Anu Bhatt (left) and Cris Blak perform in the 2021 Fillet of Solo festival.
Anu Bhatt (left) and Cris Blak perform in the 2021 Fillet of Solo festival. Credit: Courtesy the artists

In the Before Times—before the Moth, before the Stoop, before the phrase “live lit” was even coined, much less a thing—Sharon Evans’s Live Bait Theater was HQ for Chicago storytellers. At least it was for a frenetic month every year, as legions of narrative spinners arrived to the tiny space for the Fillet of Solo Festival.

In the 24 years since Evans turned the Clark Street space adjacent to the once-beloved Mashed Potato Club into an incubator of wonders, the festival’s alum roster provides the receipts: Rohina Malik, Tekki Lomnicki, David Kodeski, Marcia Wilkie, and Jeff Garlin are among those who honed their skills there, telling true-life tales about everything from seeking miracles at Lourdes to dealing with Islamophobia.

The leaping, orange neon carp that hung outside the rickety-fabulous Lakeview space went dark in 2009. (The fabled fish is gone, but the space is still rented out, most recently by Otherworld Theatre.) The Fillet of Solo festival continues apace. With Fillet of Solo 2021—curated by Evans and Lifeline Theatre’s former artistic director Dorothy Milne—the sprawling annual event can now add ‘plague survivor’ to the milestones it has passed since its inception in 1995.

Like just about everything else since roughly this time last year, Milne and Lifeline
have had to reconnoiter. Fillet 2020 came in just under the COVID-19 barbed wire, opening January 10 and closing January 26. Opening some 54 weeks later (or roughly 172 years later in 2020 time), Fillet of Solo 2021 is both diminished and amplified by the draconian measures we’ve all had to take so as to stay alive and not kill anybody else while doing so.

The diminishment is, obviously, that the real-time live communal thrill is gone. The nightly community Fillet cultivated in previous fests isn’t possible if we’re not all packed into a 40-seat house or the back of some bar, where the collective energy can’t help but ricochet off the walls. There’s no joyful hubbub with the people queued up for wine and Skittles at intermission. That part sucks.

However. There are so many plusses provided by this year’s mandatory screen format that Fillet actually breaks even. And might even come out ahead.

First off, you can binge watch the entire lineup—which includes 15 storytelling collectives, 17 solo performers, and easily six dozen stories—at once should you be so inclined, all without switching venues. Unlike a traditional play, you can filet Fillet into segments or themes that fit your schedule or your fancy of the moment. Plus, you can watch everybody as many times as you want, so if IDES or the Department of Health ever actually picks up, you can return later to exactly where you were before the miracle occurred.

About those themes. Evans and Milne have made it easy to curate your own experience. You can peruse the storytellers by name, by show, or by topic. There are solo shows that run 30 minutes and group shows where each performer gets maybe a third of that. The cross-indexing is easy to navigate, and best of all, you do not need Zoom or any other app. If you can click on a link, you can find your way easily through the magnificent labyrinth the women have created for Fillet 2021.

There are veteran audience favorites (Rose Abdoo, The Kates, Stir-Friday Night!) who have been around for years—over a generation in some cases. There are groundbreakers and ceiling-shatterers who revolutionized the genre (Lily Be, Wilkie) and comparative newcomers (Cheryl Rodey, Sarah Marie Young) of already proven talent. Not to be judgmental, but if you can’t find someone to engage with, you aren’t really trying.

My entry point was Elizabeth Gomez, who is featured in the group show, “I Love Everything!!!” Her segment, “Let the Loneliness Begin,” manages to both nail the all-but-unbearable isolation that results when your world is locked down and the zaniness of an imagination that refuses to stay indoors. And because “stories take more form than spoken words,” Gomez does much of her storytelling while teaching herself to roller-skate in her living room.

On Cadillac-red wheels, she spins a yarn of quarantine, skating, and crying, improbably including the vocal stylings of several sock puppets singing a chirpy, possibly delusional tune from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. There is a massive chicken-head mask and wine involved, as well as a cameo appearance from a club banger, played by a dog in a long blonde wig. And while it is not a fashion show, per se, Gomez’s outfit changes are marvelous. In all, it’s the storytelling equivalent of an antidepressant that actually works as advertised.

Archy Arch J also offers an absurdly amusing story, although like so much of the past year(ish), the absurdity is shot through with matters so disturbing and depressing, you may well experience the cognitive disconnect of cackling with glee while simultaneously weeping for the state of the human race. Archy reveals that he’s been a server for years (“A food prostitute,” if you ask his mother), and that his powers of shade have been honed to the sharpness of an upscale steak knife. (“I am very patient with people who view menus as a blueprint for their own creativity,” he notes drily.) His piece, “Assholes and Others,” deals with racism and the devastation of the restaurant industry and will definitely make you want to tip your server heftily if we ever get to go out to eat at restaurants again.

“Pandemic Stories” is also a group show, and rather like finding diamonds in a raging dumpster fire, the latter, of course, being the titular global health crisis. Cris Blak‘s soaring, sobering “Hope 2021” opens with a poetic slugger: “Every morning, I wake up a figment of my former self. Nonessential and no longer engaged, I feel myself slowly falling in love with my four walls.”

With the fervor and rhythm of a poet, Blak dives into the vortex that was 2020: “Those we’ve lost become reminders. Those we gain become the future.” He talks about his activist grandfather, arrested for marching for civil rights in the 1960s, in the Chicago of Richard J. “Shoot to Kill” Daley. He talks about the awful uncertainty of not knowing what’s beyond his four walls: it could be a virus, it could be a gun.

Then there’s James Gordon, 32-time Moth Storytelling Slam winner and three-time Grand Slam champ. In “194426,” (also part of “Pandemic Stories”), he begins in 1992, when he was shot by the Vice Lords. He follows the arc of his life through 2020, which includes having a daughter and being sent home from work (the Chicago Fire set) after testing positive there for COVID-19. That alone is enough material for two stories, but Gordon weaves a seamless narrative that also encompasses falling reluctantly in love and the sudden death of the person he’s held dearest for a lifetime. It’s a riveting, inspiring nine minutes.

There is so much more: In Anu Bhatt‘s “AutoCorrect,” a legendary stage director unwilling to learn how to say a cast member’s name correctly gets schooled in a way that should be required viewing for anyone who is habitually unable to pronounce names that don’t sound like, for example, Blair or Chad or Becky. This isn’t a spoiler, because there’s plenty more, but trust and believe that you do want to hear Bhatt lay it out for the people in the back: “You are the one who claims to be so inclusive, but as soon as someone actually calls you out, you ‘don’t know where this is coming from.’ Now sit the fuck down.” Dawson’s Creek also gets a shout-out.

In “Unexpected,” (part of “Pandemic Stories”)  Alex Michael Alexander talks about being a transman and coming to terms with his hair—and so much more—during the months when he couldn’t get to his “hair guy.” Kendra Stevens’s “I Don’t Get It” (part of the “Serving the Sentence” group) recalls a fleeting moment of Ray Charles-infused glory during a live taping at The Late Show with David Letterman. (Letterman comes off as a dick here.) In “Amid Social Unrest I Found Love,” R.C. Riley, a portrait of Maya Angelou behind her, recounts love in the time of plague and a new romance strengthened and tested by George Floyd’s death, quarantine, and protests.

There is also, as there must be this year of all years, a ghost story. It belongs to Connie Shirakawa, whose “The Homeless Ghost” is directed by Evans. The story begins in the west side boarding house where Shirakawa grew up and it is fascinating, right down to the street address you can google.

Storytelling is essential work, this year more than ever. Without it, we truly are alone. Fillet of Solo makes sure you are not.  v