The sickest adventures often begin in venturing up a steep stairwell to a sparse white room. Inhabiting a former art gallery, a blank canvas of sorts is tucked away in plain sight on Clark Street in Andersonville. Specializing in improv, Upstairs Gallery offers Chicago a refreshing new performance space – for free.
Founded by a group of improvisers who met while training at iO, Upstairs Gallery is an evolving endeavor in experimentation. Partners Alex Honnet and Walt Delaney began playing in the space in the fall of 2010 while it was a functioning art gallery and music recording studio. “We’d be doing a show and then get drowned out by a drum solo,” says Delaney. Just as their runs began to build momentum, the art gallery owners decided to close up shop. After discovering via Gchat they weren’t accepted to an established improv team, the guys knew they couldn’t lose the space and signed the Upstairs Gallery lease without even reading it.
In Chicago’s competitive comedy scene, Upstairs Gallery has proven an attractive venue for players of all experience since it started running full-time last May. With a small room, minimal tech extras, and lights that are always up, Upstairs Gallery’s setting strips away standard expectations in a landscape of established theaters. It’s A Room of One’s Own for performers from novice players without a home to seasoned standouts in need of a place they can take risks. “There’s no pressure, and that lends itself to a sense of experimentation,” says Honnet. “It’s a space where people can try interesting things and have fun.”
The price of admission to sit at the edge of this freewheeling performance enterprise? Free. With around seven shows or rehearsals taking place per week, there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy complimentary LOLs. While money-making is not its main venture, Upstairs Gallery does accept donations and periodically fundraises in order to sponsor teams to be sent to comedy festivals.
On a Friday evening several weeks ago, Upstairs Gallery was packed with twenty-something attendees and an eager energy for Sick Adventure, the space’s signature monthly show. It seemed no one knew what to expect, but they knew it was going to be good. Improv teams of Vegetable Demon, That Uncle No One Likes, and Honor Student Breakfast brought it, along with sketch by Seth and Kellen. In the next room, a Bit Bizarre hawked $1 portrait drawing and ex-Juggalo handshakes to raise money for teams hoping to attend the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. After an underwhelming visit days before to a noteworthy improv establishment, Upstairs Gallery delivered the dropkick in the side I missed.
“The feedback from the audience is so visceral because you’re so close to crowd, they’re practically onstage,” asserts Honnet. “It’s like surfing; you’re riding the wave of their energy. Here, you know when the audience is responding because you feel it in your blood.”
In a city saturated with comedic enterprises, Andersonville is underrepresented saving the nearby Neo-Fururists. “Andersonville is such a distinct neighborhood, and the residents are excited to have us here,” says partner Caitlin Stephan. “People pop in all the time. They’re becoming more and more interested and we feel really supported by the community.”
If you’re ready to ride, Upstairs Gallery will guide with its passion for performance. “People do bad scenes all the time, and usually you’re given the benefit of the doubt. But a great scene – people remember that,” says Delaney. “People will approach you about a scene you did in training or show years later and say they still remember it. And if you did that scene with someone you have a kind of kinship with them, you might not have anything else in common but that great moment together that made people happy.”
As for the darker side of comedic exploits, I asked Honnet for his worst pickup line. “Does your dad work for the Taliban?…because you da bomb.”
5219 North Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60640