Monday, September 5, 2016

So Long, And Thanks For All The Freaks - Part Two


Graphic from the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Facebook page.

Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s The Last Abbie Fest took place a few weeks ago. After nearly three decades, this tough-as-nails, critically acclaimed storefront venue and Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins, its annual freewheeling celebration of the Woodstock spirit, are gone forever. Mary-Archie lost its home base at Sheridan Road and Broadway this past spring when the building was demolished to make room for new construction. Rather than hunt for another location, Artistic Director Rich Cotovsky and his staff decided to call it quits. Here’s a fond look back at 28 years of Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins.

One of the many Abbie Fest traditions was the Opening Ceremony. Audience members would stamp their feet, whistle, and cheer while waiting for Cotovsky’s appearance as Abbie Hoffman on a stage featuring only a mic stand draped with an American flag. This year’s crowd was particularly stoked, and when Cotovsky/Hoffman arrived, he delivered his usual fiery call to action.

“The original concept was to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Woodstock in terms of spirit and philosophy,” Cotovsky explained in an interview he did with me for the Streetwise newspaper in August 1993. “The second year was even better better. If you’ve done it twice and it comes off well, you kind of have a tradition on your hands. This is one location, 28 groups, over one weekend. That’s probably the highest risk in town.”

Back in late spring 1989, I answered an ad in The Reader from a theatre company seeking acts to take part in a new festival that would honor the 20th anniversary of Woodstock. A few nights later, I met with Cotovsky at Mary-Arrchie Theatre. He came across as quirky in a hippie kind of way, and I had no idea he was already establishing a reputation on the local theatre scene for cutting-edge performances. I was convinced his event would be a good vehicle for a comedy group I had recently formed with Frank Carr, Dave Drazin, and Lake Sirmon, called Famous In The Future. Our performance was hopelessly amateurish, but when we approached Cotovsky a year later about performing in the second Abbie Fest, he welcomed us back.

Famous In The Future would improve with time, and go on to become the only company, other than Mary-Arrchie itself, to participate in every Abbie Fest. I performed at 20 of them before leaving Famous In The Future. Carr was the only performer, along with Cotovsky, who appeared at every Abbie Fest.

“I walked into [Mary-Arrchie performance space] Angel Island in 1989 not knowing what to expect.” Carr recalled in a recent email. “It was only our third show and our first without our leader and creator, Lake. We did a show you would expect from a new group still trying to figure it all out. Our costumes were few and the applause between sketches polite, if there was any. The crowd was not enthusiastic or anywhere near substantial.”

This year’s Famous In The Future revue—a greatest hits package of songs and skits—was a different story.

“Twenty-seven years later and we had come a long way,” Carr continued. “There had to be 100 people seated, or standing if there was no seat available. The writing and acting were a huge improvement from the first year. So was the response. We had a name at The Fest and people started to put us on their list of shows to see. We’ve been getting “Woos!” for years now, but this was the last time.”

Famous In The Future was a prime example of how Cotovsky achieved his vision of bringing the Chicago theatre community closer together. Several friendships emerged from the camaraderie we felt from performing at The Abbie.

“I can’t pay these groups but I can give them an opportunity to hang out and support each other,” Cotovsky explained in that 1993 Streetwise article. He was talking about the Artist Pass all performers were given so they could watch each other’s shows. “It seems to take something away to make the artists pay. They’re what makes the event, it’s for them.”

One of the many groups that played Abbie Fest several times was Black Forest. Led by Carla Hayden and James Moeller, the theatre group’s shows were consistently provocative and usually funny.

“I was flooded with love and gratitude for having been able to take part in such a unique adventure,” Hayden said in an email. “I am humbled and honored! I feel so lucky to have converged at this place in time with so many wonderful, crazy, creative beings. What a fantastic release of energy into the universe! What an unforgettable time we've all had together! It is all for LOVE!”

“The Abbie Fest - a strange kick, a fever dream,” Moeller reflected. “An overstuffed, cavalcade of human experience. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly all presented together as if everything is absolutely equal and important. And then, on to the next act. A little microcosm of the macrocosm. Richard Cotovsky inspired so many actors, writers, directors over the years. 28 editions of 72 hours of madness. Wow. What a wild ride. Loved everything minute of it. Even those few minutes I didn't love!”

I had never been in front of an audience until that August night in 1989 at the first Abbie Fest. My stage presence was awful and the bit I performed was met with a smattering of polite applause. But as Carr stated, our writing and acting improved over the years. One of the biggest kicks I had at The Abbie was creating short plays for Famous In The Future to do in addition to our usual comedy skit revues. Carr and Desiree Burcum, another FIF cast member, also wrote short plays that we performed.

Another Abbie Fest tradition was the Closing Ceremony, in which Cotovsky, as Hoffman, rallies the troops one last time before being carried back to his grave.

“There was a lot of crying and even more hugging when The Fest was over,” Carr said about this year’s Closing Ceremony. “There was also a lot of smiles and dancing. It was both a funeral and a party. I’ve made dear friends in these years, many friendships were made between the creative people getting together to perform, watch shows, or just hang out. There was a lot of sadness, but Rich’s closing speech inspired us all to keep creating and carry on the spirit of Abbie Fest. Nobody left untouched by that spirit.”

Here’s a song parody I came up with to honor Mary-Arrchie Theatre. It’s set to the tune of “Blue Jay Way” by The Beatles, and came to me the night I saw its production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo—the final show before the demolition. A few days before that, the city of Chicago placed an official Rich Cotovsky Way street sign at the corner of Broadway and Sheridan Road. Incidentally, the name Fleischmann regarding The Glass Menagerie refers to Hans Fleischmann, a Mary-Arrchie group member whose inspiring take on the Tennessee Williams classic was a huge commercial and critical success.

Rich Cotovsky Way (To The Tune Of Blue Jay Way)

I’ve just gone to see a play

And it blew my mind away

Last production, so they said

From the troupe Cotovsky led

Freaks all belong

freaks, know you’ll always all belong (Always belong)

‘Cause the fire burns so deep

Now they’ve lost their lease I know

And the building had to go

All the plays it brought to us

Now just broken bricks and dust

Freaks all belong

freaks, know you’ll always all belong (Always belong)

‘Cause the fire burns so deep

David Mamet in your face

Tracy Letts has rocked this place

And the whole world came to see

Fleischmann’s Glass Menagerie

Freaks all belong

freaks, know you’ll always all belong (Always belong)

‘Cause the fire burns so deep

Now they’ve put this thing to rest

With the final Abbie Fest

But the dream is here to stay

Out on Rich Cotovsky Way

Freaks all belong

freaks, know you’ll always all belong (Always belong)

‘Cause the fire burns so deep

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