The intimate, multi-level iO Chicago theater at 1501 N. Kingsbury St. is surprisingly buzzing on a Monday night. In the Chris Farley Cabaret, a well-lit room on the second floor of the building, the all-female improv and storytelling show “Having it All” is about to begin.
A cool young crowd of about 30 people shuffle in, grabbing drinks, food, and sharing laughter while a playlist featuring strong female artists such as Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez accents the atmosphere.
At 8 p.m. on the dot an incredible light show begins as a group of ten improvisers grace the stage. Rebeccah Singer, comedian, teaching artist and creator of “Having it All” makes a grand entrance through the thick red curtains with her horn-rimmed glasses, big bold smile and flowy skirt. The St. Louis native’s energy and charisma is emphatic and engaging as she encourages the audience to give “laps and claps” to the ladies on stage.
She is a natural onstage, due largely to her heavy theater and comedy background.
“I moved here in 2014 and I started taking classes at iO Chicago two months later,” Singer told The DePaulia. “I started (at iO Chicago), and each program in Chicago takes about a year and a half so I finished this program, then I went through the conservatory at Second City, then I finished the program at CIC Theater.”
Singer is currently a Teaching Artist at Lookingglass Theatre Company and performs at iO Chicago and The Playground Theater. She started “Having it All” in May 2016.
“I submitted the show three or four months before (May 2016) but it took that long to get the ball rolling and make it happen,” Singer said. “It originally was a different format, it was back-to-back storytellers and then a 30 minute improv set. But since it was suggested to me that I change it, I tried it and it’s actually a lot better.”
The changed format is the one Singer explains on stage, which consists of four 5-8 minute stories by female storytellers with improv scenes in between each story.
The audience giggles and claps when Singer announces the night’s topic is men.
The first storyteller is Virginia Muller, who sports a “Gender is a Dragon” shirt and magnetic movements along with her riveting story. Muller is no novice to the “Having it All” stage, and thoroughly enjoys working with Singer.
“I’ve known Rebeccah through the comedy community for a little over a year,” Muller said. “Basically we met through iO Theater, and through mutual friends here. I’ve seen some of her shows, and she’s seen some of mine. She asked me to perform in one of the original ‘Having It All’ shows and I basically insisted on continuing to participate. So for tonight’s one with the men theme, I reached out to her and told her that I had a lot to talk about on that topic.”
She certainly did have a lot to say on the topic of men, with her story perfectly encompassing her experiences with her brother, father, stepfather, ex-boyfriends, ex-fiance and the power of a #slaycation.
“I really liked this performance because I don’t do a lot of storytelling personally, so this was a really cool experience for me,” Muller said. “I normally improvise so this is my first time storytelling. This one was really cool because I got to share more than I usually do than when I improvise. I think this one was my favorite.”
Muller’s piece was an extraordinary mix of seriousness and comedy with her completely true and honest stories. The audience was receptive to the balance and hung onto every word. The female cast of improvisers behind her were also hearing the story for the first time, and gasped and clapped along with the audience before diving into a hysterical series of improv sketches.
Muller says it is amazing to work with an all-female cast, and that Singer has done a great job in identifying themes that women have a lot to say about.
“I feel like women have a really cool and unique story to share, and this stage brings it out. The cool thing about ‘Having It All’ is that it’s both serious and playful, like it’s serious with the storytelling some of the time, and it’s also playful with the comedy,” Muller said. “The thing about the improv after the storytelling is that it’s never at the expense of the storyteller. It’s always honoring the storyteller and still finding comedy in the dark times, or even the more serious, dramatic stories that are being told.”
The improvisers, who are comedians Clare Austen-Smith, Courtney Crary, Olivia Nielsen, Jacqueline Felker, Elizabeth Andrews, Leila Gorstein, Audrey Schiffhauer, Lauren Summers and Shelby Plummer do a wonderful job of finding that balance between light and dark comedy. All that they know beforehand is the theme and they improvise the whole show from there.
Singer says working with this rotating group of female comedians is a gift.
“I have a list of women that I am always so stunned want to play,” Singer said. “I admire them, I think they’re so funny and smart. I email that whole list and I aim for about 10-13 performers each month. Normally I book 15 because at least two people cancel per show. But I always book the storytellers first and shape whatever the theme is going to be because I know that these women can handle whatever.”
The next storyteller is Laurel Zoff Pelton, a self-identifying queer woman donning a black dress with flowers, vibrant red lips and winged eyeliner sharper than a knife. She dives into stories about sexual harassment from Uber drivers, getting flashed on a bus, customers who intimidate waitresses and being told she looks like the type of person who would come second in a Miss Universe competition. She spoke of the “community of women” she has in her phone to help her through those tough times when she felt alone, something that Singer resonates with.
“I think that we’ve been really lucky that the women I ask to tell stories about whatever theme really resonates powerfully with them are stories that only they can tell,” Singer said. “I think that girls, and especially millennials, think that the things that we’re feeling or thinking are the first time anyone has ever thought or felt this way. So that has been one of the greatest gifts, that you learn how many people think and feel the same things that have run through your own brain.”
Julia Weiss steps onstage to tell her comedic story of falling in love at age 8 with a male statue that stayed in a room across the hall from her Art History professor father’s office at Monmouth College, as well as at age 15 of a picture of a statue of Julius Caesar that she saw in her history book at Valparaiso High School, who she compared to Pacey from “Dawson’s Creek.” She compared loving real men in her life who she also deemed “statues” when it came to matters of the heart, a brutally honest story that shaped her life. Weiss is amongst a carefully selected group of storytellers that Singer handpicks each month.
“Sometimes the storytellers reach out to me, but in general when I pick a theme I have people in mind, something I know that they can just slay at,” Singer said. “I send a big email to ask for performers for a show. For this show I had reached out to Gender Studies professors as well from the three major universities in the city. It’s mostly me asking people and I think that’s why the stories they tell are so powerful because it’s what they need to say.”
Singer does not read the stories beforehand because she often improvises along with her cast and doesn’t want to know the details. She speaks on the various ways she tries to get storytellers for each performance, and which ones have been her favorite.
“There was one show we had in February with the theme of Love and Lust, and we had a certified sex therapist tell a story,” Singer said. “That was really cool because she talked about the myths that she wishes she could tell women and girls on the street. I really love getting people from outside the comedy community who are experts, or have a different point of view for that specific theme. They just bring a flavor that really makes the show have a different dimension.”
In terms of creating different dimensions of the show, Singer did not shy away when asked how she could make the show more intersectional, after stating that “unfortunately it was a pretty pale stage tonight.”
“I try to make the shows more intersectional because I handpick all of the storytellers. I never send out an email that says ‘Who wants to tell a story?’ and then fill it up from there. It is always a challenge to widen the group of women that I’m asking, to choose themes that bring in more women, and to bring in more women to play. Every month I am looking to find and bring in more people. It is a problem across the whole improv community that we all need to do better about,” Singer said.
Singer has never been afraid to make adjustments to the show when need be, from changing the format, to moving from a Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. time slot when “nobody could ever come,” to the current time slot of Mondays at 8 p.m. While navigating comedy, feminism, and the female experience at times, the improv veered into questionable territory, but overall the show seems to strive to encompass a plethora of real experiences in cohesive, comedic and charismatic ways.
“I think that because it is such a strong group of women, and it is a show purposely of all women, we explore topics that touch on our female experience closely,” Singer said. “We become a ‘ladies show.’ I don’t want us to become a niche, specialty show, instead of a killer improv show that just happens to be all women talking about really important things that need to be said. I think that is something that I need to keep my eye on. A guy that came to see this show said to me, ‘I think that all men need to see this show.’ I think that there are some people who are just not interested in seeing a ‘women’s show,’ which perpetuates the truth not getting out. So I think if there was anything that I would like to get out, it is that women’s rights are human rights, and the things we’re saying are important. Everyone should be interested in the things these women are saying.”
Being able to talk about the female experience and to portray important things with just a group of women is crucial in Singer’s eyes.
“It is so refreshing. It’s like the thing that you don’t even notice until it’s different. I think that there are so many great men in the comedy community, but until you play with a group of really powerful, opinionated, smart women you just realize that there is just this feeling of positivity and support that we are all just really excited to be together. That has been one of the most rewarding things, we get together and the power we have in the room could power this whole building.”
That power is evident in the final story of the night, Singer herself. She holds the audience’s attention with a carefully told tale of double standards between men and women at a Jewish summer camp she attended as a child and helped lead once she turned 18. Though the stories of an all-Jewish rendition of Peter Pan at the summer camp brought smiles and laughter to the crowd, a hush fell over as Singer explored the deeper societal divides of gender norms.
“I experience all heightened emotions through tears so bare with me,” Singer said as she wipes her eyes.
Her voice is strong and steady as she bares her soul, explaining that it takes “feeling pretty” for women to feel like their words are worthy. After shuddering at the phrase “boys will be boys” and dissecting the problematic nature of the passivity of the phrase, Singer brightens up once more to look towards a hopeful future.
“I want the phrase ‘girls will be girls’ to be the norm,” Singer said. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the whole world to raise a girl.”