Links Hall was originally Link’s Hall, named for John J. Link, the dentist who built it in 1914 and emblazoned his name in the plaster above the front door. Links Hall was an empty room above a hamburger joint next to a women’s health organization and a Japanese culture center in a seedy neighborhood where the Red Line rattled by every few minutes. Links Hall was a rehearsal space with shows at night: poetry readings, experimental music, performance art, dance. Links Hall is where moving bodies meet for the contact improv jam. “There are a hundred Links Halls, and people have the one they go to,” says associate director Anna Trier.
In 1978, long before a line of glitzy bars frequented by tourists and sports fans erupted at the intersection of Sheffield, Newport, and Clark, choreographers Bob Eisen, Carol Bobrow, and Charlie Vernon founded Links Hall. “I don’t know how we signed a lease, because we didn’t have any income,” says Vernon, then a dance critic at the Reader. The three founders, who met through the now-defunct performance collective MoMing, simply wanted a room of their own to rehearse. The economics were simple: rent a place for a couple hundred bucks a month, recover costs by renting by the hour to others who also needed space to work. And such a system was ideal for its tenants. “Small spaces and small audiences mean no economy,” says Vernon. “It’s OK, I don’t mind. To me, dancing was just a wonderful purpose.”
Without a specific mission in mind, the empty white room “filled the needs of the community right away,” says Bobrow, formerly a dancer with Mordine and Company (which celebrates its 50th anniversary at Links this May). Dancers flocked to the inexpensive studio. Contact improvisation, the spontaneous dance created by experiencing the body in relation to the weight and motion of other participants’ bodies, brought in “people who didn’t consider themselves dancers,” remembers Vernon. Eisen, formerly a performer with Body Politic Theater, was the only staff member, answering the phone, scheduling, managing rehearsals, and sweeping up afterwards. “I didn’t have another job, I didn’t have another life,” he says. (“Links Hall wouldn’t be here without Bob,” interjects Bobrow.)
In addition to serving as a rehearsal space, Links Hall rapidly also became a performance venue. Exploratory musician Michael Zerang, an accompanist at MoMing who frequently rehearsed at Links, was the first to curate a performance series there and became de facto artistic director from 1985 to 1988. “Friday and Saturday nights were sitting empty,” he recalls. “Bob said, ‘Do what you want.’ I said, ‘I do music,’ and he said, ‘Fine.'”
With the music community in mind, as well as several friends who were poets (“No one was listening, and no one was paying them—it was this burgeoning scene before poetry slams started”), he decided to institute poetry readings on Thursday nights and experimental music concerts Fridays and Saturdays. “I got grants, ran the whole show, set up chairs, swept the floor, and partied with the bands after,” he recalls. Among the early performers were several who are now well-known, including Amy and David Sedaris and Tony Fitzpatrick. After three years curating and 24 years on the board, Zerang officially stepped down in 2014, though he continues to produce and perform an annual winter solstice concert—for the 29th time this coming December.
From 1989 to 2009, Links continued to grow and evolve under the direction of Jim de Jong, Kay Wendt LaSota, Bill Dietz, Asimina Chremos, and CJ Mitchell. Roell Schmidt took the helm in 2009, and Vernon enthuses, “What she has done with Links is indescribably wonderful”—a “radical transformation” that has included international exchanges with Japan and Haiti and a long-anticipated move to its current location in the former Viaduct Theater in Roscoe Village in 2013 after rents skyrocketed in Wrigleyville. Now Links Hall is the only tenant of the music venue Constellation, which Schmidt describes as a creative partner rather than a landlord.
To celebrate its fortieth anniversary, Links Hall has offered a unique gift to the city of Chicago in the form of its Pay-the-40th-Forward Season. Beginning last August and continuing through June, the space has been donated to artists to perform rent-free, an idea that seems to belong to a utopia most of America has not yet envisioned. Supported by increased fundraising from large granting institutions, individual donors, and $4 raffles at every show, the risky experiment has produced powerful results.
“We’ve been trying for ten years for Links to reflect the city of Chicago better,” says Schmidt. “This is the first season where the entire season has featured majority artists of color. And that feels right in a city with a majority of people of color.” Adds Trier, “We’ve learned how much Links can expand its community when we can create points of access that don’t have financial barriers for artists.”
Nurturing the growth of the artistic community is a holistic process at Links. Artists developing work receive not only space and a high percentage of box office returns but mentorship from the Links staff, and other, less tangible forms of support. “The artists and the art have sustained Links, and Links supports not only the product but the process,” says Felicia Holman, director of Linkage partnerships, Links Hall’s in-kind partnerships with other organizations. “Each of [the directors] is a practicing artist, so we have the empathy that helps us to identify folks who need encouragement or a come-to-Jesus moment.” (Holman herself is cofounder of the Afro-diasporic feminist collaborative Honey Pot Performance.) More formally, efforts at Links have included a task force to increase the quality and quantity of critical discourse by and about artists of color, as well as a partnership with Rough House Theater to establish a puppeteers- of-color incubator, providing workshops and performance opportunities with the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival.
In addition to creating opportunities for more artists to make new work, Links focuses on helping artists to create a supportive and sustaining community. “All the artists are asked to make a community investment instead of a [monetary] one,” says Schmidt. “Artists are house managing for other artists, people are providing raffle prizes, people are writing responses to each other’s work at the Performance Response Journal“—a website for artist-to-artist responses founded by past Links performers Joanna Furnans and Hope Goldman that has partnered with Links for the season. Artists are baking cakes for the Cake Lounge following the LinkSircus showcase on March 30, where the public is invited to celebrate Links’ 40th anniversary with sweets.
Perhaps most thrillingly, Links has found that artists who experience generosity reciprocate in ways that demonstrate the potent combination of imagination and intention. Such examples include the recent The Amtraklor, in which performer Nora Sharp produced a Bachelor-esque competition for an Amtrak companion ticket as a fundraiser for Links. The Vertical Sideshow, which staged a drag burlesque Giselle at Links in February, is plotting a cabaret matinee “for kids with progressive adults” to support the reboot of Poonie’s Cabaret, a queer experimental variety show that lost its funding and direction in 2016.
“Everybody has some kind of resource, and we all need to pool all our resources,” says Schmidt. “This season has really shown the impact of generosity and how subversive it is,” says production director Brett Swinney. “We have this perception that generosity is a limited resource, but in reality it’s a fire; it needs tending and a spark. We give to artists, and the artists give back, and it strengthens the ecosystem. Generosity is the currency we’re really exchanging.”
An artist-founded, artist-run, artist- supporting organization, Links Hall is an empty room that has flourished into a community of diverse interests, abilities, and possibilities. Reflecting on the past 40 years, Eisen says simply, “That it’s continued is enough. Links is a community center where people can work.” And work together. “It’s really lonely to make art, even in a collaborative art form,” says Schmidt. “There’s so much doubt and fear. If we’re all relying on artists to keep imagining a world different from the one we’re in, we have to be arm in arm.” v
LinkSircus—Celebrating 40 Years and Cake Lounge Sat 3/30, 7 PM, Links Hall, 3111 N. Western, 773-281-0824, linkshall.org, $10-$40.