When Adam Todd Crawford and Danny Fender began to peel away the paper covering their Andersonville storefront windows last week, they were greeted with a surprising sight. The wide-eyed, excited faces of children were gazing back at them, peering through the windows at 5531 N. Clark Street on their way to nearby Peirce Elementary School.
Neighborhood kids aren’t the only ones who have been eagerly awaiting a debut for the Understudy, a theater bookstore and cafe. Crawford and Fender (the spouses are an actor and stage manager respectively) originally announced their plans in April 2022 and have since overcome numerous permitting and construction challenges to bring the project to fruition. At last, the Understudy is set to open its doors on Saturday, March 25, with steaming cups of Metric Coffee, pastries from pHlour Bakery and gluten-free spot Defloured, and a massive collection of theater scripts and books for readers of all ages.
“It has been a big learning curve, to say the least, but one that has been very fulfilling with lots of meaningful surprises,” says Fender. “Adam and I have always found ways to mine the positives out of those setbacks and those have allowed us to open a much better version of the Understudy than we would have if we’d opened sooner.”
The couple used that time to expand their knowledge of coffee science and culture, leading them to bring in specialized equipment like a Ground Control coffee brewer — a striking contraption that creates batch-brew coffee that maintains the flavor of a pour-over cup. The Understudy’s machine is the second of its kind in Chicago, only otherwise seen at Gaslight Coffee in Logan Square. They’ve also snagged a La Marzocco espresso machine and will offer teas from Northalsted’s Coffee & Tea Exchange.
Crawford and Fender tapped the team at prolific Chicago firm Siren Betty Design to take the venue from page to stage, intertwining their nostalgic memories of grand performance venues — seen in marble tabletops and rich Rococo-style wallpaper — with the gritty, handmade character of the city’s theater scene. Large, industrial worktables dot the space, and artist Susan Williams wheat-pasted thousands of script pages (complete with handwritten notes in the margins) on the walls of a narrow hallway near the restroom.
“We live in Chicago where theater is defined and lead by storefront spaces that are cobbled together,” says Fender. “Throughout all of the Understudy, we’re trying to honor the hard work it takes to make beautiful things happen.”
Divided into two adjacent spaces, the Understudy is primed for flexibility. To the south, patrons will find the cafe, equipped with a coffee bar, cafe tables, and counter seating along the windows. To the north lies the bookcase-lined store bearing hundreds of titles, a sliding ladder to reach the highest shelves, and a lounge area with couches for meetings or curling up with a script. All the central furniture pieces are on wheels so staff can rearrange the rooms for events, readings, and performances. The venue also includes a walk-up coffee window embedded in a playful, theater-themed wall mural from local artist Joe Kraft.
Despite the frustration of delays, Crawford and Fender have identified a kind of poetry in their extended opening saga. The Understudy itself is a representation of the couples’ philosophy of embracing the experience of creation rather than fixating on a final product.
“We’re celebrating the process,” says Crawford. “You can come in here if you’re in the process of learning about a new discipline, or if it’s something you’re coming back to. We can come with you on that journey and say, ‘That’s something that helped me,’ or ‘Let’s look together.’”
Explore the cafe and bookstore in the photographs below.
The Understudy, 5531 N. Clark Street; dcheduled to open Saturday, March 25.