WOODSTOCK – Theater Undreground was known as the “frat boys of theater” when it first opened.
They’d throw food at the audience. A rubber chicken was a recurring gag. Their shows were rated R.
But four years later, the Richmond-based theater company and nonprofit is more established in the McHenry County theater scene – although it’s still trying to break the rules and change the perspective of live theater in the county, said David Baker, one of its co-founders.
Baker, a native of Cary, lives in Woodstock with his wife, Katelin Stack-Baker, who he met when he played across from her in Theater Undreground’s first show, “Let the Games Begin.”
To pay the bills, he works as a bartender at Liquid Blues, a bar just off Woodstock’s historic Square.
Reporter Emily K. Coleman sat down with Baker to talk about Theater Undreground.
Coleman: What was the genesis of the company? How did it come to be?
Baker: It was kind of an accident. My co-founder, Tim Mosbach, who is no longer with the company – we met in college doing Shakespeare, and when we got out, we had lives, doing what we’re doing, getting jobs and all that important stuff.
He called me one day and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this play. What do you say we just throw some money at it and try it? See what happens?’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ That was ‘Let the Games Begin.’
Within that process we never thought of Theater Undreground actually existing. We didn’t even have a name for ourselves at that point. We’re just doing a play. Tim and David doing a play.
Coleman: How did you end up in Richmond?
Baker: We didn’t want to use the Opera House. We didn’t want to use the Raue Center. We wanted to be different. I wanted a place where we could take all the chairs out and do theater in the round, which we’ve done. We pulled all the chairs out, built a whole new stage in the middle and set chairs around it. I wanted a place where I could make whatever we wanted the show to be. I wanted a big empty cavern of fun.
Coleman: How is the company set up?
Baker: We have different sections of Theater Undreground. We have our main shows that we do sporadically. We don’t have a set schedule. We look for a show, we find a show that we really like, and then we do it. It’s not like we’re going to do four shows a year or anything like that.
Our company is largely built upon our improv group. We improv at local places like Olive Black in Richmond. We did it in Cary Area Chamber of Commerce Women’s League, which was really weird. We thought we’d have to behave. Then we were asking suggestions from them ... .
Coleman: What’s it like doing improv?
Baker: It’s cool to do improv, especially in such a small town with a group of people who’s only seen, like, “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” They see that on TV. They don’t realize just how far improv can go and how real it gets when it’s in front of it.
Most of the time we start a show out and people kind of are like, “Oh, OK, so they’re going to try and do this ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway?’ Yawn.” Then, next thing you know it’s “Oh my God, they’re grabbing my drink off my table. Oh my God, they’re spilling it on themselves. What’s going on? Where’d that come from?”
Coleman: Why is it important to you to do shows that aren’t mainstream, that are maybe more risque?
Baker: Art is such a huge thing that not a lot of people get enough of, and theater is, in my opinion, one of largest forms of art in the world. You have paintings. You have construction and sculpture. You have actors and directors. There’s so many people to put a show together. It’s a culmination of everybody’s artistic skills.
Why would I want to show everybody “Fiddler on the Roof?” Would I want to repaint any of Picasso’s paintings? It would be boring. He already did it. Why would I do it again?
Coleman: OK, so, what’s the deal with the rubber chicken?
Baker: Tim Mosbach and I did “The Taming of the Shrew” at [McHenry County College]. I was playing Gremio, and he was playing Petruchio.
Gremio is this real old man, and I had to pull a bunch of stuff out of my pockets at one point, so I picked up my skirt – because it was a medieval show, right – I pulled out this rubber chicken on stage.
At that same moment, somebody’s cellphone rings in the audience, so Tim goes over to the cellphone and in Shakespearean says, “Give me the phone.” Person gives him the phone and he answers and says, “I’m sorry. We’re doing the show right now, and there’s a live rubber chicken!” He shuts the phone off and hands back to the person, and we went on with the show.
When we developed Theater Undreground, we’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, rubber chickens all the time, in everything we do. Every show we do we have the rubber chicken somewhere.’