On a cold Tuesday night, 30 to 40 people crowd the back of Women and Children First in Andersonville. As people continue to arrive, extra chairs miraculously appear, pushed up against bookshelves, magazine racks–anywhere a person could conceivably sit. A table heaves under an impressive spread from the Middle Eastern Bakery. The audience snacks on grape leaves and hummus as three performers grace the stage, singing, reading essays, and doing stand-up. Tien Tran closes out the show with a remarkable rendition of the ‘90s hit “This Kiss.” The Asian-American comedian dances back and forth, singing, “This fist, this fist!” If only Faith Hill could have seen the performance, which, frankly, is an upgrade from the original.
This is Sappho’s Salon, the monthly performance series focused on “expressions of queerness, gender and feminism.” Liz Baudler and Eileen Tull, the beating hearts behind the series, define “expressions” as any sort of art form that gives a meaningful connection to the topic. “I don’t think there’s another series that unites and explores the special relationship these topics have,” Liz says. “My feminism is related to my gender, which is related to my sexuality. Maybe that’s not how it works for other people, but that’s how it works for me.”
“There are so many amazing artists in Chicago that are not necessarily defined by medium, including me,” Eileen continues. “We wanted to be open to all these amazing creators. We’re also committed to being an incubator for new work, so ‘expressions’ is a nice, broad term to cover whatever shape the work may take: performance art, storytelling, sketch, song, stand-up, dance, etc.”
Sappho’s Salon is unique not only in its content, but in its longevity as well. The series was launched in 2008 (an eon ago in the world of performance series) by Kathie Bergquist, who was then Liz’s professor. During those days Liz, a self-proclaimed “young lesbian looking for love” volunteered for the show. When Kathie retired, she passed the torch to Liz. Sappho’s went on hiatus for a year, until mutual friends connected Liz with Eileen, who had previously expressed interest in running a series at the store. Eileen was particularly interested in created a safe performance space for feminists in comedy, a notoriously difficult place for women.
When Liz and Eileen met, they immediately clicked.
“I thought she was going to be a big butch lesbian with a flattop,” Liz says, “but instead she’s a warm, incredibly funny curly-haired straight girl. She does comedy and performance art and knows everyone who’s ever gotten within two feet of a stage.”
“I had been a backseat supporter of people on the LGBTQ spectrum, changing my profile picture at all the right times. But I have the ability to do more,” Eileen adds. “It’s become very clear to me that sometimes the best way to be a straight, cis, white ally is to shut up for a second and hand someone else the microphone.”
The series originally focused solely on lesbians, but has since widened its scope. The organizers were concerned they were excluding trans performers, who have their own unique perspectives about gender, sexuality and feminism. The salon also welcomes non-binary people, who may not have access to many performance platforms. Cis men are the only people not invited to grace the stage.
Still, over time, the audience has skewed straighter. “A few more beards,” Liz says. “But I am seriously okay with that. We still have the LGBTQ community coming, and quite a few of the original Sappho’s crowd.”
They both also expressed frustration with the domination of straight white men at performance series, telling the same stories over and over.
“[It’s always] men laughing at the girls they’re going to end up [hooking up with] by the end of the piece,” Liz explains.
“After a while, a lot of the shows start to look and sound the same… It’s the responsibility of every show producer in this city to work a little harder to make sure they are amplifying all different points of view,” Eileen continues.
They want Sappho’s Salon to be a space where progressive ideas can be discussed and celebrated without fear. At the beginning of each show, Eileen reminds the audience to take care of ourselves. With such subject matter, pieces might be triggering. She tells us to take a moment and step out if we need to.
“I think the experience of listening to something live is more intense and inescapable,” Liz says. “You can turn off a movie, you can turn off a book, but it’s much harder in a room of people, at an event you come to enjoy. If something is going to interfere with your enjoyment to the degree that you feel unsafe, you need to know that.”
“My basic belief is that everyone has triggers,” Eileen continues. “It’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and anticipate your emotional state as best as you can. That being said, when one is curating a space, there is a responsibility to take care of our audience. Our show allows performers to explore some potentially intense subject matter. We want our performers to feel free to create art around these topics, but we are also aware that members of our audience may have experienced trauma related to these subjects as well. So it’s a balance of supporting the artists and caring for our audience at the same time.”
In my experience, Eileen and Liz hit this balance very well. They also care for their audience by their commitment to showcasing a diverse line-up, something sadly lacking at many reading series and live lit events.
“Intersectional feminism is the only kind of feminism I want,” Liz says.
They’ve had an array of spectacular performers, and it’s hard for them to narrow down their favorites. Liz mentioned Niki Gee, whose poem about charming a straight lady at a club made the straight guys go “whoa,” and Deborah Lee, who wrote Rescuing Jesus, about women, people of color and queers taking back the evangelical movement. Eileen remembered Bea Cordelia, a trans activist and electrifying spoken word artist. They both heaped accolades at the feet of the aforementioned Tien Tran.
“Her comedy is brutally funny and sneaky,” Eileen says. Two months later, people are still telling them how they loved Tien Tran.
“At a place like Sappho’s, the more honest and vulnerable a performer is, the more satisfying a performance,” Eileen says. “Our audience is so generous and open; they can’t wait to catch the leaping artists into their collective arms.”
Catch the next leaping artists at their next show, on Tuesday, February 9, at 7:30pm at Women and Children First. Admission is pay what you can; proceeds are split among the performers and the Women’s Voices Fund.