Amateur Hour

Kurt Reetz was banking on the idea that people would pay to perform with professionals. But Reetz, who owns the film and recording studio Ka-Chung in Clarendon Hills, admits that he knew little about improv when he agreed to mount Participlay, the brainchild of local comedian Len Austrevich. Austrevich envisioned something more elaborate than the usual Second City knockoff, an audience-participation show involving a quartet of improv players along with TV cameras, monitors, and video clips; every show would be taped, instantly duplicated on videocassette, and sold to audience members on their way out. “We were thinking of putting it in comedy clubs and on cruise ships all over the place and making a lot of money,” says Reetz, who rounded up an investor with deep pockets. But after eight months of preproduction costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, Reetz and his investor wound up pulling the plug be-fore the show even opened.

Around town Austrevich is best known for the Funny Firm, the comedy club he opened near Grand and Franklin in 1987, but his practice of distributing comp tickets through telemarketing made him unpopular with other club owners. “It really hurt the whole industry here,” says Richard Uchwat, owner of the Zanies comedy clubs. After leaving the Funny Firm in 1991 (it closed a year later), Austrevich spent time on the west coast writing for TV shows and selling material to stand-up comedians like Richard Jeni. A year ago, according to a review in the Chicago Tribune, Austrevich nearly stole the show from Jeni when he opened for him at the House of Blues. In February he showed up at Ka-Chung to do a voice-over gig, and Reetz, who’s been involved in real estate deals with partners who include Hair producer Michael Butler, was impressed by Austrevich’s show-business credentials. They struck a deal to produce Participlay with Austrevich directing.

They signed a two-year lease on the performance space at 2851 N. Halsted, which had recently been vacated by the financially strapped Organic Theater Company, and took possession in June. According to Reetz the theater and offices were trashed, and he was determined to clean and renovate them before the show opened: “It took us 40 hours just to get out all the garbage–all the broken lighting instruments and chairs, among other things–before we began to redo the spaces.” Austrevich says this was the first aspect of production he would have handled differently had he been in control. “I wasn’t really interested, like Kurt, in spending a lot of time rehabbing a run-down theater and making the place look good,” says Austrevich. “I just wanted to go into a theater or a nightclub and do the show.”

But doing the show turned out not to be so simple either. “This was the first show I had ever done that I felt fully invested in,” says Rob Gaughan, who endured four audition calls before joining the four-person cast. But two of the actors quit, and instead of recruiting replacements Austrevich and fellow writer Phyllis Murphy decided to join the cast themselves. Austrevich began rehearsals with 220 pages of sketches and brought in at least a dozen video monitors and four video cameras. “The control booth looked like what you might find in a typical television studio,” he says. Reetz decided to buy the cameras and monitors outright instead of renting them, yet as Austrevich admits, they skimped on their tech crew. “They had $18,000 worth of sound equipment and $30,000 worth of lights,” says Gaughan, “and they hired what amounted to college interns to handle the technical stuff.”

The cast defections and a perpetual stream of technical problems pushed back the previews again and again, and Reetz’s lone investor coughed up more and more money. “Austrevich just didn’t seem to be well organized,” says Reetz. By September he and the director agreed that they had to bring in an audience to determine whether they had something funny and commercially viable. They hoped to charge a top ticket of $38 once the show opened, but according to Reetz all previews were free, despite the fact that the show’s operating cost was about $20,000 a week. Well before opening night Reetz began sinking money into merchandise like T-shirts and coffee cups, which can substantially swell the bottom line of a hit–or increase the red ink for a flop.

On the day of the first performance, all the phones in the theater went out. “There I was on the floor trying to fix the phones so people could call in for tickets instead of getting my show ready,” explains Austrevich. Again and again the electricity went down during previews, wreaking havoc with the equipment. “It seemed the show was just too technically complex,” says Margaret Hicks, the fourth cast member. But Reetz and his investor recognized one overriding problem that had nothing to do with cameras or monitors. “The show just wasn’t funny,” says Reetz. Participlay was scheduled to open October 23, but by the first week of October, Reetz and his investor began to realize the project was doomed. After going to see one last performance, they shut down the production without even allowing critics to see it.

Austrevich, who kicked in some money as the situation worsened, says that all the technical components were working smoothly by the end, and he’s convinced that with another two weeks of previews a successful show would have emerged from the chaos. But he wasn’t the principal investor, and according to one source the production had already eaten up nearly half a million dollars. Gaughan is still traumatized by the show’s demise; despite all the rehearsal and preview time, no one seemed capable of imposing order. “Nobody knew what anybody else was doing,” he says. “And I feel really crappy about that because I wasted six months of my life on the show.” Reetz blames the director: “I’m not a theater person, but I thought we were in good hands.” And Austrevich blames the producer, though he also thinks fate was against them. “Kurt wanted this to be something like what Disney would have done,” he says. “We could have gotten to that point, but we were besieged by bad luck.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.