"I stepped on a mini-cactus in Montana. I was wearing my Keds, it was 1989, and we were all wearing Keds. Let's be real: mine were the generic brand from Venture, and that needle went right through my shoe. Hormones were raging through our preteen bodies, and New Kids on the Block fueled every moment of our trip."
Writer/performer Amy Sumpter was setting the scene for a Girl Scout camping trip two decades past. The story, told at Printers Row Lit Fest in June, was vivid in its detail, burbling with the kind of fidgety energy of a dozen squealing girls packed into a van, high on Bottle Caps candy and the ardent warble of boy bands. Given this light comic touch, when the narrative later takes a menacing turn (no spoilers), the jolt is even more bone-rattling to the listener.
Sumpter is a founding member of The Kates, a seven-year-old collective of female comedians and storytellers. She cuts an imposing figure: She's one of those outsize personalities (think of a dark-eyed Melissa McCarthy) who puts the "live" in live lit. As she stands at a podium reading off a page, she creates a fully embodied and riveting performance. Through deft turn of phrase, an expressive face and laser-eyed connection with her audience, Sumpter creates the kind of crackling alchemy that renders a live lit show distinct from its dreary cousin, the author reading.
The Kates, whose other co-founders are Kelsie Huff and Jennifer Ann Coffeen, offer a regular showcase at Lincoln Square's Book Cellar that's equal parts stand-up comedy, variety show and reading series.
At a recent show, the lineup was hosted by the daffy and sweetly outlandish Alisa Rosenthal, who provided a dizzy vaudevillian-with-a-ukulele counterpoint to the more biting comedians on the bill (Beth Schmidt, who deadpans: "'What are you doing this weekend?' 'Having night terrors.'") This variety of tone instills a game, inclusive vibe to the show, for both performers and audience; there's the sense that anybody might swing by to do bits, so stay loose, everybody.
Every Kates performer is female, and all Kates performances are comedic, but that's as far as the house style goes. The collective has an abiding interest in exploring the expressive potential of live lit and in providing a recurring shot in the arm to Chicago's growing community of women performers. The Kates is intended to be as much a training ground as it is a proving ground.
The Kates performers and host are women, but this is not an organization that traffics in identity politics. There's no gender-schooling or finger-wagging here. Huff jokes that the show being all-female was by default, not by design: "Our first show, we booked a dude. He didn't show. We were like: 'It's all ladies, from now on.'"
Ian Belknap is a writer and performer from Chicago. He is founder and host of WRITE CLUB, a philanthropic reading series in five North American cities.
The Kates host regular shows at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square and other performances. Visit thekates.org for more information.