What happens when your accidental sketch show becomes a surprise hit? For "Bye Bye Liver" writer-producer Byron Hatfield, the trajectory led—down a somewhat long and winding road—to opening The Public House Theatre.
In 2006, Hatfield—a Tennessee native who moved to Chicago in 2002 post-college and soon after won a Babes With Blades theater company playwriting competition—contracted with Gorilla Tango Theatre to stage an original play, but ran out of time before he could complete it and instead mounted "Bye Bye Liver," an interactive drinking game-themed sketch show.
Scheduled for a three-week run, the show sold out immediately and extended, changing venues twice over six years, increasing to four shows per weekend and expanding into 10 additional cities (it still plays in seven, including Chicago).
In March, Hatfield opened The Public House Theatre, which features two theaters and a bar, in the former Live Bait Theater space. But rather than rent it out on off-nights, he hired a team of producers, writers and staff to create additional original programming and to partner with local artists and companies to develop and produce their new shows. We called him to find out more.
What brought you to Chicago in the first place?
[Laughs.] It's the dumbest thing. In college, we had a group called NASNNIP--Not Always Shakespeare; Not Necessarily in the Park. It was a theater troupe but we kept writing shorter and shorter and funnier and funnier plays and finally it was like, "These things are brilliant—they're like five-minute long funny plays. I don't know why the hell people hadn't thought about this—let's do this!" I literally thought I invented sketch. And everyone was like, "Chicago is the place for this stuff—they do this." "Really? Well, let's go there and teach them a lesson." I didn't know about Second City; I didn't know iO, 'cause I was all theater—on the complete other side of stuff. So I come to Chicago [laughs], and I was like, "Oh … I see … everyone does this. OK, never mind." [Laughs.]
But then "Bye Bye Liver" opened.
It was a three-week run originally, that was it—three weeks and out. It sold out the first night so we extended immediately. We had to move to an eleven o'clock slot, which kind of sucks, because it was BYOB at the beginning, which is just the wild [bleep]ing west of theater, much less drinking theater. People would come in with a handle of fricking whiskey and you'd be like, "Oh, this is going to be a night."
What happened next?
The show itself caught fire pretty quick, but what made it continue was just an insane amount of sleepless nights. I knew what lightning in a bottle was. I was like, "This is a really special opportunity that I've seen several times in my life and not capitalized on. And I'm going to do it this time." I had to learn to build the first website, which was crap, but we had to have one. And getting the box office phone and manning that 24/7 for the first couple years, having it strapped to me. I stayed home and I learned to make websites, how to do press releases professionally and take photos to get good press. There's a three-year span of my life that I barely remember.
What steps did it take to make the transition to the next level?
Two years in, "Bye Bye Liver" really blew up. It started doing multiple shows per night and then immediately I just turned so ghetto rich. I didn't have a bank account; I started paying for everything in cash. Within three months of adding the multiple weekend shows I was like, if I don't hire someone, I'm going to be a crackhead somewhere in four years, having blown through everything. The first thing was, I had to get somebody that would let me not be a dumbass, a financial guy. So I found [director of operations] Matt [Mattingly] through a friend. He saw the potential in it; he's the guy who's led the expansion efforts. I listen to him constantly.
Why add the responsibility of a theater?
The ability to say "yes" and take risks. It was a choice between sitting back and just pulling in proceeds from "Bye Bye Liver" and kind of being an [bleep]hole or reinvesting in something I really, really believe in. I have [laughs] invested over 90 percent of the proceeds, either back into the actors or back into other projects, actually.
What made you think you'd succeed?
Over the course of all of this time, we have continued to produce other plays. There's a very specific style of [what I call] long-form narrative sketch that I like—it has through-lines and you're telling a story, but it's that same in-and-out humor of sketch and you're not overly dedicated to realism. It's not an artists' commune where it's "yes" to everything. We don't produce improv. We don't produce stand-up. And we don't take all comers.
Why not just make it a rental theater?
What I wanted to do was set up a construct. I believe—and I believe this deeply—that there's a place in Chicago for a middle class of artists, that you can earn a living. We say yes to shows and then we produce them and we split the profits with the group. And it revolves around saying no to projects, too. We [Hatfield and Mattingly] "mom and dad" everybody. People will literally just be like, "Dude, I have the most amazing idea for a show.'" And I'll be like, "Yes, that's brilliant! I think it's phenomenal." And Matt's like, "You're a [bleep]ing idiot. No. You will be insolvent in no time." Matt's job is to keep me from just shooting myself in the foot constantly and he does a great job at it.
What's the process for shows generated in-house?
It's set up sort of like an MGM studio; you have a producers' table and you have a writers' room and the directors' group. So internally, the way we do things, the writers' room is always churning out material. Two writers may peel off and start working on a project together. And then a director or a producer might get attached and they kind of start ushering it from that level upwards. It gets green-lit and then we eventually find a time slot for it as the project materializes.
How do you partner for outside shows?
People come with a show proposal. Then we sit down in face-to-face meetings and discuss their show and have a script come up. But it's not just them coming to us and then saying no or yes. If you want to do a show [at a rental theater], they're going to be like, "Great. $250-$300 a night plus X amount of your proceeds." It puts all the risk on some five-person group trying to do their third or fourth show. And that's a hell of a lot. There's no involvement in creative support. It's sort of like, "Here's the keys to the kingdom. Good luck with your show. Here's a one-sheet that tells you what we expect." I want to take some of the risk off the young groups and put it on the house. When we start working together, from that moment on, you have the full support of the theater and there's a lot of smart people at that theater. I want to be the masters' class of Chicago sketch. But instead of charging for it, let's do it the professional way, you know?
Go: 8 p.m. Wednesday (open run, third Wednesday each month; $10)
Comedy group Let's Pet Puppies commissions a new play each month. The twist? Under the guise of giving the play a good production, the company destroys it with bad acting, god-awful direction and fatally flawed stage managing. The series kicks off with a work by Chicago writer-comedian Zack Mast.
Go: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through August 24 ($15; $10 for students)
Local actor-writers Bryan Duff and Mitch Salm—and a ghost—take a humorous, behind-the-scenes look at Shakespeare's "Hamlet" by juxtaposing text from the play with improv scenes featuring underdeveloped characters that explore such conundrums as how Ophelia reaches the decision to drown herself and what the heck Queen Gertrude is doing to contribute to all the tragedy that befalls her.
"Bloodsport! The Musical!"
Go: 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday through August 10 ($15)
Celebrate the 25th anniversary of Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Bloodsport," with this spoof of the actor's action films—set to an '80s pop soundtrack—in which a van Damme-like man on a quest to avenge his brother enters a dangerous underground martial arts tournament and encounters villains and Cyborgs.