Once a week at Beauty Bar at 1444 W. Chicago Ave., writers, performance artists, movers, shakers, newbies and pros converge to share their stories beneath a glittery awning and a white banner emblazoned with a pair of snapping fingers and “Salonathon” in all caps. A sea of onlookers watch and drink, risking one too many $5 beer-and-shot combos, or else a chipped manicure from all that snapping. Nails can be freshly repainted in the lobby — the Noble Square nightclub’s specialty. And they do this all on a Monday. And they have been doing it every Monday for five years.
Salonathon is Chicago’s weekly home for “underground, emerging and genre-defying art.” (If you stop in, you’ll likely hear this phrase and hear the crowd join in and say it.) On Monday it will be celebrating its quinquennial night of performances, marking years of words read, guitars strummed, puppets projected, monologues recited, Pop-Tarts toasted (it happened!), clothing removed, battles danced and, occasionally, performances interrupted by really drunk people.
All of that is possible due to a team, one of the first players being Jane Beachy.
On Thursday, Beachy, fresh from her day job as arts programmer at Illinois Humanities, shows up to the Chicago Cultural Center in a burgundy dress, gold isosceles triangle earrings and other gilded accessories. She’s as much at ease in this Mecca of the arts as she is in the aforementioned cramped retro-themed club; as dedicated to ensuring this one-one-one interview is as fabulous as any of those late Monday nights.
In Seattle, she helped kickstart “Le Salon Basement” (in her own basement; Beachy demonstrates the name in a French accent). In Brooklyn, there was “Le Salon Kitchen.” Salon Salon was the next iteration in Chicago at a hair stylist’s studio in the Gold Coast. Finally, Salonathon at Beauty Bar.
“I feel like I’m drawn to and I appreciate weirdness,” she says. “I appreciate the endeavor to make something outside of a framework that’s familiar and I love doing whatever I can to facilitate, not in a hokey way or condescending way, but there’s a real vitality in the process of figuring something out.”
In what is, perhaps, her thesis statement, she says: “There should not be a barrier between having an idea and trying it out.”
The idea of Salonathon plays out in a free evening of acts from nine to 12 performers, most in their 20s or 30s, beginning in the Beauty Bar at around 9:30 p.m. and lasting roughly two hours. Beachy and other curators Bindu Poroori, Will Von Vogt and Joe Varisco serve as MCs for the night, choosing a theme and that night’s performers. It’s all original material, sometimes one-off performances or else the beginning of long-term projects. Sometimes performers go solo and sometimes an impromptu gospel choir of Chicago musical theater performers sing “Joyful, Joyful” from “Sister Act 2.”
“Can someone give her (Beachy) an endowment fund and she can just make the world a better place?” asks Von Vogt, a Chicago actor who began choosing acts for Salonathon a little over four years ago, just as momentum was picking up.
“Doing one in a week is exhausting,” says frequent Salonathon-er, occasional curator and Chicago playwright Ike Holter. “But the fact that they have been doing this every other week, switching off for years, it kind of reminds me of ‘Saturday Night Live’ … it’s become a constant.”
And over the years, that constant drew a larger crowd. Danny LeRoy, bartender since 2011-turned-Salonathon DJ, says, “When I started it was maybe just under 30 people. And then over the years, around the two year anniversary, it started really becoming a big night and now we can easily clear 150 people.”
And the anniversaries?
“One year people were sitting on top of the photo booth,” says LeRoy.
“It was kind of a great risk for them because there was no risk,” says Beachy of the partnership with Beauty Bar. “The worst thing I could do is bring in 10 more people.”
And people kept coming, making for some memorable shows.
Holter was one of the first performers in Salonathon’s second-ever event. “They said, ‘Hey do you want to perform something?'” says Holter. “And I said, ‘I don’t do that. I’m a writer.’ I said, ‘I guess I could read some monologues from a play I’m working on. It’s called ‘Hit the Wall’.”
There were about 50 people in the audience that night, and they heard the beginnings of Holter’s hit show about the 1969 Stonewall uprising. It would go on to an off-Broadway production.
Von Vogt recalls a mobile Salonathon, set on a tall ship on Lake Michigan. “The performers and audience members alike dressed in a nautical theme,” he says. “I hope we get to do it again.”
Beachy warns she could give a 12-hour interview about her favorite performances, but offers as one the Mother’s Day themed “Salona-mom.”
“My mother was coming to Salonathon for the first time,” says Beachy. “And I was so scared.”
She ended up performing with her mom, who had been working on a children’s book and feeling discouraged about the process.
“It added a level to our relationship,” says Beachy. “Oh my gosh, I’ll cry if I think about it.”
Poroori, the newest and first person-of-color curator, recalls a recent Monday night. “Will put together a lineup with the theme ‘Just Because it’s June,’ and I was like, ‘come on Will,'” she says. “But it was the Monday right after the Orlando attack. There was a strong, palpable, significant sense of community and resilience running through the room, set off by the theme.”
So what’s next?
Salonathon has permutated beyond Beauty Bar to performances at the MCA, a partnership with the Neo-Futurists, a performance lab at the University of Chicago and even a summer camp.
Just last week, the Salonathon born-and-bred act from Alex Grelle, “Shelley Duvall’s Women Under the Influence Theatre,” opened at Steppenwolf’s not-too-shabby 1700 Theatre as part of the LookOut Series. As the title promises and in the spirit of “Faerie Tale Theatre,” Grelle plays Duvall, leading the audience through a series of her favorite scenes from classic films, culminating in a drag “Shining” that outdoes “The Shining.”
But Grelle, who Beachy approached during Hell in a Handbag’s spoof of “The Birds” in 2013, has not yet forsaken his artistic home for Anna D. Shapiro’s hallowed halls.
“Being able to do the scenes at Salonathon was the best exercise,” says Grelle.
Beachy hopes the Monday-night staple can remain for as long as sustainable. She’s interested in more all-ages nights and maybe an ultra Salonathon-athon that’s days of non-stop performances.
“I’m not interested in Monday night getting fancier and bigger,” she says. “The value is being a resource and being a space.”
And everyone will congregate in the space next week and celebrate.
Among the acts on Monday, all veteran Salonathon performers, are comedian Tien Tran, a Bob Curry Fellow at Second City; dancer Darling Shear, who Beachy describes as “radiant”; and art-rock band Homme, also performing at Pitchfork Sunday. LeRoy will be DJ’ing with Ariel Zetina all night. Poroori has been prepping buttons to pass out to anyone who has ever performed at Salonathon, so that the tribe may identify. Holter promises to make a cameo. Von Vogt says there’s been an e-mail chain circulating between the curators about what to wear — high stress.
It all takes a village.
“It’s so interesting to me that it’s this group of people that have incredible etiquette,” says Grelle. “It’s set in a bar!”