After a three-year hiatus on in-person events, Open Television (OTV), a nonprofit streaming platform and media incubator for intersectional storytelling, will gather for #OTVTonight: A Return to Fellowship at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) on Tuesday, May 16. It’s the first in-person event the nonprofit has hosted since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Over the last couple of years, as we’ve been transitioning back into space, something that was important for us was to be mindful of the communities that we represent,” said Elijah McKinnon, an artist, activist, abolitionist, co-founder and executive director of OTV.

“As an intersectional platform, [we’re] bringing in folks who are immunocompromised or disabled or coming from Black and brown communities already quite susceptible to COVID-19 and various other barriers. So it wasn’t ethical to pack out a 200-person plus event,” McKinnon, who uses they/them pronouns, explained. 

The event will go from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm at the MCA. Ticket sales began on April 3 and are available for $10. A limited number of free community tickets are now available. Here is the link to purchase tickets. Interview segments from the event will be available on-demand through the OTV app after the premiere. 

This year’s #OTVTonight will be reminiscent of events the nonprofit became known for over the years, but with a few new additions. McKinnon will emcee the festivities, which will feature tunes from DJ Shaun J. Wright, live performances and creator interviews, and a few surprises. 

For the first time, #OTVTonight will be dedicated to showcasing the works of its 2021-2022 fellows. The OTV Fellows program began in 2019 and is celebrating its fifth year. The annual program provides support, mentorship, and education to intersectional filmmakers in Chicago and beyond. 

“We gained our footing as a platform in Chicago by our events. That was what we did for so many years since our inception,” McKinnon said. 

They recalled hosting OTV’s events in a converted warehouse in Pilsen, in bars on the North Side,  at the Stony Island Arts Bank,  the MCA, the Cultural Center and Reunion Chicago. The latter was a sliding-scale venue and project incubator for LGBTQ+ and people of color creatives owned by McKinnon and Kristen Kaza; it closed in 2021

“In many ways, our events were opportunities for people to meet their next director and connect with potential talent, possible investors, and collaborators,” McKinnon said. “All of those pieces came from our events, they said. 

This year’s featured fellows include Shann Sasani, Vee Hua, M. Lorin, Latasha Mercer and Marlo Abril-Viriña. Sasani’s short film “AGENTS OF CHANGE: Project Polymer” features transgender Black and brown actors in a spy thriller—a genre which doesn’t have a lot of LGBTQ+ representation, McKinnon said. 

Hua’s “Reckless Spirits” is a “hyperreal comedy featuring two best friends who are led by a series of supernatural events in the world of physics, along with spirits and a cult leader who’s threatening to tear their friendship apart,” according to OTV. 

There’s Lorin’s “Chickweed Magik,” which is “an anthology of urban fantasy tales centering Black teen girls in Chicago, whose encounters with temptation and danger challenge their beliefs and existence altogether.” 

Mercer’s “JustLatasha’s Inner Actions” uses “a Black cultural observation through a Bi Black woman’s lens to explore dating, sexuality, queerness and pop culture in this short form, witty sketch series and Viriña’s ‘ManicMan!’ crafts the newest comic book superhero ‘ManicMan!’  with the help of his small-town friends,” according to OTV.

I’m excited to platform and provide a space for our fellows that have gone through this program, cultivated their stories, and developed their careers, and now have this project and these concepts that they want to share on a stage,” McKinnon said. “It is a great opportunity for them and us to bring it full circle.”

McKinnon originally created OTV as part of a research project at Northwestern University, and they co-founded the organization with Dr. Aymar Jean Christian in 2015. The nonprofit’s mission is to support Chicago artists in producing and exhibiting independent programming while transforming how film, television and entertainment industries support independent artists and marginalized groups by their race, gender, sexuality, class, disability or nationality. 

Now in its eighth year, OTV has created a pipeline for diverse storytellers in Chicago through its curated events and programming like the OTV Fellows program, which is in its fifth year. 

Creatives with OTV have received Emmy, Webby, Gotham and Steamy awards and nominations. For example, there’s Black queer feminist and educator Kyra Jones, who linked up with OTV in 2018. With a microgrant and mentorship from the nonprofit, Jones’s first web series, “The Right Swipe,” premiered on OTV in 2019. It became an official selection in multiple film festivals and won Best Web Series Episode at the Portland Comedy Film Festival in 2019. 

In January, McKinnon was named as a recipient of the third-annual Elevate Prize, a $5 million award presented to 12 social entrepreneurs and changemakers working to address world issues. Winners receive $300,000 in prize funding, leadership development services, social media training, mentorship and other support to reach a wider audience and grow their following.

The funding will help the platform reach its goal of having an in-house production fund. 

“We want to be able to greenlight our artists’ and fellows’ projects in a way that supports them and adds fuel to their tank. This particular resource is going to be a benchmark in allowing us to even begin to think about that,” McKinnon said. 

“We’ve got some things in store. I can’t share too much just yet. But keep your eyes peeled for some really exciting news coming down the pipeline in quarters three and four this year,” they added. 

OTV has even traveled internationally, bringing programming like #BraveFutures to a wider audience. #BraveFutures is an intersectional film race for storytellers, filmmakers and creatives to produce a short film in 48 hours. The program launched in 2019 in Johannesburg and has since toured in Berlin, Guadalajara, London and Cape Town. 

The TRiiBE caught up with McKinnon ahead of #OTVTonight to discuss the upcoming event, its fellowship cohort, the nonprofit’s recent Elevate Prize win and what it means to create and foster a film, TV and entertainment hub for diverse storytellers in Chicago and beyond. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The TRiiBE: This is the first in-person event you’ve hosted since 2019. Tell me more about what people will see and experience at the MCA.

Elijah McKinnon: This moment is a return to fellowship. It is an opportunity for us to remind our community that, yes, we’ve traveled the world and created and supported some amazing content, stories and opportunities for artists. We’re still those girls from around the way. We’re still the same girls you have grown to love and support. So, this upcoming program, #OTVTonight, cements our long-standing relationship with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as it relates to one film and TV being an artistic medium.

It is a medium that is and deserves to be in the museum. Right in those walls. What I love so much about #OTVTonight is it is our love letter to Chicago. It is a late show-styled program that is mega-Black, mega-queer and features an unconventional format for a film premiere. We strive to engage our audiences in a variety of ways outside of just passive consumption. The biggest piece for #OTVTonight that I’m hoping people walk away with is a sense of belonging and a brave space to come together and have critical conversations about the world that we currently live in.

How hands-on are you throughout the fellowship cycle?

Our OTV Fellowship is a career-long opportunity. Unlike many fellowships that are just annual, we encourage a lifetime investment. So we like to joke and say we’re here for you until you opt out. We’re going to be up in your business. We’re quite invested in our fellows. We provide them with a variety of resources. The OTV Fellowship provides a continuum of care around art making, and how difficult that can be. We’re quite invested in the artists as much as in the project. It’s not like we’re only here until you execute this thing, and then we’re out.

This program is led by Sarah Minnie, OTV’s head of artist development and production. She has designed just a stunning curriculum that provides grace, but adds a little fire to that ass and allows them to think critically about the career that they want, and about how they even can approach platforming opportunities like #OTVTonight from a place of competence and security and understanding of their own self-worth and value in the industry. 

And then, from me and my end, I’m this executive diva. So I have my hands in everything. As we’ve grown, my plate has just exponentially exploded and become much fuller. I met with Sarah last year to understand how I can get more invested and become a resource for our fellows. And so last year, I designed an intensive road-mapping intensive that kicks off our fellowship. So I’ll be bringing that back this year for the 2023 fellows, but in that road-mapping intensive, which is our first touch point with OTV, our organization, instead of us sitting there and being like, this is what OTV is about and this is what we do. I ask them to think critically about who they are, what they want in this world, and how they can use their artistic practice and gifts as storytellers to wield that future. What is so stunning about that particular intensive is that it allows them to think more holistically about art making instead of just getting something out in the world.

Can you share something that you’ve learned from fellows this cycle?

One thing that I love about the OTV Fellows Program is that we provide so much space for care. Something I’ve learned, most recently from a fellow, LaTasha Mercer. She was talking about how it’s okay for us as creators, artists, storytellers or filmmakers to go through waves of understanding who we are, and it’s okay to release the different versions of ourselves. That was so poignant because, as creators in this industry, everything is about being so polished and being so definitive about who you are and how you’re showing up. So I love how she took grace and care to remind us that changing your mind is okay. It’s okay to become a new person. It’s okay to have new interests as long as you create the space to mourn that person or that version of yourself, and so I just really loved that. 

You’ve built this pipeline for diverse storytellers, writers and creatives to be seen and recognized in Chicago and beyond. How does knowing you’ve played a critical role in creating this pipeline and platforming diverse voices feel?

I’m not even gonna lie: some days, it’s terrifying because it can feel like a lot of pressure. It can feel quite debilitating. But, as an artist, arts administrator, Black person, queer person, as a nonbinary person, holding all of these communities and the responsibility and accountability that we have set out to them is no small feat. It really isn’t. Something that keeps me grounded, and something that I am just actively in deep gratitude for, is the grace our communities and artists provide us as a leadership team. 

I have the deepest humility in those moments. I take a step back and think about how far we’ve come and how far the industry has to go. And I think about where we are in that, and I have the deepest gratitude. The work gets real. We’re managing a lot of trauma and a lot of intention about stories that are very sensitive around experiences that are lived. They’re not fiction. These are real-life stories. We bring in some of our artists’ voices in our leadership meetings to remind us why we do this work. It’s just an anecdote to remind us why we do this. And this is how us showing up in the world is changing the industry. And that is such a grounding factor in our work.

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.