Hannah Gadsby moves beyond comedy but promises a ‘playful’ show in Chicago

‘I am doing my own thing now,’ says the Australian performer, who is touring with a new set meant to add ‘depth to your understanding of who I am.’

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Hannah Gadsby says that during her previous Chicago visit in 2019, she went axe throwing.

Ben King

Few stars have exploded on the comedy landscape like Hannah Gadsby did with her 2018 Netflix special “Nanette.” The show marked her worldwide breakthrough after establishing an acting and stand-up career in her native Australia, and what took the world by storm was its daring honesty.  

In “Nanette,” the out and proud Gadsby took viewers on a journey that began with straightforwardly humorous takes on lesbian life and the constant feedback from her community demanding “more lesbian content.” But as the performance progressed, the 44-year-old mastered the tension between comedy and drama to share the harsh realities of growing up gay in Tasmania (where homosexuality was illegal until 1997)

Gadsby also recounted a beating and a rape she endured due to her sexual identity, but wove them into a stirring final declaration of resilience and pride in being an outsider. Her second Netflix special, 2020’s “Douglas,” opened with Gadsby announcing she’d expelled all her trauma in “Nanette” and instead explored her late-diagnosed autism.

Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby, ‘Body of Work’

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.

Tickets: $60-$80

Info: msg.com/the-chicago-theatre

Now Gadsby is back on tour with her new show, “Body of Work.” Looking back on her whirlwind success and happily facing her positive present (which includes a 2021 marriage to producer Jenney Shamash), Gadsby brings the show to the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday.

“I chose the title ‘Body of Work’ as a way of acknowledging how touring a standup comedy show around the world will force an evolution of text,” Gadsby explains via email. “Parading in front of many different audiences in multiple cities, countries and continents necessarily demands that my work must always be in a state of flux and undergoing constant adjustment. Each show is its own work and thus each tour becomes a body of work.”

On her previous tour stop in Chicago in 2019, Gadsby went ax throwing, “which was a strange decision on my part but no stranger than dyeing the river green for St. Patrick’s Day.”

It was one of many new experiences found on her global tours, which can be a challenge.

“My situation on the neurological spectrum means that I have no problem memorizing large amounts of material and I feel incredibly comfortable in front of an audience,” notes Gadsby. “The only problem I have onstage is distraction, which is why I require Yonder phone pouches at my shows: locking up phones means that I don’t get distracted by the distractions of others.

“My biggest problem, however, comes with the touring itself. Airports, unfamiliar environments, fluorescent lights, loud noises, crowds and disruption to routine are all part of the touring process but are also incredibly distressing for me to navigate. Fortunately, with success comes an increased ability to accommodate, and I have an incredible team who provide a lot of support so I can make it onstage in good shape to do the best I can.”

Noting that the key to success in comedy is just time on stage “because comedy is a skill that demands many hours to hone,” she also points out that “the secret sauce is authenticity, because I am trying to communicate, not manipulate.” Yet she surprisingly doesn’t consider her performances as comedy any longer, an idea that springs from her repeated assertions in “Nanette” that she is torn about continuing as a stand-up.

“I have quit comedy. I am doing my own thing now,” she explains. “It’s mostly funny, but I am not interested in my work being defined by a ‘form’ that other people think I should adhere to. I don’t play to win. I play to play. ‘Nanette’ was my breakthrough show, but I would be a fool to use it as a blueprint for my future work.

“I am not a trauma artist. I am an artist who has experienced trauma, but I have also experienced many other things, and this show is a thematic reflection of that. Is it lighter? Sure. But instead of comparing each of my shows on a sliding scale of ‘tone’ I would encourage you to see each as adding depth to your understanding of who I am. In this show you will find me being very playful and irreverent, but you could say I am being a veritable contradiction of the ‘person’ who delivered ‘Nanette.’ But no, same guy.”

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