Edmund O’Brien didn’t go to the University of Chicago in 1989 to become an actor. “Actually, my parents sent me there because it didn’t have a theater program,” he says, laughing. “My oldest brother had broken my parents’ heart by dropping out of a PhD program at Princeton to go into acting.”

But before the year was out O’Brien was a member of Off-Off Campus, sacrificing all of his free time working on the group’s Second City-style revues. “It was insane, rehearsing three hours a night, every night, every night except Saturday, which was a performance night. Then on your own time writing and rewriting and learning lines. It really consumed my life.” A year later he was onstage performing for incoming freshmen. “I remember looking up in the middle of the performance and seeing 900 kids out there laughing, sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to see where we were going with the scene, and I knew then, wow, this was it!”

Off-Off Campus was the brainchild of U. of C. English professor Frank Kinahan and Steve Schroer, then director of the student theater. In 1986 the pair got Second City cofounder Bernie Sahlins to teach a course on the art of writing sketch comedy. Kinahan hoped that once the students knew the basics they’d do a show and then would want to do another one. “The hope,” Schroer says, “was that Off-Off Campus shows, which had virtually no budget, would turn a profit, and that would in turn be used to subsidize other [student theater] productions.”

The university, with its reputation as a place for serious scholarship, had always disdained “trade school” programs like journalism and communications and theater. And by design or accident, extracurricular activities that smacked of training for the trades–the student newspaper, the college radio station, the student theater–never had much money.

When Sahlins held auditions for his class, more than 100 students showed up for 20 slots.

The course was a mixture of comedy theory and practice refined by Sahlins’s years at Second City. The “final exam” was a comedy revue. Some of the sketches were rough, and the acting was clearly college level. But it all went well enough to justify making the show a quarterly event, though Sahlins had bowed out of the picture. A year later the group began performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Off-Off Campus became a fixture of college life.

O’Brien credits his first Off-Off Campus shows with giving him the courage to survive the sometimes harsh life of real-world theater. Since graduating three years ago, he’s become a fixture in Chicago’s improv scene, appearing with such troupes as Netsu Retsu, Glitterball, and Sheila. This weekend he’s organized a reunion of former Off-Off Campus performers, who will put on two shows. Alums began calling him from around the country as soon as they heard, and 45 of them are planning to come.

The 10 PM show this Friday will be fully improvised; the 9 PM show on Saturday will be a collection of favorite old sketches. Both shows will be at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis; tickets are $7 on Friday, $10 on Saturday. Call 702-7300.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.