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Classic sitcoms of ’70s inspire ‘B-Side Studio’

'B-Side Studio' stars (left right) DaeshawnCook KevStangler Wes Needham. |  Phoby Ryan Bourque.

"B-Side Studio" stars (left to right) Daeshawna Cook, Kevin Stangler and Wes Needham. | Photo by Ryan Bourque.

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‘B-Side Studio’

When: Through Oct. 12

Where: Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.

Tickets: $20 ($10 students)

Info: (773) 702-2787;
ticketsweb.uchicago.edu

Updated: October 15, 2013 6:03AM



Inspiration hit the day Andrew Hobgood decided to check out the first episode of Rod Serling’s classic television series “The Twilight Zone.” Titled “Where Is Everybody” it’s the story of one man who is seemingly the last man on earth.

“As I watched, I realized it was basically a one-man play on television,” says Hobgood, an ensemble member at The New Colony. Wheels started turning. “We decided to see if a modern storefront theater company could actually pull off what the major studios were doing 50 years ago.”

With that thought, the “B-Side Studio” project was born. Filmed before a live audience, it’s a unique collaboration that blends the best of theater with the charm of ’70s-style television sitcoms. Co-producing are New Colony, The Inconvenience and the University of Chicago’s Theater and Performance Studies Program.

The episodic story is set in 1977 in a failing South Side Chicago recording studio owned by brothers Gary (Wes Needham) and Felix McNamara (Kevin Stangler). Felix’s get-rich-quick schemes have all failed but he’s come up with a new idea — recording song poems (more about this later). Along for the ride are his assistant Janice (Missi Davis) and in-house musicians Butch (Brad Smith) and Marvin (Mikey Harnichar). They just have to convince the overbearing trophy wife (Daeshawna Cook) of their absentee landlord that the plan will work.

Everyone has a favorite sitcom. But young 30-somethings have a lot in common with baby boomers thanks to the popular Nick at Nite series that in its early days aired old sitcoms from the ’50s and ’60s. A younger generation fell in love with these shows, says Hobgood, who co-directs “B-Side Studio” with Nicholas J. Carroll and Gus Menary. The creative team found inspiration in a variety of sitcoms from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cheers” to “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “I Love Lucy.”

“B-Side Studio” is a different sort of challenge for writers: convenience resident writer Ike Holter (“Hit the Wall”) and New Colony co-artistic director Evan Linder (“5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche”).

“When you write a play, you can wait for a joke to come out organically,” Holter says. “In sitcoms there is a rhythm. If you aren’t laughing every minute, you’re doing something wrong. It’s a big animal that we’re learning how to tame and probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

When it comes to filming the show, the technical goal is to follow exactly the TV sitcom-style — a three-camera system and a switcher with four monitors utilizing a live editing process. Each week’s new episode will be available online the following Monday (newcolony.org or theinconvenience.org).

“B-Side Studio is special because it is both familiar and strange,” says Carroll who is in charge of the filming. “It’s not easy to throw two art forms in the same room together and make them play nice.”

And about the song poem scam at B-Side Studio. People of a certain age will remember those advertisements in the back of magazines offering to turn original poems into recorded songs. Hobgood has been “obsessively collecting” song poems for nearly a decade and says one of the bigger song poem scams in the ’70s was in a little studio on the South Side.

“Song poem lyrics are completely wacky but the musicians are so talented that you end up with these songs that are absolutely hilarious but pretty great musically,” Hobgood notes. “What’s so interesting is that the musicians may have been involved in a scam, but they honored the lyrics and accidentally made great underground art. So setting a sitcom within this environment really offers all sorts of fun possibilities.”

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times freelance writer.



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