By Caitlin Bergh
Kelsie Huff is the woman who does it all. After just returning from the Women in Comedy Festival in Boston, she is already getting her bags packed for Bridgetown Comedy Festival in April. In between jet-setting, Huff can be seen on almost any given night in the Chicago comedy scene, whether she’s running one of her critically acclaimed solo shows at the Chicago Fringe Festival, yukking it up at The Laugh Factory or Zanies, teaching one of her comedy classes, or hosting her one-of-a-kind, all-female comedy showcase “the kates.”
Huff’s incredible energy and sparkly blue eyes alone would be enough to dazzle a crowd, but, man, can this gal tell stories. Huff has the rare ability to be vulnerable, dark, funny and carefree all at the same time, and she brings her unique experiences to life when she is on stage.
I recently got to interview Huff about “the kates,” which she runs every second Friday and every last Saturday of the month in The Book Cellar, a bookstore in Lincoln Square that serves coffee, food and alcohol. After getting cozy on fancy, wooden folding chairs under bright, bookstore lighting, audiences at “the kates” are ready and eager to support female performers, who range from stand-ups and storytellers to comic musicians, clowns, poets and performance artists. “the kates” also frequently hosts specials guests like duo acts or She's Crafty (Chicago’s only all-female Beastie Boys cover band).
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Huff’s show is the way it dissolves all of the competition out of comedy. Female performers support each other, network, and have just as much fun as the audience. Huff says the only change she would make, if she could, would be to add more dates for the show because there are so many women interested in performing, which is a pretty good problem to have. One day, she says, “the kates” could be happening “every day of your life!”
How did “the kates” get started?
I was part of a theater company created by Columbia College (Chicago) grads called The Box Theater (subtle!). They had a few collaborative solo shows in their season, but I wanted to do more. I tried bringing my pieces to the traditional Chicago comedy open mics, (this was before the huge Live Lit scene that is in Chicago now). Straight-up storytelling in bars did not go well! So I created my own space where me and my pals could try out new stories. Jennifer Ann Coffeen, Sarah Weidmann, Kendra Stevens and Amy Sumpter were all original kates. Amy now co-hosts and helps run the Friday night shows. Kendra and Sarah run “the kates” outreach program.
We started at this weird and wonderful independent bookstore called Kate the Great's Book Emporium in Edgewater in 2007. When they closed their doors, we took the name because we had such great memories in that space. We then moved to the Mercury Cafe on Chicago Ave. They closed their doors six months after we started doing shows. We have been at The Book Cellar ever since. And we hope they stay open!
How do you decide who to book on “the kates”?
To be honest, “the kates” was originally created because me and a few of my pals didn't quite know how to fit into the comedy scene at the time. We wanted to make a space for weirdos like us. And other weirdos wanted in on the action! We have booked 170 different female performers on “the kates” showcases. There are a lot of weirdos out there! How do I book it? Easy. You're a gal who sees the show. You talk to me after the show, and you ask to be on the show. You're on the show. That's it.
“the kates” is a showcase for women who are starting out in comedy or for veterans who want to try new bits, characters, music, puppetry, get more stage time, whatever. It has always been a very chill performance environment so you can take a lot of risks. It's a book store. It's unamplified. It has no stage. You perform in front of a wall of magazines! Folks in the audience smile at you. No pressure.
Performing in a bookstore seems like a pretty unique experience. What are some of the challenges and advantages of working in that space?
The intimacy is by far the biggest challenge/advantage. In traditional stand-up, the audience is in the shadows. The Book Cellar, you can see all their faces. All of them! They are an arm's length away. That kind of intimacy makes for a different kind of comedy. It's a different muscle that you don't get to flex at traditional comedy venues. You have to change your delivery and material to fit different environments, I love that about comedy. It makes you better.
What is your relationship like with The Book Cellar? Do they have any rules/requests of the show?
Suzy and all The Book Cellar folks are great! It is such a perfect fit for “the kates.” Their only rule is that we can't say the F word because the store is still open and kids can walk in. But anything else goes. And I can't eat all the cupcakes...that's my own rule.
What are some moments from past kates performances that you will never forget?
Amy has torn down the book shelves, and Sarah did a performance piece on a ladder and I thought she was going to shatter their flat- screen TV. That is what I remember! That's terrible! As a producer, the moments I remember are "Christ, take risks but don't fucking break shit! Our $10 suggested donation is not going to cover that!"
Performance-wise, it's not moments that really stick out for me but the growth that's the most memorable. Witnessing my friends become better comedians, simply by showing up and doing the work. It's not as glamorous as a specific moment, but it's the jam.
How do you think “the kates” has changed the Chicago comedy scene?
I think “the kates,” in conjunction with the Feminine Comique classes and shows like Beast Women, have given women a platform to write and perform, provided a space to network and collaborate, and have showed gals the power of being your own producer. This has greatly increased the number of females on the scene.
The Chicago comedy scene is arguably an awesome place to be right now. What would you change if you could change one thing?
That is a great question. I would love for comedians to stick around. I would love Chicago to be a place where comedians could make money. I absolutely love it here and really want to stay. I want this to always be my home. I don't know if it's a Midwest thing or what. But comedy—sadly, most art forms—are considered cute little hobbies. Not a legitimate way to make a living. How to make that happen? No idea! Start a revolution? Get TV shows and film up in here. Let's get on that, Chicago!
What other projects are you involved with in Chicago?
I'm a cast member of 100 Proof Comedy over at Comedy Sportz. I'm working on my next solo show, hey oh! That should be up and running this summer. I'm teaching Live Lit classes at StoryStudio (Make Em' Laugh) and Feminine Comique classes will be running all year round. And maybe I'll start riding my bike again. Big things, friends. Big things!
You can find out more about Kelsie Huff at www.kelsiehuff.com. “the kates” happens every second Friday at 8 p.m. and every last Saturday of the month at 7 p.m. at The Book Cellar (4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.). The show asks for a $10 suggested donation. For more information, visit www.thekates.org.
(Photo credits: Photo of Kelsie Huff by Johnny Knight; photo of the kates host Amy Sumpter by Elizabeth McQuern)