Here's Part 1, in case you missed it.
After the empty houses and fruit fingering that was my first foray into Chicago theater, Katy and I decided to form a theater company so that we would never have to do shows we didn't care about and work with people we couldn't stand.
The first part proved easier than the second part.
When we first moved to Chicago, we began training at the Improv Olympic (now iO Chicago). It was where we learned the basics of Improv comedy, made new friends, and saw just what mental illness and desperation looked like when it was given a stage to run around on for a couple hours each week. Some of the students we trained with were batshit nuts, some were shy and awkward, some were theater kids you wanted to punch while choking and some were cool.
Sometimes it was hard to tell which was which until it was too late. Such was the case with Nixon.
He was in our entry level class and he and I became fast friends. So fast, in fact, that I missed the warning signs. Here's a few of them:
- His name wasn't Nixon. But he played Nixon once in high school and had adopted it as his nickname which he made people call him. It's weird enough to force your own nickname on people. It's even weirder to want to want that nickname to be inspired by a President famous for being a shifty liar. In all our time hanging out together, he never told me his real name. Refused to, actually.
- He talked a lot about his bumper. Which was his code word for his butt. And how he wanted someone to 'dust his bumper.' I'm going to assume that means spanking. Because it's the least creepy thing I can think of for that to mean.
- He was receiving workman's comp for a fake injury. This meant he couldn't get mail delivered to his house, lest the private investigators hired by the company he was screwing over found out where he lived and documented how healthy he actually was. He had his mail sent to a P.O. Box which he visited once a week. While wearing a neck brace.
That's probably enough examples.
But, I was kinda desperate for friends, I guess, so I let all this slide. We hung out a lot and when Katy and I decided to do a sketch comedy show as our company's inaugural production, we brought him on board. We named our company Freshwater Theatre Company and used the Papyrus font in our logo. What can I say, we were young and silly.
Our sketch show was titled LOWBROW and featured sketches written by me, Katy, our friend Carolyn, our former professor Tom and our other cast member, Angie (who travelled from New York and stayed with us during the rehearsal and performance process. THAT'S commitment.)
Notice that Nixon's name didn't appear in that list of writers. Cause he didn't write anything. He spent our writing sessions looking up porn on his computer, lying on the floor and singing Les Miserables and asking Angie to dust his bumper.
Once the writing was done, we got free rehearsal space at the school where Katy was teaching music, theater and art (which was quite the coup in a city where most people rehearse in their living rooms) and started getting the sketches on their feet.
It was the first time we had seen Nixon do scripted acting, so we were a little nervous to see how this was going to work. But he was good. He was funny. We were all in our early 20's but he had this air of maturity about him that the rest of us lacked. He had gravitas. He was curmudgeonly and seemed like he would feel more comfortable in a blazer with elbow patches talking about how great Reagan was. It was like acting with someone's perverted grandpa.
I mean that as a compliment.
We decided the sketches were good enough to move forward with the production and took the plunge, renting a performance space in the Viaduct Theater.
The Viaduct was a massive space in an industrial part of Chicago, and had three different theaters under one roof. One tiny space sat about 40, the medium space about 100, and the large space was a cavernous warehouse-type space that sat about 400.
We were ambitious but not stupid so we rented the middle space. The four of us split the rental cost four ways and it was still so much money that I thought about becoming a prostitute to make sure I could still buy groceries that month.
We kept writing, re-writing and rehearsing and things were progressing. We hired a graphic designer who designed really funny posters that we had distributed all over town.
*Side Note: Our posters were designed by Karl Westerberg, who might be better known to you as the fabulous Manila Luzon, runner-up of Season 3 of "Rupaul's Drag Race." My favorite of the four colorful and hand-drawn posters he designed featured a panda with a thought-bubble sprouting above his head with the words "I'm endangered!"
But there was splinter appearing in our tight-knit quartet in the form of Nixon. Maybe it was because he lacked confidence in the show. Maybe his nerves were getting the better of him. Or maybe it was because Angie refused to dust his bumper. But Nixon began to flake out on us. He missed rehearsals, didn't return phone calls and - as opening night approached - we were getting pretty nervous.
We called a come-to-Jesus meeting at his apartment. Katy, Angie and I showed up to find he had brought a second with him. Another quasi-friend of ours from Improv Olympic who was in law school by day and studying comedy by night.
We confronted him right off the bat, reminding him that this show was happening, we had paid the non-refundable rental fee, marketed the show and invited the critics. There was no pulling out now.
He broke down in tears then and told us his tale of woe.
See, he really wanted to do the show. He hated missing rehearsals. He loved us and was so excited to do the show. But it wasn't his fault he'd been so distant. It was the fault of his illness. His terrible, terrifying and completely bullshit illness.
He told us he had shin cancer.
Now, I should stop here and say that I don't know for certain it's bullshit. I do know he's alive and well and seems to have both shins, because I did a little internet digging and found out who he actually is (and even learned his real name a decade after we first met). I also know he couldn't tell us any symptoms that led to him seeking a diagnosis, nor could he tell us the treatment plan he was on, the prognosis or even the name of his doctor. So I feel pretty comfortable calling bullshit.
But what could we do? He was the boy who cried shin cancer - the boy with a neck brace in his car for his weekly mail run - and we still had a show to do. In less than four days.
So we gave him a few days to 'adjust to his new meds' (which he couldn't/wouldn't name) and recover from the trauma and terror of the diagnosis (from his mystery doctor at an unnamed hospital) and we all agreed to meet the night before for a dress rehearsal at the Viaduct theater in two days. The night before we opened.
That day came, and after work I powered on my cell phone to find a message from Nixon. He was dropping out of the show.
The night before we opened.
Because of the shin cancer.
I should have seen it coming. In fact, I kinda did. I wasn't surprised to hear this voicemail, and rather than send me into a panic, I felt relief. The splinter had been pulled free and the pressure and pain was gone. We had a whole other problem to solve, but Katy and Angie and I could do this. No problem.
That night we re-wrote the entire show for three people. We reassigned roles and learned entire new sketches, running lines and rehearsing scene changes long into the night. Our Stage Manager, Katie, stayed with us the whole way, helping us and telling us that it would work. And we believed her.
Because it had to work.
The next day we got to the theater early and did a final dress rehearsal with sound, lights and props. And it worked. We knew our parts. The sketches still worked. We were ready. We hugged each other, excited and nervous, and I went to man the box office.
I stepped outside the theater to find a line of audience members out the door. My heart started pounding as I realized that not only did we have a show, people actually wanted to see it. I stepped behind the box office window, opened up our cash box and then realized the truth. They weren't here to see us.
Jake, the box office manager for the House Theater was in the window next to me, counting out massive stacks of cash and tickets and checking his flooded voicemail. As we both opened our box office windows, I saw the entire mass of people shift into the ROCKET MAN line, while I sat there starring at an empty window.
20 minutes later, ROCKET MAN sold out, and Jake, being the good guy he is, stuck around, telling his patrons that their show was sold out but that there was an awesome sketch show playing in the theater next to theirs which still had tickets available.
Two people took him up on it.
Our opening night audience consisted of a few friends, the two brave souls willing to give us a try and the critic from the Chicago Reader.
But the show must go on, right?
Lowbrow: The Sketch Show
By Mary Shen Barnidge
For the CHICAGO READER
That was as positive of a review as we dared to hope for. We opened LOWBROW to an audience of 10. But after that review, we were sure things would get better. We got ready for the next performance, certain that there would be a few more people in our line the second night.
We were wrong.
The night after a good review in the Chicago Reader, we performed for two people. A man named Orlando and his 14-year-old son.
They sat in the front row and passed a bottle of whiskey back and forth. But they laughed a lot. And they loved the show. So we let the underage drinking slide.
All told, about 30 people saw Freshwater's inaugural production over the two-week run. We lost a lot of money and learned a lot about the difference between being an actor and being a producer. Those lessons would come in pretty handy later, when Katy would take over as Artistic Director of Renegade Theater Company.
We also made great friends with The House Theater. Jake, the box office manager, skipped his own show one night to see ours, and loved it so much that the cast of ROCKET MAN would go on to plug our show every night at theirs. They didn't have to do that. They are awesome for doing that. (Renegade has since produced two House Theater shows here in Duluth - THE SPARROW and THE NUTCRACKER.) And we have never forgotten how awesome that company was and is.
All told, that one show was worth it, in a lot of ways. But no more so than this: It was our show. It was our company. We were doing something we cared about with people we liked.
And that's the only thing that ever really matters.