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The Understudy is ready for the spotlight

Almost a year ago, I talked to Danny Fender and Adam Crawford about their plans for the Understudy, a new theater bookstore and coffee bar in Andersonville. At that time, they were aiming for an opening in August 2022.

City permits and supply chains being what they are, those plans got pushed back by several months. But now the shop is all cleared to open to the public this Saturday, March 25. I took a tour of the space with Fender and Crawford (who are now married) last week to see how the former Chase Bank outlet has been transformed.

The Understudy
Opening Sat 3/25 10 AM, 5531 N. Clark, theunderstudy.com

The venue itself, designed by Chicago firm Siren Betty, feels both cozy and elegant, with a variety of different seating areas scattered throughout. Brick walls and painted ductwork suggest minimalism, but the quirky decor warms it up, and the color palette reminded me of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement. (The promotional bookmarks definitely have that aesthetic.)

At the back of the main bookstore section, there’s a seating area with a plush couch and armchairs for those looking to relax and unwind. This will also be a space for public events, such as panel discussions and readings. A piano that Crawford’s mother found for free on Facebook Marketplace in his native Ohio is being refurbished and shipped to the store, so cabaret events will also be a possibility. Among the companies that Crawford and Fender mention as future partners for in-store performances are Kokandy Productions and Bramble Theatre, which is building out its Bramble Arts Loft just up Clark Street from the Understudy.

Interior of the Understudy in Andersonville. Interior design by Siren Betty. Credit: Heather Talbert Photography

The shelves already contain a diverse collection of new and used titles in a range of categories, interspersed with a cunning array of antiques and knickknacks. Old posters and production photos cover the walls, and the owners hope to create space for regular theater-related exhibitions of visual art as well. The walls of the corridor to the restrooms are covered in old pages from scripts, including handwritten marginalia and rehearsal notes—reminders of the connection between the words on the page and the creative process of making a performance.

In addition to play scripts, there are books on theater craft and management, art books that focus on stage designers, biographies, theatrical-themed novels, and young adult and kids’ books. At the front of the store where staff picks and new arrivals get pride of place, Fender points out Mariama J. Lockington’s young adult novel, In the Key of Us, about a musical theater camp. Currently, the owners estimate that they have between 2,500 and 3,000 titles in stock.

The ordering process has been its own adventure. Crawford says, “We had to do it kind of the opposite of the way that a typical bookstore would open, [where they say] ‘OK, we have this much space, and we know we want to have these kinds of sections.’ And then a lot of the time you’ll just go straight to the publisher and they say, ‘Oh, well, here’s what we think every bookstore should have to start right now.’ Like, this is what’s hot, this is what’s selling. 

“We’re obviously not like that. Most bookstores don’t have any of these [titles]. And so we had to kind of work in reverse of looking at our own shelves with our arms crossed and being like, ‘OK who’s that publisher? Or what’s that imprint? And do they publish anything else that we want? Or what else can we get from this playwright? And where can we source it from?’ And we had to go down these long rabbit holes of university presses and small indie presses.” (Foreign dramatic publishers are also well represented.)

The space cleaves rather neatly in half between the bookstore and the coffee bar. And that is very much by design. “It’s kind of like two spaces running at the same time,” says Crawford. “I’ve been saying it’s not like we’re 50 percent bookstore and 50 percent coffee shop. We’re 100 percent coffee shop and 100 percent bookstore.” The Understudy isn’t offering a full menu yet, but coffee and pastries from both pHlour and Defloured (“which I think is funny,” laughs Fender) will be available.

Says Fender, “I think what’s been really exciting is Adam and I going down this journey of specialty coffee and really learning to fall in love with that and figuring out the parallels between coffee and theater worlds. I got to roast my own bag of beans at Metric Coffee [suppliers for the Understudy]. And the way they explained the roasting process, they used a theater metaphor, which was actually so helpful. The green coffee beans are the playwright in the text, and then the roaster is like the director roasting those beans and interpreting them and bringing out what is already there.”

The staff of the Understudy. Co-owners Adam Crawford and Danny Fender are in the first row, lower left. Courtesy the Understudy

Opening a new business in the wake of the COVID shutdown is a bold step, but Fender and Crawford feel confident that the community support for the Understudy will be there. They’ve already built connections by doing some pop-up shops in the past year, including Halloween on Catalpa in fall 2022. And while they’ve been cutting back a bit on their other careers in theater while they get the store together (Fender is a stage manager and Crawford is a performer and director), neither regrets the extra time they’ve put into what they hope will become a hub for theater practitioners and enthusiasts alike.

Crawford says, “One of the reasons the Understudy came about is because we wanted to have careers in Chicago theater and to be connected to this community. And I think, ultimately, this is doing that already, just by trying to honor other Chicago artists. [Theater oral historian] Mark Larson said to us, ‘It’s sort of like the visitor center for Chicago theater,’ because we are highlighting so many Chicago playwrights and so many Chicago theater companies.”

“It’s so fun coming here in the morning,” says Fender. “We wake up and it’s exciting to be here and to work in this space, especially now that we have a team helping us out. They’re all so creative and are so good about bringing ideas to the table and giving us feedback. So it really feels like we’re working on a show sometimes.”

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