. His music has been released on Carrier Records, New Focus Recordings, Infrequent Seams and Tape Drift Records. It has been described as “utterly gripping” (Time Out Chicago), “bona fide evocative music” (Brooklyn Rail), and a “vibrant textural tapestry” (Wall Street Journal).



Zachary Whittenburg

Zachary WhittenbergZachary Whittenburg spent ten years as a professional dancer with companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, BJM Danse Montréal, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. He then returned to Chicago to work as a freelance performer, choreographer, and teacher. As a reporter and critic, Whittenburg has written for numerous print and online publications, contributes regularly to Dance Magazine, is a panelist and guest speaker, and tweets @trailerpilot about contemporary culture and the performing arts. He returned to Hubbard Street in 2012 as manager of communication, currently represents the company on the Chicago Dancemakers Forum consortium (CDF), is a member of the executive committee for the Chicago Dance History Project, and has hosted Cultural Conversations and CDF Works in Progress at High Concept Labs.