Vicki Quade had a new show opening at the Royal George Theatre the weekend of March 15, 2020. Quade, coauthor and producer of the long-running comedy show Late Nite Catechism, was appearing herself in some performances of this new spin-off, Easter Bunny Bingo, as former nun Mrs. Mary Margaret O’Brien. The show played for just two performances before it was shut down by COVID.
For the first time in nearly three decades, the Late Nite nuns have been shut up. If you’re in danger of disappointing Jesus, they’re not around to tell you.
“Sunday was the press opening. We did have a decent audience,” Quade says, “but there were a lot of cancellations because people were afraid. The pandemic was clearly a reality at that point. We cleaned up after the show, looked around and, as we walked out, thought, ‘We’re not going to be here next week.'”
Easter Bunny Bingo had been filmed that first weekend, however, and Quade was able to “pivot,” getting it online for streaming during the Easter season. “But streaming was pretty new at that point,” she says; the audience wasn’t really there yet. By summer, when she launched an archival series (starting with Christmas Bingo, Summer Edition), there was more interest. Despite the lack of the live audience participation that’s worked so well for these shows, she says the streaming’s chugged along since.
Otherwise, like almost the entire Chicago theater community, the nuns have been sidelined—interrupting a nearly 28-year Chicago run for the original show. Late Nite Catechism launched in 1993 at Live Bait Theater, spawned productions all over the country (among them, a seven-year off-Broadway run), and survived some nasty court battles among its creators, including coauthor Maripat Donovan. After a nomadic start, moving from Live Bait to the Organic, Zebra Crossing, and the Ivanhoe, the Chicago production’s been at home in the Royal George for the last 20 years. Quade hopes they’ll be back there, even if distanced and masked, as soon as next fall.
In the meantime, she’s authored a book: Close Encounters of a Chicago Kind, published last month by Eckhartz Press. Quade (who started out as a journalist and was a Reader contributor) has been posting brief stories on Facebook for about ten years. She met Eckhartz’s owners, Rick Kaempfer and David Stern, in February, when they interviewed her about the Easter Bunny show for a podcast they also hosted. It occurred to her to ask if they’d be interested in a book that would be a selection of these posts. They were.
The result is a brisk walk with Quade through daily life in Chicago, presented in bite-size chunks addictive as a sack of Garrett popcorn. We’re on her arm as she perambulates (or drives), often around the north side—think Reza’s, Dinkel’s, the Dunkin’ Donuts at Wilson and Broadway—without letting the driver who calls her a “stupid bitch” or the “low life” who steals her cane out of a grocery cart when she turns her back at the Jewel cramp her style.
She also takes us into the theater, where she deals with audience members who turn surly, and hands out Infant of Prague cards as a combination bingo prize and fertility charm. The major encounter, of course, is with Quade herself, a shameless people watcher, celebrant of the small moment, and exposer of the selfish and willfully ignorant.
On the other hand, if you’re a kid who’s zipping a gun into your backpack but dreaming of being on stage, or—like the couple she watched score a free meal at Manny’s—either totally hapless or a very talented scammer, she’s fascinated.
Quade’s planning to adapt some of these stories for the theater after live performances resume, possibly as soon as Labor Day, “if enough people get vaccinated; my arm is ready.”
After dispensing the only financial assistance she’s received so far—a grant that allowed her to pay employees into May—she had to furlough stage managers, actors, and office help. But she expects to survive the shutdown because, unlike many of the midsize theaters she worries about, she doesn’t own her performance space and also hasn’t had to pay rent while the shows are closed.
She says she can see now that the random vignettes in her book are all about coming in touch with people: “I didn’t plan it this way, but it points out what we’ve been missing this past year, which is the ability to go out and witness something, meet someone, talk to people on the sidewalk.” v
Close Encounters of a Chicago Kind is available at eckhartzpress.com.