The boundary-pushing novelist
“The things you do when you are lonely, the things you allow when you are lonely, can be an impetus for so many desperate acts,” explains Lindsay Hunter, the 34-year-old author of Ugly Girls. The new novel follows two socially isolated teenagers whose online chatting with a seemingly innocuous stranger leads to a terrible crime. Hunter, who grew up in a middle-class family in Florida (her father, a banker, divorced her mom when Hunter was 16), now lives in Old Irving Park with her lawyer husband and her 20-month-old son, Parker. “It’s all on a scale. Desperate to me might be nothing to someone else.”
Hunter’s earlier works, short stories (some are only a few pages long), fit this theme with tales of working-class people committing bizarre, often prurient acts to assuage gnawing isolation. In one story, a housewife can orgasm only with the help of her dog’s electric fence collar. In another, a delusional 30-something woman dates a nine-year-old boy.
If Hunter has a flair for the dramatic, it might be because she once trained to be an actress (at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York, when she was 19). In 2008, she and fellow Chicago writer Mary Hamilton started the flash-reading series Quickies! (the parameters: new, complete works must be performed in less than five minutes) as a way to marry the art forms of writing and acting. “We were sick of seeing authors droning on and on,” says Hunter. The series forced her to craft new pieces monthly and eventually led to her first book deal, with local independent press Featherproof Books, for Daddy’s (a collection of short stories), and later to a two-book deal with the much-bigger Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Though Hunter’s work can chafe family members (“My grandmother says it shouldn’t be out in the world”), she refuses to censor herself. “I hear a line in my head, and I type it out, and then the next line comes. I just follow that voice, and sometimes that voice has really crazy things to say.”
The unconquerable crooner
When Dee Alexander takes the stage at Bronzeville’s Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, she leans into the mike. “I don’t like the term ‘perform,’ ” says the bright-eyed 59-year-old. “I prefer ‘share.’ I’m going to share some music with you all.”
What follows is a set of bop-era gems peppered with laments about summertime gun violence and anecdotes about Alexander’s childhood in the West Loop, where she still lives. Midway through the evening, Alexander pauses. “I always wondered why this song was my mother’s favorite,” she thinks out loud shortly before launching into Elisse Boyd’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” from 1952, a painstaking account of infidelity. “I think it’s because it tells a story. That’s what we do as singers: tell stories.”
Over the past seven years, Alexander—who got her start with ’70s avant-jazz vets Ken Chaney and “Light” Henry Huff —has earned nods from the Tribune (Chicagoan of the Year, 2007), this magazine (Chicago’s Best Singer, 2009), and The New York Times (Outstanding Jazz Performance, 2013) for a vocal range that extends from a hushed scat to a gutsy roar.
In July, Alexander released her stunning album Songs My Mother Loves, which she financed using $15,000 from her 3Arts Award, a grant for local artists, received in 2013. The 11-track album features Alexander’s spin on 10 classics (“Perdido” appears twice), handpicked by the woman who first piqued her interest in jazz. “My mother always had great music playing in the house—Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington. I loved it immediately. When I decided to do this [album], I asked what some of her favorite songs were. She gave me enough material for three projects.”
Next up for Alexander, who also works in the research services office at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (details here), followed by dates in Austria and Australia. “People say, ‘Do you think jazz is dead?’ Absolutely not. It’s the classic art form. It’ll be here after we’re all gone.”
The radical dancer
When Logan Square dancer and choreographer Erin Kilmurray calls her work “radical dance,” she’s only half kidding. The 29-year-old Columbia College grad tried the traditional route after school, signing on with such contemporary groups as Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre and Kate Corby & Dancers, but the company model left her unfulfilled.
So five years ago, Kilmurray founded the Fly Honeys, a burlesque-inspired troupe, as a way to feature not only strong female performance artists but also more individual expression. “There’s a lot of pressure for dance to be this very serious form of high art, and burlesque performers have so much ownership over the persona and story they want to tell,” she says. “I was missing that in the work I was doing as a professional contemporary dancer.”
The Fly Honey Show—an annual variety show that features mostly dance but also singing, comedy, and spoken word—now has more than 100 performers, including a 12-piece band. It wrapped its fifth season in August, and Kilmurray has already shifted focus to a new endeavor called The Salt, a series of performances in different locations, which will culminate in a work with the same name.
The performances will look a lot like what you’d expect to see from a frontman at a rock concert, but with a contemporary dance influence. (Think headbanging and sliding across the stage with leg extensions.) Kilmurray has teamed up with dancers Josh Anderson and Mikey Rioux for the project, which is currently set to music such as Patti Smith’s “Gloria” and the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye,” but she hopes to eventually have an original score. “The Salt’s process is based on a band’s process,” says Kilmurray. “Lots of gigging out and experimenting in front of audiences and seeing what works and making changes based on that. I’m curious about bringing dance into spaces where it’s a little more inviting and it doesn’t have to feel stuffy.”
The feminist playwright
Caitlin Parrish got her first lesson in the harsh ways of the world in 2004 while at DePaul University’s theater school. She had written a drama, The View from Tall, about a high school girl who has an affair with a teacher, that won the Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition. But she ran into a wall trying to get it produced in New York. “People would read it, say they loved it and wanted to do it,” recalls Parrish. “Then they’d find out I was this 21-year-old girl, and doors started slamming.”
Fed up, she decided to create her own opportunities. In 2005, after a brief period working in a funeral home (and as a caregiver for stroke victims) to make ends meet, she founded Hypatia Theatre Company here with local director Erica Weiss, in hopes of providing meaningful roles for women both on and off the stage. “Too often a female character is merely present, with no skin in the game,” says Parrish.
After three years and six productions, Parrish and Weiss closed Hypatia to focus on their own projects. One of those, Parrish’s play A Twist of Water, took two years to get produced—not that it didn’t have suitors before then. Parrish recalls, “There was one company I dealt with. Big. Established. They offered me a lot of money. But they would only produce it if one of their male directors codirected with Erica.” After Parrish found Route 66 Theatre Company, which took on the project without strings attached, the play became a critical and commercial hit and had an Off Broadway run.
This month Parrish, now 30, gets her first full Chicago production since 2011 when The Downpour, a pitch-black dramedy about two sisters dealing with a dark past, opens at Route 66. But even with her success, Parrish says that the struggle to promote herself and other female playwrights is an ongoing one. “The battle plan is always just keep working.”