In 2005, while living in New Hall 4 on Millikin’s campus, Brian Rohde ’08 received a call from Mikey Laird, an old friend from his hometown of Elgin. Laird convinced Rohde that the two of them, along with a handful of other friends, should produce a play back home over summer break. Seven years later, that summer project has become Nothing Special Productions (NSP), a storefront theater company in Chicago. Rohde, who earned his Millikin B.F.A. in theatre administration, serves as technical director, Laird is artistic director and Nick Cardiff, fellow childhood friend, is executive director. NSP is one of more than 140 storefront or traveling theater companies in Chicago, many of them started by MU alumni. The abundance of these small companies allows the theater community to explore collaborative fundraising opportunities, such as Fight Night.
“Fight Night,” Rohde says, “is a combat event where we put together a series of short fight scenes with other storefront companies. It’s a night of violence, mayhem and $2 Pabst Blue Ribbons, and it’s been great for breaking into the Chicago theater scene.” But the location comes with challenges, too. “It’s well-known among the theater community that Chicago is where you make great theater,” Rohde says, “just not great money.” However, producing legitimate theater does take money, which means NSP must apply business savvy to their operation. “We’ve brought a person onto our staff who is not primarily an artist, Erika Davidson ’11. She has been great in organizing all things business,” Rohde says. Brian Rohde ’08 (center) and his ideas are met with a variety of emotions from his fellow actors celeste Burns (left), Volen iliev and Allie Kunkler.Davidson was immediately attracted to the attitude of NSP when she joined a year ago. “Our company meetings are great,” she says. “We gather at someone’s apartment once a month, order pizza, drink a couple of beers and talk about what we want from our company.”
The company has grown not only in organization and size, but in purpose. “We’ve made it our mission to tell stories and produce new works created by Chicago artists,” Rohde says. “Savage Land” by Josh Nordmark, a young Chicago writer, was the company’s most recent and largest production. It was the first show produced by NSP that was eligible for Chicago’s Jeff Awards. In order to be Jeff-eligible, a company must be in Chicago for two years and produce two shows a year with nine performances each. Once a company is eligible to be reviewed by the Jeff committee, the company must then hold 18 performances of the show being reviewed. “It’s a form of recognition,” Rohde says. “Our goal was to produce a Jeff-eligible show in 2012. That led us to ‘Savage Land.’ It was a huge success in that we achieved our goal of being eligible, even though we were not recommended for an award.” Staying competitive for the Jeff awards also proved to be too much for NSP’s resources. “It’s just financially irresponsible to continue to be a Jeff-eligible company,” Rohde says. “It was a big lesson, and while a decision has not been made, we’re pretty sure we’re going to hold back on our Jeff eligibility.” NSP’s next production is “A Midlife Something,” an original play, for their spring 2013 season.
“The show is about a 20-something guy living in the suburbs with his mom after his dad recently passed away,” Rohde says. “It deals with death, being stuck, and there’s a silly T-shirt company. Oh, and there’s something going on between his friend and his mom.” Rohde’s personal dream for the company is a place to call home. “I would like to see us become a resident at a theater where we’re producing the majority of our work,” he says. The problem with getting there is cash. “Nonprofit theater companies usually have a donor base which supports the company. We don’t have that yet,” Rohde says. “We are funded based on the money we are able to raise.” In the face of these challenges, the team is motivated by the simplest reason. “It’s fun,” Rohde says. “Since we started, we’ve said we’re going to do it until it’s not fun anymore. We’re seven years in, and it’s still fun.”
For more information, visit www.nothingspecialproductions.com.
by Jackson Lewis