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Questions for Saturday Night Live's Cecily Strong

Cecily Strong

You were one of three new members who joined the cast of Saturday Night Live this season. What was the best advice you received before you stepped out on the stage?
[SNL cast member] Bill Hader took the three of us out to dinner—he does it for all the new cast members. He’s the most supportive, friendly person, and he told us it’s OK to feel anxious about the job. It was really nice to know that it’s normal to feel so nervous. He said Amy Poehler took him to the same kind of dinner.

SNL has a long tradition of elevating young female comics. Is that something you thought about when, at 28, you joined the cast?
I feel really lucky to be doing comedy right now because women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig have opened so many doors. Because of them, people want to hear my voice as a woman and see well-rounded female characters who aren’t just the funny girlfriend commenting on how crazy her boyfriend is.

How did it feel when you auditioned last summer in front of Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer?
It was so insane. You know, you always tell yourself, “I’m never going to get SNL. Nobody gets SNL.” When Lorne Michaels came to a showcase at [Chicago improv theatre] IO, my parents were sitting right in front of him. I think they were more nervous than I was, because when I got offstage their faces were completely white. I thought, Oh my God, I totally screwed this up.

How did the audition process unfold from there?
I was flown out to New York four times over two months, twice for screen tests and twice for meetings. I cried every single time I got a call—I’m just a total emotional weenie. The first time I went out, I had to perform for Lorne and some of the writers. Later they also made me hang out for an hour and a half; they want to make sure you can hang. It was just a total whirlwind.

One of your characters—Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party—has become a sensation. What’s that like?
You have to take it in stride. It’s really exciting, and I feel really lucky. But I don’t want to think about it too much. Anything can change.

Was that character inspired by the ladies you met at the Wrigleyville John Barleycorn over the years?
[Laughs.] It’s a mix of a lot of people—including myself, unfortunately. But it came about when I was talking to one of the writers, Colin Jost. And I said something that sounded like a drunk-girl ramble. And we just started riffing on that. And as it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s had a conversation with this type of girl.

Did anyone in your family always crack you up at the dinner table?
My parents are really funny. Laughter was a big part of my childhood. Of course, they tell a lot of bad jokes—but so do I. I tell a lot of bad jokes.

Were you the funny girl when you were in school?
I was voted funniest person in my middle-school yearbook. So I guess I was funny in middle school? I had a tough time in high school [Strong went to Oak Park and River Forest High School, then transferred to the Chicago Academy for the Arts]. It sounds so clichéd, but I’ve always been kind of different. I always liked being around weird kids.

You went to the California Institute of Arts to study theatre. What made you transition from acting to comedy?
My drama instructor suggested I try comedy. I was resistant at first because I considered myself a serious actor, but of course I fell in love with it.

How would you characterize the training experience in Chicago, which you experienced when you moved back after college?
It really ends up taking over your whole life. If you’re not in classes or performing, you’re going to see shows. And I also had to keep, like, four jobs to support myself. [But] Chicago has a real ensemble feel. It’s funny—since we [Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Tim Robinson, who all played at IO and Second City] got hired on SNL, it seems like there’s a lot more standup comedy in Chicago. As they say, there’s blood in the water.

SNL cast members are known for their impressions. Who might you attempt next?
It’s tough to say; I don’t think of myself as an impressionist. The only good characters I do are Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland. I’ve also always wanted to do Nancy Reagan hosting a talk show. That sounds hilarious to me.

Has Tina Fey given you any advice?
No, but we had an awkward hug. I’m terribly awkward.

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Claim to Fame

This season, more SNL cast members have ties to Chicago than any other city. Here’s a look at the locals.

Fred Armisen
Played in the Chicago band Trenchmouth


Vanessa Bayer
Performed at IO, the Annoyance, Zanies, and Second City


Aidy Bryant
Columbia College grad; IO and Second City performer


Seth Meyers
Evanston raised; Northwestern grad


Tim Robinson
Alum of Second City


Jason Sudeikis
Alum of Second City, IO, and the Annoyance



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Terry Adkins Imagines ‘Black Beethoven’

1. Darkwater Record (2003); 2. Off Minor (2004); 3. Nutjuitok (Polar Star) (2012)

Was Beethoven black? Anecdotes about the German composer’s “dark” skin, and an apocryphal genealogy from the 1940s that traced him to the Moors, have kept this myth buzzing into this century. And it has prompted the multimedia artist Terry Adkins, 59, a professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, to create a group of sound sculptures called Black Beethoven, now on exhibition through March 24 at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.

Inspired by Adkins’s “forward-looking visions” of American civil rights leaders, martyrs, and musicians, the show succeeds because it makes the viewer wonder, can you see—or hear—a person’s race through his or her art? For those willing to consider the intriguing possibility, the exhibition is worth the short trip to Northwestern’s art museum.

The cornerstone of the entire collection is Off Minor, a music box–like instrument that Adkins invented and normally uses in live concerts. But Off Minor will sit mute during the exhibition; visitors will have to imagine what kind of strangely beautiful sounds it may make—the way Beethoven had to use his imagination as he continued to write music while going deaf. This gap of sensual experience provokes the questions: How do we know the truth about Beethoven’s race unless someone tells us? Can we hear blackness in his works?

Adkins’s strategy mirrors Toni Morrison’s effort to label Bill Clinton as the first black president: It’s thoughtful fiction intended to challenge perception. “I believe in the power of creative imagination above all things,” says Adkins, who, for more than 30 years, has channeled past revolutionaries across politics, art, and music to create his abstract pieces (Jimi Hendrix, blues singer Bessie Smith, and the abolitionist John Brown are among his inspirations). He chooses historical characters “based on their unheralded relevance to today,” he says, “applying their vision to today’s ills and injustices.”

One example: Darkwater Record, named for W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1920 autobiography, is a collection of tape recorders—sans speakers—silently playing Du Bois’s 1960 speech based on his essay “Socialism and the American Negro.” A bust of Mao sits atop them, recalling the Chinese dictator’s co-opting of Du Bois’s socialism. (Mao declared Du Bois’s birthday a national holiday in China.)

As for Beethoven, Adkins says he is intrigued by both the composer’s deafness and the debate around his race, but he doesn’t intend to settle the question of Beethoven’s race. “I hope to generate a sense of seeking in the audience,” he says. “You can then fill in the gaps and participate in history in your own way.”

GO Terry Adkins: Recital runs through March 24 at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston. For info,



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Mash-Up Mania


Dancer Miguel Gutierrez translates two years of researching neurology and philosophy into movement in And Lose the Name of Action. “It’s about life and death in the family—it stems from my own life and my father’s neurological problems.” It may sound bookish, but he focuses on relationships, not academia. Museum of Contemporary Art, Jan. 31



Jack Mayer and David Brent’s Night of the Magician has all the right blockbuster elements—gore, monsters, a zombie factory town—but the University of Chicago grads have developed a new, blended genre they call a “live movie,” interweaving film with theatre, puppetry, and an original score (by fellow grad Jenn Romero). Chopin Theatre, Jan. 24 to Feb. 17



“We’ve ripped traditional chamber music apart,” says Josh Rubin, the clarinetist who founded the music collective International Contemporary Ensemble. Eight ICE members will weave Franz Schubert’s Octet in F Major into two austere free-jazz pieces by the composer and trombonist George Lewis. Chicago Cultural Center, Jan. 6



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Talking Trash with a Lady Arm Wrestler

Up in arms: the Killer Bee

Up in arms: the Killer Bee

The Killer Bee has been drinking honey whiskey, and she’s already half stung by the time she takes the stage. It’s barely ten o’clock on a Saturday night, and the stage in question, at O’Malley’s Liquor Kitchen in Wrigleyville, is already populated by a soused cowgirl who calls herself Calamity Pain, a glamazonian emcee with cleavage all the way to Cleveland, two sketchy referees—one dressed as a hot dog—and a commentator wearing no pants.

But the star of CLLAW XIV, the Chicago League of Lady Arm Wrestlers’ latest bacchanal, is the Bee. Dressed in black tights, yellow go-go boots, and some kind of kid’s bumblebee Halloween costume, the five-time champion plays the villain and downs drinks with her black-and-yellow posse in a cartoonish manner that makes you smile at the pure showmanship of it all.

But she really is drunk.

Not too drunk, though, to defeat Calamity Pain (“Bitch, you’ve just been stung!”), her tattooed bicep writhing like an angry python, and take out a Tonya Harding clone who calls herself the Cutting Edge. The road to the finals is paved with not just battles of brawn but also Hula-Hoops, cupcakes, and beer chugging. The raucous crowd of 300 work themselves into a delirium with a barrage of jibes and bribes as they vie for senseless raffle prizes—such as an ovulation predictor kit—and enjoy the kind of rowdy unironic fun that ensues when there’s an open bar for $25. One man pays $50 for the privilege of, um, vigorously nuzzling the busty emcee, who gives him his money’s worth before shoving him back into the mob.

Tonight, the Killer Bee’s flight ends in the championship round, where she succumbs to a mustachioed, chainsaw-wielding lumberjack named Jill. The deposed insect pretends to go bonkers, flailing and kicking at the crowd, but it’s all in jest. It must be, because she never stops smiling.

* * *

Killer Bee’s real name is Bess McGeorge. She lives in Boystown, works in the suburbs as a mental health counselor for teens, and at one point wanted to be a Hollywood stunt performer. “I grew up in southern Arkansas, and I have three older brothers,” says McGeorge, 31. “Lots of sports and roughhousing and deer hunting.” McGeorge’s manager, Dacey Arashiba, who seems slightly afraid of her, once watched McGeorge shoot a beer can off a friend’s head with a BB gun. Indoors.

McGeorge came to Chicago in 2007 to train at the Second City, and through her improv connections she landed at CLLAW. She created a backstory for her character (something about a mad scientist and an experimental lab under Cabrini-Green) and went on to glory, often defeating larger women through sheer, crazy willpower. “It’s about using your whole body and your core—not just your arm,” says McGeorge, who is actually allergic to bee stings. To improve endurance, she wedges her body into doorways to see how long she can suspend her weight; she’s melted 40 pounds from her frame through a combination of Jenny Craig and personal training. One of her rivals, the Cutting Edge (real name: Megan Smith), has taken to pole dancing to strengthen herself. A CLLAW blogger joked that the Edge has embroidered the words “do more pushups” on her underwear. The Edge denies it.

Good athletes and great actors, McGeorge and Smith are part of the national Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers, which has 19 leagues from Boston to San Francisco. The Chicago chapter is produced by the Sideshow Theatre Company, an inventive local nonprofit. The events—part sport, part improv comedy—are outlandish bashes that empower women and raise money for Sideshow and arts-based charities like Rock for Kids and Marwen.

Despite CLLAW’s theatrical origins, the wrestling is deadly serious. Just ask the mighty Armkansas, who, despite dwarfing her opponent, Connie Vict, by nearly a foot, managed to get her arm broken in a match at CLLAW XII last January. She was quietly ushered to the hospital with the crowd none the wiser. “We are very group-minded,” says McGeorge. “At the end of the day, you’re on the same team.”

It’s difficult for men to imagine any combination involving big crowds, sanctioned aggression, and copious alcohol intake leading to something positive. But therein lies the magic of female arm wrestling, where the usual “rules” of gender take a back seat to fun. A quick scan of CLLAW spectators is likely to turn up drag queens, lipstick lesbians, diesel dykes, married couples, entourages of armadillos and giant woodland dwarfs, hirsute bears, and hardbodies. And straight men.

Even pantywaist liberals like me, who claim to abhor violence, enjoy watching women get sloppy drunk and fight. It’s encoded in our DNA. But the attraction doesn’t stem from violence or the potential for nudity, both of which are great male motivators. It’s something else lurking in that gray space between sexy and sexist, something that holds true even if the fighters are dressed as a sloshed fairy and a giant strawberry.

I asked my father, a psychologist in Albuquerque, to explain this predilection. He suggested that watching women fight was an “acceptable” outlet for men’s sublimated anger toward women, and he drew a connection between aggression and sexual arousal. Then he laid some Darwin on me: “The victorious woman emerging from combat is more attractive as a mate, ensuring a more robust continuation of the species.” In other words, I’m hardwired to be a misogynistic, bloodthirsty pervert, no matter how much NPR I listen to.

The Cutting Edge, who just wants to kick ass and raise money, scoffs at such talk. “It doesn’t have anything to do with gender,” she says. “The ladies of CLLAW assume a certain contagious power that’s appealing to any of our audiences, male or female.” She scowls. “Whatever. You tell Killer Bee I’m gunning for her bigtime at the next match. She’s a hot-mess, freak-show, science-experiment-gone-all-sorts-of-wrong giant mutant bee.”

To volunteer as a wrestler or a manager or to learn about the upcoming CLLAW XV, go to



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