When Sharon Evans started producing solo work at Live Bait Theater in the late 1980s, storytelling hadn’t yet become a cottage industry in Chicago. “At that time it was a very unusual thing to do,” Evans says. “I remember being told that no one would pay to see a solo performer on an extended run.”
The first solo performer Live Bait presented in such a run was the late James Grigsby, whose 1988 show Terminal Madness(an absurdist meditation on the two-dimensionality of American culture) inaugurated the company’s North Clark Street venue (now the home of Otherworld Theatre). But Evans kept plugging away, and the work Live Bait produced in the late 1980s and early 90s by performers like Marcia Wilkie, David Kodeski, Cheryl Trykv, and Edward Thomas-Herrera found critical acclaim and audiences alike, helping foster the explosion of solo work and storytelling events to come.
Some of the stories at Live Bait were deeply autobiographical, albeit with a comic lens. Others found performers playing a variety of roles, not unlike Whoopi Goldberg’s mid-80s solo work or Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Kodeski specialized in found texts, breathing life into journals of ordinary people he found languishing on junk shop shelves. As the scene kept growing, Evans started producing the annual Fillet of Solo Festival in 1995, featuring a revolving lineup of the best monologuists in the city.
Evans helped change the landscape for solo work in other ways. “I also did convince the Jeff Committee after years to have a Jeff Award for solo performance,” notes Evans. “For a long time they just said, ‘Well, that’s performance art.’ Not real theater, it’s performance art. Because a lot of it was done in the galleries. And then little by little over time, there were so many people doing solo shows that they could see that, yes indeed, this is a category that needs to be addressed.”
Fillet of Solo Festival1/13-1/22: Fri 7 PM and 8:30 PM, Sat 1 PM, 2:30 PM, 4 PM, 5:30 PM, 7 PM, and 8:30 PM, Sun 1 PM, 2:30 PM, 4 PM, 5:30 PM, and 7 PM; performances at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, and South of the Border, 1416 W. Morse, 773-761-4477, lifelinetheatre.com, $12 single ticket, $60 festival pass
Live Bait stopped producing the festival in 2008 and closed up shop as a regular producing company in 2009—except for Fillet of Solo, which they coproduced starting in 2010 with Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park. Lifeline’s then-artistic director, Dorothy Milne, had been performing at Fillet of Solo with the women’s storytelling collective the Sweat Girls, and, like Evans, she didn’t want to see the festival dead in the water.
Lifeline took over full control of the festival (with Evans’s blessings) a few years later. The last two years, the company went virtual in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they’re back live starting Friday with a lineup of 18 solo performers (including vets like Jimmy Carrane, R.C. Riley, and Connie Shirakawa, whose latest piece is directed by Evans). There are also performances by a dozen storytelling collectives, including the Sweat Girls, Tekki Lomnicki’s Tellin’ Tales (the company’s mission is “to shatter barriers between the disabled and non-disabled worlds through the transformative power of personal story”), and 80 Minutes Around the World, the collective created by Nestor Gomez and focused on stories by and about immigrants. They’re also adding a venue in addition to Lifeline’s Glenwood Avenue home; some of the shows are at South of the Border restaurant on Morse Avenue.
Milne is happy that they’re live again, but she also notes, “There were some great benefits to doing it virtually the last couple years. We got to work with artists who have moved away from Chicago. Literally from across the nation and across the globe we had participants, which is what you can do virtually. And then people were also able to see it across the globe.”
But, she adds, “Storytelling is direct out to the audience and responding to the audience and responding to what’s happening between you. And that was a really challenging thing for the last two years. Being in the room together and hearing a story from someone you don’t know and someone who doesn’t seem to be anything like you, and then having that story resonate with its core human values is the super powerful thing about this form.”
For Gomez, who was born in Guatemala, the stories of 80 Minutes Around the World are even more vital given the rise in xenophobia in the U.S. during the Trump years. Even if the artists in the collective aren’t consciously aiming to be political, Gomez notes, “Our stories are usually political because, as a person of color, you cannot help . . . being political. I’ve been told here in Chicago to go back to where I came from. It’s going to a store, it’s walking on the street. I have been told to speak English because this is America. So things that happen to us are political because a lot of things happen to us just because we are immigrants.”
The inclusion of the collectives not only gives more performers a chance in the spotlight (particularly performers who may not have worked up to a full-length evening or who simply prefer the short-form monologue). The collectives provide, as Milne says, “an advertisement for what’s going on year-round in the city. We have such a profound amount of storytelling going on in Chicago and have for the last—I mean, the form is as old as the hills, but for the last 20, 30 years, there’s been huge growth in the scene in Chicago and nationally as well.”
One of the groups Milne is excited about is GeNarrations, a collective created out of an ongoing storytelling workshop for adults 55+ at the Goodman. “They’re doing three shows and there are seven or eight performers in each of those shows. Many of them are new to the form.”
It makes sense that so many of the collectives around town and featured at Fillet of Solo are focused on communities that are often marginalized, such as the disabled, older people, and immigrants. For people who are also economically marginalized, storytelling offers low financial barriers to participation. But getting work from the page to the stage does often require some encouragement and coaching for those new to the form. And what that often means is aiming for the heart.
“I don’t come to the story as if I’m writing an essay or I’m writing something that’s going to be published in the New York Times,” says Gomez. “So I tell them to write a story as if they’re having a conversation with a couple of friends. The only difference is the conversation that they’ll have at the end is gonna be with a larger group of friends.”