When Hollywood invades Chicago storefront theatre: A tell-all interview

There are many fancy Hollywood actor types who got their start toiling away in Chicago storefront theatre. I won’t name them here (we get to that later), but trust me: it’s true.

But what should happen if a struggling storefront company is graced with the presence (and pretense) of a former company member who’s made it big time in LA and wants to revitalize the floundering artistic enterprise by producing, directing and starring in his vanity production?

Such is the subject matter of Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer’s new play Johnny Theatre, set to open April 5 at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy. Touted as “the definitive Chicago storefront theatre show,” here’s how press materials describe it:

“Part satire and part homage, the play is hilarious send-up of the theatrical process and the aura effect of hometown celebrities. A nod to playwright Kirk Pynchon’s experience in LA, Johnny Theatre demonstrates what happens when a celebrity attempts to inject some Hollywood into a small company on the verge of obscurity and financial collapse.

Drawing inspiration from celebrity theatre companies such as The Actors Gang and Lookingglass, the story centers around Jonathan Duva, a successful movie star who got his start as a founding member at the Havoc Theatre, a fictional storefront theatre in Chicago on its last legs (its Artistic Director is working double shifts as a barista). Believing himself to be Havoc’s greatest production, the film star returns to his roots to revitalize the theatre by producing the world premiere of a play he wrote and believes to be genius — dropping names and wreaking havoc in the process.”

Wanting to learn more about the impetus of this seemingly personal production, I reached out to one of the playwrights, Kirk Pynchon, who has experience with both Chicago storefront and the LA scene:

Q: Johnny Theatre is about a Hollywood tool who comes back to his Chicago storefront acting roots to revitalize the company by producing and directing a vanity play. Whatever could be the inspiration for this?

Kirk Pynchon: The inspiration behind the play was my interaction with certain famous actors in LA who shall remain nameless. When you’re dealing with actors who came out of the theatre and are now famous, they tend to wax poetic about how much theatre means to them. And while it is definitely heartfelt and true, it still doesn’t change the fact that that love of theatre is in no way in sync with the realities of actually doing it. Theatre is hard to do, especially when you are struggling to make ends meet. When you are rich and successful doing theatre is like playing with a shiny new toy. You can play with it for awhile and then toss it aside to go make a movie or TV show. Mike and I wanted to explore that and how that would affect a small theatre company that is on the brink of financial ruin (as unfortunately most small theatres are).

Q: Talk about the creation of this play. How did you and your writing partner work together on it? Did one have the idea and another flesh it out?

KP: I had the idea after our hit play Hey! Dancin’! opened but wasn’t sure if I wanted to write it until I told Mike [Beyeyr] and he said, “If you don’t do this then you’re a pussy.” That was all the motivation I needed. As for how we write, since I am in LA and Mike is in Chicago we spend a lot of time on the phone which annoys both our wives. After we flesh it out, we divvy up scenes and write them on our own, then email them back and forth for rewrites, followed by more time on the phone.

Q: Kirk, you spent some time in Hollywood. As a Chicago-based actor, what was the biggest surprise for you in LA — pleasant or otherwise? What advice would you give to Chicago actors looking to move to LA?

KP: The biggest surprise is that nobody goes to theatre. You really have to crush people’s wills to get them to come…friends and family included. I had no idea that was the case when I moved here. I thought it would be like Chicago, where if you have a show that gets good reviews and good buzz people will come. That is so not the case here. It’s a TV/film town. People will come see a screening of your short film, but they will not come see your play — even if you comp them.

My advice to Chicago actors is if they want to get into TV and film then they should move here and pound the proverbial pavement until they make it or get tired of it…and move back to Chicago.

Q: My first thought reading this description was David Schwimmer/Lookingglass and his play “Trust,” which, suffice it to say, I found not that good. This play is about him, right? RIGHT?

KP: It is an amalgam of actors that this play is about — Schwimmer, Tim Robbins, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Kevin Spacey — basically any famous actor who has roots in theatre and keeps coming back because they love it. We just take an extremely exaggerated depiction of them.

Q: Let’s tell more tales out of school. What actors do you think have done a good job succeeding in Hwood while also returning to their stage roots? What actors have done a sh*tty job at this?

Obviously Philip Seymour Hoffman just crushes it, as evidence by his current performance in Death of a Salesman [which is now playing on Broadway]. As for who does a sh*tty job? I will be diplomatic and say everyone is special in their own special way.

Q: What else do you want to say about this play and its themes?

KP: At its heart Johnny Theatre is really a love letter to all the artists who create Chicago storefront theatre. I think I can speak for Mike when I say that being involved in that world has been some of the most fun and exhilarating times of our lives. The play is also a dig on several famous actors I have met in LA, again who shall all remain nameless.

“Johnny Theatre” runs Thursday through Saturday evenings starting April 5 until May 19 at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, a non-profit BYOB comedy theatre in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Tickets here

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