It’s July 1990, and I am summoned to the corner of Newport and Sheffield over and over again by the lure of my friend Franz’s rooftop parties. But little do I know that just half a block away, Lower Links is beginning a summer of programming that solidifies that corner as a mini-epicenter of performance art in the city.
Performance luminaries such as Lydia Lunch, Paula Killen, and Brigid Murphy (Milly’s Orchid Show) found a regular home in its friendly confines. At the same time, a tradition began to ferment upstairs at Link’s Hall of supporting small dance companies and indie choreographers that continues today in their space on Western Avenue.
Originally serving as a space for social dances and Daughters of the American Revolution meetings, the building on the corner of Newport and Sheffield housed the Chicago Women’s Health Center (CHWC) and the original Links Hall in the 1970s (the presenting organization dropped the apostrophe in the building’s name at some point). Once Links moved out, Under the Gun Theater took over the space for their original comedy shows. Building out the spare space as a small proscenium stage theater with cabaret seating, some bleacher seats, and a bar, the newly formed spot became host to a bevy of burlesque, belly dance, and variety shows in early 2019 after the Uptown Underground was abruptly shuttered.
956 W. Newport, 773-270-3440. Newport Theater Camp resumes 1/29 with eight-week classes running Wed-Sat. For information on classes and registration, or for performance schedules and reservations, visit newporttheater.com.
Enter Eva la Feva. “I’m a belly dancer and a burlesque performer. Many of us performed regularly at the Uptown Underground, which was a former burlesque drag variety space that’s now become the Baton Lounge.”
La Feva also runs a popular regular burlesque and variety show at the California Clipper, the Clipper Cabaret. So, when Tight Five Productions looked for someone to take over programming and rebrand the space, la Feva felt like a natural fit. She was a trusted burlesque and cabaret community member and knew how to pull in an audience and promote. She opened the space to her community to bring in their own productions, and started coordinating fringe programming. After the COVID shutdown, she started the Newport Peek-Easy, a weekly burlesque/drag/variety show, to provide regular work to fringe performers.
“We focus on what I call the fringe arts because currently, our programming has pole dancing, clowning, belly dance, burlesque, and Bollywood dance—things that might have a harder time finding a home within a traditional theater environment because they aren’t continuous runs of productions,” la Feva explains. “[We offer] more one-off or pop-up, cabaret-style productions versus the same single production for a number of weeks.”
She also stresses the importance of the space being very inclusive and open to a variety of productions and different performance communities. “We’ve been really fortunate to partner with Shimmy LaRoux from The Professional Adult on DEIJ issues,” la Feva says. “She was really helpful in helping us to develop our values statement and our commitment to inclusion. We provide discounted space for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists who are struggling with affording rent or need help with a first-time project. We try to make sure that we’re bringing in a variety of different voices and perspectives in terms of the productions. We ask our producers to abide by our safety and inclusion policies that we adapted from Burlesque Community Against Unsafe Spaces (BCAUS) and through the help from Shimmy. And we’ve just been reached out to by Chicago Therapy Collective to commit to their Hire Trans Now initiative.”
In addition to featuring a variety of voices, la Feva is committed to creating a more cooperative fringe arts scene and cross-pollinating disciplines and communities through her work at the Newport. All of this grew out of programming that began during the early lockdown period of 2020. “We actually built a virtual venue during the pandemic with this group called QueerCoded,” says la Feva. “Through use of an avatar, you can navigate a digital environment to video chat with other patrons and watch digital performances.”
The Newport then invited performers in to create virtual content by launching Newport Studio, a multi-camera live-editing video recording service. La Feva says, “I’d be like, ‘OK, if you need to record, just come here and do it.’ And the thing that was so weird is that when people would come in, they would be like, ‘I forgot my shoes, how could I forget my shoes?’ And I would say, ‘You’re out of practice packing a gig bag and remembering those little things you don’t realize you need.’”
This also helped build the Newport Theater Camp. When la Feva went looking for someone to collaborate with to help build out the fringe-arts curriculum for the camp, she turned again to her community and found multi-award-winning burlesque performer Bazuka Joe, who had a similar experience during the lockdown.
“It was so hard for everybody. And I can say without any exaggeration, every single performer got depressed, got inspired, uninspired, felt disconnected,” Joe says, adding, “I remember the first day that live performances were happening again, performers were crying because they were so emotional about getting back into the space and seeing their friends performing live and having that energy of an audience back again.”
He continues, “And there were still precautions—where we’re still wearing masks and the dressing areas were setups six feet apart and the air was thick with Lysol. But it was emotional coming back. One, because I think we didn’t realize how much we had missed it until we had it again. And in a reverse way, we didn’t realize how good we had things until we didn’t have it anymore. And I think that really hit home for a lot of people.”
And that was the origin story of the Newport Theater Camp. Says Joe, “We were really feeling that we were disconnected from our community. We had the time and the space to do something, but what that something was, we weren’t sure. And then we thought, ‘Hey, remember three years ago? When we were talking about this camp thing? Yeah, let’s do that!’
“So we thought, let’s bring our best friends who are also performers in, and who we know are good instructors, to do a few classes just to get back in the swing of things. It was as much for the participants as it was for us because we needed to feel connected again.”
But even then, la Feva and Joe knew that they didn’t want it to be just burlesque—so they added clowning first. And then belly dancing. And it grew from there. Today, the Newport Theater Camp offers year-round, eight-week courses and workshops on a variety of fringe disciplines such as sketch comedy, clowning, pole dance, and burlesque.
“The response has been overwhelming—we have sold out almost every class,” Joe notes. “Beyond just the business success, the responses that we had have been like, ‘Thank you SO MUCH for doing this.’”
Once people started taking basic and then intermediate classes, there was a demand for a stage performance series too. “We had a lot of people asking if we were even doing a solo act development series and we were like, ‘Oh, we have some time in between the winter and the spring sessions, so let’s do it,’” la Feva explains.
“So we have two solo act classes running concurrently now. Eva has one group, and I have another, and our showcase will be on February 5,” Joe says.
The pair continue to foster community in the fringe arts oeuvre. When they don’t offer something, they refer to other instructors and schools. Joe says, “We are all leaning into that collaboration and support.
“One silver lining from the pandemic is that it did level the playing field, like by having no playing field. I think because it was so long, people came back with a ‘live together or die alone’ attitude, like, if we can’t live together, we’re all gonna die alone. So everyone came back with this truly collaborative spirit of being like, ‘Let’s make this happen!’”