If you can remember the first Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins festival 30 years ago at the now-gone Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, were you really there?
I can. And I was. In fact, I came up with the festival’s name. If I’d known it was going to turn into an annual thing, I might have suggested something else. But in the way of small Chicago theater companies, we were in an ensemble meeting that was running late, we were tired, and we needed to get the PR out. So everyone said “Yeah, why not?” and it stuck.
It was Mary-Arrchie’s artistic director and founder, Richard Cotovsky, who came up with the idea of doing a three-day theater marathon, with shows running nearly around the clock to honor the 20th anniversary of Woodstock. That first festival, there were a couple of one-act plays he wanted to stage: Arlene Cook’s Vietnam-era Gas Mask 101, in which a group of friends on the cusp of graduating college face the reality of exiting the campus counterculture,and Matt Borczon’s Wild Dogs—a piece about two men and a gun, seemingly inspired by the early plays of Sam Shepard.
Both plays would go on to become mainstays of Abbie Fest, as the annual blow-out became known. They were joined by work created by a merry band of pranksters and itinerant theater artists who somehow didn’t mind taking slots in the wee small hours of the morning for nothing more than free passes to see all the other shows.
Aside from severe sleep deprivation, what I mostly remember from that first festival was performing in the late Harry Kondoleon’s absurdist one-act Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise, directed by my friend Danne Taylor. At one point, I was standing on a table wearing all black, including a wool turtleneck, clutching a bowl of creamed corn to my chest. It was probably 85 degrees in the unair-conditioned theater, and that corn got pretty pungent by the end of the play.
I didn’t do another Abbie Fest, but Cotovsky kept the tradition going until Mary-Arrchie and the building that housed it both ceased to exist in 2016.
But as Abbie Fest fell, Yippie Fest rose. Created out of the ashes of the original by Frank Carr, a comedy writer and performer whose troupe, Famous in the Future, performed at the first Abbie Fest and most of the subsequent ones, it’s now in its third year in the Prop Thtr space.
“That first year [at Abbie Fest], I didn’t see a lot,” Carr says. “We just did our show and that was it. I kept coming back because it was so cool. I became an Abbie addict. As opposed to threatening Rich with bodily harm to keep it going, we said, ‘Hey, we could do something similar.'”
Carr asked Cotovsky for his blessings. “I sent him an e-mail when we first decided to do it—a really long e-mail where I laid out how we wanted to continue in his spirit. And true to form, he just wrote back one line: ‘Go for it!'”
Cotovsky used to open and close each Abbie Fest by impersonating the late founder of the Youth International Party, or Yippies, who died in April of 1989 by his own hand. But overt political agitprop wasn’t really the point of Abbie Fest, and Carr notes that it’s not really the focus of Yippie Fest, either—though the festival did honor Pigasus, the 145-pound pig who was the Yippies’ 1968 presidential candidate, with a short film last year.
“We probably do less on the political side than Rich did,” he says. “We don’t do the march.” Cotovsky used to lead a ceremonial march as Hoffman from Daley Plaza to Angel Island, Mary-Arrchie’s venue upstairs from a liquor store on West Sheridan. The space was demolished, along with the building that formerly housed Strawdog Theatre Company, three years ago to make room for new condos.
Carr notes that Yippie Fest, in the spirit of Woodstock, does incorporate more music than was typically seen at Abbie Fest. Guitarist-songwriter Mike Felten kicks off the proceedings Friday at 7 PM, and the festival features a Stage B with a variety of musical acts, including !Ex Maquina!, a five-piece group of postpunk jazz-reggae improvisers playing at 4 PM Sunday.
Comedians and solo storytellers are also heavily represented. “They are looking for places to play and do a ten-minute set. We could have 60 of them,” Carr says. “They’re also good palate cleansers to slide in.” And just as in the first festival, nobody seems to complain about their time slot, according to Carr.
Perhaps the biggest connection between the original Woodstock, Abbie Fest, and Yippie Fest is the ad hoc community that grows up around the marathon endeavor. Says Carr, “What makes people come back—I don’t know. They must enjoy it, and after years of seeing a lot of the same people, they get to know each other. It’s kind of like a little family reunion every year, with some new people added in.”
And unlike the original Woodstock and Abbie Fest, you don’t have to worry about mud or lack of air-conditioning. v