This Beloved Chicago Theater Locked 8 People Inside Its Walls During the Quarantine to Write a Sketch Show

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On Wednesday, March 18, eight people locked themselves inside the cult-favorite The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, Illinois with one goal: to write, rehearse and perform a brand-new, original show in ten days and live-stream the whole thing. They called themselves the Quaran-team. 

Let’s set the scene. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a state-wide shelter-in-place order on Friday, March 13. While most people spent the weekend stocking up on boxed wine and baked beans (just me?), Executive Producer, Jennifer Estlin, and Artistic Director, Mick Napier, devised a plan to keep The Annoyance afloat and its employees paid for the foreseeable future. 

“Back in 1992, The Annoyance did a one-week lock-in for fun to create a musical,” Estlin told me. “When I heard about what was happening in Italy...I was brainstorming on how we might still earn income if that happened [here]. I thought of that lock-in.”

The Annoyance, once home to comedy stars including Aidy Bryant, Andy Richter, Vanessa Bayer, Jane Lynch and Amy Sedaris, is known for fearless—and timely–ideas like this. Their annual Halloween show, Splatter Theater, involves buckets of fake blood and a splash zone where the audience must don ponchos. Musicals like ShitFYRE: The Musical and Shark Tank: The Musical are quintessential Annoyance responses to pop culture trends. A creatively-charged lock-in during a global pandemic actually makes a lot of sense for this collective. 

So, along with five cast members, Technical Director Duke Harbison, tons of food and an ample supply of hand sanitizer, Estlin and Napier hunkered down in their theater. “We all had been social-distancing and isolating for close to two weeks prior to coming in,” said Estlin. 

On a typical day, the cast would emerge from their sleeping quarters (in the theater’s basement, office and black box space) to eat breakfast in the bar area. Harbison, who hails from New Orleans and makes gourmet dishes on the regular, cooked most meals. Around 11 a.m., they would start to livestream parts of their process—afternoons rehearsing, writing material and pitching scenes before dinner and rehearsing again in the evening.  

“Any time we got a delivery of anything from the outside, it was accepted with gloves on, then wiped down thoroughly before we opened any packaging. I was a bit maniacal about being super careful,” added Estlin. 

Napier had the cast write the show’s songs first, so they could send lyrics to musical director and longtime Annoyance ensemble member, Lisa McQueen. Working remotely, McQueen turned around the music quickly so the cast could then work on choreography. 

The result is Out of Touch, a goofy, honest sketch revue that lets us laugh at this strange predicament we find ourselves in today. For a suggested $5 ticket donation, you can watch the entire video of the livestream debut that aired Saturday, March 28. It runs just under an hour with an added Q&A at the end. 

Prior to the debut, The Annoyance posted a tape of their dress rehearsal. At the beginning of the video, Napier looks directly into the camera with a smirk. “No matter what happens,” he says, “we’re going to forge ahead.” Sounds good to us. 

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Sarah Ashley is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She has covered pets for PureWow for six years and tackles everything from dog training tips to the best litter boxes. Her...