Talking with The Upstairs Gallery about Operating an Indie Theater and Being a Valve of Chicago Comedy
When you think of Comedy theaters in Chicago you probably think of the big three: The Second City, The IO, and The Annoyance. These three theaters are extremely well established and boast an impressive list of alumni, but where does a performer go if they want to perform but are unable to do so on these stages? Chicago is also home to a big independent comedy scene and one of the leaders of this scene is The Upstairs Gallery. Run by Alex Honnet, Walt Delaney, and Caitlin Stephan, The Upstairs Gallery is already becoming a home to some of the most interesting and experimental comedy from both veteran and new performers alike. With only two years under its belt The Upstairs Gallery has already had an improv tournament, a multi-staged improv festival, helped release an independently produced comedy album and hosts shows 7 nights a week.
I recently sat down with Alex, Walt, and Caitlin to discuss the impetus for opening The Upstairs Gallery and where they feel they exist in the timeline of comedy in Chicago:
So what was the impetus for starting the Upstairs Gallery?
Walt: Well, it started two years ago this September. That was when we had the show and Alex originally found the space and got it going.
Alex: This whole floor used to be a music studio and that front room where we put on most of the shows was being run by a group of women who were all dating each other. It’s much less scandalous than it sounds. But they were running it as an art gallery called the Part Time Gallery and they put up shows, art shows, with some frequency. So we started renting it out from them once a month and putting up an improv show. We did that twice and then they let me know that they were going to stop renting the gallery because they were all breaking up with each other. Initially I was working with a good friend name Eric Siegel who just moved to LA, to pursue writing out there. He was on some IO teams and really involved with One Group Mind. We just rented it out and we started putting up shows and rehearsals in just that front room whenever they weren’t recording. Eventually the guys who were running the studio said, “We’re not going to run the studio anymore.” And I talked to Walt about it, because before then Walt and I had always been very close through our classes, but he had come on once Eric left in the early spring and we were kind of like, “Let’s just do it. Let’s just rent the whole floor.” So we kind of went after it.
Walt: Yeah. Did you start at the same time as well?
Caitlin: Yeah, I think you guys, because you were doing classes together, started developing the idea and then I was also here all the time. And right after you signed the lease, asked me to join. It was prior to us taking over all the space.
Walt: Yeah, so I think in March I had come on. It already had a lot of good steam, and a lot of good stuff going behind it, so we just were like, “Let’s really dig in and make a go out of this.” We’ve been booking shows and renting it pretty regularly, and it was getting good buzz, then the landlord said that the music guys weren’t going to renew, so we just asked if we could make a go of the whole floor. He was nice enough to say yeah, and from there we just…
Alex: Have been booking stuff ever since. I would say, the only thing is, none of us really set out for this to be a thing. It’s very much, we just sort of stumbled into this spot, which I think is kind of important, when you look at how it’s run, and stuff like that. We build things as they’re needed, as they go along, and pitch things that we think would be fun. No one is so invested in this being their dream, or having a clear cut idea that they are unwilling to surrender an aspect of control over it, which has always been really, really nice, about the thing.
Where do you feel you guys exist, in the timeline of Chicago improv theaters? You have all these different theaters that do similar things. Maybe they weren’t so happy with the way things were being run at IO, and then they moved on. Do you feel it’s like that, or do you feel like it’s a little clubhouse to play at?
Walt: Personally, it’s certainly not a “fuck you” to anybody else. It was more, a good opportunity for us to keep doing shows and stuff.
Alex: Yeah, right.
Walt: But it was also a cool thing, something that people were enjoying. We don’t have a real strong, “This is our thing. This is what we’re going to do.” When it started, it was kind of, “Just do whatever you want. You’re booking the space. It’s your time, so fill it as you care to.” Since we don’t really have a very clear artistic director point of view, of what we want to stand for, I think people just responded to it because they have complete ability to fail, and to put whatever they want up, and no one’s watching over their shoulders.
Alex: Yeah. I look at it as much more of a valve, than it is like a reaction. Just because there are so many talented people in the city that don’t get a chance to take center stage at a lot of the theaters, because you have to really put in your dues in those places, and who knows if you’ll even ever get a shot at them. At IO, if you’re an independent group and you don’t have a dude who’s on a really well regarded Harold team, it’s very hard to get a Thursday night 8:00 spot. It’s pretty much impossible, effectively. But you can do that here. We found that there were all these people who had been on Harold teams for like two years, that had these really cool, great ideas, and these great independent groups that really wanted to put stuff up, and they didn’t really have a place to do it that lended a little bit more legitimacy than a bar prov stage, or something like that. I think we kind of stepped in and became that, in a lot of ways.
Walt: Alex had the idea to make house teams, improv house teams, and as of this summer, how many house teams are there?
Alex: 15, maybe.
Walt: Fifteen. Kind of just our favorite people, doing stuff, that they became a house team, and it’s become something where these independent teams used to have to really motor and really work hard to get gigs, it’s helping some of our friends and the people that we really love, making it a little easier for them to have these side projects that are what they care about, but also giving them a little more opportunity to get away with it.
For these house teams, was it people had pre-existing teams, and you were just, “Hey, you want to be a house team?” or was there any sort of auditioning?
Alex: No, it was all existing.
Walt: No, no. Yeah, and it’s all stuff that, they had been doing well before, so it’s nothing like, “Oh, we put anything together.” It’s all totally independent.
Do you think, moving on in the future like you said, you didn’t really feel like you had an artistic direction or anything do you think you would want to maybe go more in that direction, or go more in a direction of a place where you’re auditioning people?
Alex: I don’t think it’s something that we’re particularly interested in. I think there seems to be the sense that, at least from people I talked to, that eventually that is something we might need to do, but that would be very far down the line. I’m assuming, at a point when Walt and I, or another person, as artistic director, have an idea of what we want to see from our improvisers, outside of just, “Do your thing that makes you have fun.” I’m not ruling it out, but I’m not particularly interested in it, especially right now.
Walt: No, and we don’t really have a clear artistic point of view, but we’ve been starting to do a lot of different kind of projects, and stuff like that.
Alex: Yeah, productions.
Walt: A lot of stuff that is the brainchild of Alex, like an improv tournament, an improv festival, all out of here, that had a really good response, and I think it’s kind of cool too.
Caitlin: Yeah, that was the extent of us forming teams was the improv tournament. Literally, randomly drawing names out of a hat and putting them on teams.
Alex: The only time we’ve ever done that, I think, is in those situations. We put together a living room run every couple months, stuff like that. It’s always just randomly, one off teams. But it’s never like auditions, or anything like that.
Can we talk some more about the process of the Ribfest, improv festival that you guys did? Whose idea was that? How did you do it?
Alex: That was our good friend, Kyle Chorpening. He’s been talking for about a year about this idea he had.
Walt: It’s funny because he wanted to do it last summer, but last summer, we just really weren’t set up to undertake something like that. We could have done it, but it just wouldn’t have been…
Alex: It would have fallen flat, last summer.
Walt: Yeah. It just wouldn’t have been as fun, because not that many people knew about the space.
Alex: Basically, his idea was he wanted to do an improv festival that was built like a music festival, and I was like, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” [laughter] Then, over the course of this year, as we’ve examined more about what the space was about, it became more about those kind of ideas, about just stupid, one off spectacles, and stuff like that. I think in March, or something like that, we were like, “Let’s just do it. Why not?” He came back and pitched it. Then we brought on Phil Meister, Kyle, myself, Caitlin and Walt as the nucleus, the committee to make it happen.
Walt: I didn’t do much. [laughs]
Caitlin: I didn’t do much at all, yeah.
Alex: The idea was, basically, Kyle created a schedule with a certain number of people, and then we just randomly selected, I think 30 people we really liked from the community, and then just plugged them into the schedule. There was no rhyme or reason to creating the teams. Really, most of the effort went into creating the schedule and the forms that people would be performing. At any given time, we could walk in the main room and see, like, a Harold. We could also walk into the side room and see something really weird going on. It would be a Bat. We did a whole show of people only doing Bane voices, and in the Green Room it was all shotguns. People would just rotate and play with different folks, and the audience would just get up and walk around, and to that sort of stuff.
Have any of you guys ever been to the Del Close marathon in New York?
Alex: No, none of us have.
It feels kind of similar to that, with a bunch of different shows at different theaters all at once.
Alex: That’s actually the vibe people have told us, sometimes, about this place, is that it feels a little bit more like UCB, because of that clubhouse sort of thing, which is cool and super flattering, in some ways, that people would draw that sort of comparison. One of my teams got into Del Close this year. I couldn’t justify going all the way out there from Chicago for a 20 minute set, at one point, but it seems like so much fun.
Walt: I was thinking, in my head, it’s a really cheesy cliche, but Chicago’s almost like you’re dating comedy, and New York, you’re like you’re marrying it. Or it’s like, “Oh, that’s cute, you’re doing comedy in Chicago,” but I think that the more and more that web content is getting respected, and stuff like that, and it’s getting cheaper to produce it. I know people have been saying this forever, and who knows if it will ever come, but there’s good enough stuff here to have it be self-contained in Chicago, and have it be its own scene.
Alex: For everything that’s on TV that’s a really big hit and successful, there are a billion things that have been meddled with by executives, that are just terrible, that get produced out in New York and LA. You get a much purer artistic vision, I think, with stuff produced in Chicago. It just doesn’t have that same kind of money behind it, but as everything goes down, it’s going to make much less of a difference. We’ll have to wait and see.
Do any of you ever feel pressure to eventually move to LA?
Alex: I’d say Walt does, more than me.
Walt: I’ve entertained it, certainly, just because that thing of, it’s a big pull of you want to, while you have the time to do it. You don’t want to say, “I wish I had.” What could have been. But also, I’m from here, I love it here, all my friends are here. I respect all the work here. I’ve thought about it, but it would be a real hard pull, for me to go there. My preference would be to stay in Chicago as long as I can.
Alex: Caitlin, what do you think, for yourself?
Caitlin: Well, it’s tough, even in other things. New York and LA are certainly cities where you’re getting real about stuff. There was a time when I was going to move to New York to get for real about my financial career, which is a funny thing to compare it all to, but I don’t know. It makes me sad, because I feel like, right now, as in a lot of things, people get antsy after three years, and they probably make a change. I feel like there are a lot of our friends that are up and leaving to LA because they’ve got to go and do it, and make it. It’s sad, but I don’t know. I wish them the best of luck, because to move out there and not succeed is tough.
Walt: My brother was out in LA, and I was going to move there for college, actually. I went out there to stay with him, and I really didn’t like it. The tipping point was, we all went out one night before. We were all kind of hung over, and they were like, “Oh, we’ll go to this breakfast spot. It’s so good, it’s the best place in LA,” and it was the biggest bullshit breakfast spot. It was all really, egg whites and stuff like that. I was like, “Fuck this place.” That was what really was the final thing, “I hate LA.”
Alex: I think the thing about this place, that I really like, is that it’s really a celebration, not of what you’re going to do down the line, but of what you’re doing now. There is no path to fame or fortune, or anything like that here. It’s just a chance to put up your stuff, that you want to put up, and have fun doing it, and work with people you like to work with.
Walt: I think there’s enough podcasts and books, where you can hear these people’s stories, about how they got their break or what have you, and everyone’s is different, so to think, “Oh, man, I’m 28, 29 now. Bill Murray was 25.” It’s stupid to try to compare notes. I think, when you feel ready to do something, if the pull really is to go to LA, then go to LA, but if you don’t want to and you feel like you should stay in Chicago, stay in Chicago. LA’s going to be there.
Alex: You can work, have fun, pursue this thing you love.
I want to talk a little bit, now, about the Kill All Comedy Album. How involved were you guys, in the process of making it? Was it someone else who made it, but it was supported here?
Alex: Yeah. Steph Cook is really the person behind the “Kill All Comedy” album. Steph came to me, she was the coach of an Playground team I was on called The Grrr, and she came to me and said, “I want to start renting from you guys and put up a show once a month.” She was just kind of in line with what she likes and what she wants to do. She started doing that. It’s always been hard for her to fill a house, because it’s mostly solo performers doing really, really insane bits, but insane and also funny. It’s not just weird for the sake of being weird. It’s definitely really well produced.
Walt: Really smart.
Alex: Really smart, well crafted comedy. But, from that idea, she’s explored a specific brand identity for that night, and brought on Joey Dundale, who’s her sketch partner in the TV Screams.
Walt: Who are a house team.
Alex: Yeah, who are a house team, as well. They are both amazingly funny people, that just wanted to take a big cut and try something. We have this room that used to be a recording studio. They were like, “Fuck, can we just record an album in there?” We basically gave them the green light, set a date, and then they went away and did everything.
Walt: With Jared Jeffries. As far as generating content or anything, that was none of us. It was all the people who wrote it. Everyone whose bit is on there, it’s completely their own. The idea of the actual nuts and bolts of the show are all Jared, Joey and Steph. We just gave them a place to do it.
Do you have any shows currently that are really exciting to you?
Walt: Oh, Gary Richardson, who’s on the “Kill All Comedy” album, is doing a solo show Thursdays, that I’m really excited for.
Alex: It’s going to be incredible.
Walt: That’d be Thursdays in September, and Dave Maher is actually, they’re kind of doing a double bill thing. I think that will be a real fun night to hit.
Alex: The last Friday of every month is Sick Adventure, which is the show we’ve been putting on for two years here. That’s four teams. One team that’s just getting started, one team of our friends, a team that maybe we’ll plan with just people who want someone to play with, and usually some kind of professional team closing out the night.
Walt: The first Friday of every month will be the No Excuses Short Video night, which is short films that Marty Schousboe and Tyler Samples do. Then, Caitlin has a Ladies Night.
Walt: A lot of people come up to us and are like, “We love what you guys do.” My response is always, “We don’t. It’s all the reaction of the great people who are coming and doing stuff here.” I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re just happy and very blessed that everybody wants to keep doing stuff here.
Alex: Thank you, everyone who emails me. I can’t get back to you right away. I promise I will, if you haven’t recently heard from me.
Going back to what you just said, about you think that the Gary Show has the possibility of putting you on the map with not just comedy people, but other people. How important do you think it is that you’re drawing a diverse crowd? Does that matter to you? Do you actively set out to, “We want people who have never seen comedy before?”
Alex: Not particularly. To be honest.
Walt: There’s a weird push to it. We play here a lot, so sometimes a lot of improv shows can be a little insider baseball type deal.
Walt: Alex, myself, and Brian McGovern play in a group called Pizza Party, and sometimes we’ll play at a different venue, and be like, “That show would have killed at the Upstairs,” but you can’t do that. It’s the kind of thing where, we don’t want people to cater to people. We want you to be able to enjoy it, we want people to play as they want to play, but we also don’t want it to be too insider-y.
Alex: Yeah, I am afraid we are taking comedy and turning it into bebop from swing, where it’s going to get to the point that it’s so refined only performers can like it anymore. But, at the same time, you don’t get paid to perform comedy in Chicago. The idea of dangling a carrot in front of your face, that you’re going to be famous someday, is something that I don’t subscribe to, so you might as well just fucking enjoy it, and play to people who like it also. I would love to bring up some people from the neighborhood a lot more, and I think we’re going to start making that a much more real goal, but my bottom line is, as long as you’re having fun and enjoying what you’re doing, and you feel like artistically franchised and in creative control, I’m good there, man.
Walt: It’s also, it’s not like the elitist thing, where “This isn’t for you, it’s for us.” I think our goal is, we want people to come up, when we open up shows here that are doing great stuff, it kind of breaks my heart when someone’s doing this great show and there’s like four people in the audience. Scott Nelson did this amazing one person show, and there was just no one there over this one week. That was like, “Man, people should be seeing this.”
Alex: This is not a well polished, Second City type thing where we’re going to be able to cater to people from Idaho who are in town visiting or something like that. This is really fresh stuff in a lot of ways, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it is. But a lot of times it’s people trying to work stuff out and figure out bits that work. Not everyone in the audience is interested in that. So if you’re interested in that, come check it out here. But at the same time, you could catch a night that’s a group on stage for the very first time and the next night we could have people who have been performing comedy for 20 years doing stuff and it’s really a crap shoot what you’re going to get.
Walt: Yeah, I remember the first night where we had all the house teams play, everyone did really quick sets. The energy just really went manic and people were just like really going for it and carrying people off stage and screaming. It was something where everyone who was playing loved it.
Caitlin: That was, for me, a tipping point for us where it became very evident how much people love being here and being together. Because we’ve had a few shows like that now where it just ends up goofy. I think Ribfest is one of those. But people carry Mike Brunlieb over their heads and chanting his name. It started just everybody was chanting everybody’s names at some point.
Walt: The last group, they started kind of doing a short form like freeze tag thing. Kevin Knickerbocker, who plays on DMNK, tagged in and did a freeze and Sarah Ashley, who was supposed to be in the show, is like “fuck you” and tags him out. Then every performer just bum rushed the stage.
Alex: Swarmed the stage.
Walt: It was totally unprovoked and everyone was just doing bits, just jacking each other off. [laughs]
Alex: Just screaming at each other.
Walt: But it was so fun.
Alex: It was the best. But there might be an audience out there that can enjoy that. I don’t know if there are, but at the same time I don’t really care, because, again, this is just what the space is about.
Caitlin: Yeah, it made me so happy.
Walt: I know two of my friends who were in the audience that night who were not performers who did not like it. I make no apologies for that night. It was great.
It’s got kind of a, this is incredibly cliche, real punk rock feel to it, you know?
Alex: People have said that before. Yeah. That it has this sort of like a DIY like, “We like this, if you don’t it doesn’t really matter to us.” But it all stems from the fact it’s super cheap to rent out, you are given the freedom to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone or damage the space permanently and that’s it. Take risks, this is where you can come see that stuff. If you like that, great, if you don’t, you don’t have to come.
Now that you guys have gotten buzz, do you ever get people approaching you in a way where you feel like maybe they’re trying to co-opt you into something, in a good way or in a bad way?
Alex: I would say the process for getting a run here is to email us. So that’s always been the case. I will say that the number of emails has increased a lot, dramatically. To the point where it used to be, basically if you emailed us we would book you a run the next month.
Walt: Or if there was something still available, the current month.
Alex: Whereas now, if you email us, we can fit you in three months down the road, maybe.
Walt: But it’s also that thing where when, at least when I came on, when I started it was kind of born out of that place of rejection, of being turned away from somewhere else. So although we want to continue to really make sure that we’re putting up really good stuff, I always want it to be a place where anyone, even if you’re got a brand new team or whatever.
Alex: I think that’s so important.
Walt: That you’ll always be able to put up a run here.
Well, you don’t want it to become a place where it’s like, “Oh, they’re rejecting me.” Because then it’s going to be like, “Let’s start our own Upstairs Gallery.”
Walt: Yeah, exactly.
Alex: I have to be honest. I think there needs to be a place that’s like us again. We were already sort of cycling to this place. It’s so valuable to be an opening place for people. But we’re getting people now who are emailing us who I don’t know who they are asking for Saturday night spots. That’s tough. We have sort of developed an identity and a brand and I can’t just give you a Saturday night spot without knowing you at all.
Walt: My favorite thing is our friend Eric Roth was in this loft in Logan Square and he was doing this show and as this really indie loft they were introducing the show someone in the back just goes, “Fuck Upstairs Gallery.” It’s like, “What are you talking about?” [laughter]
Walt: In Chicago, we don’t want to be anyone’s rival or anyone’s competition. I think we just want to be a complement to everyone. We love the Playground, CIC, iO, Second City.
Walt: Everyone just fulfills different functions in the scene.
You can find out more about upcoming shows at The Upstairs Gallery on their Tumblr.
Photos by Caitlin Stephan and Upstairs Gallery logo by Jordan David.
Matt Visconage lives in Chicago, where he Tweets and does comedy.