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October 2011 Archives


“It’s about putting yourself out there and being vulnerable, taking a risk. Not easy, but pretty damn rewarding,” says Chicago artist, Chai Wolfman. A painter, writer and cellist, Wolfman believes not only that each practice informs the others, but that authentic engagement with each leads to work capable of generating a universal sense of connection. “In my writing,” she says, “I use personal stories to get at something that others can hopefully relate to. I focus on telling universal stories with a genuine voice and I think this is true of my paintings as well. I use figures that could be any person, anywhere. I try to leave room for others to fill in the blanks. I guess it’s the same with music, too. It takes being completely in the moment with your body, breath, and mind, to play musically and communicate emotion.”

Our Town You literally cut and sew your paintings, how does that work?
Chai Wolfman I use acrylic paint, chalk, water soluble crayon, markers, and inks to create layered patterns and textures in each painting. Once I’ve completed multiple paintings, I cut segments from each and play with different compositions. They might become a recognizable landscape, my take on a traditional quilt pattern, or an abstract design. The feel and sound of sewing paper is addicting. I love the whole process.

OT Your artwork is inspired by crazy quilting, how so?
CW Crazy quilts are beautiful, chaotic and colorful with intricate detail and visual punch. They are usually made up of fabric scraps in random shapes with decorative stitching. These random pieces together create a vibrant, unified quilt. I like this idea of joining such different elements into one piece – finding some harmony among the chaos. The central theme of all my work--of my whole life, actually, is finding balance, and that is really the root of my inspiration.

OT What else inspires you?
CW City skylines, architecture, music, nature, color, fabric and craft stores, yoga, my daughters.

OT Do you paint every day?
CW I wish! Someday my life will allow for that. Now that I’m a mom I have less free time, but I’m also much better at managing the time I have. I usually have time to do at least one thing for myself each day. I choose between painting, sewing, writing, yoga, napping, and showering. Whatever speaks to me during that day’s afternoon nap is where my energy goes. It’s a balancing act, a wonderful, challenging balancing act. Luckily, I have an amazing and supportive partner who takes the [twin] girls out for fun adventures on Sunday mornings so I have almost the entire day on Sunday to devote to painting.

OT Ever feel reluctant to give up a piece?
CW Never. For me, the whole point of creating work is to put something positive out into the world. It might sound cheesy but I really am trying to bring something good to someone else’s life. A big stack of paintings in my apartment doesn’t have a chance to do that. That said, some of my partner’s favorite pieces decorate our apartment and those would be hard to part with. But if it’s not hanging up in our home, I would much rather have someone else enjoy it.

It’s hard out there for a writer. While anyone with borderline personality disorder and a fake tan can snag a reality show, we toil for years in obscurity and peanut butter-covered pajamas. Not only that but everyone thinks we’re ugly. Well, that changes today.

In addition to my much-lauded (by my dog) Crush of the Month Blog, I’m introducing a monthly Hot Chicago Writer post.

Because just like Snooki, we didn’t come here to make friends.
Just like that Real World Seattle girl from the 90’s, our hair is excessively curly and we have Lyme disease. (Well, maybe not that last part.)
But certainly, just like Khloe Kardashian, we tower over our hot sisters, but if given the chance we’d strip for Peta, plus we’re funny as sh*t.

The point is, you don’t need a sex tape to hit it big on my blog. Though if you have one, I’ll be happy to review it.

So without further ado,


October’s Hot Writer: Cristina Chopalli

My genre: Everything but country. Wait--this is not a question about music, is it? I’m currently studying fiction but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you creative non-fiction. You were my first love.

My literary influences: Any piece of writing which: is written in 2nd person, uses “lists” to further plot, or which allows me to live vicariously as Bastet: Egyptian cat goddess.

My favorite literary quote: “But you can’t teach writing, people tell me. And I say, ‘who the hell are you, God’s dean of Admissions?’” --Anne Lamott

My favorite book of all time: Season of the Body: Essays by Brenda Miller. Her essay "A Thousand Buddhas" inspired me to write my first essay. Each essay in this book kicks serious emotional ass.

I’m currently reading: Never Let Me Go (For my Novel VS. Memoir class.)

My guilty pleasure book: Beauty’s Punishment (Very guilty.)

I can’t write without: Sleep, sex and coffee.

Worst line I ever wrote: “Kelly isn’t sure who is going to attack Kailash first: the hooker who’ll be tapping on his window with her two dollar press-on nails, or the asshole who’ll probably turn his car around and retaliate for the sloppily tossed orange peels.”

Brief Bio: Cristina Chopalli doesn’t like writing about herself in third person. She will, however, continue since she’s gotten this far. Cristina recently moved from Chicago to San Marcos, Texas to attend Texas State’s MFA in Fiction program. She’s an essayist for India Currents Magazine and randomly blogs on her website. Cristina sends her love to Argo Tea and Iguana Cafe: her favorite writing places in the city. Once a happy Printer’s Row inhabitant, Cristina now lives behind a lumber yard with a robust intercom system: Earl, call on line one. Assistance needed in sheetrock. Attention y’all we’ll be closing in fifteen of them-there minutes.

Think you’re hot*? Know you’re a writer? Email, subject line “hot writer blog” to tell Our Town why you should be next month’s pick!

*Here’s a hand mirror, go check if you need to, I can wait.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez


Over the last two decades, Soprano Victoria Holland has performed everywhere from Illinois venue Ravinia to Il Conservatorio di Parma in Italy. Though I have yet to catch one of her performances, I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from Holland’s vocal instruction. Confident, knowledgeable and down to earth, Holland revitalized my singing practice. Now she’s offering a vocal skills for adults class, designed for singers of all experience levels. The group class, a nice precursor to private voice lessons or supplement to choral singing runs for eight weeks starting November tenth.

Our Town spoke with Holland about performance, teaching, and just what’s so great about Opera.

Our Town Was singing always an ambition?
Victoria Holland Yes, an ambition but also an escape, especially during my teenage years.

OT You have a PhD in Voice and Opera Performance. Why pursue a higher degree in voice?
VH Most singers aren't fully developed or fully trained after undergrad studies alone. Plus, it's a lifelong learning process. Technique must be continually managed, your world view augmented, you're always growing and evolving. You'll never know everything so consider yourself a student ad infinum.

OT What would you say to an opera novice to catch their interest?
VH Opera hits people differently. And production quality can vary greatly. If you're new to the genre, go to the best houses, like Chicago Lyric, the MET in NYC, and Houston Grand. And choose the opera wisely, according to your interests. We all love stories. Some like love stories, others are fascinated with history, or intrigue, or mysticism. It can be overwhelming, so read about the work and the composer before seeing a production. Though sometimes it's fun to go in unprepared and allow yourself to be surprised and transported into another world. It can be helpful to see an opera in its original language and to start with your native language. For English speakers, I love Susannah by Carlisle Floyd or Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.

OT You’re been singing for years, are pre-performance nerves a problem?
VH I get nervous in a new situation and when I perform a piece for the first time but the nerves aren't debilitating. Once as a young singer, I was singing an aria that was too difficult for me and I was so nervous I closed my eyes in the middle of the aria and didn't open them until I'd finished. Not my finest moment. Last month I was rehearsing for my first Brahms Requiem and my heart rate raced just before I sang the first orchestra rehearsal, but once I started to sing it normalized. It's the fear of the unknown. I felt fine for the performance. And I have ways to stay relaxed before going onstage.

OT Any memorable onstage moments?
VH My first professional performance was a Mozart Requiem in Memphis at age twenty. It felt so great to sing that piece with an orchestra. I thought, if I never perform again, I'll die happy.

OT What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a professional singer?
VH As in any career, go in with your eyes open. Learn how to sing clearly and beautifully and in ways that engage and affect your audiences. Enjoy any opportunity to sing and learn from the experience. Stick with it. Most singers with successful careers have been singing for decades.

OT What sort of student should take your class?
VH A student with a passion for singing, who wants to better understand how the human voice works and how to apply the knowledge. A student who wants a broader range, who desires camaraderie with other singers.

OT Why start with group lessons before pursuing private lessons?
VH I love small group lessons because if I teach four private lessons in a row to people who haven't studied with me before, much of what I say and do is repeated. Why not get us all together and share the experience? There is camaraderie and more opportunity for fun. Yeah, students get nervous singing in small groups and letting their voice be heard, but it wanes as we build trust, just as in private lessons. And small group lessons are much more affordable!


“I was always picked last in gym class,” a friend told me recently. “I bet you never had that problem.”

I wanted to answer her, but I was lying face down on the pavement having tripped over one of those epic Chicago sidewalk cracks. Or maybe the memories were the culprit: oodles of hideous PhyEd recollections unspooling like paper towel from a never-ending roll. From the fourteen-minute mile I eked out in middle school to the scornful looks my classmates cast each time I folded my arms and sidestepped a volleyball, my adolescent gym class experience exploded with humiliating moments.

My friend doesn’t know that though. Like Don Draper, I shed my shabby past in favor of a sharp-suited present, only my suit is made of spandex and I don’t get half as many girls. But also like Draper, the dregs of my shameful origins have settled inside my current self, tainting my day-to-day. What I mean is, I really hate other group exercise instructors. Okay, hate is too strong. But when amongst them, I find myself casting an eighth grade side eye at their glossy ponytails and dazzling diamond solitaries. (They’re always engaged.) I never feel blond enough or thin enough or peppy enough. So maybe it's my junior high self whom I hate.

Here's what I love: being a Spinning instructor. It combines all of my interests: Mix tapes, an audience and silver Velcro-closure shoes. Of course I’m joking. There’s so much more to Spinning. For example, there’s bossing people around. But truly, my favorite part of being a Spinning instructor is motivating my students. Helping each achieve his or her goals.

Recently, I attended a training taught by NuFIT gym owner and Keiser National Trainer Angie Asmann. Despite Asmann’s million watt blond hair and seriously chiseled shoulders, I found Asmann approachable and warm. Not only was she was nice enough to speak with Our Town about fitness, entrepreneurship and indoor cycling, but she’s promised to help me dye my hair blond.

Our Town What led you and your business partner Jen Kamps to open NuFIT?
Angie Asmann NuFIT is Nutrition and Fitness. You need to have both pieces to live a happy and healthy lifestyle. I wanted to make a difference and change people’s lives.

OT What separates Nufit from other health clubs?
AA NuFIT is committed to customer service and personalization. We have created a family at NuFIT. I love watching people transform physically and emotionally.

OT You offer a group X rowing class. How does that work?
AA NuFIT is one of fifty clubs in the world that has put in the Indo-Row program. Indoor Rowing works nine major muscle groups and is the perfect total body workout. People row together in an Indo-Row class and the support and enthusiasm is unbelievable.

OT What’s your personal workout routine?
AA I teach an average of eighteen classes per week, run a business and am raising my eight-year-old daughter, so I do not have a routine for myself. I do, however, do a lot of exercise via my classes so that keeps me fit.

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This morning a megaphone-equipped truck rolled down my street, the man inside broadcasting unintelligible directions. Did I mention the swirling yellow lights and the siren? Turns out the city is repaving my street and wanted my neighbors to move their cars; however, catapulted from slumber and racing the length of my apartment, I felt certain the apocalypse was nigh. Nighish at the very least.

That’s the sort of person I am. My Significant Other runs ten minutes late? She’s been swept from Lake Shore Drive by a forty-foot wave. The dog sneezes? It’s gotta be leprosy. I can’t remember who wrote Twilight? Brain tumor. (In this case, perhaps a blessing.) In other words, I have no need for roller coasters, recreational drugs or haunted houses. Life is scary enough, thank you very much. But for those of you who’ve never once thought that tiny fork you picked up at an antique store might be haunted, have I got a thrill for you.

Set in quaint Villa Park (I have no idea if Villa Park is quaint), Asylum Xperiment, a Hollywood-style haunted event is right-now-at-this-very-moment setting up shop at The Odeum Expo Center. I spoke with AX’s creators, Dave Link and Mike Skodacek (two guys I can confidently say I have absolutely nothing in common with) about this fearsome annual event.

Our Town What drew you to the haunting industry?
Dave Link Both Mike and I are textbook haunters. We both dreamed of crazy creepy creatures in the night and then created them as front yard haunters. We acted and assisted in many haunts through several decades. We took the financial risk to invest our savings, blood, sweat and tears into a seasonal gamble. Here we are!

OT Dave, how does your background in sculptures and the design industry contribute to making the event singular?
DL I am a technical sculptor and designer. I see and analyze things most people may never observe or comprehend. I thrive on detail, texture and color. So does Asylum. We are one!

OT Mike, I’m told you’re more sinister than Dave. How so?
Mike Skodacek I grew up in a younger generation where the general public wants more gore and creep factor. I've always had a different and twisted way of looking at things.

OT What interests you about real-life mind games and the psychological basis of fear?
MS I want to really scare people...I want scares that people will go home with and think about while they're lying in bed and trying to fall asleep. I enjoy giant monsters and alien-like creatures too, but the things that could really get you in real life and actually happen are what I want to plant in the customer’s head. A good example of this would be the Paranormal Activity movies that keep coming out every October. Simple scares but very effective.

OT This year, the event has been heightened to keep pace with jaded fans. Is bigger always better?
DL We have the opportunity every year to expand into the rest of the 100,000 square feet in the Odeum. We decline, as we are more about creating quality than quantity. Our event is growing size-wise as we feel more comfortable being able to uphold our high quality standard.

OT Your cage maze is no roadside hay bale maze. What gave you the idea to suspend actors from above?
DL We love scares from above. The 50’ ceiling in the Odeum spoke to us one day and said, ”I want an actor to float beneath me” And so it was.

OT How is your runaway elevator attraction accomplished?
DL We have a custom made floating room animated by 4 truck suspension airbags. It is computer programmed to create a light, animation and scent-controlled show to give the illusion of a runaway elevator actually changing floors.

OT Dave, what’s been your proudest AX accomplishment?
DL My proudest accomplishment was actually being at work by noon one day during our 60-day build…seriously. I am proud of our entire Team/AX family—they radiate respect, love and are dedicated to our vision and community.

OT Mike, I hear you act in the scenes.
MS I really don’t act as an actor in my own haunted house anymore. But my favorite memories of acting were always in the process of designing new characters that I could incorporate my friend the chainsaw into. I'd come up with a complete storyline and bio for each character that I built. Again, the characters were [types who] could be walking down the street in your neighborhood...

AX runs Thursdays through Sundays in October. Buy Tickets at


“Masks,” says Jeff Semmerling, “are tools of revelation” rather than “disguise.”
A Chicago mask-maker and Filament Theatre Ensemble advisory board member, Semmerling is not only an internationally renowned artist, but also a mask historian and teacher. Though he started out working with puppets after graduating from Northwestern’s Theater Department, he zeroed in on mask making after visiting New Orleans in 1981. Semmerling spoke with Our Town about his work with kids, sources of inspiration, and how one of his masks came to be shown on America’s Next Top Model.

Our Town When did you first become interested in masks?
Jeff Semmerling I played with puppets as a child quite seriously, then got very involved in the theater. Masks were right there under all the things I was interested in. Theater was interesting to me mostly because of the ‘we’ thing of working on something bigger than myself. Masks do the same thing in a more direct way. They make us less about ourselves and more about a spirit of ‘we.’ [Masks] melt social restraints and distance. So damn healthy!

OT Your bio says you have the “unique ability to understand masks and how they relate to their wearer from the inside out.” Can you talk a little about this?
JS When we sell masks we set them on tables, hundreds of masks, and we stand behind the table and we watch people play with the masks. I've watched people fall in love with a mask, but leave without buying it, only to dream of it that night and come back the next day for it. Part of it, and it is only part, is that when you obscure the "identity" self the playful self is set free to be playful. The mask invites people to step out of their walls of protection, not just the wearer, but people who encounter the extra-terrestrial being that is, yet is not, before them. They are forced to be here now! Art at its best makes us really perceive.

OT What inspires you?
JS When I wintered in New Orleans [after college] and saw what happens when a whole city shuts down to party in costumes and masks, my eyes went up like roller blinds. Everything I loved about watching and doing theater was all happening at the same time with no line between the audience and the performer. These days, my customers, serious costumers, and the theaters, dancers and opera productions that need masks. I also love to play, so wearing [masks], that keeps me going too. When I travel I always make sure to have a pocket size silly face-changing mask, it makes it all so much more fun than if I were just getting pictures of myself in front of famous sites. You meet people and have some really genuine connections. The masks are like an open invitation for the best stuff to happen.

OT I hear one of your creations has appeared on America’s Next Top Model.
JS A fellow named James St. James has one of my Crazy Smile Masks and has made several appearances on the show. One of his resume pics features the mask and they always show that photo when they introduce him. It is quite a striking image. Those smile masks are really powerful!

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Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Princess Leia’s impact on my childhood was minimal and mostly to do with her hair. I admired it, but only because I liked braids in general, though I preferred the way Pippi Longstocking wore hers: a horizontal braid arrow that seemed to pierce her head. I can’t tell you how many wire coat hangers I unraveled and stabbed through my braids, trying to force my hair to defy gravity too. It was a point of contention between my mother and me, so much so that I assumed her little lapel button with the crossed out hanger on it was a warning directed at me.

My true Carrie Fisher awakening came by virtue of her book, Postcards from the Edge, a witty, blunt, lightly fictionalized account of her time in rehab. Perusing my quote book, I assume I was about fourteen when I read Postcards—the thicket of Fisher’s quotes I chose to record are smack between excerpts from Woody Allen and Sylvia Plath, the infamous dynamic duo of teenage angst and hilarity. Fisher’s novel is chockablock with lines like “I narrate a life I’m reluctant to live,” and “describing herself was her way of being herself;” I related so much I thought my head might fall off. From there, I sucked down each book she published, spitting her insightful one-liners into a series of notebooks I kept through college. (Philosophy professors and lesbian folk singers replaced Plath, but Allen stuck around.)

In 2007, I returned to The Geffen Playhouse where I’d worked for a year in ticket sales, to see Wishful Drinking, Fisher’s one-woman show. The Geffen is a magical dollhouse of a theatre; intimate, with a lobby that spills into a courtyard lit by twinkling lights. Working there was my first taste of what it meant to live in L.A. Sure I’d spent my shifts crammed into a tiny cubbyhole shared with a rotating bunch of oddballs (the Englishwoman who microwaved fish stew, a retired astrophysicist, some set builder guy who’s claim to fame was that Tori Spelling had given him not one but two lollipops on his last job), but I got to attend glittery red carpet premieres and once ran into Steve Martin walking the halls. (I’m pretty sure the Steve Martin thing happened, but I’ve told the story so many times, it feels more fairy-tale than truth.)

Seeing Fisher at the Geffen seemed like some kind of synchronicity, a childhood idol had chosen to grace a space through which I used to wander barefoot still sporting my college lesbian overalls. The show itself though, then in its infancy, was uneven. While imbued with Fisher’s characteristic amalgamation of candor and whimsy, it meandered. It was lovely just to spend time with Fisher—and the show truly does feel like an impromptu get-together—however, Wishful Drinking’s only through-line seemed Fisher herself. At the time, this bothered me.

This week Fisher kicked off Wishful Drinking’s limited two-week Chicago engagement. Since working out the kinks in LA, she’s taken the show across the US, playing to enthusiastic crowds and even receiving a Grammy nomination for the show’s album. Myself, I approached Wishful Drinking with trepidation, (possibly a byproduct of the hot pink tights I chose to wear). Hours lost in a room with an idol can be treacherous, dragging or accelerating at will. This time, I wanted to leave the theatre feeling as connected to Fisher as I had at fourteen, transferring her words from her book to mine.


I’m not saying I moved to Chicago to keep an eye on Kyle Beachy, but I’m not saying I didn’t. As far as you know, it’s just a coincidence, us attending the same masters program, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, if you wondered. Now Kyle’s an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt University, and I hang out at that Walgreen’s two blocks from campus. Not hoping for a chance to run into him of course, but because they have the best ace bandages and dental floss in town.

When Kyle’s first novel, The Slide came out in 2009, I definitely didn’t stuff The Chicago Reader’s ballet box, and yet he was voted Reader’s choice! Personally, I found the book edgy and vital, and that’s saying a lot because it involved baseball, the very mention of which gives me a rash. I much prefer skateboarding, the topic of his next novel. My lawyer says I should call that another coincidence, but that’s pretty far-fetched. Really, we’re psychically linked.

Anyway, once I’d ‘borrowed’ Kyle’s skateboard and offered to interview him before I returned it, Kyle proved an amiable interviewee; he only called the police twice!

You know what that makes him: October’s Chicago Crush!

Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri.
Profession: Professor of literature and creative writing at Roosevelt University.
Hobbies: I skateboard as much as the knees will allow.

Our Town The reception for your first novel was pretty fantastic. What was your reaction to post publication events as they unfolded?
Kyle Beachy That's nice of you to say. I should admit, though, that I was pretty much unprepared for any of that stuff, so that even the tiny filaments of attention I got -- which, relatively speaking, were nothing -- forced me to confront dark corners of my ego that I didn't realize I had. There was joy of course, I was grateful to have anyone read the thing, but it was also a kind of ugly, or at least petty, time for me. Because once you start noticing that stuff you begin caring, and caring charges the whole affair with importance, it all feels huge and consequential when in fact it's not -- neither the good receptions nor the bad. It frankly messed with my head and I began to understand claims from experienced authors about ignoring their reviews, whereas before I thought they were posturing. So overall it was an important thing to experience. Made me grow up a bit.

OT Who are your influences?
KB American novelists since roughly1960, friends and assorted acquaintances whose productivity I envy and so try to emulate, a rapper named Serengeti, Spike Jonze, Mike Manzoori, my father, and I'm on a reading binge of non-American authors: Horracio Castellanos Moya, Andreas Maier, Johan Harsted. I'm also reading more poetry, suddenly.

OT If google searches are any indication; people believe there’s a static step-by-step method for novel writing. Thoughts?
KB If google searches are any indication of anything, we're in trouble.

OT You’ve got an essay in the first issue of The Chicagoan. How did you get involved?
KB I met J.C. Gabel when Stop Smiling was winding down, and because knowing J.C. means becoming friends with J.C., he came to visit a DeLillo class I was teaching, we began talking about books, and a relationship developed. So, when he asked for an essay that basically gave me free range to mess about and try some things it was a no brainer. I'm not sure what the publication will look like -- I hear it is large and beautiful, and I think meant to be seen as a kind of experiment. I'm excited to see.

OT Both your Chicagoan essay and your second novel are about skateboarding. What’s the draw for you?
KB The ultra-truncated answer is that there is no possible way to fake skateboarding. There is no cheating. To do it you have to try and fail and bleed and try again.

OT You’re part of Roosevelt’s new MFA program, can you talk a little about that?
KB It's exciting. Free from the baggage of tradition and deeply nested personalities that can conflict and lead to paralysis or stagnation, it's developing into a hugely energetic place to work. Students focus on one primary field, poetry or fiction or creative non-fiction, but are also forced to push against these divisions and attempt new things. And though it's not explicit, you're always tacitly aware of the Roosevelt mission statement about social justice and affecting some nature of positive change on the world. I'm very happy to be there.

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