Mike Beyer Occupies Chicago! With Eric and Andy!
For almost 20 years, Mike Beyer has been a prolific Chicago playwright. Writing only comedies and working exclusively at The Factory Theatre, Beyer is taking a step forward. His new piece, "Johnny Theatre" (co-written with Kirk Pynchon) is being produced at Chicago's laugh sanctuary Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Theater. The Factory Theatre is also re-producing his 16 year old hit "White Trash Wedding And A Funeral". We met up with Beyer at the Occupy Denver rally to talk about having two plays produced at the same time, what it means to write comedies in a dramatic world, and why Occupy protests smell so bad.
We're here inside this 15-man hippie tent at Occupy Denver talking with actor and playwright Michael Beyer! Mike, thanks so much for meeting us in this Patchouli-scented wonderland!
My pleasure! I appreciate you guys visiting me to support our important mission, while plugging our new show.
Dude, I just saw a naked lady talking to a policeman! I didn't even know the Occupy Movement was even still happening!
Oh, it's on....we just have to move operations to mountainous locations away from prying media. Today we're protesting global warming so we are occupying every last ski run we can find, just to make these capitalist bastards see what their pursuit of the greenback is doing to our Earth....and our deer.
The hippie trim here is unreal! Anyhoosies, Mike, you've been working in the Chicago theatrical scene for almost 20 years now. Can you tell us how you originally got involved in storefront?
My roommate at the time (and current co-writer) Kirk Pynchon got cast in a show at the Factory Theater called "Attack of the Killer B's", which was a sendup of old "B" horror movies. They needed a guy to play Jason and a zombie for the Night of the Living Dead segment, so Kirk pulled me out of the bars and got me cast in that show.
Did you have any desires before that to get on stage, or was this a sort of "fall back-asswards into it" kind of thing?
I had done theater in high school, but when I went to college I pretty much thought my acting career was over. But Kirk had majored in theater and when he moved in with me, he was pounding the pavement trying to get work. He got cast in "Reefer Madness" at the Factory, which I saw and thought was hilarious. He was also tight with Sean Abley and Amy Seeley, so they were coming around our place too.
Who are Sean Abley and Amy Seeley?
They founded the Factory Theater about 20 years ago, along with a few other Second City school expatriates. They rented out a storefront on Loyola Ave. and were trying to make a go of it with Reefer and a bunch of other improv shows.
So when did you jump from "Zombie #2" to being a member and crucial part of the Factory?
By '94 the Factory had a little reputation around town due to successful shows like "Bitches", which Sean and Amy wrote/directed, and also "Alive", which was Nick Digilio and Mike Meredith's show. I was in both shows and I also had an interest in the business side of storefront theater, which was not the first priority for those guys. So they made me President. My first act was to go into a room full of actors and tell them they weren't getting paid for the six-week run of "Bitches". Good times!
Those must have been fun days, though. Drinking a lot and staying up late with your friends?
The best! It was so much fun I landed in rehab three years later!
And all your problems were solved! So, when did you actually start writing for the theater? You have a reputation as a skilled comedy author. When did that fire start?
We were all trying to write at that time, because Sean, quite frankly, made it look like writing was as easy as learning blocking. Kirk was writing "Man Card", Nick and Meredith were doing their thing, and I wanted to get in on that as well. It was kind of a friendly competition at the time -- it still is at the Factory, to tell the truth. Anyway, I wrote two plays for the Factory, which both bombed out badly, but the third one, "White Trash Wedding And A Funeral", definitely caught on with audiences. I have written four shows since then, but it really was the environment that the Factory was creating at the time
So, now "White Trash Wedding And A Funeral" is going back up onstage at the Factory. How do you feel about revisiting a play you haven't touched in 15 years?
I feel great about it!! I like what the cast is doing with the show, and it's crazy how all the old bits come back after all this time. They're rocking this show and this script, and hopefully it will still connect with people.
You also had some success writing with Kirk Pynchon on a play a few years ago called "Hey! Dancin'!" about a cable access dance show for teenagers. As I look at the body of your work, I have a hard time finding a through line, or an overarching subject matter that you are interested in exploring except that they are all comedies. I mean, I guess in all the plays, the villains are older, but does that have anything to do with a point you are making or just a comedy formula that has been around through the centuries?
I am primarily interested in comedy because it's what I do better than drama!!! I guess my main interest in writing is trying to make people laugh, nothing more. I get an interest at the time, and try to explore it. We never did table reads or analyze our characters very much when the Factory was first doing shows, but we did trade a ton of theories on what makes people laugh. I would watch ensemble members joking around in the green room before shows, trying out bits subconsciously, then trying them out in performances later on that night. I tried to learn as much as I could from them.
Because writing comedies for stage is different than stand up and tv and film, because you don't have a lot of the same tools that people use to write with nowadays. No quick edits, or star power to jump behind, and it doesn't do much for you in Theatre to continuously break the 4th wall and plead your story to an audience, so how is writing big, bawdy comedies for stage different in your opinion, and why don't more people do it?
There is a reason for the cliche -- I think that writing comedy is pretty hard! You can tell instantly whether you're killing it, or whether you are sucking. The audience will tell you right away on that one. I am biased, obviously, but writers of dramatic pieces don't need to rely on that visceral response from the audience. It's true that you can connect with an audience in a drama, but comedy involves much more of a tightrope, and it's intimidating. I am amazed at people who can write big comedies and make a success out of it, because I know how hard it is. There is also a certain lack of respect associated with comedy. People think the Factory just gets up there and goofs around on stage for 60 minutes. It's hard work making fart jokes seem effortless!
True dat, Brostradamus. Now, you have a show that you've co-written with Kirk Pynchon going up at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy called "Johnny Theatre," can you tell us a little more about this one, and how it feels to have two shows on stage at the same time?
"Johnny Theatre" is intended to be our love letter to the Chicago storefront scene and a salute to those who knock themselves out to put up great shows for little to no financial reward. It tells the story of Jonathan Duva, an A-list, thrice Oscar-nominated actor who returns from LA to the Chicago storefront where he got his start -- with a new play he penned. He intends the show as a gift to this fictional storefront, to help get them out of debt. But he can't stop meddling in the show and ultimately ruins the theater company entirely. So there's definitely an element of "LA Sucks" in the show as well.
Sounds like this show is based on an actual celebrity!
Can you tell us any names?
And having 2 shows up at once?
It does feel weirdly awesome. I don't know -- it's like the Chicago theatre patron can choose between "Classic" Mike or "New" Mike. They were written 17 years apart, so the first thing THAT makes me feel is very very old. They are very different shows, but hopefully they will make people laugh.
Mike, thanks for taking the time to invite us to Denver and let us speak to you in this horrible smelling tent. You know what they were saying about the New York protests and how it was just an excuse for homeless people to eat free food and sleep in a park? Well, it is not like that out here in Denver. Here it feels like we are waiting for Dave Matthews tickets to go on sale.
You captured the mood out here perfectly!! I appreciate you guys taking the time to sit on these recycled hemp mats here in our Abode of Truth to talk Chicago theatre. Now if you'll excuse me, I am off to catch Jason Lubow and His Jugglers of Fire burn down a vacant barn with their act. You guys should check this out.
Oh we sure will, right after we go get some Starbucks and American Family Insurance. FIGHT THE ESTABLISHMENT!
Eric Roach, Anderson Lawfer
Follow Us On Twitter