Interview: Walt Delaney, Alex Honnet, and Cailtlin Stephan of The Jangleheart Circus

I talked to Walt Delaney, Alex Honnet, and Caitlin Stephan, the three folks behind the Upstairs Gallery about the recently announced Jangleheart Circus, a three day comedy festival showcasing independent sketch, improv, and standup comedy. By the looks of the current lineup, they've done a great job highlighting the DIY ethos and experimental bend of the Gallery's best shows. The Jangleheart Circus is August 22nd, 23rd, and 24th at The Den Theatre in Wicker Park.

The Steamroller: Where'd the idea for the Jangle Heart Circus come from? 

Caitlin Stephan: The idea for a festival has been floating around for a good while, ever since Honnet and Kyle Chorpening's brainchild last summer, RibFest, I think it's been something we've dreamed we could do on a bigger scale. The three of us (four if you include Kyle) are big music fans and hit up at least one of the major summer music festivals each year (Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, etc.). I've been going to those things since I was a Junior in High School and so I think it was like "What if we could do that, but for an improv festival?"  Just non-stop bonkers fun for three days over three stages in one location.  

Walt Delaney: The initial idea was 100% Alex. Ribfest was an extremely fun night and I think from there Alex just conceived the idea of doing it on a larger scale. 

Alex Honnet: I had always wondered if we'd ever be at a place where we could do a festival like this. I had reached out to the folks from the Chicago Improv Festival last year about getting the Gallery involved, and they were amazing and sat down with me and we had a great conversation about the improv scene in Chicago and the festival's history. Afterwards I really started thinking about something on a much smaller scale than CIF that was concentrated at one location and how much fun that would be. We started looking at places last summer. Cait and I went and saw the Den Theatre around January and it just clicked. We decided to move forward with it this summer pretty much immediately after looking around that space.

Caitlin: It's honestly like the cooler big brother of the Upstairs Gallery in that it's so much bigger and has its shit together a little bit more.  It's just such a perfect fit.  And Erinn and Ryan who own and run the space are just the nicest people.  We all immediately hit it off.

TS: What about the name?

Walt: We had a meeting a while back and were supposed to bring a list of potential names. I compiled a list of 20 or so names that were more or less gibberish, two of them being "A Jangleheart Circus," and "The Upstairs Gallery Goes Galactic." They both made us laugh so we rolled them together to form the longest title that tells you nothing about what the festival actually is. We're born marketing folk. 

Alex: All of mine were various iterations of "Upstairs Gallery Comedy Summit/Festival" boring stuff like that. Cait had like 10 great names that were mostly gallery inside jokes between the 3 of us. And then Walt had like 20 awesome weird ideas. Jangle Heart Circus sort of struck a chord.

Caitlin: The names were hilarious and Walt brought the most in, but also the most off the wall.  I knew I could count on him.  He was last to share his ideas, and as he was going down the list, I knew we had found something.  I absolutely loved JangleHeart Circus and Upstairs Gallery Goes Galactic.  We all agreed that we had to use them both. 

Walt: Some of the other titles on my list that did not make the cut are:

-Upstairs Gallery Improv Fest & Conga Cafe

-Upstairs Gallery Improv fest: Trust us this has all been planned. 

-The Citrus Army

-UG Improv Fest: A Coalition of the Willing. 

-Upfart Gallafart Fartival Fart: Fart of Darkness

TS: Why did you decide to produce this at a venue other than the Upstairs Gallery? Was it mainly a capacity thing or are you looking to expand your reach/influence/scope with the Circus?

Walt: We wanted to do something bigger than Ribfest and realized that a larger venue would be a better companion to the idea. It certainly would have been fun to try at The Gallery, but this was an opportunity to possibly get the word out to more people as to what is going on in the Chicago comedy scene. 

It wasn't our direct intention to hold the festival in a different part of town, but once The Den agreed to let us do it, I think we realized that this festival could be more than just a good time for our friends. We really love the idea of exposing people to some of the comedy they might not be aware of by bringing it to their neighborhood. 

Alex: We're constantly putting up stupid ideas that we think would be fun at the gallery. Mostly we just sort of think "wouldn't this be wild?" And then we figure out how to do it. Nothing we do is really to enhance our reach/influence/scope as an end in itself. Anytime something like that does happen its a happy accident because one of our ideas resonated. 

We felt like we wanted to take a big cut with this festival. It is far and away the most ambitious project we've taken on. The Gallery itself  wouldn't give us the amount of space we needed to put up the event we wanted to. 

Caitlin: I think it legitimizes what we're doing… What that is exactly, I'm not quite sure, but it gives it a feeling of more than just going to see your standard improv show on a Saturday night. You're going for the whole experience of it all. Much like the music festival scene, you are not there just to see the music, but to see the weirdos out and about (and I mean weirdos in the fondest of definitions), and you're there to experience it with so many other people. 

When I picture the scene in August I hope to feel a certain hum or buzz throughout the whole first floor of the Den, just everyone energized to the moon and back about this great fucking community that Chicago has here. And being able to contain that all in one space will really punch up that feeling.

TS: The info for this show bills it as a festival featuring "sketch, improv, and standup, but mostly improv." What is it about improv specifically that it'd become the main focus of the festival?

Alex: Improv is really where we hang our hat. Walt and I are improvisers. Cait's been around the scene since before she started working at the Gallery. We have a group of 25ish house teams that we try and find spots for regularly at the gallery that happen to be some of my favorite improv teams in the city. It only makes sense that our festival would be mostly improv. 

Also, very selfishly, we're putting up the festival that we would want to see, and that festival features a lot of improv because we love it.

Walt: Also, I don't feel like a festival like this has been done in the City on an improv level. There is The Chicago Improv Festival, which does a great job showcasing the scene all over the city in several theaters, and it needs to be that big to hold all of the talent this city has to offer. However, I feel like the fact that it is so spread out makes it harder to feel like an singular event. 

We wanted to apply a model similar to Sketchfest to A Jangleheart Circus where we are all under one roof, experiencing this thing together. Since the idea of support runs synonymous with Improv, I feel like having all that energy under one roof will make for a great environment, or at least a drunk one. 

Caitlin:  I think, too, since improv really fosters that familial feeling of trust and closeness, it's really going to give the festival that same close knit vibe.  I think we're really trying to showcase that vibe, I truly believe that.  Yes, it's about the talent, but the thing that has seemed to set the Gallery apart as a venue is that whole package - the performance space, the hangout space, the place that so many, myself included, call a second home.  And I hope that we can accomplish that with the festival.

TS: The frequently asked questions page on the JHC website mentions that you're not accepting applications from teams based in existing theaters like iO and The Playground, as a way to showcase independent teams. Do you think the Chicago improv scene will eventually see independent teams attaining the same level of notoriety as house teams at venues like iO?

Alex: Oh man, this question is almost another article in itself. 

Firstly, the theaters are the foundation on which everything is built and UG wouldn't exist without them. I think the circumstances that prompted this question really stem for the number of talented performers that are in Chicago now. There is just not room at the theaters for everyone or for their ideas. 

Caitlin: At its roots, the Gallery was born from of the need and the want to put up one's own shows not dictated by the ideas of another theater.  So the idea of the festival is to showcase what the Gallery showcases, just on a bigger scale.

Walt: When you take into the account the number of teams at iO, CIC and the Playground, there are just too many for us to house in this festival. The only exception we made was Rainbow Deli (CIC team), because we just really love them. 

Alex: iO turns away a lot of good people after 5b's because they have to. Playground incubator auditions book up online in less that 5 minutes. CIC auditions are crushed. All the existing theaters are bursting at the seams. So all these spots have sprung up to accommodate these performers and their ideas, including UG. It turns out that a lot of those ideas and players are really amazing.  Maybe five years ago these people who didn't make teams would quit, or their idea would go un-produced. Now they go out and fucking grind and get better, or they rent a place out and put up their idea. 

Walt: Alex and I are both lucky enough to be on teams at iO and The Playgrond and I love watching the house teams at those theaters, as well as CIC, but I think the best improv in the city takes place on independent teams. I think it is a harder climb for independent teams to get a regular run at a theater, but the best improv shows in the city has tended to start as independent projects. 

Alex: I think everyone's goals are still to perform at the theaters, and rightly so, they provide the best opportunities to get in front of houses and work with great coaches. As long as that's the case there won't be some kind of seismic shift towards independent teams. 

The only thing I really wish is that students of improv tie less of their self worth as improvisers to performing at the institutions. A stage is a stage. Getting to one, or getting institutional buy in, should not be your goal. Doing great work should be your goal, and you can do great work anywhere. Make yourself to good to ignore. Sand (who are a UG house team and one of my favorite teams) have been performing at Quenchers every Monday for years. This is one of the best teams in the city performing to mostly empty houses at a bar because they love it. I wish more people had that kind of dedication towards the craft. 

Walt: Cook County Social Club, TJ and Dave, and Sand are all teams that formed as a group of friends who wanted to play together and the best part about teams like these are that if they have the support of a theater or not you will still see them playing together because it is what they love to do.

Caitlin: SuperHuman comes to mind, too.  Those ladies just came together to make a big fucking explosion of fun and, man, have they accomplished that.  They put up a show at the Gallery one night and now they've had runs at The Annoyance and iO.  

Alex: If independent teams getting more notoriety shifts the focus away from playing at a specific place towards doing great work then I'm all for it and I suspect everyone from those established places feels the same.

TS: I really like the idea of only selling day passes rather than tickets to individual shows like other Chicago comedy festivals. Why'd you decide to go that way with it?

Walt: I think Alex proposed the idea and we all were quick to agree with it. Our goal for this is to really make it an experience for people to get lost in. To come at the beginning of the night and just flow throughout all of these shows without having to bother with continually paying for each show. We really wanted to create an environment where people could wander into a show blindly and be glad they took a chance. 

Caitlin: Again, I think this idea stems from the music festival idea. When you buy a ticket, you're coming for the experience, not just a show. We want people to come out and hang out, see a really good show and then stick around for a beer and see another show after that. You feel like you're a part of it.  

I think, too, it's also a little easier from a logistical perspective. The idea of having to come in and sweep a room and make sure everyone there has a valid ticket for the hour they purchased it for seemed like a big ol' nightmare. So why not just know that everyone there belongs?

Alex: It presents a whole slew of issues when it comes to capacity and trying to keep the audience engaged. Because instead of selling a seat for a specific show to to one audience member, you are essentially selling that audience member one seat for the entire day. By doing this we are dramatically cutting down the number of tickets we can sell and gambling that people will watch like 4-5 hours of improv. 

But just being able to wander from stage stage and catch as much as you want? In our minds that was well worth the trade off in both money and volume of audience members. 

That freedom is awesome. It's what we'd want in a festival we were attending. We just hope people will really stick around, see a lot of shows, and give it a shot.