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A New Model For Theatre Seems To Be Thriving


The Understudy’s first full production: THE BEST DAMN THING, written by Hanna Kime, composed by Sara Geist, and directed by Grace Dolezal-Ng. (Photo by Juli Del Prete.)

The dusky-toned books, neon lights, and heart-thumping drums of femme teen philosophy shroud 20-somethings in warmth, forming a spot of laughter in the gray landscape of frozen Chicago. Sitting through a rehearsal for Hanna Kime’s The Best Damn Thing, the first full production at the Understudy (running Jan. 27-Feb. 5), has got me thinking a lot about utopia.

A love child of couple Adam Todd Crawford and Danny Fender, this theatre specialty bookstore café (say that five times fast) has been officially operating since March 2023 in the hip Andersonville neighborhood. In the year since they opened their doors, they’ve already built a strong crowd of regulars while gathering new patrons at each event. So far they’ve hosted nearly 60 events and are looking forward to finding more ways to serve the community. Crawford said he considers their space, sustained by a thriving small business model, a sort of alternative to the “American theatre nonprofit crisis.” The Understudy strives to facilitate a meeting ground for endless possibility, lending itself to experimentation and new work.

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Maya Hlava and Elisabeth Del Toro in The Best Damn Thing at the Understudy. (Photo by Julie Del Prete.)

In true meta-theatrical fashion, The Best Damn Thing is about scrappy new work, inspired by its playwright’s early days writing. When Kime was just 16, she wrote a novel she described as “silly, and messy, and…the biggest deal in the entire world.” Now years later she’s written a campy and raw musical about a teenage girl yearning to be taken seriously as a human being and artist. In The Best Damn Thing, a young artist pitches “a show she thinks will change musical theatre” to her ex-best-friend, a now-cool student in her high school theatre department who gets to pick next year’s musical. What’s the music, you ask? Inspired by true teen pop angst, the protagonist wrote it in the vein of early 2000s icon Avril Lavigne (Sara Geist’s searing music for The Best Damn Thing certainly does the sound justice).

A former literary manager at First Floor Theatre, Kime was thrilled to join forces with Geist, an established artist “taking off in exciting ways in the city’s indie music scene,” as she put it. They birthed most of the music over the past few months leading up to opening. It’s a collaboration that hasn’t relied on elaborate sets or big budgets, and instead sets out to soar in a down-to-earth, intimate space. 

“Everyone is recognizing that theatre doesn’t make money,” said Crawford. “But what do we do with that information?” The answer: A short run in a bookstore that does make enough money to sustain itself. “We couldn’t make this production in a nonprofit model—we don’t have that structure,” he continued. “We have a bookstore and a coffee shop that sustains itself, in which we can hang out after closing and make this play in a quirky way. It has lowered the level of challenge and hurdle to get it done.” Crawford smiled as a music rehearsal blared in the background.

Crawford elaborated, “It allows us to step away from the scarcity mindset—that fear that if one programs something that’s never been done before, it’s subject to failure. We don’t see this as a risk in any way. We’ve sold out three quarters of our seats already. I think there’s a market for good plays, and there’s always going to be. People still have an appetite.”

And then there’s one of artists’ favorite thing people do in a bookstore-café (besides read and sip coffee): write. “This was one of my dreams,” said Fender. “I told Adam, ‘I can’t wait to see writers in here and share stories of when they wrote in our space.’” Kime went one better: She invited Fender and Crawford to the reading of her play It Girl, commissioned through the Goodman Playwrights Unit, that she had partly written while sitting at the Understudy. Though they couldn’t make it to that reading, they want to find another way to support Kime. They requested a script, and Fender said he immediately tapped into her play’s early 2000s nostalgia, examination of celebrity culture, and dissection of growing up in this century. “We’re reflecting a lot on how the world has grown,” he said.

The Best Damn Thing similarly looks back to the early 2000s, and to what Kime recalled as “these all-consuming friendships that teenage girls can develop with each other, and how heartbreaking and devastating it is when those friendships rupture.”

In talking to Kime about her new musical, Fender said, they saw an opportunity to do more than a reading. Because the show is set in a basement, he reasoned they could transform the Understudy into a cozy space, easily interpreted as a basement. He and Crawford had planned their space to embrace a variety of performances and events, with what they call a smart “ad hoc lighting grid” and sound equipment. These haven’t just been the usual bookstore author events; one, a recent “Cafe Queens: A Drag Show / Latte Art Throwdown,” featured both drag performance and a latte art competition. 

“We learned what’s physically possible in here,” Crawford said of their 2023 events, “and I think Hanna showed up at a moment when we were itching to try something new.” Considering the live band and electricity bouncing off the walls, he said, “It’s like a concert. You never lose the visual frame of being in a performance space, but you do become fully immersed. You get the experience of being in a bookstore with 50 people and being fully immersed in the world of these two girls.”

No stranger to the Chicago storefront or regional theatre world, director Grace Dolezal-Ng curated an intentionally collaborative room, welcoming input from each creative present, from Understudy staff to playwright to team to actual understudies. Her grounded nature and directorial MO enter into conversation with the material and story of the Understudy.

“It’s exciting to get a group of 20-something-year-olds and see our voices and ideas represented in a big way,” Fender said. “And there’s something about this play that, beyond initial references, speaks to many generations. Grant writer Larry Bundschu came in with a notebook, and I wondered what the notes would be [considering a generational gap], but it was five pages of compliments on the play and how he personally connected with it.” 

They’re hitting a warm spot that resonates with Chicago storefront history. I can’t help but be reminded of origin stories of Steppenwolf or Lookingglass as I hear them talk about bringing a 21st-century sensibility to theatrical entrepreneurship.

The world craves such moments of community connection. And if it can be served with coffee, so much the better.

Gabriela Furtado Coutinho (she/her) is the associate Chicago editor for American Theatre. gcoutinho@tcg.org

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