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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Back Lot Bash, fifteen years and still going strong
by Liz Baudler
2018-06-12

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Despite having full-time jobs, the dynamic duo of Amie Klujian and Christina Wiesmore-Roberts have put on the famed lesbian-focused yet all-inclusive Back Lot Bash for 15 years, and don't plan to quit anytime soon. Held initially in an empty Andersonville lot behind Clark Street, the event has grown from one day to two weekends, and now draws up to 6,000 people from around the Midwest—and the world.

"The event means different things to different people," said Klujian. "In general, we're trying to be mindful of different parts of our community and be as inclusive as can be, and make everyone feel welcome—straight people, too!"

In 2003, the good friends, who both worked in hospitality if not necessarily event planning, found themselves sick of how many "boy parties" dominated the scene. The two had met at Atmosphere, where Wiesmore-Roberts tended bar, at an event specifically for women, so they knew how much those spaces were needed. They both lived in Andersonville, and as Wiesmore-Roberts put it, wanted "to move the party a little north."

"We weren't saying, 'Oh, we want to start an event that we're going to be doing for 15 years," Klujian recalled of the party's 2004 debut. "We were kind of thinking more in the moment of an option that was a little different for women. [Back Lot Bash] is a nice alternative given that there are less social spaces. We had an inkling after the first year that we definitely wanted to do it again, but we didn't really know how it would be received or anything."

At first a one- or maybe two-year-shot, the pair found themselves "overwhelmed" by the response to the first Bash, and the party has continued ever since. The co-creators feel a yearly event, unlike a bar space, can be flexible because of less fixed costs, and that helps them respond to community desires.

"It's like giving birth every year—to a nice baby: a baby that makes us wanna have another every year," Klujian said. "We try to stay as relevant as we can: to stay dynamic and to stay relevant are two very important things."

More recent additions to the calendar include "Family Day," a free all-ages event, and "Whiskey, Wine and Women," a more intimate indoor evening with alcohol tasting and acoustic music. "Family Day," the first-ever Chicago LGBTQ event focused on that population, started six years ago, and Wiesmore-Roberts said it's her favorite.

"We love 'Family Day.' It's one of our most special contributions to the community," agreed Klujian, who remembered very few lesbians having babies when she first moved to Chicago.

Wiesmore-Roberts explained how the newest spot in the lineup evolved. "We had so many different emails come to us in the past couple of years: 'Hey, we really love to mix and mingle, something that's more of a low vibe?' And Klujian and I started talking and we were like, 'What about whiskey, wine and women?,'" she recalled. "Now, we're already planning the following year because we have all of these distilleries reaching out to us nationally. You can say that we throw the same type of event, year after year, but you have to be able to change it up and listen to the community."

Those changes can take time to implement well. "Coming up with the idea of 'Family Day,' that wasn't an overnight thing," Wiesmore-Roberts said. "That was a year to two years of talking and planning before we actually kicked it off."

"With the two of us, I think we're pretty down to earth, so we communicate well, we communicate often, we're always bouncing ideas back and forth," Klujian said. "What's good to know for any event producer is that not everything's successful the first time. We've had to tweak things, we've tried, and tried, and tried again, and then we just altered course: we're not afraid to do that."

Though they often finish each other's sentences, the co-producers are not a couple: both are happily partnered with other people. "We've never even made out! That's an exclusive!" laughed Klujian. "We get that all the time: she's my day wife! We've grown so much through this event too. It's a nice thing to share with a friend. We have been business partners for 15 years. I mean every year we have one spat or two…"

"I'll call and say, 'Yeah, you were right," Wiesmore-Roberts added. "It's a 24-hour mute, do not talk, if we get to a spat and then we're both like little puppy dogs ... okay, fine, we got to move on. What's interesting is that's how we work so well together; we know how to honestly separate business from being so close. I've learned so much from her."

It was Klujian's idea to expand the Bash in the first place—an idea that Wiesmore-Roberts, wanting to have fun herself during Pride, took a while to appreciate.

"I remember going from being 28 and young and just wanting to hang out and party to "I want to adopt, Family Day's my favorite day," Wiesmore-Roberts said. "We change, we both have fed off each other, but I just remember having those conversations looking back and being like, why did I say no?"

"We're very much together, but we also know that we can't do an event like this without dividing and conquering at some points," Klujian said. "We each have things that one of us takes the lead on, and we always update each other. Wiesmore-Roberts is a master with communicating online and through social media. "

The Wizard of Oz behind the curtain is not their style; the two want to stay connected to the community, either via internet or in person, to help maintain keep Back Lot Bash's gritty, friendly Chicago vibe—important when people come from all over to party.

"There's such an amazing LGBTQ history in Chicago," said Klujian. "And the community—it's diverse, it's wide, it's deep. When we bring in folks from LA, celebrities, maybe they haven't spent time in Chicago and in the LGBT community here, and everyone is with their jaw on the ground about how amazing Chicago is. And not just Pride weekend. We want the West Coast and the East Coast and everyone in between—we want the world to know that our community is awesome, and that there's so many options over Pride weekend and throughout the year, not just our event. Anyone who comes here and enjoys themselves and leaves here feeling like this community is welcoming, that's a good thing."

Two goals the pair have for their event is to provide more live music, particularly from local female artists, and keep supporting causes in the community, whether through helping political actions, like the 2013 March on Springfield, or raising money for local organizations.

"It blows me away to look at the lineup for Lollapalooza: Four lines down your first female is mentioned," said Wiesmore-Roberts, who recalled being shocked that Lady Gaga was the first female headliner at Wrigley Field ( in 2017 ) after the ballpark had been hosting concerts for years. "Jade the Ivy, she's a Chicago emerging artist, we're super excited to watch her perform. But it's really putting that spotlight on more women artists."

"Misrepresentation or under-representation of women, that became important to us," said Klujian. "People are becoming more aware, and I think that's critical, so we'll do our little part to help out. Our goal is to afford more respect to people who are perceived differently."

In addition to a lineup that includes Sarah Shahi (from the L Word) DJ Kittens, Brooke Candy, Catfight, Bridget Lyons, Jade The Ivy, DJ Zel, DJ All The Way K and Rose Garcia and Whitney Mixter, this year Chicago Women's Health Center will benefit from Bash proceeds."

"Our history has been very strong in giving back to the community since we pretty much started," Wiesmore-Roberts said. "Girls in the Game, Ride for AIDS, Howard Brown, A Sister's Hope ... Chicago Women's Health Center—what a great organization, they're going to be at our 'Family Day' with a table. But it's interesting, a lot of my friends and acquaintances didn't know about the services. You have to be able to network in the community; you have to be able, also, to teach. I introduced two individuals to the [CWHC] executive director and, right away, they were like oh, we're going to help with a sponsor, and that makes me happy. That's why I personally still do it. I can't even tell you the number of people we've met throughout the 15 years and connected through this event. Even if we work full-time—people are, like, 'Gosh, how do you guys do it?'—it's because of our love of giving back, but also connecting everyone together."

"Hopefully, people come to our event and feel inspired and connected and feel authentic and feel valuable, and then they engage throughout the year in passions that are meaningful to them," said Klujian.

One of the most memorable Bashes was the one that took place June 26, 2015—the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

"It actually rained on Friday night, but it didn't change the atmosphere," Wiesmore-Roberts remembered. "I was on no sleep, and I didn't care. If one person came to our event, we didn't care. We were the happiest people in the world."

"We're very lucky because our Pride weekend is timed to when a lot of those decisions seem to take place," Klujian pointed out, recalling a similar feel when New York State legalized same-sex marriage. "It was a Friday evening, and we had an acoustic night in the lot, and when that decision came down, we were able to make an announcement to the crowd. It was a beautiful night and a really special moment."

The Bash's future is bright: It eventually includes a 20th-anniversary extravaganza, and more focus on the popular "Whiskey, Wine and Women." Through it all, Klujian and Wiesmore-Roberts want to stay open and inclusive, prioritizing cross-generational dialogue and cross-identity dialogue.

"When someone mentioned over a year ago about Brooke Candy, I was just, like, "Let's look into Brooke Candy, and fell in love," Wiesmore-Roberts said. "We talk about artists for the younger generation. The age difference ... that's where we're always open. We might be in our forties, but that's a thing that we do very well."

While they've worked out the singular logistics of the Lot over the years and have loved the support of the neighborhood Alderman, one challenge that will never, ever go away is…

"WEATHER," the two chorused. "That keeps us up at night," Klujian added. "Our space is very unique—too bad it's not a little dome that's covered. We did do three outdoor events in a row, Friday night used to be an acoustic night, and we decided we had to move that more inside. It was lovely, but just three days outside, stressing about the weather, was tough. We can't mitigate it on Saturday and Sunday. Keeping the attitude of taking risks sometimes, especially as we grow older... when we expanded to Sunday, it poured that first year. We lost big time, it was bad. But you know what, we were like, 'We're doing it again,' because we believed in the idea."

"You have to take those chances. Sometimes you're going to win, sometimes you're going to lose, but we put the mission out there and because we believe in the mission, that's why it's successful," said Wiesmore-Roberts. "And if you don't believe in something, it's not going to be successful. That's where our positive attitude comes from: We truly believe in the mission, which is community and safe space."

"Lessons learned would be don't be afraid to take risks, and make sure that you enjoy what you do," Klujian concluded. "Because if you don't—and this is not just advice for an event producer, but anyone in life—if you don't like what you do, you're not going to be happy. You got to be proud of what outcomes you produce all day. Without passion, you're not filling up your fulfilment tank. Be 100-percent authentic in what your interests are, and go for it."

For more on this year's Back Lot Bash ( events on June 15, 22-24 at various locations ), visit BackLotBashChicago.com .


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