photo: Courtesy of Jill Summers.
If you regularly listen to Chicago Public Radio's Third Coast International Festival's Re-Sound program, chances are you've heard Jill Summers' girlishly smooth voice delivering rich portraits of the characters that inhabit a fictitious Chicago grey stone.
Called "Cohabitation," these five short audio stories, which examine marriage, old age, obsession and loneliness, make parking the car just to really listen a perfectly logical decision.
Heavy on ironic humor and made whimsically light by a background of viola, drums, noisemakers and xylophone, the stories include a woman who secretly serves beef broth to an annoying vegetarian lover and an old man obsessed with a boil, to name a few. Though written as part of a thesis project in 2005 for Columbia College Chicago, excerpts from "Cohabitation" still regularly air on the Third Coast Festival's International Audio Festival's program, for which Summers also contributed an excerpt for "99 Ways to Tell a Radio Story" last fall.
Summers' involvement with music and writing projects extends from managing Stray Dog Recording Company (where mostly local independent bands record) with her husband, audio engineer David Whitcomb, to writing/performing for Incurable Theater. She is one Chicago artist worth looking out for, or rather, listening up for. Over our sushi bento boxes at Oysy on a recent lunch break from Columbia, where we both have day jobs, I recently chatted with Summers:
Where did you get the idea for Cohabitation?
I like to write about relationships, and I wrote these stories knowing I would ultimately record them. Working in audio gives me a certain amount of control over mood and tone. It's not based on a real place, nor are the characters based on anyone in particular. But I obviously drew inspiration from my life and things I've encountered. I've been married for a long time; I find myself annoyed quite often. The people in these stories are annoyed with each other, with their situations, with themselves.
Do you consider yourself a writer or a visual artist first?
I've always written, but I never thought of myself as a writer. I did a BA in music performance for undergrad, and then book and paper arts for grad school. But now I would rather write than anything else—it makes the most sense, telling stories, trying to make sense of the ridiculousness of things.
How has living in Chicago affected you creatively?
If I stayed in Florida where I grew up, I'd probably be working at Wendy's. But here there is such a constant and steady stream of culture, and artists in Chicago seem eager to collaborate. There is just a lot more opportunity here to do interesting work.
Where do you go in Chicago to get inspired?
I have an over active imagination and am generally lazy. I write all my stories in my head on the train or in my head walking toward the train.
Your stories are packed with keen observations of human behavior...
I do a lot of eavesdropping, anywhere that I am. I am generally quiet and I listen a lot. I also watch a lot of bad TV.
What was one of your favorite projects of 2006?
I recently read at the Dollar Store series at the Hideout, which was a lot of fun. The way the Dollar Store works is that the hosts Jonathan Messinger and Jeremy Sosenko give you an object they bought at a dollar store and you have a month to create a piece based on it. I ended up doing a shadow puppet show and an audio recording for it, based on a circa 1980 socket guard.
What projects are on the horizon?
I'm working on a few more audio shorts that I'll be trying to get out soon. I am also working on a project with Chris Bower, a local poet and playwright. Chris and I are currently obsessed with various letter collections that he has been fortunate enough to discover, and we are working on a fictional epistolary project that is going to have similarities with some of his discoveries. Basically we are trying to build a family, its letters, its ephemera, from the ground up.
Where do you go in Chicago to get your art fix?
I don't really go out a lot, but I like knowing that I can. I try to at least get out see my friends' and coworkers' work. I recently saw Joe Meno's play at the Viaduct and the Birdcatcher show at Heaven Gallery in December featuring Chris Hefner's film work.
Your most recent exciting discovery in Chicago was:
We recently got rid of our car and joined I-GO. I love it. They have a lot of hybrids, so I think for a lot of people the appeal is environmental. For me it's strictly financial though, and any benefit to the environment is an unfortunate side effect.