Move over Second City—there’s a new improv act in Chicago. Well, pseudo-improv at least. Bring Your Own Theatre Productions (BYOT) is a theatre company with a unique mission: to take a show from concept to performance all in only 24 hours.
It starts with the end of each show: the audience gets to vote on a theme for the next performance. Four or five buckets with theme choices are set out, then the audience buys tickets and uses those tickets to vote for the theme. The choices can range from random ideas thrown out by the company, to a theme that would incorporate a specific prop, to one based on a specific set (that would also need to be built in 24 hours), or to something entirely different. From that point, the theme is a tightly kept secret by the management team until a preshow meeting the day before the next show.
Each performance at BYOT has five unrelated scenes with a common theme, using one writer per scene, one director per scene, and two to four different actors per scene. After the theme is announced at the preshow meeting, all those names are drawn from a hat. The scene groups gather and brainstorm for a little bit, and then the magic begins: the writers have until 8 a.m. the next morning (the day of the show) to script out a 10-page-or-less script. Everyone meets at the show space by 10 a.m. at the latest and then have until the very last minute to develop blocking and learn lines. The doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the show starts at 8.
“Everything we do, we do on the fly, as best we can, but we have really high quality shows,” said Greg Torbeck, BYOT’s Director of Outreach for the 2016-2017 season. “Sure, sometimes our props or set pieces are made out of cardboard, but we create an environment that fosters a level of polish in a short time.”
The company brings a fresh concept to Chicago theatre, shunning both weeks of rehearsals and the instant response of improv. It’s more of a middle ground, something completely foreign to seasoned theatre veterans.
“The way we do things is a bit mind boggling to most,” Torbeck said. “Anyone I’ve ever talked to is always taken aback by the concept.”
BYOT is also working to shatter a reported cliquish vibe that stops outsiders from attempting to get involved in the Chicago theatre and improv scene. The company strives to be inclusive, allowing anyone with even a small interest to participate in a show. It’s for both amateurs and professionals, for those using the company as a stepping stone to bigger theatrical productions or for hobbyists who just want a creative outlet and a sense of familial friendship.
“We make it our mission to invite anyone, of any background, to come join us,” Torbeck said. “Most of our company started as audience members. Every show we welcome people to jump in on the fun next time if they liked what they saw and the concept tickles them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional actor or never set foot on a stage.”
As a result, every show BYOT does brings in new participants—whether they’re audience members from a previous production, friends of friends, or even people that overheard someone talking about it. And for Torbeck, that’s what lies at the heart of BYOT.
“It’s really our strength as a company,” he said. “That diversity of skill sets, the difference in scope of voice, just lets the creativity explode each show.”
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author, and editor, focusing on culinary travel. She has written for The New York Times, Yahoo Travel, National Geographic Traveler, Porthole Cruiser, Midwest Living, and Taste of Home Magazine.