Harrison George On The Closing of The Upstairs Gallery

In 1964 Isaac Asimov was asked to speculate on what life in the year 2014 would look like. Some of his predictions were spot on (cordless appliances), while others were way off (flying cars). The goal of this piece is something similar, to attempt in some small way to predict what Chicago might look like in the next 1-5 years.

Last month we saw the closing of The Upstairs Gallery, an ambitious 3 year experiment in alternative-theater spacework. Now that the theater’s closed, I’m wondering what comes next, if we’ll see new spaces inspired by Upstairs; an UG 2.0 if you will.

There are lots of ways things will be affected by UG’s closing. Here are my guesses.

A Growing Divide Between Alt-Theaters and The Big Three

As Upstairs Gallery announced its plans to close, the big three improv theaters, Second City, iO and Annoyance were prepping for large-scale moves and expansions. With iO and The Annoyance’s new spaces, and Second City’s upgrade in the works, the divide between theaters has grown. Upstairs Gallery was a good middle ground between the polished look of Second City and the dank, dirtiness of most barprov. Without it, you’re either be seeing a show in a 10-seat space or a 250 seat space.

A Widening Distance Between Standup, Sketch and Improv (Not to Mention Music, Theater, Etc)

UG was a great place for Improv, but also was a great place to see other forms of live performance. Standup, sketch, readings, music acts, pretty much anything that could happen in front of an audience happened there, many times in the same night (Dan Shar’s “Listin Up” is a great example). Without one building working to bring different forms of live work together, it’ll be interesting to see if other venues start injecting variety into their lineup.
A Rise In Curated Shows

UG isn’t going away completely, it will still exist in a handful of new ways. Alex and Cait announced they’d start producing shows around the city, and recently they started a run at The Annoyance (the same night as Raw Nerve, another curated show, in The Mission Theater at iO, run by Rebecca Krasny-Mccrackin.)  Shows curated by UG raise some interesting questions: what is the UG “voice” that’s being curated? Its roster of performers? Its style of play?

Curated shows aren’t new; Wes Perry, Irene Marquette, and Sand at Quencher’s have been handpicking their lineups for a while. But it’s interesting to see a theater devise a brand new show every week inside the belly of another theater.

An Increase In Alt-Spaces

The UG was, above all else, a weird-looking place. There was no ticket booth, no bar, the lighting board was a single switch. Tucked away behind a titular flight of stairs, it wasn’t a traditional theater. Every few years, I’m told, a space like this opens and reminds the community that shows can really happen just about anywhere. And that inspires a rush of new shows in exotic, non traditional spaces. I predict a rise in house shows, alt-space locations (like the Shithole), and other nonconventional setups that allow the performers more freedom and less oversight.

I distinctly remember the first Kill All Comedy house party/show, sitting cross-legged on a living room floor with fifty other people as we watched a performer smoke a joint, a real joint, in the middle of a sketch. That could never happen at Second City, probably never happened at iO, and wouldn’t happen at UG. After that show I thought, “Whatever comes next, it can’t take place in a traditional theater space.” The boundaries of theatrical formality are being tested, and the space between the performer and the audience are condensing (metaphorically and physically). Whatever UG 2.0 turns out to be, it’ll take place in a house.

A New Clubhouse Will Be Found

The UG was more than a stage, it was a community center, the comedic equivalent of a public library: not just a venue, it served as a rehearsal room, an event space, a storage unit, a recording studio, a filming set, and most importantly, a social gathering place. Most nights the shows were just as exciting as the conversations that came after them over beers. The same 40+ performers who filled Upstairs perform all around town, but how often will they be together in that way, comfortable and confident in their “own” place? Without that space, where will the creative discourse occur?

Though it’s very sad to see Upstairs close, I’m very excited to see what comes next for Chicago. Alex, Cait and co. have laid the groundwork for a lot of new exciting things to happen and it’s on all of us to bring the magic we all felt at one time or another at UG to the rest of the city.

-Harrison George