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Bottoms Up At Curtain Time: a Proliferation of Drinking Game Shows

Drink ChicagoOn a weekend night in Bucktown circa 2006, citizens might have seen a convoy of young clubbers marching to the Gorilla Tango playhouse at the junction of Milwaukee, Armitage and Western Avenues, laden with six- and twelve-packs of beer, liters of wine and fifths of sundry firewaters. Their destination wasn't a block party, however, but a show rapidly becoming notorious for its incorporation of drinking games into the evening's agenda.

For those unfamiliar or abstemious, this brand of recreational activity may be derived from virtually any parlor amusement through simply calling for toasts in honor of the losers or winners, penalties or points, or whatever designated reasons. Even the innocent "I Spy" can be rendered bibulous with certain trigger words or phrases serving as the signal for everyone to chug-a-lug. Oh, and while alcoholic beverages are optimal for the game's successful procedure, participation armed with mocktails, caffeine-based elixers or soft drinks is also permitted.

While most theater companies prefer to ply their trade before audiences not visibly displaying the influence of intoxicants, the proliferation of facilities providing on-site refreshments for customers during its evening hours of operation has led to a growing popularity of giggle-and-gulp entertainment.

The granddaddy of them all, Bye Bye Liver, has traveled from a rented storefront space to a spacious lobby boasting a fully-equipped bar in the now-closed Center for the Performing Arts in River North. Following the latter's demise, the show found a temporary home at the Fizz bar, but now occupies its own two-studio home in Lakeview, lovingly named The Public House Theatre.

"Bye Bye Liver was sort of an accident," explains creator Byron Hatfield, "I had signed on to do a political play, but ran out of time before I finished writing it, so to save the situation—and after reuniting some friends with whom I'd lived, performed and drunk at school in Tennessee—we built a bar out of 'borrowed' lumber from a Lincoln Park alley and opened for a three-week run. It was a pretty bold proposition for that time, but somehow, we got it right. We extended for months and months, then we moved to a late-nite slot at the [Performing Arts Center] and began doing multiple shows during the week, and the rest is history."

Just a few blocks away in the North Center district, Corn Productions—long-time occupants of a ramshackle storefront dubbed "the Cornservatory"—trace the roots of Drink! to company member Richard Anderson, creator of The Variety Show: A Drinking Game Performance comedy revue running since 2010, and his decision in 2013 to re-imagine its format to appeal to the late-nite BYOB crowds in the increasingly trendy neighborhood.

"This is our seventeenth season," says Kallie Rolison, Corn's artistic director, "After exploring different themes in our shows—video games, Hollywood movies—we've planned a 'Drink Through the Decades' show, with sketches satirizing each period from 1900 to the present."

Nine years ago, the commercial Apollo playhouse, currently home to the long-running Thrones: A Musical Parody, added a post-curtain nightcap to the schedule of events in its Lincoln Park facility under the El tracks. Thirsty! is performed by Neil O'Callaghan's comedy troupe as a fully-improvised revue drawing on spectators' suggestions, described in their publicity as "fun for the whole family (provided everybody in your family is of drinking age)"

Windy City Playhouse took the concept further for its recent production of The Explorers Club, inviting audiences to secure drinks during intermission from the onstage bar in the Victorian Men's Club providing the setting for Nell Benjamin's retro-feminist comedy. What can we expect next? Chekhov with Smirnoff vodka beside the samovar? Shakespeare with Sack-and-Sherry offered in the lobby? Sazaracs and juleps to sip during Tennessee Williams plays?

"Our audiences come to drink, but only if they can laugh, will they stay—and only if they laugh enough, will they come back." Hatfield cautions, "We aren't there to make fun of them, but to celebrate the experiences connected with alcohol consumption that we all share, including the mistakes."

"Our patrons are usually in their twenties and thirties," Rolison reports, "Birthday outings and Bachelorette parties especially." She winks conspiratorially, "It helps to have a Jewel-Osco with a liquor department open until midnight right next door to our theater."

Bye, Bye, Liver plays in an open run at The Public House Theatre
Drink! plays in an open run at the Cornservatory
Thirsty! plays in an open run at the Apollo Theatre

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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