Interview with Owners Chris O. Biddle & Jenn A. Kincaidadmin

In the spring of 2014, as the initial fundraising campaign for Uptown Underground had just been launched, David Zak of Chicago Stage Standard interviewed founders Jenn A. Kincaid and Chris O. Biddle about their vision for the new space.

Kiss Kiss Cabaret to open great new space in Uptown this fall!

by David Zak, February 13, 2014

Those looking to rent spaces for cabaret or theater performances know how limited performance space is in Chicago. Several new spaces have been announced, then fallen through. And several existing spaces have been converted away from theatrical use. So I was thrilled to read about the new space in Uptown that will be home to the Kiss Kiss Cabaret which is under construction and will open this fall.

I sent some questions to Chris Biddle and Jenn Kincaid, producers, about their company, and the space!

DZ: How did the group get started? Was their burlesque training? How did you get together?

Chris: The Kiss Kiss Cabaret was developed as an extension of a Halloween-themed burlesque show that we produced in 2009. That show was called “Peek-A-Boo” and featured some of our current Kiss Kiss cast members. We decided that we enjoyed working on that show so much, that we probably should produce a weekly burlesque show of our own. We started prep for what would eventually become The Kiss Kiss Cabaret in the fall of 2010 and opened the show in February, 2011.

I was a member of the Belmont Burlesque Revue (BBR) from 2004 – 2010. In that time, I performed in their monthly shows and assisted in the production of the show. That was an excellent training ground for the work that we do at Kiss Kiss. The DNA from the Belmont Burlesque Revue is definitely in Kiss Kiss. 

Jenn: My intro to burlesque was through Chris. My background is in theater management and the two of us worked together at Victory Gardens Theater while he was playing with the BBR. He invited me to a show and I was hooked. Since we shared an office, we spent a lot of time talking about burlesque and what a show we produced might look like. When I had an empty performance slot to fill at the Greenhouse Theater Center, he was the first person I went to, and our partnership formed from there with “Peek-A-Boo”.

DZ:I know audiences are confused by what ‘burlesque’ means these days. How do you define that? How are you different from the burlesque parodies at Gorilla Tango for example?

Chris: Good question! I think most audiences are not all that familiar with burlesque. They come in with wildly varying expectations, like “is this a strip-club?” and “will people be having sex onstage?” and “will this be like the movie Burlesque with Christina Aguilera?” I like to think that we win them over and make them fans. 

The modern neo-burlesque movement seems to be made up of a few different styles. There are troupes which perform nerdlesque, that is, burlesque based upon pop culture properties or nerd culture – is very popular, right now. Other troupes perform niche shows that cater to a specific audience, all with a modern spin. Many other troupes perform what I would call a “classical” burlesque show. Often mixing vaudeville or comedy acts with non-themed burlesque solos, produced by the artists who perform them. That’s what The Kiss Kiss Cabaret does.

Our goal is to delight and titillate our audiences for 80 minutes, every Friday night. We try to emulate the full evening of programming that you would’ve received from a classic burlesque theater in the heyday of the art form (the 1920’s and 30’s). We want the audience to walk out, feeling like they got a whole lot of show for their ticket price! We don’t leave anything on the table… or on our bodies, for that matter. 

DZ: When did you decide you wanted your own space? Did you look for spaces before you found this one?

Chris: Opening our own burlesque and cabaret theater was always the endgame for this project. If you’d interviewed me in 2010 and asked me where I wanted all of this to go, I could’ve told you then that we wanted to open our own venue, dedicated to burlesque and cabaret. A nightclub/theater that had a jazz-age design aesthetic and was customized specifically to fit the needs of a burlesque show. In fact, we brought the cast into that plan, as early as 2011. So they’ve been in on the secret for quite some time. Our original timeline had us moving into a space by New Years Eve 2013. We’re going to end up moving in half a year after that, but still pretty much on schedule!

Jenn: I knew I wanted my own theater space before I ever moved to Chicago. Having worked on the “spaces” side of theater for my entire career, it’s hard not to dream of what you would do if you had your own. I am really lucky in that I have worked on 3 different theater restoration projects already. Straight out of school I worked for The Empire Theater and Centre for the Performing Arts in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. The facility was a gorgeous old playhouse that had been turned into a bike shop, but the owner of the shop had preserved all the original crown moldings and proscenium stage. When the owner of the Empire bought the building, he restored many of the historical structures and then enhanced the original design with modern sound and lighting. Today it’s an astounding 700 seat theater that commands big name talent. It’s still hard to believe that when I started there we all had to wear hardhats every day. Then when I moved to Chicago I worked with Piccolo Theatre and the Evanston Arts Depot while they were renovating the Main St Metra station to include a theater, followed by Victory Gardens Theater and their construction at The Biograph. So now I’m really looking forward to our very own build-out in the historic Uptown Broadway Building. I feel like all this time I’ve been just waiting for this particular project to come along. I am in love with the building and the space – it really was love at first sight. It’s the perfect home for our company and the perfect place for this kind of venue in Chicago.

Chris: Yes, we viewed a few spaces before we saw the Uptown Broadway Building. For example, we toured the TCF Bank Building on Wilson Ave. 15,000 square feet of luxurious space, ready for development. Before it was a bank, it was a vaudeville theater and you can definitely get a sense of that, when you’re standing in the central space. Some lucky arts group is going to get that space and build something glorious in there. 

When I first saw the underground space at the Uptown Broadway Building, I got goosebumps. High ceilings – wide open spaces. And an exterior facade that also sets the stage for the kind of show that we produce. It felt like a match made in theater heaven. After a few discussions, we actually figured out a way to convert it into two theater spaces – a 150 seat main stage and a smaller 60 seat cabaret space. That frees us up to produce two shows at the same time in the space. Very exciting!

DZ Can you talk a little about budget? Are you for profit, or are you doing fund-raising campaigns?  

Jenn: We are operating as a for profit company, but we are definitely doing a fund-raising campaign! Every little bit helps. The funding that we’re looking to raise, however, comes with a bit of fun. The monies are specifically for elements that will determine the final “look” of the venue, and I really think people can get on board with us and help us dream about what this space can truly be.

Their indiegogo campaign launched on Feb. 01.

DZ: How did you get tied into Uptown? 

Alderman Cappelman gets all the credit for that one. When Jenn was researching locations in the city, she and James connected and we found a like-minded ally there. He’s focused on revitalizing that neighborhood and bringing the arts to the area. And he knew that the owner of the building was looking to connect with an arts group. So, he was a very good match-maker there. 

Uptown also feels “right” to us. The beautiful architecture that hearkens back to the opulence of the 1920’s. It’s all still there. The Aragon, The Uptown Theater. The Green Mill. The past is still very much alive. And that’s very attractive to a group that produces an artform that reach it’s apex around that same time. We love Uptown. And we’re thrilled to be moving up there. We genuinely hope that we can bring more some life and some energy to the neighborhood. 

Jenn: Uptown was just in my head as the place we needed to be. So I set up the appointment with Ald. Cappleman and like Chris said – we found an instant ally. His office has really helped shepherd this whole process along.

DZ And finally, how does it feel? A lot of arts group have done the search, started raising funds, promised opening nights… but it looks like you guys are rock solid. Correct?

Yes. Rock solid is a great way to put it. We’ve been planning this for some time and you can see that forethought demonstrated in a lot of what we do. For example, we’ve been slowly increasing our dancer roster in this past year, to be ready to add additional shows in the new space. We recently added four new hosts. And we’ve connected with enough technicians to smartly run the venue. We’ve also been stockpiling equipment over the last two years to be able to add lights and sound, when we get into the new space. I’m sure there will be challenges when we open, that goes without saying. But I’ve watched our production team handle challenges with grace and style. I aspire to do the same.

Jenn: Chris and I are a good team because we’re both a little crazy. Neither one of us is afraid to dream and dream big and both of us are hard, diligent workers. I think it’s a good combination. We’ve wanted this for a long time, so as far as how this feels – it’s amazing and terrifying, and exhilarating, and complicated. But basically all of that translates to : it feels damn good!

DZ Watch for the new space to open this fall! And read more about Kiss Kiss Cabaret here.