Chicago may have the most active noncommercial theater scene in the country, but it exists in a state of perpetual impermanence. Just try to get your hands on the scripts for any of the Curious Theatre Branch plays that have thrilled you over the last 15 years, or the Theater Oobleck show that knocked you out last month. Every four to six weeks, as off-Loop companies tear apart their sets and prepare to build new ones, another dozen or so original plays vanish into desk drawers and storage boxes across the city.
Playwright John Pierson started his publishing company, Hope and Nonthings--an outgrowth of his theater company of the same name--to do something about that. Since setting up shop in early 2000, he's published handsome paperbacks of work by Mickle Maher, Anita Loomis, Dave Awl, and the Neo-Futurists, as well as a collection of his own plays, written under the pen name Ian Pierce; last year Diana Slickman, former managing director for the Neo-Futurists, became his partner. They've also published two books by former Screeching Weasel front man Ben Weasel and put out a CD by Pierson's acoustic pop-punk sextet, Even in Blackouts. So far, it's the punk stuff that's sold the best.
In 1986 Pierson and Weasel, a pal from junior high in Mount Prospect, formed the proto-pop-punk band Screeching Weasel. Back in those days, Pierson says, he faced obstacles that make indie publishing look like a cakewalk. "The scene was all hardcore," he says. "Very serious people. And we were this goofy band." It would be years before Green Day put pop punk on the charts. "It's hard for people to understand now, but back then booking a tour was hard. You had to call kids in small towns and ask to borrow their mom's garage."
But he had a knack for the kind of managerial duties that lots of musicians hate, and with Pierson handling much of the booking Screeching Weasel crisscrossed the country for several years, putting out three independent albums. Then, in 1991, they signed with Berkeley-based Lookout Records, where they were the first non-California band on the roster. When My Brain Hurts hit stores nationwide, their lives changed.
"That record came out right before we were starting a tour in Philadelphia," says Pierson. "We got there, to this hole-in-the-wall venue, and we thought, 'Oh jeez, another one of these, just us and all the crackheads in the neighborhood.' But something like 400 people showed up; it sold out. And they sang along with every song--and we'd never met any of them. It was pretty much overnight semifame."
Suddenly they weren't selling 1,000 copies of a record but 40,000. But it wasn't long before Weasel began to have panic attacks onstage. By 1994--the year their sometime labelmates Green Day exploded--the group was purely a studio band, and Pierson's expertise in booking, arranging, and managing was unneeded.
By then, however, he'd dipped his toes into the theater scene, taking writing and theater classes at Columbia College. He graduated "by accident" in 1991. "I had never gone to my adviser, I just took whatever classes I liked," he says. "But one day I went to her office to ask about a class she was teaching. She pulls my record and says, 'Uh, you graduated last year.' And the first thing I said was, 'Does that mean I can't go here anymore?'"
Cast out into the real world, he started producing his own plays, dubbing his pickup company Hope and Nonthings, a name meant to suggest the gray area between comedy and tragedy. Between 1994 and '99 he mounted eight productions, and also started working with the Neo-Futurists, where he met and became friends with Slickman. But by the time his last show, The Unfinished Works of Sir Linear Scribble, was produced he wasn't sure he wanted to write for the stage anymore. "I wanted my plays in a different form, so I put out a book of them," he says. "I didn't really want to be a publisher. But I discovered people thought it was such a foreign idea to put a book out." The Incomplete Philosophy of Hope and Nonthings came out in 2000, and after he helped fellow Neo-Futurist Anita Loomis put together a collection of monologues and poems, Hope and Nonthings was officially a publishing house.
Around that time Slickman was regularly accosting Theater Oobleck cofounder Mickle Maher at various places around town. She'd seen two of his off-Loop hits--An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening and The Hunchback Variations--and thought that together they'd make a great book. One night, she went up to him in a bar. "I work with John Pierson," she lied, "and we want to make a book out of your plays. How about that?"
Maher was initially reluctant, but ultimately agreed to sign on. Once Slickman had secured his consent she pitched the idea to Pierson, who was game. Maher's book came out last year and so far has spawned productions of his plays in Saint Louis, Austin, and London.
Future projects include Pierson's own novel--a fictional account of his years in Screeching Weasel--a collection of columns by Maximum Rock 'n' Roll writer Mykel Board, and another Neo-Futurists book. At 8 PM on Wednesday, December 11, Dave Awl will host a free Hope and Nonthings showcase at No Exit Cafe; Maher, Pierson, and several of the Neo-Futurists will read and Even in Blackouts will play a set.
Slickman and Pierson are now formally teamed up, though what that means for the future is anyone's guess. Asked about her position with Hope and Nonthings, Slickman thinks for a moment and then announces, "I'm vice president." When Pierson starts laughing she continues, "Oh good, I'm vice president. Vice president of...research."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.