When I arrived at the Archer Ballroom last Saturday, it wasn’t long before I found myself locked in a stranger’s kind, firm embrace. Now familiar with my host, Teddy, I was led into his home. While recovering from my abrupt, hearty welcome, I took a look around and absorbed the particulars of the space. It’s a ballroom, to be sure, with a wide expanse of polished hardwood, vaulted ceilings nearly forty-feet high, and a whimsical light fixture made of twigs and bulbs hanging from the exposed rafters. But more remarkable than its airy loft aesthetic is its distinctly vital agenda. A small colony of impromptu bedrooms are arranged in a corner. While most of the square footage has been turned into a multilateral performance space, not a few indicators of domestic existence cheerfully remain: a self-installed kitchen with a row of compost-bins, a window nook with some viperous houseplants, and a wicker papasan chair. Teddy, an affectionate, pajama-wearing cellist, eventually relinquished his handhold, but as I proceeded to mingle with his friends, I realized I still hadn’t been released.
In its latest iteration, the Archer Ballroom is about two years old. Once a Lithuanian cultural center, the ballroom fell unto hard times until an architect bought the building and recognized its potential as an arts space. It cycled through residents until a group of students from Oberlin Conservatory saw the listing online during their senior year and decided to transplant their community of artist-musicians from Ohio to Chicago. “I wanted a place where we could run around and…foster a community,” Teddy explained. “I didn’t want to live in a tiny two-bedroom in Lincoln Park, you know?” Previously, the space was known as the Texas Ballroom, a raucous epicenter, which, as new resident Zivi Kreiger put it, was “basically like the Archer Ballroom on speed…literally…but they were evicted for illegal underground venue stuff…the landlord got fined, like, fifty thousand dollars, too.” “When Sam and I contacted the landlord,” Teddy corroborates, “well, we’re pretty young, and he was suspicious and made us write essays, like a college application.” The number of artists-in-residence at the Ballroom grew quickly, as Teddy, Sam, and others drafted a squad of eclectic, kindred spirits into their circle and its concomitant vision.
The spirit of the Archer Ballroom is perhaps best manifest in a weekly collaborative music initiative called Outside Forces. Each Monday evening, a ragtag assemblage of musicians and other sound-makers get together to make music, or sometimes just noise. Kreiger, who runs a studio out of the facility, records each session. Kelsey Tucker, a resident photographer and classically trained pianist, insists that Outside Forces is less an ambitious artistic endeavor than a kind of open, communal therapy. She says, “When we bring in new people sometimes they’ll ask, ‘What key should I play in?’ or, ‘what’s the time signature?’ But that’s all sort of irrelevant.” Nick Davis, a musician and frequent houseguest, describes Outside Forces as “Alcoholics Anonymous for musicians.” Outside Forces played publicly for the first time on Saturday at the Writers’ House Project launch party that the Ballroom hosted. Their tonal menagerie of classical, jazz and electronic instruments came together as a coherent, but evolving whole, so that the performance was as exhilarating as it was poignant.
Not surprisingly, the theme of the night was collaboration. In concert with the Writers’ House Project, a new fund to create a residential writers’ collective, were writers, musicians, filmmakers, and even a burlesque director. The atmosphere was so open and cooperative that at times it was difficult to distinguish the performers from the spectators. In this spirit, David Snyder recited an erasure poem based on Jacques Derrida’s seminar “The Politics of Friendship,” stripping its abstruse erudition to a core of sentimentality, a self-conscious gesture “perhaps unduly human.”
The Archer Ballroom is, above all, a home. So Saturday night’s event was a bit anomalous for the Ballroom, but as a free platform for expression, it really exemplified the kind of program these folks are trying to push. Home to some prodigious chefs, photographers, musicians, dancers, producers, and you name it, the Ballroom has stepped up as a space to promote arts education and experimentation. The Ballroom is a different thing for everyone involved. Kreiger described the Ballroom as a hub; Tucker called it a playground; Davis thinks of it as “sentient…like the belly of a huge…thing.” I think the sheer earnestness of the place lends itself to a gripping and emblematic first impression; to me, the Archer Ballroom will always feel like a great, big hug.