Ladyfest Midwest Chicago, as it was originally called, was more than just a four-day festival. It was a community event that raised nearly $20,000 for Chicago Women’s Health Center and Women in the Director’s Chair. The event brought together more than 4,000 people from around the world. One hundred bands, 40 visual artists, 35 spoken-word artists, 47 film and video makers, 38 performance artists, 50-plus workshop hosts, and 100 volunteers congregated in the Windy City on August 16–19, 2001.
To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of what is now called Ladyfest Midwest, the original organizers reunited to host a benefit the weekend of August 19, 2011 for Chicago Women’s Health Center, in addition to building an archive of ephemera from the 2001 festival. NTS used this occasion to sit down with a roundtable of several of the original organizers at Living Room Gallery where their archives were on view during the reunion weekend to talk about the origins of Ladydest, what they did in 2001, why they decided to organize a reunion and what the lasting effect of Ladyfest has been for them and their communities. Roundtable participants included: Stephanie Edwards, Sam Stalling, Anny Seitz, Katherine Mingle, Jennie Wood, Summer Chance, Charlotte Robinson, Lauren Cumbia, Marf Wright, and Kristen Cox.
Daniel Tucker: What kinds of groups or communities were you a part of in years leading up to Ladyfest Midwest? I want to get a sense of the sort of networks and experiences that sort of funneled into this outcome.
Charlotte Robinson: I actually had just moved to Chicago when we started organizing Ladyfest, and I had also just started working for Venus Zine, which has a lot of connections to Ladyfest, too, Amy Schroeder was the founder and the editor in chief of Venus, and she was one of the core organizers of Ladyfest. And I actually heard about it from her, she had just moved to Chicago I think about six months after I did, I moved here in 2000, so we went to our first band committee meeting in like December or January, and so for us, we had no background in any kind of artistic community or social activism here because we were pretty new to Chicago. So that kind of laid the foundation for my whole life in Chicago, and I don’t want to speak for Amy, but probably, just to a certain extent, a lot of her social networks in Chicago came from Ladyfest.
Jennie Wood: I moved here to go to the theatre school at DePaul University, so prior to Ladyfest, really it was the theatre community that I was involved with, both within school and just in Chicago at large, and then the music community, playing open mics solo and then with various band members. And the only person in this room I knew prior to Ladyfest, prior to getting involved, which I got involved around January of that year, so pretty early on, the only person I knew in this room before that was Summer. Everyone else I met through Ladyfest, and it just formed some beautiful friendships out of it.
Katherine Mingle: I was just thinking about the same thing too, earlier, about how I actually knew of Summer, because I worked at Schuba’s, which was one of the venues that was used in Ladyfest, but Summer used to play at Schuba’s. I heard her name and met her, and was like, “oh, yeah…” But I didn’t know anybody in this room prior to that. I had moved to Chicago in ’99, and I worked at various restaurants and bars and I think unfortunately for me I was not really feeling connected to Chicago, I was part of the bar communities, and I worked at a music venue but it was really a lot of surface relationships, things like that, I didn’t really feel a deep connection to Chicago, at that point.
Stephanie Edwards: I didn’t know anyone in, any of the organizers prior to working at Ladyfest. It was literally just a flier that a friend had found in a coffeeshop and showed it to me. I hadn’t been formally involved in any type of organizing or fundraising, because I think it’s hard when you’re, unless you’re part of an existing community, to kind of insert yourself into that community. And by coming together, there was almost an immediate, I found an immediate sense of camaraderie. And even though we’re all very different, we kind of have this singular thing that we were striving for, and I think that kind of was the driving thing that got us to the end. And obviously ten years later it’s still the thing that has, you know, and I’ve stayed in contact, one way or another, with most of the core organizers, certainly keeping up with what they’re doing.
Kristen Cox: I was doing radio in college, and had fallen in love with Kill Rock Stars, and all the Olympia scene in doing college radio, so that was sort of my community, was the independent music scene in Bloomington Indiana, and I booked local bands at a club there. I moved to Chicago in ’97, like three years before Ladyfest happened, but I was always at the Empty Bottle. And I was coming out, so this interest, affinity to work with a lot of women, in producing a big event, featuring women, was maybe something really different. Because independent music had a lot of guys, and I was really attracted to the riot grrrl, so there was really a buzz, an excitement for it. But I moved to Chicago to do cultural work, so I was really interested in marrying my music performance and wanting to work in arts administration.
Daniel Tucker: I have another question that just kind of leads off that, how did you each become involved in Ladyfest Midwest? You know, did you find a flyer, did you have a friend who was involved or did you go to a meeting? And then kind of when you’re answering that maybe say a little about what roles you ended up ultimately playing in the festival.
Jennie Wood: I was looking, transitioning from the theatre community to the music community, because I wanted to start a band, and was in the process of looking for a bass player, and just wanted to get out there and become more a part of that community. And my friend Elon Cameron said they’re planning a Ladyfest, this was in late 2000, and she said, it’s going to be in August 2001. And I was very interested in it, but I had some hesitations, to be honest. One of them was, I was worried that it would be anti-male, or anti-trans like some other festivals, and when I found out that it wasn’t, it just became something that was dear to my heart, because I love how it celebrates women without having to just discriminate against anything else. So it just became something that I fell in love with. And then I went to, I learned about the committees and I emailed Lauren and I said I was interested in being in the band committee, and I went to the meeting. And then, got heavily involved in the band committee, and then found out from Marf that they needed help with fundraising, so I got involved in the fundraising committee as well.
Anny Seitz: I originally went to a band committee meeting, and then I wound up working, my ass off [laughter], on the visual arts committee, mostly. So, I still went to band committee meetings, which was insane, I should have just given that up, but I didn’t. And I worked o n the visual arts committee instead, and we put on two awesome art shows, which there is no documentation for, because we forgot to do that. [laughter] Yeah, it was great. I was really involved in bands in Chicago and before when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and two friends of mine, Shelly and Becky, who were also organizers, said, “Hey, they’re doing a Ladyfest, why don’t you come to a band committee meeting?” and I had known them in Madison and then we kind of reconnected in Chicago, I was like “sure, I’m down with that, that’s cool” and I was in art school at the time, and it turned out they needed somebody to work on art stuff, so I was like “well, I can do that. I can do anything, sure.” [laughter] “I can do it all. I can work 80 hours a week. That’s fine.” Anybody here work less than 80 hours a week that year?
Marf Wright: I went to the original Ladyfest in Olympia in 2000 and got really fired up from that experience, and I also didn’t really feel a part of anything here in Chicago, I’d been living here for about five years and just felt disconnected, and not feeling like I had any community. And, I go across the country to this festival and lo and behold, I feel part of something, this very powerful, and, it was just an awesome three days, incredible. And the organizers there were very clear that this was a one-time thing, and they said, “go do it in your own town. We’re not doing this again, this is it.” And I thought, well, maybe we should try doing this in Chicago, cause we don’t really have anything like this. So, I came back and had this crazy idea and got a flier together, and started going to shows and talking to people, that’s how I met Lauren Cumbia. She’s very friendly, [laughter], and she was the first person who was really enthusiastic and said, “yeah, we can do this, we can do this.” And I said “well, it might take a while to get it going, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it next year, but maybe it’ll take two years” and she said, “nah, nah, we can do it, we can do it!” It just kind of took off from there, getting the word out, meeting other people, yeah.
Katherine Mingle: I saw Marf’s flier and, I think you were sitting over there when I saw the flier again this weekend I instantly had this rush of emotional recollection of like being in a coffeeshop, I think I was in Wicker Park, and I saw it up there, and was “hey, this looks really, this sounds really cool.” And I remember going to my first meeting, it was in Marf’s place, like way way far north, in the middle of winter, and we were all cold. And I was terrified, I was so afraid to go in, and, because, again, I didn’t feel connected to Chicago, and I was going out to the bars and going to shows and things like that, but you know. People sometimes shut you out, and I definitely felt girls were, can be mean, and we all know that, ladies can be mean sometimes. And I’m the kind of person who, to this day, I’m like, “not all ladies are like that.” So I went in and I was really intimidated and instantly got fired up. And left there and immediately felt a part of something exciting, and went onto, I was working at Schuba’s at the time, so I did PR, cause that was what I was doing there, and I worked with Tammy Cresswell pretty closely.And then closer to the event I did a sewing and knitting workshop and mostly sold merch at the Congress Theater, I think I was the merch-bitch that weekend [laughter] but it’s just kind of fantastic to see that flier that Marf put up and just know that that flier changed my life.
Sam Stalling: I found out I think from Christa Holka, who is another organizer, and went to one of the first meetings in the Ukraine Village. I was hesitant, I wasn’t sure, you know, how much I want to get involved, and I ended up doing most of the graphic stuff, Blithe Riley helped me through that, she did a lot of work with that and was like “this is going to be fine.” [laughter]
Stephanie Edwards: I don’t know the exact number, but I would say probably 99% of the organizers or people who were intimately involved in like really putting the festival on, also performed at it in one way or another. Or just had a really close connection being artists in and of themselves.
Summer Chance: For me it started out by word of mouth, with Elon Cameron mentioning this thing, and I really knew nothing of what had gone on in Olympia the year prior, and didn’t actually know all that much about the riot grrrl scene or any of that. I was songwriting, primarily in the folk venues, along that vein of things and worked with Trapdoor theatre, so I’d done stuff in the theatre community as well, but those were kind of close-knit communities that were their own little bubbles and they were very male-focused in some of the ways. And the opportunity to even check in at this meeting and see what this was about and check out the possibility of it. I was totally oblivious to what I was committing myself to! [laughter] What it was going to be, and I left [my first meeting] and as we were talking about setting up the different committees, I was probably on six of them, cause they all sounded great, and I wanted to be a part of everything. And as things progressed and the demand on each and every one of us skyrocketed, I think we all kind of honed in to what we were capable of doing, and not that we didn’t all go way above and beyond that, and stretch ourselves to the max. I was, in hindsight, looking back at it, I can’t believe what we accomplished. Not only in that timeframe, but even just, that was the vision was, not something I had a real concept of, so that evolved for me through the course of organizing as well. And the community that came out of it for me was absolutely life changing.
Lauren Cumbia: I was just remembering now that I tried to go to the original Ladyfest, and I’m having this memory of sitting in my apartment in Chicago and being on the computer and seeing how much it cost to go to Olympia and being like “ohh, it’s like 300 dollars! I’m never, I’m never going to be able to save enough money to go” because I think I was probably like twenty. 300 dollars now doesn’t seem like an insurmountable thing, but then it did, and so I remember really kind of wanting to be a part of that and searching for something. Probably why I was so friendly to Marf at the Bratmobile show was because it was something that I had wanted to be a part of, before. So, yeah, I met Marf and that was sort of the beginning of meeting really these amazing people, because I had only lived in Chicago for maybe 6 or 7 months, probably, like I had just moved here and really only knew a couple people. Who later kind of became, like Blithe Riley, became part of the core. And then I think I was on the band committee and a core organizer, I don’t know what else I did.
Someone else: A lot.
Lauren Cumbia: A lot. A whole lot.
Someone else: I think you were Ladyfest, Lauren.
Daniel Tucker: What were some experiences that you brought to Ladyfest that ended up structuring how the thing worked, because it’s my understanding that you all involved yourself in this complicated messy thing and had to come up with a way to organize it… ranging from an activist type experience that gave you reference points for group process, or festivals you worked on, or even, the city itself as a place influencing what you did or did not want this to be?
Marf Wright: I think we just learned as we went along. I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing. I think a lot of us didn’t know what we were doing, or didn’t know what we were getting into, and it became larger than any of us ever imagined. So we just did it. And we were young, we had the energy to do it. And a little stupid maybe. [laughter]
Anny Seitz: I totally agree, and I think the converse of that question is true, like, I feel like Ladyfest was the thing that showed me what was possible in my life, and what kind of power was available, as a human being, a woman, a living, breathing, engaged and active mind, you know? I can go out and do whatever I want, because I had nothing, I was coming from nowhere. I knew how to play in a band, and get drunk, before that. But I didn’t have, I didn’t really have any experience working collaboratively except in a band situation. But this was the pivotal experience that, just like an amoeba, something that just kind of keeps growing and growing and growing like you just do it, you just do what needs to be done, and the process itself shows you what, what it is that needs to happen, it’s not prescriptive, it’s just that the process itself unfolds and leads you in the right direction and all of a sudden you have a huge festival happening in your hometown.
Kristen Cox: I will take the ownership of wanting multiple venues, and this idea that was written up in the Reader how we talked about it not wanting to be city-focused, and being more community and neighborhood focused, and along Humboldt Park and Milwaukee Avenue, and being able to bike or take the bus. I was really interested in developing relationships with venues, and I remember that very specifically, and thinking very visually about where and how this was going to take place and wanting to develop those kind of relationships in the work I was doing in community outreach at my job at the time. But also investigating these new relationships with people and venues and that was sort of so adventurous because Chicago’s such a big city, and you could imagine, and all these community organizations that were doing cool stuff to partner with. But I came from a small town[compared] to Chicago, so I just feel like it was just, like, “Whoa!” All of this possibility which was a little extreme, because it was multi-venued, scattered and we weren’t concentrated. That was my focus on this outreach piece, that was really what I was taking and doing, the relationships with venues and staking, externally, building these sort of relationships that could maybe continue on in community work.
Summer Chance: I was just going to say that, as far as experience we were bringing to the table, I think a lot of the time we knew just enough to be pretty dangerous, in terms of what we were trying to build in it. But I also think that collectively we had enough knowledge of production and different scales to foresee issues and structural concepts that we knew needed to be in place, and knew enough to ask for help, and to find people on boards of organizations that had the know-how and the experience to guide us in some of that. As far as creating the organization, and creating the entity that was Ladyfest Midwest, Steph [did] all of the accounting ends of things, and that was massive, and we didn’t have any of that [knowledge] in the immediate group of organizers, but I think we knew we were ambitious and we knew when to be asking the questions, and getting those structures into place. Like getting insurance for the festival, which is a little, totally off the radar and that’s just not a part of the structure that you’re working in, on the day-to-day. But I think that enough of us had just a hint of experience to know that it was possible, and then thankfully, to know when to ask the questions and seek out the people for guidance that we needed.
Marf Wright: Also, the original organizers from Olympia were really helpful and accessible and we emailed them quite a bit and talked to them, and borrowed from their structure, and they were very generous with that, and said “however we can help you, just let us know.” So we took the core and the committee structure from their structure.
Lauren Cumbia: I forgot that we borrowed from their structure, I can’t even actually remember how that structure, like, the day we decided we needed that, I couldn’t tell you, but I do remember Dara Greenwald kind of at one point, at the Association House, just sort of like blowing up and being like “This is not going to work, we have to come up with a more formal decision making structure, like a process to actually make decisions”.
Someone else: Thumbs up, thumbs down!
Lauren Cumbia: and that’s really how we did it, and it worked. Consensus.
Stephanie Edwards: When we decided we needed committees I think that at some point I said, “I really like office supplies,” [laughter] And someone was like “okay, you can be the budget person.” Which, it proved to be a 80,000 dollar festival budget, all cash, like, trying to, robbing Peter to pay Paul as it was coming in. And then I also became the liaison with the Women in the Director’s Chair, which was our 501c3 fiscal sponsor, so I think once that was really in place, it added some legitimacy to our books at least, because when we started to sell passes, it all went though them, and then it felt, it felt like a little bit of the major accounting was off of us. And actually Buy Olympia, in Olympia, Washington stepped in and agreed to handle all of our pass sales, because this was in 2001 and the internet was still very very new. Processing credit cards and that type of thing when you’re, I think we were a corporation, we became a corporation, I don’t know, somebody must have worked in a non-profit and said, we should probably be a corporation. I know that when I was dealing with the city, they had no way, when you’re talking about amusement licenses and things such as that, they had no concept of a group of volunteers doing something this large with that many, high ticket sales, and never doing it again. [laughter] They could not conceive of it. The woman was like, “but, what are you going to, when you do it next year?” and I said, “nope, there is no next year. We’re dissolving the corporation, all the money is going to our two charities, and that’s it.” It was just, it was beyond her comprehension.
Daniel Tucker: Well, kind of just continuing with that, does anyone have anything else to say, kind of about how things were structured, or how committees worked. This is sort of the stuff that people don’t usually tell but that I’m actually very interested in.
Charlotte Robinson: I was on two committees, I was on band committee and also on the workshop committee, so my experience was that those two committees worked very differently. I think it depended on what you were doing in the festival, because the band committee, it was very much a democracy, there were a lot of people involved, but I think everyone probably gave equal input, we would actually do things like have listening parties where we would get a bunch of CDs and even more often cassette tapes and sit in someone’s living room and kind of vote on who we thought we might want to actually, yeah, the thumbs up, thumbs down, who we might actually want to have play at Ladyfest. The workshop committee, because, I think because the workshops were so varied in nature, some of them were artistic in nature, some of them were more about activism, and because those were sort of individual events, in and of themselves, on that committee people worked a lot more independently because people might have been working on one workshop, or three workshops, or whatever, but that’s not something where you really want to get together as a committee and have twenty people try and decide what you’re going to do in all these different workshops. So with those it was a little more working independently and just kind of taking your concept and flying with it.
Katherine Mingle: I was just going to say I remember there being, you band committee ladies, you were like the loudest entity moving forward. I mean, I did PR and it was Tammy and me, and that was it. It was me and Tammy, Tammy and me, road trips and apartment meetings and stuff, and that was just it, and stealing every contact I could get from my own place of business, stealing as much company time as I could from my own place of business. But I think, it’s just so interesting to hear you reflect on it, Charlotte, of having seen the two different structures, because I just basically had a partner in this. You know, we would go to the larger core meetings here and there, and so I had that contact with some of the other women in that case, and then obviously as it moved forward, seeing you guys more and more, and then the bazillion benefits that we had…
Daniel Tucker: That you had leading up to it?
Katherine Mingle: Yeah, oh, yeah, the benefits, it was all about benefits, all benefits, all the time. I mean, trying to get the revenue, as Steph said, to get the ball rolling. But I think it’s interesting to have these larger group meetings with the core, and then go off on your own to these committees that are doing different things, to try and pull everything together. I came from a theatre background, in my undergraduate days, and so I think those of us who do have a theatre background too will understand this concept of different people working on their own towards a unified goal, and so to me this structure was very familiar. And I always kind of felt like, I don’t know who it was, but someone had a master plan out there, even though there really wasn’t a director, it was all consensus, but, having done that before, it seemed like, “oh, it’ll work out in the end, it’ll be alright, it’ll work ought, right?”
Kristen Cox: Couple things that leading up which I still find really interesting, was looking at our letterhead, looking at, that we did have a consensus process for the logo. I was just beginning to learn about nonprofits, and working at nonprofits and I remember Marf and I really talked a lot about this…how can we figure out who our relationships are, have them be board of advisors, and then we can get a grant. Oh, yeah, we can go and get a grant. Why would they want to give us a grant? And you know, thinking about whether we should get our own nonprofit status or get a fiscal sponsor… But you don’t usually put that kind of energy to assemble this board of advisors for a festival. So, and then finding out, that we didn’t know, that people usually don’t fund one-offs. That’s not what you do. But I also remember that being I was one of the core organizers that I could actually do my work, this work, at my work. And I remember some folks got their hands slapped, like, some of us really couldn’t. And we were young, so of course we didn’t have the power to be in these positions to take on, which was a lot of time during our week. So I remember having that luxury of working at a small nonprofit and being able to do emails all day, and that if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have been as involved.
Summer Chance: I was just going to speak to the structure and with regard to the different committees, one of the things that was continually a challenge as a group, for the core organizers, was to maintain the broad spectrum of the original vision for the festival. The band committee was always the loudest, and the benefits, while those happened in different mediums, the main revenue generator for the festival was music-based, and so there was a real onus on the band committee to be able to generate some of the initial seed funds to get things going. And it was challenging I think to come back to the full group where everybody, where so many other people’s focus was in completely different areas, that ultimately were just as important to all of us, but that at different times there was an ebb and flow in terms of like, where that, you know, the visual arts, the performance stuff, the spoken word stuff, all of that, it was really, I think, one of the ultimate challenges was to maintain some of that balance and not just, it wasn’t about it being a music festival it was about a multidisciplinary collection of women artists, and maintaining that vision was a real part of the challenge in it, I think.
Daniel Tucker: It was so diverse in all ways, geographically and aesthetically, so then can you say a little bit about what sort of values did kind of drive the curatorial decisions in this? Were they aesthetic values, political values, was it about diversity, what were some of the things that were guiding it? Like, what determined what was a Ladyfest event and what was cut?
Summer Chance: I mean, I think our vision is really broad, but I do think that our collective politics of wanting it to be all inclusive, be that inclusive of the trans community, of the men in our lives and men who were supporting our different communities and were participating in all of it, that was certainly a part of it. But also as diverse a city as Chicago is, there are a lot of divisions in it, and I think we have an acute awareness of that, maybe some of us more than others, at the time, because there were some of us who were very new to the city, but I think our political mindset was to make sure that it was inclusive, culturally and medium-wise, and on all fronts. I remember having those debates many times, at the organization, primarily at the core, we did them certainly at the band committee, you know, we want different genres of music represented, and we want to have that trickle down throughout, but some of the really core debates about it came out of the core and the commitment of the group to maintaining the diversity.
Charlotte Robinson: I’ll speak to that too, I think that we were definitely aware and trying to make an effort to be as diverse as we could, and I have to say, that was one of the things that I was a little disappointed when it was over, because the very next day after the festival ended, I was looking at some of the comments on the Dyke Diva website, and people were already the day after the festival criticizing us and saying it was all white women, and it was all middle-class, and you know, it was an effort where it was a volunteer effort, and we sort of had to work with what we had to work with. We try to go out as much as we could, I think, to try to be as inclusive of every kind of person, every kind of woman that we would find in Chicago, but there are limitations on that, because of course you have your network of people and it’s impossible to put on any kind of event that is going to please everybody, or that everybody, you can’t put on a festival that every single woman in Chicago is going to be interested in attending. So for me, I felt like those criticisms hurt because I knew that we all were trying so hard to be as diverse as possible. And in the band committee I think we were pretty liberal in terms of women who were making their own art and we weren’t really judging the content of that art, so whether they were singing in a folk genre, or whether they were a rapper or a riot grrrl or whatever, that didn’t matter so much, it was very diverse in that way, and I don’t think we really judged content in that sort of way, it was more about, where is this coming from, is this a mainly female band that, they’re writing and doing their own music, it was much more about that.
Lauren Cumbia: In this scrapbook that we have over here, there is this manifesto, which is sort of like these guiding principles that apparently we came up with at some point. Dare I call it a ladyfesto.
Others: That is terrible, that is so funny.
Lauren Cumbia: And I think looking at those it was very, it brought me back to where we all were in the planning process, and I think that did ground us, and the decisions we made, in trying to create this festival.
Anny Seitz: Aesthetics played a huge part of it, because you have to be critical at some point, you can’t let everybody just play, unfortunately, so you get one tape that sounds really good and you get one tape that you’re like, “please practice for three years and call us.” Not when we do this again, but call Schuba’s. So you have to be able to kind of cut people out too, which I think hurt a lot, sometimes, and sometimes it was just funny, but I think that similarly on the art committee as well as the band committee, it’s a bummer, you know, when you see someone’s soul plastered all over a canvas and you’re like “we can’t hang that this year,” you know, or when you hear somebody’s earnest, soulful, heartwrenching lyrics and you’re like, “[cringing noises] ouch.” You have to be critical, and I think
Someone Else: It’s good for them to learn it now.
Anny Seitz: It’s good for them to learn now, and also I think it’s good for us to learn how to be that kind of, I don’t know, that kind of judge. It was hard, though. It was really hard.
Kristen Cox: There were only 2 of us on the performance committee, and partly because I felt like, as a core organizer, I felt like this is what I wanted to do, and so if I was putting all this time into it, I took the liberty to be a curator, and create something in performance I was really excited about having. And I think to the Ladyfest group people trusted me and Anya to do that work, so I think the committee structures did really, they functioned really differently, and there were times I was really jealous of being in the band committee, because there was this really democratic, and really close, you’re almost curating, you’ve got a choice, people were submitting. But you know, I couldn’t do everything, and I really wanted to do performance. But, so actually I look back and I’m so proud to have been able to do some of the work, I’m so proud of, and, like, cry, because it was so moving for me, I think that was a really lovely, amazing piece to be able to do that, as young as I was.
Daniel Tucker: So now, I’m looking for, sort of, more open-ended reflections, I was wondering about what actually happened, what experiences at Ladyfest stand out to you as the most challenging or the most transformative?
Charlotte Robinson: I won’t name names, but we did have some cranky people to deal with. And we still laugh about it ten years later.
Stephanie Edwards: I think that the one thing I realize is that nobody who, the people who performed at it, I don’t think that they realized how clueless we all were. I think that was the thing, they just, they expected us to be running a tight ship. It was a four day festival, we had all these venues all over the city, I don’t think they realized maybe how by the seat of our pants we were doing it, so, we had to put up a good façade.
Jennie Wood: Stepf and I performed together in our band, and I just remember our schedule that Thursday, we got up to rehearse before, we were up rehearsing at 5am, 4am, and my night ended after running around and getting ready for a show at the Subterranean, counting money with Lauren at 4am, you know, that following morning. It was just crazy, 24 hours.
Stephanie Edwards: it was because we had to get the money in the bank so that we could write the checks for the whole next round of bands. [laughter]
Kristen Cox: What was our contingency plan? Did we have a contingency plan? We didn’t make our budget?
Stephanie Edwards: No, we’d sold enough passes that we, and our venues were paid for, it was just a matter of the….no, we didn’t have a contingency plan.
Marf Wright: We didn’t, we didn’t, we went into this, we didn’t know. We didn’t know if people were going to show up, we had sold a bunch of the festival passes, but I think what really put us over were the single tickets to events, and so we really didn’t know going in to it if we were going to make our budget. I mean, the benefits were great, they made some money, but I think more importantly they raised awareness, and they built excitement for what was coming, for what was happening. And we got a lot of press around those, and you know, word of mouth, buzz. And, but we really, we really had no idea. And I remember the first day, going out and seeing the line of people waiting to get into the Congress Theater, and I was like, “Wow! People are showing up, people are coming!” [laughter] People are showing up for this, I think it’s going to be okay. And it was more than okay.
Stephanie Edwards: I think, too, we would have been okay, but we would not been able to have anything to donate to Women in the Director’s Chair and Chicago Women’s Health Center, and that would have been the ultimate, that would have been the failure.
Katherine Mingle: But who else can remember that the physical feeling of… cause I remember going out and seeing that line too, being at the Congress at I don’t even know, the crack of dawn, and we’re setting up, and then when the people started lining up, that physical feeling of excitement, and to know, and then for me, to be able to go out and see Le Tigre on stage. Like, “wow. We actually did it.” And to see all of those girls and boys out in the crowd, screaming and loving every minute of it. And then you know running across town to get to Schuba’s, or running across town to get to, I mean, I think all of us remember running across town at some point. I loved in the scrapbook with everyone’s schedule and there’s a really funny part where it’s just a little clip and it was like, “Joanna Brown: all Congress, all the time.” [laughter]
Charlotte Robinson: To add to that, I distinctly remember that too, because I was checking people in on the first morning, and I was so happy that there was actually a line of people and people coming in, and then to top it off who came into my line but James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins, and I thought, this kicks ass. Not only do we have a lot of people here, but we actually have, you know, famous people, famous Chicago musicians who’re coming to this thing. And Steve Albini came every single day wearing the same outfit [laughter] so it was, it was cool. That just added to the legitimacy of it, that people who had done really well in their fields respected this and were interested in coming to this and thought it was a worthwhile event.
Summer Chance: I had a moment that was, this wall of “oh my god, I can’t believe we’re actually here, and have accomplished this much.” It was really early on Thursday morning at the Congress, and, I remember running, I had done some sound checking stuff with Joanna and I was running to get something through at the back of the theatre, and Amy Ray came walking in with a guitar. And I was the person that she turned to and was like “hey, I’m here for…” and I was like “oh my god! It’s Amy Ray!” uh, “Oh, hey, what’s going on?” [laughter] and I remember there was a woman that she was with, and the woman, they were obviously awestruck at what was going on, between, I walked her out to get lanyards and was talking merch with them and kind of getting them set up, and I remember the woman that she was with actually saying, “you really need to talk with these people because we need to do one of these in Atlanta.” There was this, there was from them, this sense of “these girls really know what they’re doing!”
Kristen Cox: I mean, in the program that was, very organized. We did have an organized festival. I remember that people were really impressed. Really impressed. And whether we know what we were, but there was some organized chaos to it all. Not that things didn’t go wrong, but, generally people, it worked.
Jennie Wood: I want to speak to that. It was so easy in that weekend chaos and drama, things that just came up, that there was just no way that we could have foresaw that that was coming, but it was easy to lose sight of how organized it was, and how proud, cause we, we were organizing, we were performing, we were wearing so many hats we didn’t get to see it from the other side and participate. Most of us didn’t even see a workshop. I missed so much of the Congress, and I was so torn, and I was running around the Empty Bottle at the Friday night show, and I ran downstairs to pay Shannon Wright, and she just played this phenomenal set, and I ran downstairs and she’s like “sit down for a minute, can you just sit down?” and she just said what a remarkable thing this was and wanted me to take a moment and just take that in, because I, we didn’t have time for that. So I just love that I just had that moment to kind of sit back and be like, “wow, yeah, we’re doing it.”
Stephanie Edwards: We had people were responsible for the different venues, we had so many venues and events happening simultaneously, and we did have a system set up where somebody would be in charge of the venue, they’d have to take care of, pay the band, or make, get the passes collected, or whatever, but it also required that all of us as a whole count on the volunteer, our fellow volunteer that’s at that, to show up and be responsible and accountable at that site. When there really was just a sense of trust and all of the sum of the parts, so, I think that’s kind of cool. Cause volunteers can be flaky. [laughter]
Daniel Tucker: Since you were the fifth Ladyfest that occurred, in the world, fourth or fifth, and yours was quite a lot bigger, it was like twice bigger than the original one in Olympia [laughter] …which I guess there’s a certain logic to that, when something evolves, and Chicago’s bigger than Olympia… as you’ve sort of tracked or heard things about this broader, ongoing sort of social movement, like, have you had thoughts about what differentiated this one, either organizationally, politically, aesthetically, whatever?
Katherine Mingle: I was just going to say, I remember that being a big source of conversation throughout the organization, because this was the year after Olympia, and there were the few other ones, but ours was, and we knew ours was going to be the biggest. I remember recently when I was trying to connect to the Ladyfest Midwest facebook page, and going in, so I had to search “Ladyfest” and there are currently ten Ladyfests. Like, current Ladyfests, this year. And that’s kind of fantastic, to think that people took that to heart, cause I remember too, saying it at our Ladyfest, “now you go out and do it.” And there were more the next year, and the next year. And that this thing has gone on and has evolved, and then again the relationships that we built have gone on, that the collaboration, there might have only been one Ladyfest Midwest that year that we did, but the collaborations and relationships that started, they didn’t, they weren’t severed at the end of that three days. Those have gone on and bore fruit and continued to grow and evolve and develop over the past decade.
Daniel Tucker: So, ten years later, what are some of the lasting personal as well as community transformations and legacies of Ladyfest Midwest?
Katherine Mingle: The friendships for me, I mean, I don’t have necessarily performance or visual art that I’ve been working on, but the friendships with some of the women in this room, and then seeing them this weekend.
Jennie Wood: I just have to second that, the friendships, definitely, and Stepf and I, met through Ladyfest and formed a band together, and we played Ladyfest, and went on to play a lot of shows, a lot of great shows, some not so great shows, one freezing outside Northwestern, with, like, sleet, and record together just a great creative partnership, we’ve made some great music together. And Ladyfest was one of the best experiences of my life, which led to some of the greatest friendships of my life, and then that great artistic collaborations with Stepf, one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Charlotte Robinson: I agree, like, I am still friends with tons of the people that I met though Ladyfest, and I actually have met friends through those friends, so I would say like a good probably 50-75% of the people that are my friends and my community in Chicago now have some connection to Ladyfest. I think, on a personal level, I think that getting the experience of doing some organizational work, I’ve continued to use those skills, because I was on the board of a food pantry for a while, I continued to work with Venus Zine, and we would do benefits for the magazine, so I think that used a lot of the skills in terms of organizing benefits and things like that, to help fund Venus for a while. So I think for me it just kind of rooted me in the community and gave me the skills to continue trying to do some kind of community work.
Kristen Cox: I felt like Ladyfest was the first show of the Chicago Kings, which then went on to perform for five or six years after. I was a little more ancillary, I think my relationships within Ladyfest weren’t as solid as some of my relationships to the artists that I was working with, or to the city, and the Kings’ community that kind of broke off out of Ladyfest.
Sam Stalling: But they did start before Ladyfest, a little bit, just to be clear.
Kristen Cox: Maybe my role, my relationship to the Kings was what started at Ladyfest. But I wanted to say that this, the Ladyfest curation and my obsession with the public parks, or working on public space, really prompted me to want to work with the Chicago Park District, which I did for a year and a half, and I specifically did it in the cultural center, wanting to think about using public resources and doing performance work, so that’s been really interesting to think back and watch and see that that was what was going on sort of, for me.
Marf Wright: I mean in terms of legacy or reverberations, I guess, the friendships obviously and the sense of community, and for me as well the community involvement. Involvement in Ladyfest gave me the experience and the confidence to join a board of directors of a nonprofit, Crossroads Fund, and then to also do other benefits. So, but I think most importantly, I mean, it’s all important, but just that we were part of this movement, and part of a tradition, and that it’s still going on. It’s still going on, eleven years later, ten years after ours, but eleven years after the original one in Olympia, that’s what’s, that’s what just knocks me out, I have to say. Whoa.
Lauren Cumbia: I think after Ladyfest I did get involved with Venus Zine, during Ladyfest I continued to work on that for a couple years, after. And when I got involved with Ladyfest I wanted to book shows and get into that sort of music role, and for a while I did, like, book shows with Joanna, we did that for a while. And I remember having a job interview with Jessica Hopper afterwards and being like, am I going to leave this kind of cushy job at the Museum of Contemporary Art with health insurance and stuff to go book shows for a living? And I decided no. [laughter] I’m not, I’m not like 21 and that’s probably not the best move. From there, I was involved with this group, the Pink Bloque, which Blithe and Dara, who were both organizers, were in, and that was definitely a much smaller group, but that sort of pushed us together to work in a more collaborative way. And a little bit more of a political way as well. And I think it did give me a sense to be fearless, like, you can sort of organize anything, really. So I think in that sense, being 21 and getting to work with people who’re, you know, much older than me, had much different experiences than me, I really learned a lot from that, and sort of was able to I think take that and kind of keep that knowledge, and keep it going, but it really has made me not scared, which is cool.
Katherine Mingle: I remember after that, every year following Ladyfest I was in charge of like our summer festival at Shubas, which was like, city permits and all those like, everyone would always get so worked up, and I was like, it’s really nothing, [laughter] it’s really not that hard, when you think about it. But I mean, I like the fact that you said it made you feel not fearless, again, going back to your original questions of like where were we before, and where were we afterwards. I really felt like I was a part of Chicago and having been, as part of a community then, and lifelong friendships that have… I gotta say, I didn’t go to my ten year high school reunion. But I came to this. Isn’t that funny, when you think about that?
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