The Neutrino Project

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Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2005

Chicago TribuneMaking a movie in Wrigleyville. Without a script.
by Nina Metz

Bob Ladewig in Neutrino Project
Bob Ladewig bares his soul for the cameras as part of Neutrino Project: The Instant Movie," in which teams disembark from Improv Kitchen and make an improptu film
Tribune photo by David Zentz

At the intersection of pop culture and instant gratification lies "Neutrino Project: The Instant Movie."

First developed by a New York improv troupe called Neutrino, the experimental hybrid combines unscripted, site-specific theater with do-it-yourself moviemaking. A handful of Chicago actors happened to catch early shows and borrowed the concept for a local version that premiered in the winter of 2003.

The Neutrino Project was an unqualified success for the local improv ensemble FuzzyCo, which has produced various incarnations ever since. Last weekend the group unveiled its latest Neutrino production at the Improv Kitchen, where it runs Friday nights through the end of September.

The basic idea is simple. Instead of performing onstage before an audience, the ensemble breaks off into teams--each trailed by a cameraman/director and a runner--and ventures out into the surrounding neighborhood. Amid unsuspecting pedestrians and restaurant patrons, actors film short, completely improvised scenes.

Seconds after the director says "cut," runners scurry back to the theater, videotape in hand--picture Joan Cusack in "Broadcast News."

Backstage, tech manager Greg Inda loads each tape as it comes in. The entire process repeats several times, without pause, resulting in a one-hour movie that screens even as it's being shot.

Based on my observations during a recent show, Neutrino remains the freshest thing on Chicago's improv scene. The boundaries of unscripted performance have been pushed to the next logical step: improv for the digital age.

In hopes of deciphering the Neutrino code, I tagged along with a team of actors on opening night for a behind-the-scenes perspective. The trick, I learned, was an almost obsessive attention to detail and organization.

The cast gathered at the studios of Improv Kitchen, a Wrigleyville comedy club and eatery equipped with multiple 42-inch plasma flat screen TVs. (Previous runs of the show were staged in traditional storefront theaters equipped with a movie screen.) Director Lillie Frances divided the group into four teams and assigned the shooting locations: a bar, a Mexican restaurant, a nearby parking lot and the inside of someone's car. (The crews ask for permission to film from business owners or managers when they walk in to shoot the scene; according to Frances, they are rarely turned away.)

I was with the El Jardin posse. Our runner, Maureen McCabe, huddled with director Michael Starcevich, sorting through blank tapes and labeling them ahead of time. It was McCabe's first time on the job, and you could tell she was feeling the pressure. Everything depends on the runner's ability to keep the team focused to ensure the tapes get back on time; a late arrival at the theater means dead-air for the audience. "Help me!" McCabe mouthed as she walked by.

Before the performance, the cast jogged out to the audience and solicited a title suggestion, as well as the temporary use of objects that the actors would incorporate into their scenes. The first team left and, less than 10 minutes later, their tape was back and the audience was watching the first installment.

With the clock ticking, we dashed down the street to El Jardin where the restaurant staff replied with bored nods when Starcevich asked for their blessing. Everyone else stopped to stare. Convinced nothing glamorous was going on, the crowd gradually returned to their conversations.

The actors in our group--FuzzyCo founder Fuzzy Gerdes, Erica Reid and Patrick Brennan--ordered a round of margaritas and began improvising a scene about old friends meeting for dinner. (Rule of thumb: When filming in a bar or restaurant, always spend a little cash to ensure the manager's good will.)

Because of the time crunch, all editing has to be done by the directors as they film. Each time Starcevich wanted to change angles he would signal the actors, hit the stop button and shift to a different spot. Once in place, he'd press record and go from there. It's harder than it sounds, but the Neutrino videographers--most of whom are improvisers themselves--have become surprisingly adept at working within these constraints.

From an audience perspective, the film feels very different from a typical improv show, which can be plagued with agonizing moments of flop-sweat and awkwardness. Here the actors are more relaxed in their performances, more likely to allow silence to creep into their scenes. (Some scenes contain no dialogue at all; back at the theater, using hasty notes from the runner, the tech staff will add a soundtrack to suit the mood.)

If this night's experience was any indication, the intrusion of film crews has apparently become passe around town. This can lead to some of the funniest material of the night. Intentionally or not, Starcevich captured a full view of a man sitting just behind the actors, his dead-eyed expression showing his true feelings toward his companion. These moments, more than anything else, give the movie an aura of irreverent spontaneity.

Several scenes later, our team met up with the rest of the cast on the sidewalk outside the Twisted Spoke on Clark Street. The group talked briefly and determined the best way to converge their individual storylines. Looking up from my notepad, I realized two actors standing in front of me were missing their pants. I would have to wait for my chance to view the completed film to find out why--a birthday celebration gone awry, it turns out.

But as we filmed, passers-by barely glanced twice in our direction; just another crazy night in Wrigleyville.

"The rule is, on Neutrino night, wear boxers," Gerdes told me. "No one wants to be caught on film wearing tighty-whities."

Filmed outtakes are a new addition to the Neutrino Project, screened at the end of the movie. After shooting their main scenes, the actors take a few minutes to shoot their outtakes, provided the director remembers to load the tape.

The final scene completed, we trudged back to the Improv Kitchen to watch the outtakes with the audience. The best one of the night featured actor Sean Cusick, standing in a parking lot alone and conspicuously undressed, drawing befuddled stares from the lot attendant and occupants of a passing car.

Organization may be the key to Neutrino, but a little shameless exhibitionism seems just as vital.

`Neutrino Project: The Instant Movie'
When: 9 p.m. Fridays
Where: Improv Kitchen, 3419 N. Clark St.
Price: $12; 773-868-6423

Patrick Brennan and Fuzzy Gerdes in the Neutrino Project
Patrick Brennan (left) and Fuzzy Gerdes are videotaped by Michael Starcevich as they improvise a scene in the El Jardin restaurant as part of the Neutrino Project
Tribune photo by David Zentz

The Neutrino Project | Cast | Press & Reviews | Photos | History | Journal

Questions about FuzzyCo may be directed to Fuzzy Gerdes,