Upstairs Gallery: An Improved Labor of Love

Image: Upstairs Gallery
photo: Upstairs Gallery

“If we didn’t really love it, there’s no way we’d do it.”

Alex Honnet and Caitlin Stephan are two of the three founders of and producers at Upstairs Gallery, a rising star of independent improv and sketch performance spaces in Chicago. The Gallery, run out of what was once an art gallery and music studio, has fast become a home to interesting and experimental comedy as well as the more standard improv fare that prides itself on keeping things inexpensive for both performers and audience members. Admission is free and the space is low on lighting and sound tech, leaving it open to groups that want to put up whatever artistic or risky or unique show they have in mind. This opens the space to the community and keeps the vibe a fun one– but the flipside of that vibe is the sheer impracticality of making a viable living at the Gallery alone.

Honnet smiles a little when he calls this impossibility “a bummer.” He works a 9:00 to 5:00 job, Stephan a 7:15 to 3:45, and both are at the Gallery almost every day following that work. Stephan says, “We’re putting in just as much time and effort into this place [as our day jobs]—well more effort, less time.” Honnet agrees, “…but it’s a wonderful resource for performers to have and for the community to have, so in some ways we put up with that fact to keep the space running.” And it seems like the community appreciates it.

Photo: Mark Colomb
Photo: Mark Colomb

Upstairs Gallery takes steps to make sure the process of putting up a show is as easy as possible for their renters. There is no artistic agenda to be found, only a group of people who want to keep providing a space for all kinds of work. One night might see a new group just getting a feel for performing, another might see a ten-year old improv group, and yet another might see the space covered in plastic to protect from a particularly messy sketch show involving fake blood, milk, and coffee grounds (though Honnet swears they’ll never again put up something quite that disgusting). It’s rare, I think, to find a space so inviting and open to whatever an artist wants to do.

Honnet and Stephan themselves are still surprised to see what the space has become and the success it has seen in the last couple years. Though it’s hard for them to balance their social lives (“I don’t have one”) with work and the Gallery, and though there are always difficulties, financial or otherwise, to be faced, the two really seem to love the Gallery and the part it plays in the Chicago scene. As far as where they’re going? “We’ll see.” The idea of a more legitimate space is thrown around, but they aren’t trying to rush that. “There’s something to this space that makes it what it is,” Stephan says. “I don’t think we want to change it too much. That’s what everybody loves.”

Want a chance to love the Upstairs Gallery as much as they (and I) do? Check out their tumblr for dates and times!

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