Mourning Has Broken

No one wants to laugh at a funeral, but suppressing the urge can often make a person laugh harder, and Noble Fool Theater Company has parlayed that into a long-running hit. Flanagan’s Wake, a partly scripted, partly improvised show at which audience members find themselves in the middle of an Irish wake, opened on Saint Patrick’s Day 1993 at the Improv Institute, where it ran successfully for a year. When that venue folded in 1994 the show moved to the 65-seat studio at the Royal George Theatre Center, and three years later it took over the center’s 90-seat space, where it continues to draw large crowds. Now the company is preparing to move into a new 8,000-square-foot space at 16 W. Randolph, the building recently purchased by the School of the Art Institute; the venue will include a 100-seat studio where Flanagan’s Wake will take up residence, a 155-seat main stage in which the company plans to mount an annual subscription season, and an open-door, after-hours basement cabaret with musical-comedy programming and interactive comedy similar to the wake. The venue has been designed by local architect John Morris, whose resume includes the Steppenwolf Theatre, the Old Town School’s new Chicago Folk Center, and Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

As far back as 1995 the Noble Fool company–then called Zeitgeist Theater–realized that Flanagan’s Wake might be the ticket to a place of its own. That summer the dozen-odd improv comedians who’d created the show held a series of strategic meetings to capitalize on its success. Because the show’s gimmick allowed them to chat with audience members at every performance, they knew they were drawing a mix of tourists, conventioneers, middle-aged suburbanites, and younger improv fans, a solid and diverse audience base that seemed to bode well for the future. But they wanted to be more than a one-hit wonder. “Our primary goal, we decided, was to take control of a multivenue facility that would be ours to produce in for a long period of time,” says Paul Botts, a member of the company and president of its board of directors. They hoped to realize their goal within the next nine months, which proved to be overly optimistic, but the show continued to thrive, sustaining other productions too. “By 1998 we were a $350,000-a-year company based almost solely on the popularity of Flanagan’s Wake.”

The School of the Art Institute’s new building, set to open this fall, will house a student dormitory, an expanded Film Center (to be named for critic Gene Siskel), and ground-floor retail space that will include a Borders. According to Robert Mars, vice president for administrative affairs at the SAIC, the school hadn’t planned on a theater space, but the city indicated it would like to see one. “The mayor wants a diversity of theater in the north Loop,” says Becky Carroll, spokesperson for Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. A company like Noble Fool, she points out, could offer tickets at much lower prices than those for most touring Broadway shows. “That would be an especially attractive deal for families.” Carroll says the city is also negotiating with a company to move into 180 W. Randolph as early as the first quarter of 2001. The producers of Shear Madness, which lost its space when the city closed the Blackstone Hotel, expressed interest in the SAIC building, but the two parties couldn’t reach an agreement. Botts isn’t surprised that Noble Fool had the field almost to itself: “Most [off-Loop companies] simply don’t have the financial resources to undertake such a project. But we were lucky because we had a successful, long-running show that was generating cash for us, and we were operating in the black and had a strategic plan in place, a big plus.”

Yet the company faces some major financial challenges: Botts says they’re getting a loan to cover the $2.5 million build-out of the space and will hire a professional fund-raiser to help retire the debt. When the space opens in November, the company’s annual operating budget will leap from $400,000 to about $2.5 million, half of which should be covered by ticket sales and the remainder by sales of liquor and other concessions. Down the line Noble Fool also expects to generate revenue from improv classes offered as part of the SAIC’s continuing education program. David Kipper, former chairman of the board for the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, became a fan of Flanagan’s Wake during its early days at the Improv Institute, and now that his involvement with the ballet is winding down he’s agreed to serve as board chair for Noble Fool. The company’s new administration will include a managing director and directors of development and marketing, and the 22-member ensemble will choose an artistic director, possibly from its own ranks.

Earlier this month Noble Fool began selling subscriptions to its first season: the midwest premiere of The Complete History of America (Abridged), created by the authors of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged); an improv show called No Fooling; The Viking Show, a musical by company members Jack Bronis and Bonnie Shadrake that features instructions on how to disembowel one’s enemies; a revival of the company’s 1997 Christmas show Roasting Chestnuts; and the comic perennial Lovers and Other Strangers. “We plan on doing one classic American comedy each year,” says company member Norah Helling, who notes that they have a backlog of unproduced shows by company members. But future seasons are the least of their worries now: come November, Noble Fool will have to fill two theaters and a cabaret for six or seven nights a week, competing not only with big-time Loop theater but with other well-entrenched companies around the city. With its new name, new space, and new season, the company will have its work cut out for it. Says Helling: “In effect we’re like a start-up company once more, even though we’re a group of people that have worked together for years and years.”

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