Prepare to Be Annoyed | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » On Culture

Prepare to Be Annoyed

The company that brought you Coed Prison Sluts and The Real Live Brady Bunch is (almost) back.

by

comment

It was four years ago that Jennifer Estlin and Mick Napier of Annoyance Productions tried the banana strategy. In a quest for investors to help them transform Annoyance from a theater troupe into a company that could produce film and video as well, they deployed 10 to 20 ensemble members, each discreetly equipped with a banana, to mingle with the crowd in front of the Chicago Board of Trade every Thursday morning that July. On signal, the sleepers all froze into a scattering of instant statues with bananas and Annoyance business cards aloft. The escapade brought thousands of hits to their Web site, Estlin says--but no backers. Napier, a longtime director and teacher at Second City, took this as evidence that the local film and video industry needed to get serious, stop the talent drain to the coasts, and educate the financial community about the potential return on entertainment investment here at home.

That gave Estlin, Annoyance's managing director, and Napier, its artistic director, their next big idea: they'd pull together a summit meeting to galvanize their colleagues and win the attention of the money people. They got Sony to sponsor it, Buzz nightclub to host, and the likes of director Harold Ramis and Chicago Film Office head Richard Moskal to speak. Then they invited 500 A-list locals: producers, government officials, and potential investors. Preliminary response was positive, anticipation high. It was all set--for September 11, 2001.

That meeting, held one month and a climate change later, led to the formation of the Illinois Production Alliance, which in turn spearheaded the campaign for state tax credits (read subsidies) for the film industry, including the sweeter-than-last-year's version that Governor Rod Blagojevich signed off on this week. The incentives are credited with bringing $144 million of film industry money into Illinois in the last two years--but they haven't benefited Annoyance, which has been homeless since 2000. Estlin and Napier have been running the company out of their apartment, renting space at Saint Alphonsus School for their classes (which have grown to about 120 students each session), and letting production dwindle to a trickle while they attempted to find a permanent space for the 16-member ensemble. (Napier's also been busy directing at Second City, and he appears in two upcoming films, Ramis's Ice Harvest and Bob Odenkirk's You Are Going to Prison.)

For a brief period in 2003 Annoyance thought they'd found a new home--a basement theater in the Uptown Broadway Building shown to them by then Uptown Theatre board member Paul Warshauer. They wrote a $4,000 check for a deposit on it to Warshauer's company the Jefferson Group and wound up in court when it turned out that he didn't own the building and wouldn't refund the deposit. "We won a judgment against him in March 2004 for $4,000, which we are still attempting to collect," Estlin says. So far, "he's paid $864."

Annoyance was founded by Napier in 1987 as Metraform and quickly racked up a string of quirky successes. Its first production, in a space at CrossCurrents cabaret, was the improvised slasher spoof Splatter Theatre. In '89, in a former drag club on North Broadway, they opened a more structured film parody, Coed Prison Sluts, which had an 11-year run. The Real Live Brady Bunch, in which actors performed episodes from the television show, opened in '92 (about the time Metraform began being phased from the company's name); it ran to sellout crowds in Chicago for two years and sent satellite shows to New York and LA. In '94 they moved to a 300-seat space at 3747 N. Clark, where they mounted a long-running late-night improv show, Screw Puppies. In '99 they sold Fatty Drives the Bus, a film they'd been working on for seven years, to a company that took it straight to video. By then Napier and Estlin were interested in doing more film and video. They were building a production facility in the basement of their Clark Street quarters when they found out the building would be demolished.

A year and a half ago they finally signed a lease with an option to buy nearly 4,000 square feet of ground-floor space in the soon-to-be-redeveloped Helig-Meyer furniture building at 4840 N. Broadway. They were looking forward to opening there last summer--and they're still looking forward to it, Estlin says. After a year of construction delays, she thinks it's safe to say it'll happen this fall. They plan to spend up to $70,000 to build an editing facility, a classroom, an office, a lobby, a bar, and an easy-to-fill 100-seat theater that can also serve as a space for classes and a soundstage. Company member and architect Gary Ruderman drew up the plans, with help on the interior from another company member, designer Lyn Pusztai. Estlin says they'll have shows up three or four nights a week and rent the theater out the rest of the time. She's looking to rent additional classroom space in the neighborhood.

This week, as Estlin was preparing to sign loan papers, she said Annoyance has given up on seeking investors for the business itself (though they'd still be glad to hear from anyone who wants to back a film). "We kept getting told you need to go to Los Angeles or New York, when the whole point is we want to make it happen here in Chicago," she says. "We finally said, You know what, let's go back to the way that was working before--doing theater, with the shows helping to fund the other projects." Once they're in the new digs she'll hand the managing director job over to Mike Canale so she can focus on getting those other projects going.

Annoyance could have opted out of their lease when the delays became obvious, but chose not to. "It was difficult to hang in that long, but we're really committed to that area," Estlin says. "It's close to an el, it's still a little edgy, it's near concert venues where young kids go, and the alderman [Mary Ann Smith] is committed to making it an entertainment district. It's a good fit."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment