By Matthew T. Messina
I have vivid memories of sleeping over at my grandmother’s house as a young child. I had a set bedtime, but I always snuck out of bed and crept into the living room where she would be watching reruns of sitcoms from decades past. I loved those nights, not just because I was thrilled to be up past my bedtime, but because I loved watching those shows. I loved the music, the laughter, the applause.
I was too young to understand all of the jokes, but I always laughed along with the studio audience, because their laughter cued me in. They made me feel smart and mature as I rocked footie pajamas and a mouth full of baby teeth.
Fast forward about eighteen years. I heard about a project called B-SIDE STUDIO, a collaboration between The Inconvenience, The New Colony, and the University of Chicago’s Theater and Performance Studies Program, described as a four-part, episodic story in the style of a ‘70s sitcom about a failing recording studio located on the south side of Chicago. The series was co-written by Inconvenience Resident Writer Ike Holter and New Colony Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder and directed by Nicholas J. Carroll, Andrew Hobgood, and Gus Menary.
I had tickets to the taping of the fourth and final episode. Therefore, it was my job to watch the first three episodes online each week. Well, life caught up with me. Suddenly, it was less than a week before the taping of the fourth episode. Not to fear, the episodes were all on Youtube. I caught up in the few days before the taping. Oh, the luxuries of millennial life.
I accessed Youtube via my Nintendo Wii and sat in the living room of my apartment to watch. During the cold open of episode one I was introduced to most of the major players: Janice (Missi Davis), a bright-eyed, spunky, new assistant; Gary (Wes Needham) and Felix McNamara (Kevin Stangler), brothers and owners of B-Side Studio; Marvin (Mikey Harnichar) a flamboyant, kimono-donning, musician; Butch (Brad Smith), another in-house musician, and last, but certainly not least, Lady (Daeshawna Cook), the sassiest landlord in the Chicagoland area.
Okay, I know who the story is about. Check.
Then, a title sequence, shot in a grainy, seventies-esque fashion, complete with shots of the south side, cast credits, and a catchy theme song (I am be-bopping to the tune as I write. People are staring. Whatever).
Back to the action. In the next scene I find out the studio is in financial trouble and can’t pay the rent. Conflict. Check.
Then, a commercial break featured advertisements for local theatre companies’ projects.
I watched all three episodes in one sweep, because, well…I could. I was tuned in for episode one. I thought, okay good introduction. Episode two. What’s next? The plot thickened, Lady’s husband, a member of the mafia, shows up demanding money. But, even with stakes like that…I found my attention wavering. The quick-witted banter began to meander. I lost a sense of urgency and at times had to ask myself ‘what are they talking about again?’ Regardless, I was still looking forward to being a part of the live studio audience. Maybe actually being in the space would change my experience. (Spoiler alert: it did).
I arrived at The Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago on Saturday, October 12th for the taping of the fourth and final episode. I received a complimentary can of PBR at the door and was told to enjoy the show. Certainly a good way to get me in the mood to laugh. A band entertained us while we waited for the show to start, and the experience was complete with a comedian to warm us up. We were told to pay attention to the screen above the stage which would flash messages such as, “Applause!” “Woo!” and “Boo!”. This screen also played the title sequence and commercials. The lights came down, the cameras began rolling, and the action began.
I had been following the characters and their story in my living room. Now, they were feet in front of me. I was no longer watching a television show; I was watching a piece of live theatre. And I was part of it! My laughs, my woo’s, and my boo’s were recorded. They will be heard by all who watch the fourth episode online. Which makes me smile, as I harken back to those sleepovers at grandma’s.
Seeing the show live was far more entertaining than the online version. My attention did not waver and I laughed twice as much as I did when I watched at home. The perception shift from watching at home to watching live reminded me of the beauty of live theatre. An energy exists between performer and audience member that does not transfer through a screen. The audience actively participates in live theatre. Our reactions fuel the performers and charge the space. One of the most interesting moments occurred when Gary and Lady exited into the office, while a scene continued in the main studio space. Because I was there in the theatre, I could see Gary and Lady the entire time. An audience at home would not have seen them until the cameras switched over to the office set. I watched them stay in character and silently interact while the previous scene wrapped up. It subtly reminded me how onstage there is nowhere to hide.
The entire idea was just…hip as hell. It challenged ideas about the conventions of live theatre, and how we experience stories. Though it was not perfect, it was one of the spunkiest, brave, and exciting projects I have seen in recent memory.