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SALONatopia: A discussion about the salon renaissance sweeping Chicago

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SALONatopia: A discussion about the salon renaissance sweeping Chicago

Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and performers Julia and Jennifer Baker at ‘Cast Party’ in Chicago.

Photo by Steve Handwerker

Ever since I saw Midnight in Paris, I can’t get Gertrude Stein out of my head: She was the queen of the salon scene that made and broke some of the 20th century’s greatest artistic talents. But I’m not sure Gertrude would be proud of or feel connected to Chicago’s current crop of salons. They run the gamet from glorified cabaret to a bunch of authors sitting around and reading stuff and they seem to be gaining more and more traction. (See this recent piece in TimeOut for a few of the newest examples.)

Christopher Shea has written for the aforementioned TimeOut, as well as for Steppenwolf, and is a script reader for the Goodman Theater. We decided to take a look at the city’s salon spectrum and parse what they might mean for Chicago culture.

WBEZ: This year, it seems everywhere I go I step on a salon espousing the endless brilliance of “culture,” running its mouth on pop culture, high culture, low culture, performance culture, etc. So Christopher, tell us a little bit about the two salons we’ve specifically chosen to examine as examples of this new movement.

SHEA: We spent a few lovely evenings together at Beauty Bar for Salonathon and at Cast Party, the New York-based cabaret which seems to be aiming to be a recurring presence at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park. But there’s also The Paper Machete, which, for full disclosure, I’ve performed in. [WBEZ: And which I am clearly connected to.] There’s also the Plagiarists’ salon, a monthly gathering where theater groups host an evening of their own work. Then there’s some different but maybe like-minded outlets like Write Club and The Moth.

It’s interesting that we both had the impulse to group these as salons. They do (mostly) share a common format: a series of 5-minute-long performances, held in bar-ish locales. And they’re often forums where emerging artists can perform snippets of their work in front of people, or established performers can branch out a bit from their standard repertoire (a combination I’ve noticed across the board).

Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and performers Julia and Jennifer Baker at 'Cast Party' in Chicago (Photo by Steve Handwerker)

But I feel like their goals are also surprisingly diverse -- something that really struck me when we saw Cast Party. In some cases (Salonathon, for example), the goal is more, like, Mlle. Lespinasse 18th-century Paris salon. The lineups -- a playwright reading from an old journal, Dean Evans performing dressed as some sort of donut figure -- are usually either laugh-out-loud funny, or sort of intellectual, bent towards achieving an “a-ha” moment. Emotionally wrenching moments -- like the moment when I fell in love with one of the actors in Salonathon -- are mostly accidental. I sort of expected something similar from Cast Party, albeit in a setting that harkened back to whiskey-swirling 1950s Manhattan (or, you know, whiskey-swirling 1950s Hoboken). But the lineup there was almost all numbers from great musicals sung by local performers (who ranged from middle school students to Jeff Award winners), and it felt eventually like the goal was to elicit an endless stream of emotional peaks and troughs. It was like a dozen tearjerker musical moments crammed into one short evening, strung together by jokes from our very shticky host. So is Cast Party just the outlier, as it’s a bit more of a “cabaret”? Does every other salon aim for some more balanced blend of the funny and the intellectual? Or does each of these salons aim for something entirely different from the others?

WBEZ: It could be argued that it’s unfair to compare Cast Party to something like Salonathon, or even The Paper Machete. Musical theater is, even at it’s best, going to be just so campy, no matter what you do. But the participants of Cast Party like it that way. The best description of it is a open mic for musical theater dorks -- but that doesn’t make it less of a salon, in my opinion. I think these different shows can be compared because they’re all so thoroughly shaped by their organizers. Jim Caruso’s Cast Party is just that -- it’s Jim Caruso’s. He’s hosted his New York show for seven years at Birdland, and has featured “real” stars like Matthew Morrison (now known more for Glee than his storied Broadway career), Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming. When the show first came to Chicago in April, critic Bob Bullen wrote that he was disappointed that Caruso had “no clue who some of Chicago’s well-known musical theatre talents are,” and that he hoped as the show returned, Caruso would become more acquainted with the scene here. Refresh my memory Christopher, but I’m not quite sure that happened this time around.

Or take the special edition of Salonathon we saw a few weeks back. It featured films from the Chicago Underground Film Festival, which one wouldn’t necessarily put in the “salon” category (after all, the people performing weren’t doing so live). But I feel like it still rocked that format because of how outspokenly the hosts defined their interest in the pieces, and how invested they were in the vision. But when does this vision become derailed into something else? Are popular programs like The Moth Storyslam salons, too?

Maybe they are, if only because they all have this insider feel. “Insider,” in that the people at each one do seem to just be a bunch of friends, hanging out, getting each others’ jokes. Perhaps this thing we’re debating semi-seriously is just a bunch of glorified friend groups.

SHEA: That’s an interesting point about the forceful curatorial hand you see across these salons. I know that Salonathon has already had at least three curators (two “in-house,” plus our Film Fest hosts), while the Plagiarists rotate performer-curators every salon. It’s a welcome way to protect against the “public party” factor, which is a slippery slope indeed. The trouble is that you (or at least I) want to go to something that’s informal, fun -- like a party that happens to have the most sterling, most articulate guests around. But there’s nothing quite as unpleasant as showing up at a public forum and realizing you’ve stumbled into someone’s best friend circle -- a risk a curator runs if the mood gets too lax. That happened to me once in high school. I went off to some ostensibly public cabaret, and ended up witnessing a sort of lackluster re-hashing of Avenue Q from mediocre puppeteers who laughed blowhardedly at their own in-jokes.

Les Enfants Terribles at Salonathon

I’d say that across the board the salons that are most enjoyable are those that have cornered their niche. Salonathon, for example, has-- in just a few weeks-- come to signify something in my mind: I’ve gone for the fly honeys and open bar; I’ve stayed for the talented young theater practitioners doing something a bit off-the-cuff. And Cast Party, too: bless it. If you’re looking for showstoppers made famous by Bernadette Peters, there is probably no better place to find them.

I feel that another thing that binds these together is the air of subversiveness. It might be my imagination. But all of these salons feel kind of speakeasy-ish, while also evoking Cabaret in some half-kidding, non-political way. Maybe it’s because the hosts revel in a highbrow/lowbrow thing: “Here you’ll see those glittery starlets and politicos talking the smack they can’t say in the Tribune.” And a lot of the pleasure comes from seeing a relative square perform next to some outrageous queer dance troupe.

WBEZ: Gee whiz, I agree with just about everything you say here. And I love that you’ve pointed out the speakeasy vibe they all have -- some more than others, of course -- because it seems like an important part of how those who attend salons, and those who organize them, view themselves.

But I still wonder if the difference between these salons is simply age. Not the age of how long a given one has been doing it’s thing, but the age of the given participants and organizers. Salons at large seem like a young thing. Were they always that way? Not really -- but maybe I just think of Gertrude Stein as permanently ancient and wise.

Along this note, they might just be a way to keep your college-age desire for learning-while-drinking in check. You know, grab a drink, talk about some “stuff” and then just hit the road. As much as I admittedly enjoy them, are they really teaching you anything profound? (And “does it even matter?” is a whole other question). We may exalt the salons of the past for bringing together some of our favorite artists, but as we weren’t there, it could have just been an excuse to hang out and talk shop.

SHEA: I’m pretty sure that Ben Franklin was all over the salon scene in his day. So, take that for what you will.

That said, I completely agree with you that this is largely a young people’s forum.

And a happy one at that. The salons I’ve been to in the past year have for the most part been such a welcome way to casually see a whole slew of new work that I wouldn’t have sought out on my own. Maybe even better, I feel like they showcase a range of odd talents that don’t have an outlet anywhere else. I was just at the Plagiarists’ salon and I heard a friend make a strange, seductive sheep-bleating noise, and I thought, “well thank heavens this is happening.” Because even in storefront shows, there’s not always a place for you to voice that kind of talent. That special kind of sheep-bleating talent.

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