After the Annoyance Theatre lost its Lakeview space last June, cofounder Mick Napier discovered he couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking him about the future of the company. He says the only question he heard more often was “Do you have a cigarette?” Eventually he got so sick of fielding queries he got his response printed up on some business cards; when someone asked, he’d just hand them a card and walk away.
The cards aside, Napier’s never been much of a business type. With his shaved head, sleeveless T-shirts, and penchant for speaking his mind regardless of the consequences, he’s not a fellow you’d expect to see in the waiting room of someone’s office, hat in hand. But last year he and the rest of the Annoyance found themselves writing detailed business plans, making weekly conference calls to high-priced consultants, schmoozing with fellow corporate entrepreneurs, and pitching their company to venture capitalists who wanted to park their money somewhere.
Founded in 1989, the troupe had struck gold with Co-ed Prison Sluts, one of the longest-running shows in the history of off-Loop theater, and perfected its late-night blend of music, satire, and improv-based comedy with Manson: The Musical, That Darned Anti-Christ, and The Real Live Brady Bunch. By the time the company learned that its space at 3747 N. Clark would be converted into condos, it had staged 80 shows, and Co-ed Prison Sluts had played about 1,200 performances. In April 2000 managing director Mark Sutton told the Reader that the company would “lay low” for two or three months before reopening in a new space, but a year later the Annoyance is still in limbo.
For Napier, shutting down the theater was a relief. “I didn’t shed a tear,” he confesses. “Closing Co-ed Prison Sluts earlier in the year was much sadder. That was the end of an era.” For a long time he’d been avoiding the question of what to do next. In the early 90s he got hooked on the Internet–he participated in news groups, became fascinated with role-playing games, and downloaded pictures from Usenet (“You can imagine what kind of pictures I downloaded,” he says with a leer). At one point he carried on a long E-mail correspondence with a fellow at the south pole.
He had pursued opportunities to further his career. In 1995, after he’d made a name for himself directing at Second City, Napier landed a gig writing and directing a sketch-comedy show for HBO Downtown Productions and began commuting to New York. He suggested to the producers that they call the show Alt.Comedy. “No one there knew what that meant,” he says. Instead the show was called Exit 57, and though it enjoyed a two-year run on Comedy Central and earned five CableACE nominations, Napier was unimpressed by the big-time entertainment business.
“The one moment that sums up my experience at Exit was this big meeting we had to present all of our sketches to HBO and Comedy Central–all the producers and the entire staff,” he recalls. “There were about 50 or 60 people in this room. They were sitting at long tables and at each seat was a legal pad.” The cast performed while they dutifully scribbled notes. “No one made a sound. It was so weird. An hour and a half into this meeting one of the secretaries laughed out loud at one of the jokes. Amy Sedaris and I were sitting on a couch in the back of the room. Amy immediately went ‘Shhhhhhh!’ Everyone just turned and gave her a look.”
After the series ended, Napier turned his attention back to the Annoyance; the company was in the doldrums, and Co-ed Prison Sluts, still its flagship production, had grown sloppy and overlong. He made a few moves to kick start the show and the theater, but he also wasted a lot of time surfing the Web and playing Sim City. “I really regret how much time I spent on the Internet,” he says. “I think I completely shut down about the Annoyance Theatre. I didn’t do much about it slipping to an increasingly mediocre stage.”
Napier’s fascination with high-tech toys finally began to bear fruit when he got into video editing. He’d learned about the budding technology in New York and decided to use it to rescue a long-running film project he and some friends had cooked up called Fatty Drives the Bus. The shoestring production had been shot on 16-millimeter film, and the editing had dragged on for years, largely because of the expense. After Napier realized that he could buy PC video-editing software for a fraction of what it would cost to edit celluloid, he built an editing suite in the basement of the theater, digitized all the footage, and set to work.
The experience opened his eyes to the potential of digital video. He discovered video animation programs like Adobe After Effects. “I stopped playing video games like Sim City when I learned After Effects, because it was much more fun to create on a computer, versus just using it.” He spent more and more time in the theater basement, working on Fatty Drives the Bus, creating comic animations, and adding sound-recording capability to the informal production studio. “There were times when I would be amazed again by what we did,” he says of the company’s live shows. “But directing at Second City and my animations kept my creative spirit alive. It was also a way of not taking care of a lot of problems at the Annoyance Theatre proper.”
Napier began to imagine a different Annoyance, a fully integrated production company that could perform live shows, commit them to video, and teach improv as a way of creating new shows. He dreamed of starting a high-tech company that could produce films, digital animation, streaming videos, and short comic bits for the Web. After the theater lost its lease and closed Co-ed Prison Sluts, he realized the time had come to take the company to another level. “The only way for the Annoyance to continue is to up the ante,” he says. “I am not interested in the Annoyance being just a theater again.”
Near the end of last summer he began meeting with other members of the ensemble to talk about the future. Everyone agreed that they first needed to write a detailed business plan for prospective investors, but none of them was eager to sit down and do so. In the fall Napier’s girlfriend, actress Jennifer Estlin, learned about the PrairieFire High Tech Business Plan Competition, which was being launched by First Tuesday, a networking organization for the high-tech industry, and the consulting giant McKinsey & Company to encourage local entrepreneurs and “increase venture capital coming into the city.”
“We almost didn’t enter it because it was a technology-based business plan contest,” says Napier. “There were a lot of application service providers, a lot of people trying to make a better router for the Internet.” Needless to say, none of them was involved in improv comedy. But Napier was desperate, and at the very least the competition would give them a deadline: October 30.
He and Estlin cleared their calendars of all teaching, directing, and acting commitments so they could concentrate on writing the plan. “I would write shit and then she would turn it into something a human being could understand, with grammar and punctuation,” says Napier. As part of the competition, the Annoyance had to meet a series of deadlines, turning in sections of the business plan on schedule. “That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Every day, just about, I would lose my temper.”
In late November they learned that they had made the first cut and were eligible for free consultation from McKinsey & Company to help polish their plan. Through last December and January they conferred weekly with the firm’s Tom Kibarian and Linda Brunzell, going over the plan in excruciating detail. “Every time we’d finish a draft we’d shoot it to them and they’d talk to Jennifer and I on a conference call and rattle off everything wrong with it. They were very intense and critical.” After each call he and Estlin would “weep and then go about making those changes. There were times when I would scream, ‘I’m incapable of doing this! My mind just doesn’t work this way!'”
In January, Annoyance Productions made the second cut and was ranked among ten finalists, but only the top three won prize money or funding. Since then the Annoyance has been courting investors, and it’s been rough sledding: the last two quarters have been the worst for acquiring venture capital since the recession of the early 90s. But the company is in a much better position than it was six months ago. “Working on PrairieFire made me wish I’d written a business plan for the Annoyance ten years ago,” says Napier. Now, at the very least, he can throw away those cards.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.