Pictured left to right: Daeshawna Cook, Kevin Stangler and Wes Needham…
It's a flashback to the golden age of 1970s workplace sitcoms: In a desperate attempt to save their failing Chicago music studio, two brothers, Gary and Felix, resort to luring naive—and terrible—would-be songwriters into hiring the studio to record their "song poems."
This is the premise of "B-Side Studio," a four-episode serial sitcom created collaboratively by two young yet prominent Chicago theater companies, The New Colony and The Inconvenience. While each episode is designed to stand alone, the performances are also filmed to air online the following Monday.
The show is co-written by two of Chicago's hottest playwrights: The New Colony's Evan Linder, whose "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche" won the Best Overall Production Award at the 2013 New York Fringe Festival and has been produced in 17 states; and Ike Holter, the literary manager of The Inconvenience, whose Stonewall-inspired play, "Hit the Wall" was a breakout smash in Steppenwolf's Garage Rep series and earned a 2013 Off-Broadway run.
A Memphis native who arrived in Chicago in 2005, Linder is the co-artistic director of The New Colony and an adjunct theater professor at the University of Chicago. We called him prior to the show's premiere to talk about writing with Holter and what a "song poem" actually is.
Go: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Oct. 12 (no performances Sept. 20-21) at Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.
Tickets: $20; $10 for students ($20-$40 for four-episode pass). 773-702-2787; ticketsweb.uchicago.edu
How "B-Side Studio" came to be: "It started with us wanting to work with The Inconvenience and The Inconvenience wanting to work with us. Something similar about our two companies that made us stand out was that The Inconvenience is not just a theater company—they're theater and art and dance and music. And with The New Colony, we have so many musicians in our company, we have so much original music in all of our shows and we also have a film department. We wanted to see if we could create a project that would incorporate as many of those as possible."
How they hit on the sitcom format: "One night, Andy Hobgood and myself and Wes Needham—who plays Gary in "B-Side"—did a Netflix binge of old Dick Van Dykes and stuff and started talking about the sitcom as a truly American art form that was perfected really quickly. It was such an interesting format—a three-act structure in those 22 minutes—and [the episodes were] perfectly put together. We started talking about the idea of 'sitcom' as a dirty word in the theater world. We tried to pinpoint why that was exactly and then felt that it was a challenge to do a show that actually embraced that form."
A teaser: "Gary has a past relationship with someone who broke his heart, left him in the dust and went on to fame and fortune—and you find out who that is in the pilot."
Other classic sitcoms he's watched through this process: "It's pretty much been a 'Cheers' binge, a 'Mary Tyler Moore' binge, 'WKRP' was definitely one. On our one day off of tech last week, we had everybody all get together and we did a binge of YouTube moments and favorite moments that everybody threw into the hat and that we all watched together."
On working with Ike Holter: "We had a blast. We had extremely similar senses of humor—we both know why this is funny, we both know why we love these characters. Ike is a dialogue master, somebody throwing out something that can cut somebody down in one second. People talk a mile a minute to each other, which is a style that I love. My plays are like that too. It's just in terms of structuring the comedy, I feel my strength was always more laying out groundwork for a big joke to pay off that's being built through several scenes. Putting those two things together, I would be looking at the long game and Ike would be looking at the short game."
Where the story starts: "When you meet the gang at B-Side, they're just recording jingles to get by and they're not even scraping by; they're on the brink of eviction when the first episode starts. And we see the song poem idea introduced and then actually executed by the end of the pilot and then it goes from there."
So what the heck are these song poems? "They put ads in the back of comic books and newspapers that say, 'Hey, you want to be a songwriter? Send in your lyrics and we'll tell you if you've got what it takes.' And inevitably, everybody who wrote in had what it took. [Laughs] They would say, 'Your song about riding around on your kung fu bicycle in Michigan is brilliant. Just send us a $200 check and we'll have professional musicians record that for you.'"