Ken Gasch and Chris McCray, co-director and artistic director (respectively) of The Vertical Side Show both remember their first Poonie’s Cabaret. Experienced separately, shortly after moving to Chicago (for Gasch, it was his first week here), Poonie’s Cabaret provided a warm welcome to two artists on the verge of establishing themselves in the Chicago dance community—and a look into the fresh voices of Chicago’s queer artists.
Now, over a decade since those memorable shows and three years since the last Poonie’s Cabaret, Gasch (aka Bazuka Joe) and McCray (aka Ray Gunn) co-curate the “The Return of Poonie’s Cabaret,” reviving the platform for low-risk, innovative art and reopening the Duncan Erley “Coming Out of the Closet” Fund supporting Chicago’s queer and emerging artist community. The show returns to Links Hall June 24 at 7pm, and proceeds go to the “Coming Out of the Closet” fund.
It was in sharing their first experiences at Poonie’s with Roell Schmidt, director of Links Hall, that led to Schmidt suggesting Gasch and McCray take on the task of “resurrecting” the cabaret. Keeping those memories close to heart when curating “The Return of Poonie’s Cabaret,” Gasch and McCray are thoughtfully curating a show that pushes the boundaries of queer art while also staying rooted to the original performances.
“Our mission is definitely to stay as true to what the spirit of the show is and also bring in our own individual take on it—and take it to the next place,” said McCray.
With expanding notions of what it means to be queer and how those identities affect artmaking, Gasch and McCray note how they intend to include innovative art that reflects the range of “completely different experiences” that different queer artists are having.
“We definitely want to pay homage to the roots and the history of [Poonie’s], but the idea of queer and innovative art has changed so much even over the three years since the last rendition of it. It’s definitely been on our mind to keep it as updated as possible,” said Gasch.
Audience members will see a range of work spanning burlesque, drag, performance art, dance, spoken word and puppeteering.
“What people can expect is each of the performers taking very traditional art forms and blowing them out of the water,” McCray said. “So there’s drag that isn’t like any drag that’s out there. The burlesque that will be seen is weird and wonderful.”
But Gasch and McCray reiterate that “The Return of Poonie’s Cabaret” is just as much about featuring up-and-coming art as it is about preserving the classic Poonie’s environment. In an attempt to keep the voices of past Poonie’s Cabarets integrated into the reboot, old curators and performers will make appearances, including Jyl Fehrenkamp, Tiff Beatty, Nicole Lynn Foxx, Carole McCurdy, Bazuka Joe and Ray Gunn.
As part of this historic aspect of the performance, “The Return of Poonie’s” also brings the restoration of the Duncan Erley “Coming Out of the Closet” Fund. This fund is intended for artists whose work “explores the realms of healing, gay activism and spiritual and sexual transformation,” according to the Links Hall website, and it has been dormant the past few years.
Through an upcoming series of Poonie’s Cabarets happening quarterly or trimesterly, McCray and Gasch intend to raise consistent revenue for the fund. Eventually, through Links Hall, they plan to establish a regular application process to give Duncan Erley grants to queer and emerging artists who create work within the fund’s mission.
And in the midst of pride month, Gasch and McCray note how there’s no better time to jumpstart such a multifaceted project.
“With Poonie’s originally created as sort of a safe space for queer and inventive artists,” Gasch said, “pride month was a good opportunity to really blow that idea out of the water.”
Hoping to pass on the experiences they both had at their first Poonie’s with others, McCray and Gasch invite audiences out to see a fun show with an important mission.
“Particularly now, politically and socially, there’s so much going on that it’s really important to keep events like this going, and it’s important that other artists come see it because it is intended to be a low-risk, intimate event. That allows artists to take risks within their work, and you don’t get that all the time.” Gasch said. “And there’s so much negativity going on in the world, we need a good two-hour release on a Monday night—an escape.”
“The Return of Poonie’s Cabaret” comes to Links Hall Monday, June 24 at 7:00pm. Tickets range $5-$40, available by clicking the event page below.