By Benjamin Rossi
The premiere of The New Colony’s “So Many Days,” the young theater company’s first short film, feels unmistakably like a gathering of friends. A live band made up of company members croons bluegrass tunes about Oriental lovers and drinking till you die; everyone seems to know the words. Someone in the company had sent out an email encouraging people to wear flannel shirts in homage to the short’s early sixties Deep South setting, but it’s difficult to distinguish those who complied from the rest of the hipster crowd.
A makeshift bar set off in a corner of host Collaboraction’s small space serves whiskey and PBR in Solo cups as company members greet people in the Flat Iron Arts Building’s third floor landing, asking, “So who’s your friend in the company?”
With “So Many Days,” the barely three-year-old New Colony is taking a novel, if not entirely unprecedented, step towards filmmaking. It’s just one more in a series of remarkable moves for the theater group. And while it is a modest beginning, New Colony members say its latest effort is a harbinger for things to come. But as its projects become more ambitious, the company may come up against obstacles that bedeviled other attempts by Chicago theaters to jump from stage to screen.
At the opening, Andrew Hobgood, the company’s artistic director, introduces the film as people grab a seat on the space’s orange bleachers or on the floor. “I’m just blown away by how many people have come out to support us even though we’ve never made a film before,” he says. “Especially in this age when everything’s a remix, thanks for coming out to support original work.”
“Gnomeo and Juliet!” someone hoots to general laughter.
In its short life, The New Colony has fast become one of the city’s hottest Off-Loop theater groups. The company traces its origins to a 2007 musical staged at the Annoyance Theatre called “Love Is Dead: A NecRomantic Musical Comedy.” A grimly funny show about a necrophiliac mortician, the production was brought to the stage by some of the writers, directors and actors who would later form the core of The New Colony. Co-founder James Asmus wrote the show with New Colony music director Julie Nichols, who penned the tunes. Co-founders Thea Lux and Meg Johns acted.
For Hobgood, who directed the show, it was an opportunity to try out a form of improvisation-based show development he had first hit on while a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I was introduced to improv by a director of mine who had taught us that every actor had to be skilled in improv because it was the only way you could ever be completely prepared for anything on stage,” he says. “It was a completely practical thing.” But working on a project with a student who had studied for a year under Mick Napier, Annoyance’s artistic director, showed him that there was more to improvisation than just covering onstage screw-ups. “I was so interested in the idea that improv can be used to create really interesting fully developed stories instead of one-and-a-half-minute scenes full of jokes and bits. That’s very much what I saw that made me start thinking it could be used for character development, story development and perhaps the development of theater pieces.” Hobgood’s idea was to take Annoyance’s method and formalize it, making carefully observed improvisation the centerpiece of script development.
“Love Is Dead” became the future New Colony founders’ first experiment with an improv-based development process. The combination of the spontaneity and realism of improvisation with the production value of theater, along with Asmus’ and Nichols’ witty, relatable writing, scored an instant hit with audiences. The show ran for six months on the Annoyance stage, then played at the FringeNYC festival in 2008, where it picked up an “Outstanding Music & Lyrics” award. “We said to ourselves, ‘this is a process that is attracting a new audience, it works for creating new pieces and it generates really interesting shows that no one is doing in the city,’” Hobgood says. “We believed there was an opportunity for an entire company to be built around the process, so that was why we started The New Colony.” Along with Evan Linder and Gary Tiedemann, the Annoyance bunch founded the company in 2007.
The New Colony has enjoyed a string of hits since, including the college comedy “FRAT” and a domestic drama called “Hearts Full of Blood,” written by Asmus, which picked up an “Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting” award at FringeNYC 2010 after an extended run at the Royal George Theatre. The group has also had its share of dumb good luck. The homeless company found its current rehearsal and office space at Lincoln Square’s Dank-Haus German Cultural Center when Asmus, who was living around the corner from the building, noticed a poster advertising a concert on Dank-Haus’ second floor in 2008. “When we talked to Dank they told us they’d never had a theater company ask if their space could be rented,” Hobgood says. “We opened ‘FRAT’ there, it was a huge hit, and then they offered us their new office suite. It was the best thing we’ve ever found.”
The New Colony’s process has evolved over time, but at its core it’s about giving actors, directors and playwrights an equal share in the development of a show. The production process begins with only a short outline and rough character sketches. After green-lighting the project for funding and putting together a creative ensemble, this outline is then fleshed out by improvising actors in consultation with the playwrights, director and designers. In contrast to a more typical process in which the script arrives at rehearsals more or less fully formed and actors must build their characterizations around that Ur-text, script-writing occurs throughout the rehearsal period as actors generate elaborate backstories for their characters. Even in the final draft of the script, many lines are “bracketed,” which means that actors can say what they feel appropriate during the live performance as long as it adheres to the script’s basic intentions. The company claims that on a given night, twenty percent of a show is improvised and eighty percent is scripted.
Over time, this process has stretched out from a month for the company’s first show, “Amelia Earhart Jungle Princess,” to four to six months for shows this season. Staged readings have also become a key part of every production, used to elicit serious audience feedback about the shows well before they open. “Usually we have three to five starter questions about major points we want feedback about,” Hobgood says, “but I’ve only ever had to use two questions because usually the audience starts talking so much that it becomes more about me having to control them from talking too much so we can get everything down.”
The end product of this acting-focused process are stage productions stuffed to the gills with rich characterizations while sometimes short on driving story lines or overarching thematic structure. Scripts may introduce characters in Act I whose relationships to one another are not made entirely clear until long after, as in the recent family drama “Pancake Breakfast.” New Colony playwrights can give wide berths for secondary or tertiary characters to wax philosophic, even though they may not show up in the rest of the play. Indeed, it was upon just such a monologue by a fairly minor character, written as part of the rehearsal process for a show last year, that the action of “So Many Days” was based.
Last summer, the company staged “That Sordid Little Story,” a musical about a young man’s journey across the South. Although the company had staged a musical before, 2009’s “Tupperware: An American Musical Fable,” “Sordid” represented The New Colony’s first attempt to incorporate standalone multimedia elements into their productions; the musical’s titular bluegrass band recorded a full album that the company made available for download on its website. “It’s part of a concept we had been playing with for a couple of years,” Hobgood says. “Since our mission is to develop and educate new art-supporting audiences under 45 who tend to believe they don’t like theater, the idea was to write a show with a music component that exists separately from the stage show so that the audiences can be hooked by a medium they’re more familiar with.”
The play’s music turned out to be one of its most memorable elements. Comprised of New Colony stalwarts Thea Lux, Tara Sissom, Henry Riggs, Chris Gingrich and bassist Brandon Ruiter, “That Sordid Little Story” set the tone of the Americana epic with its brand of what one company member calls “hipster bluegrass.” The band garnered rave reviews from critics and its album racked up solid sales; the band continues to perform around Chicago. For Hobgood, its success vindicated the multimedia strategy. “It’s interesting because the majority of album sales were not from Chicago residents, but from outsiders who had been put in touch with the music and fell in love with it. The hope is that if we remount the show and go on tour, we’ll have a built-in audience from the sales.”
With the film “So Many Days,” Hobgood, director Nicholas Carroll and writers Pat Coakley and Cole Orloff take the idea of multimedia production one step further. Selecting from the most effective elements of the stage show, the filmmakers crafted a fairly sordid little story out of the life of one of the musical’s minor characters. Sean Ellis stars as Bennie Patrick, a comedian whose frenetic, jazzy monologues earned Ellis critical praise during the show’s run. The fifteen-minute short follows Bennie through a dismal night of standup at a dingy bar, culminating in a brawl and a minor mental breakdown. “Bennie’s at a point where he just needs to lose brain cells, whereas before he was in control,” says Ellis of his performance. “In a lot of ways this is a moment where he starts detaching, he gives in to the anger and the disrespect.”
The filming of “So Many Days” mirrored The New Colony’s process for plays. Along with the traditional director and director of photography, Hobgood took on the role of “performance director” to help rehearse the actors and shape the story’s action. Under his direction, the short’s actors rehearsed the scenes in real time, as if it were a stage production. Carroll and his DP, Jay Patton, conferred about camera angles and staging as the actors improvised. “We were able to take apart what other people had done with films in the past and put it back together in a way that was extremely New Colony,” Carroll says.
Other film projects are currently being workshopped. The company plans to produce a documentary about the development of an hour-long stage play based on a Collaboraction Sketchbook piece called “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.” Another project is a fifteen-to-twenty-minute short about Ms. Pacman’s grisly origins that Hobgood describes as “basically a Victorian haunting story in which Ms. Pacman discovers that Mr. Pacman is sleeping with her bridesmaids on her wedding night, slaughters them and then they haunt her.” Eventually, the company wants to shoot feature-length films, and perhaps run the evolution of “That Sordid Little Story” in reverse by turning the films into stage shows.
Will Rogers, The New Colony’s producing director, says that feature films may be a long way off. “It’s something we’ll work up to, maybe in the next three-to-five years, but it’s not something we’re going to dive into blindly. I don’t know how our process of developing a script would work for a two-hour movie.”
Rogers’ top priority, he says, is to solidify the emerging company’s foundations. “We’ve always been very lucky; we’re very young and we’ve had a lot of success and for some reason that doesn’t stop. So we’re just kind of riding that wave and making sure the foundation of the company is sustainable so that when film opportunities come up we can make intelligent decisions about whether we can take them.”
Multimedia stage productions are not new in Chicago theater. From the ritzy Lookingglass Theatre to smaller groups like Collaboraction, companies all over Chicago blend the visual arts, music, dance and other mediums in many of their stage shows. Web content has become a standard feature for many companies, although this often takes the form of a glorified trailer for a stage production. The House Theatre ran with that idea by airing a self-produced, high-quality commercial to advertise its Broadway In Chicago run of “The Sparrow” in 2007. The year-old Second City Network specializes in producing shorts for the web, but it draws its talent from every Second City franchise.
Indeed, Chicago theater has always been a source of talent for film and TV projects on both coasts. Steppenwolf’s connections with Hollywood run deep: its ensemble members include world-famous stars Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and Joan Allen. Lookingglass Theatre co-founder David Schwimmer blends his Hollywood projects with his projects at Lookingglass, as he did with the recent play “Trust,” which he directed on the company’s stage last year. The film version is set to be released this spring. A few Chicago actors, including New Colony member Mary Hollis Inboden, can be seen on the new Fox show “The Chicago Code.”
But few companies have tried in-house production of short films, not to mention full-length features. When they have, they’ve run into the sort of problems that routinely plague many of Chicago’s independent filmmakers.
In 2003, Steppenwolf Theatre announced the creation of Steppenwolf Films, with the goal of producing features drawing on the theater’s extensive connections with the film world. The organization’s non-profit status meant that it would be entirely supported by contributions to Steppenwolf Theatre from donors, foundations and subscriptions. The idea was to develop creative content that the group would then shop around to investors, who would produce the films for commercial distribution. That model turned out to be unsustainable. “There was a desire to use the always-limited not-for-profit funds for the purposes of the theater,” said Tim Evans, a co-founder of Steppenwolf Films and current executive director of Northlight Theatre. “We were all fine with that. It’s tough to make films in a not-for-profit structure, since raising investor money is such an important part of feature filmmaking.”
The for-profit Steppenwolf Films LLC was created in 2007. Since its founding, the group has produced two features, 2008’s “Diminished Capacity” and “The Last Rites of Joe May,” which is in post-production.
“Diminished Capacity” spent six years in development, with filmmakers juggling potential producing and financing partners until finally settling on New York-based Plum Pictures. In an interview with indieWIRE, director Terry Kinney said the process of shopping the script around was “as painful and disheartening as… well, as all independent films have to endure.”
According to Evans, a major problem for Chicago filmmaking is the absence of a strong community of investors. Both “Diminished Capacity” and “The Last Rites of Joe May” were financed by coastal backers. “The best actors are in Chicago, and there are great film schools, great crews and great production facilities—certainly when we started in 2002 there wasn’t as much infrastructure as we see now,” Evans says. “What we’re missing is the investor piece of this.”
Theater companies that lack Steppenwolf’s coastal connections can find it even more challenging to branch out into a medium that is notoriously risky for investors. In the late nineties, Annoyance Theatre’s artistic director Mick Napier planned to transform his comedy theater into a company specializing in film, TV and web content called Annoyance Productions. Napier was in the process of turning the theater’s Lakeview location into a studio when the property was sold in July 2000.
Napier and his partner, Jennifer Estlin, spent the next few years trying to find financing for their production-company idea, and the company’s theatrical output slowed to a trickle. Despite some early success, including convening an important summit meeting for the Chicago entertainment industry in fall 2001, adequate financing for the Annoyance project never materialized.
Estlin points to two reasons: bad timing and, echoing Evans, Chicago’s underdeveloped network of local film investors and distributors. “At the time, there was a lot of investment in online ventures, but just as we were entering the market the internet bubble burst and it all went to hell,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s also still true that Chicago filmmakers have trouble getting their films screened and distributed unless they have some New York or L.A. connection, so it’s difficult to convince investors that they’ll make a profit at some point.”
Annoyance Theatre eventually reopened at its current Uptown location, but the idea of Annoyance Productions faded away. The company now mostly focuses on stage shows, using extra revenue for the occasional video project. A few months ago, Napier premiered “Bandicoot!”, a short based on a show he starred in with Josh Walker.
Hobgood is aware of the obstacles that face his company, especially since, as a non-profit, The New Colony relies on subscribers and grants for most of its funding. “The traditional not-for-profit funding model just doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “New audiences aren’t interested in subscriptions, and foundations have felt the hit of the economy like everyone else. So no matter what, non-profits like us are going to have to blaze some new avenues for funding.”
He points to a $25,000 Chase Community Giving grant The New Colony received in 2009, a small part of which went to funding “So Many Days.” The grant was one of the first of its kind to determine its winners through social media, with Facebook users voting for the recipients. Hobgood also believes that web-friendly content, like film and music, will play a big role in finding funding. “One avenue that we’ve identified is building a national donation base. The best way to do that is by creating audiences outside of Chicago, and the only way to do that is to take our art to them. No more than 1,800 people could ever have seen the stage production of “That Sordid Little Story” because there was a limited run and a limited number of seats. There is no such limit on ‘So Many Days.’”
The declining cost of film production may to some extent ease the limitations that a not-for-profit budget imposes on film projects, as Patton points out. “There’s a lot more opportunity to shoot stuff that looks really good and has great production value now than there was even ten years ago.” Still, Patton notes that “when you’re talking about a feature-length movie, even $100,000 is not a lot.”
Distribution, too, is a perennial problem facing Chicago filmmakers. As Rich Moskal, head of the Chicago Film Office, notes, a theater is designed to distribute its own content, whereas films need wider venues. “When you raise money to put on a show either with a hundred bucks or a hundred million, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll put it on before an audience. Of the twenty-five or so independent features made in Chicago each year, the percentage of those that get any sort of distribution are dishearteningly small.” Showing the film on the web may be an alternative, but it’s hard to get attention in a sea of online content.
Rogers notices the same problem. “It’s a sort of weird paradox that as a non-profit we can make more money off of a play than off a film, which I don’t think is the case in the for-profit realm.”
Patton also sees obstacles to direct theater involvement in film from the production side. “There’s a certain part of filmmaking that is disconnected from theater, which is the technical side. That involves trained crews and equipment, and I think it takes more understanding of the craft on the part of theater people, more time spent on film sets understanding how to make things look good and professional.” The New Colony is the only theater company he has ever worked with, and both he and Hobgood say that there is relatively little interaction between the two artistic communities.
Nevertheless, even if in-house production is fraught with difficulties, Moskal believes that the wealth of talent attracted to the Chicago theater scene will naturally spill over into the filmmaking realm. “The talent that resides in theater companies in Chicago both in places like Steppenwolf and Lookingglass and in storefront theaters makes film a natural progression,” he says. “Especially if stars are attracted to working in Chicago, as some have been like David Schwimmer and Harold Ramis.”
“So Many Days” opens like a concert film as the camera follows Bennie into an alleyway and through the back entrance of a seedy Southern bar. We see him locking himself in the bathroom to inhale ether stolen from a doctor’s bag. The centerpiece of the film is Bennie’s rambling monologue disguised as a stand-up routine. In it, Bennie seems to be attempting to articulate, however feebly, his disgust for the hypocrisy and moral corruption of the South, as he sees it. “Christ, do I have to explain everything to you people?” he asks in a final burst of frustration. This is the strongest sequence in the film. The grainy darkness of the picture, and the fact that the camera stays locked on Bennie’s face so that we never really see the audience, creates a sense of mounting paranoia. Ellis gives a remarkable performance here, a slouching, jive-talking impersonation of Lenny Bruce that, nevertheless, transcends mere imitation. After this abortive standup attempt, Bennie gets into a brawl, meets a girl, and sinks deeper into a mental funk. The film ends on an ambiguous note; Bennie’s suicide may or may not be just around the corner. Ultimately, the short doesn’t hold up as a self-contained story, but that’s not really its purpose. If the The New Colony aims to generate interest for the stage show with the short, that goal has been met.
The film is available for free on The New Colony’s website until March 15, after which it will be offered for a suggested donation. The company also plans to send it to some film festivals, although no booking has been confirmed.
After the screening at Collaboraction, Hobgood seems pleased with the company’s experiment. “Of course, half an hour after it ran there was plenty of ‘we should have done this different and that different,’ but from my perspective it pulled off the goal we were hoping to achieve.”
Ellis, whose character runs a physical and emotional gauntlet in the short, is busy sizing up his own performance. This was his first time acting in front of a camera, and he wasn’t too sanguine. “When I was acting I thought I was being a totally different person,” he says. “Like in my mind I looked different—more Irish, more gaunt, more manic. Now I look at it, and it just looks like me.”
The New Colony’s world-premiere production of “The Warriors” runs March 17-April 17 at the Second Stage Theatre, 3408 North Sheffield.