Last week I had the pleasure to sit down with Lori Lee, a longtime member of Chicago’s Hell in a Handbag (HIAH), to discuss her life and career as an actress in the city. I called her up and was greeted by the familiar low, resonant voice of hers that can carry to the back of an auditorium with no microphone. Ethel Merman would be so proud.
I started the interview asking about the very beginning of her acting background to which she revealed her very first role was a nun in a play in grammar school when at that time she was taller than most of the boys. She continued doing plays in high school and eventually went to Rockford College (now Rockford University) where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in acting and directing with a minor in dance. College allowed Lee to explore all sorts of genres in theatre. However, comedy was what she gravitated towards. Upon graduating from college, Lori Lee started doing improv at Second City, stand up comedy, and singing in nightclubs. In fact, she even did singing telegrams for a while. Lee told me stories about going out to nightclubs on Mannheim Road singing and doing stand up with influential people like Tony Smith and Karen Carroll. Right out of college, she would hang out with people like Tim Kazurinsky, Will Clinger, and Ron Dean and go down in the basement of a bar and play improv games “just for the hell of it.”
Eventually, Lori Lee landed her first role in a Chicago show as Mrs. Van Daan in Circle Theatre’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Lee was a company member of Circle Theatre from 1985-1989, where she was in an impressive 17 shows within five years and played roles that included Miss Hannigan in Annie and Mary Magdalene in Godspell. Between 1989 and 2002, Lee worked for various theatre companies like Factory Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Bailiwick Theatre, and Phoenix Ascending Theatre where she played her “most demanding role” to date, Helena in Spin Cycle.
In 2002, Lori Lee found her theatre home where she would work for 18 years and counting. Lee has been with Hell in a Handbag since the start of the company. “Starting out, we didn’t have a lot of people. We got ripped in the papers. It took a little while and then POSEIDON! An Upside-Down Musical won the Outstanding Ensemble Award at the New York International Fringe Festival. Once David [Cerda] did that [show], we came back.” Led by David Cerda, Hell in a Handbag Productions is known for their campy comedy shows. One of their popular recurring shows is The Golden Girls: Lost Episodes where Lori has played characters like Stan Zbornak and the Emcee/Trivia Hostess. Lori shares what she likes about HIAH. “It’s entertaining while it provides a through line of acceptance and/or inclusion of people, all walks of life. And our shows provide comedy relief that’s at an adult level, but is understood by all. We do a lot of old school. You know, David writes plays and musicals from some of the greats. Poseidon, The Birds, Imitation of Life. So you’re taking some well known movies from the past and doing it campy Handbag style for all walks of life to enjoy.”
Lori’s favorite role she’s ever played was Yukon Cornelia in Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer. Lee recalls what it was like to play Yukon and what the message of the show really was. “And it’s like in ‘Rudolph,’ being normal isn’t normal.” At this point in the interview, Lori started to get emotional and I could tell that this show really touched her heart and why it was her favorite. “Sorry, it’s been awhile since I talked about it,” she says. “Being normal isn’t normal at all. So, whoever anyone is, there’s a place for them to see Handbag and enjoy it without being worried about any demonstrations. It’s just a fun environment to enjoy camp theatre, well done camp theatre. There always seems to be some sort of golden message, some sort of positive meaning to David Cerda’s shows.” Lori’s very proud of the following that Hell in a Handbag has accumulated over the years. There have been many moments where after a show, audience members have come up to her to say that they have been going through a lot of pain in their lives and that they were so grateful that the show brought joy into their lives for a couple hours. “People find it therapeutic and need it,” she says.
Lori Lee has dabbled in many genres, but comedy is her absolute favorite. When I asked her how she compared comedy to drama she said, “I feel my best walking out doing a comedy, physically. I get more out of it than a drama. Drama to me is all head. It’s kind of sucky to cry on stage. It’s heavy. I walk out after comedy, you’re worn out, but damn you feel good! It’s a party to me!” She loves being a part of the Chicago theatre scene because of the diversity and variety of theatre there is in the city. “There’s an abundance of anything and everything that you can think of from Mariachi singing down to Second City improv up to puppetry...There’s professional theatres like Steppenwolf and the Goodman...I think the city has a lot of theatre to be proud of.”
One of Lori Lee’s favorite roles to play is the Emcee of a show. She frequently emcee’s The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes at HIAH and is also the trivia hostess during intermission. She says she loves being a part of the crowd’s energy and getting them riled up and excited for the show they’re about to see! In fact, one of her dream jobs is to be an Emcee for a larger production of a show like Cirque du Soleil that greets the audience and talks throughout the show. She goes on to imagine, “Maybe on a TV show that is the sidekick that interacts with the audience and the host.” With Lori’s spunky personality and experience, I’d say she’s over halfway there.
Lori revealed to me that one of her ultimate dreams is to own her own theatre and be a talent scout for the shows produced in said theatre. “If I had a million, I would buy a building and redo it and try to get some arts in there...Dance, music, theatre. And in that realm, finding talent and going somewhere with it.” Who knows, maybe in the future we will be going to a theatre with Lori Lee’s name on top of the building!