It's part cabaret, part variety event, and part burlesque. Its overarching themes are body positivity, self-love, and acceptance: "Everybody, no matter what your body" is its mantra. Its cast is made up of a rotating assembly of professional and nonprofessional performers, dancers, and singers. And since its debut in 2009, The Fly Honey Show has moved from an intimate loft space to, as of this summer, the 150-seat Den Theatre. This year's run is the production's most ambitious season yet.
Erin Kilmurray, the show's creator, director, and choreographer, sees the expansion as a necessary step. "Moving to the Den feels like growth," she says. "We were eager to be able to build a show that allowed our creative and design teams to flex and try something new and to keep pushing the boundaries of what it means to literally create a community and space like this hive from the ground up.
"We've built this show in multiple venues prior to the Den, and we've needed each of those spaces," Kilmurray continues. "We've also added another weekend to our run, and all of these moves together, quite simply, allow us to tell more stories to more people."
The Fly Honey Show is a break from traditional theater norms, but this year's move to the Den creates the impression of a more polished production. The thrust-stage seating expands the once-cramped spacing without threatening any of the show's intimacy. Honeycombs hang from the ceiling. Performers pop up in a variety of unexpected illuminated spaces to either sing, twerk, or sit on the laps of audience members.
Still, the raw honesty and openness of previous editions remains consistent. As the show begins, dancers move throughout the audience, encouraging participation and enthusiastic consent. They twerk in the aisles and commune with each other, never allowing the presence of the audience to temper what feels like a joyous private party. Eventually, the hosts make their way to the stage, calling things to order. Rules are laid out plainly at the beginning: don't touch the performers and feel free to say no if you're uncomfortable.
This year's costumes feature an array of leather harnesses, straps, and handcuffs, all designed by local artist Emma Alamo. In the show's first act, a leather-clad Fly Honey member carries a sign introducing "The Sweet Tease," asking the audience to both dominate and submit to the varied performances.
There isn't just sexuality on display: local comic Sarah Sherman leads a hilarious meditative chant, and there's an energetic musical duet between singer Lindsay Charles (of the Cell Phones) and performer Bethany Thomas. The Fly Honey Show attempts to channel the catharsis that occurs when marginalized people are finally given the spotlight.
Quinn Tsan has been performing in The Fly Honey Show for six years. "This was my first community of friends," she said in a group interview before opening night. "The first time that I ever performed music was at Fly Honey, so I feel very kindred to the spirit of the show."
"The feeling of a cabaret is kind of there with the celebration and sex and entertainment," Tsan continues. "Except it's turning on its head any association we have with typical standards of beauty. It still does the job that the cabaret is meant to do, but it does it in a way that's super contemporary and acknowledging of diversity without pigeonholing itself."
The Fly Honey Show does pays homage to traditional burlesque and cabaret, but the production's focus on minority voices and its inclusion of a variety of body types is nontraditional. The performance is also more interactive than the typical burlesque experience. "Personally, I don't call it a burlesque show," says Darling Squire, who has performed in The Fly Honey Show for five years. "It's cabaret, but not just any cabaret either. It's not for kids, but there's still a family component to it. The show really reaches out to the community and tries to bring everyone together. We want to celebrate our differences and the variety of life, not focus on the things that keep us separate. Let's celebrate the things that make up our own individual selves."
Individuality is at the core of The Fly Honey Show's rotating cast—the production is a rare chance to hear some of the most creative voices in Chicago share their insecurities and hopes. "When I found The Fly Honey Show, I was in a dark place personally, in terms of self-confidence and body image," says five-year performer Marta Jean Evans. "It kind of brought me back to life a little bit. I think the community and the ability for me to be free and to really be who I am—I'm loud, I'm raucous, I'm offensive, and I'm sexual—it allows me to be myself unapologetically."
During the first weekend of the show's run, writer and actor Bea Cordelia performed a poem and dance piece with local dancer Andy Slavin. The work explores the difficulties of finding love as a trans woman; routinely mundane relationship activities, like meeting her partner's parents and a first kiss, are explored with a sincerity and bluntness that mainstream culture rarely allows trans performers. Cordelia's performance represents The Fly Honey Show at its best—a space for lesser-heard voices to be sexy, messy, funny, and honest.
Yet Kilmurray sees an opportunity to expand the show to even more communities—as long as it's done with the same care that went into building the production in Chicago. "We would love to bring The Fly Honey Show to other cities," she says, "and to do that, it's essential to build partnerships with local organizations and existing performance communities that speak to the mission of this work."
But at its core, The Fly Honey Show is a Chicago institution. "I want this to be, like, the Moulin Rouge of Chicago," Squire says. "I want this to be something that is a Chicago staple. There's a lot of work that goes into that, but I feel like that would be a great thing." v