Interview between John Pierson and Scott Hermes, transcribed by Sid Branca.
I met Scott downtown in the loop, after his long day of work before he had to go home to his family far out in the suburb of Arlington Heights. We had Thai food in a pretty fancy place. I asked the Maitre d' to sit us under one of the shell-shaped alcoves they had there because I thought it would help with the acoustics of the digital recording over the din of soft jazz and a few clinking glasses. The Maitre d' looked at me as if I were joking. He asked if I had a reservation to sit there. No one was in the restaurant at the time, only at the bar. So I said so, "no one is here.", he begrudgingly let us sit in the area I requested. Actually I had no idea if the sound would be better but I had put the wheels in motion, and I feared looking like a buffoon in front of Mr. Hermes. Scott is the recipient of a multitude of highest regards from colleagues of mine whom I hold in the highest regard. In my mind Scott's regard was so tall it had to loom impatiently over the roof of the restaurant waiting for us to finish. We order our food, and while we wait I place the digital recorder in between us, right next to a planter full of flowers, which I will eventually move because it blocks my view of Scott's face. I let him know that he can eat and talk, if he so desires. So Scott immediately puts a breadstick in his mouth, crouches over the table, and crunches into the microphone.
SH: Yeah get ‘em up close, get the sound effects in there.
[Crunching sounds and my laughter slightly distort the recording.]
JP: So right out of the gate, where born? Where raised?
SH: Uh, I grew up in In Princetown, a half-hour drive outside of Schenectady, New York, which is a town in Schenectady County, like a township here. There was something like one business in Princetown, which was a bar, that was it in my little area. So if we were going to go pick up, let's say, milk, it would be a half-hour drive.
SH: one way
JP: That is pretty small
SH: When I grew up we could only see our neighbor’s house in the winter. Once the leaves were off the trees we could see our neighbors. So it was a very rural, I spent a lot of my time out in the woods as a kid.
JP: What brought your parents to that part of the country?
SH: My mom and dad grew up in Buffalo, New York, and my mom got pregnant with my oldest brother, so they both dropped out of University of Buffalo. My dad was in sales. He found this deal basically up in the middle of nowhere. So they moved us all out there. There was four of us, four kids, It was pretty weird at first, I think because he was the only one out there who didn’t farm for a living, right, it’s all these farmers. We were the only non-farmers out there for a while, and then more and more people started moving out who weren’t farmers but they were definitely like factory workers. It was very blue collar.
JP: Did you have many friendships growing up in such a small town?
SH: There was four of us, so at first that was our constant. We were all two years apart, so, you know, my older brother was pretty much my constant playmate for a long time. Once I was in school, then a couple close friends, but you’re so far away from people it’s hard to get together. There were some other kids who lived down the street, so we played with them ‘cause we had to ‘cause there was no one else really, around to play with. It'd be half a mile to your friend’s house basically, it wasn’t that big a deal.
I would consider myself mainly a loner as a kid. I spent a lot of time by myself. I was the youngest of four, so I was always hanging out with people who were much older than I was. My oldest brother is six years older than I am, so I’d be hanging out with his friends.
JP: Being a loner and having your brother's friends as friends, what effect did this have on how you interacted or even how it may have lead towards being a performer?
SH: My nickname was Alien ‘cause I would just say weird things. and so I quickly discovered that if you say weird things people laugh. That was one of the earliest discoveries. I would just say stuff just to see what people’s reactions were.
One of my earliest memories is at the dinner table. There was four kids, my mom, my dad, so everyone’s busy telling stories and cracking each other up. So the only way to get my father’s attention or to get the table’s attention was to be funny, to be funnier than everybody else. So that was the first cutting ground where you had to get attention. So that was, that was how we did it.
JP: Do you remember any of the dinner table antics?
SH: [laughing] We really just tortured my sister. Often we would try to make her snort milk up through her nose. We did it with great consistency. One time she got so mad she flung pudding at us, and it hit the wall.
JP: It sounds like your humor had tangible goals from the very beginning.
SH: Early on you could easily sit there and not say anything the whole meal and be lost in thought and no one would notice. No one ever asked you how was your day? They sort of expected that you were gonna get in there and get attention paid to you.
JP: Are there any actors or artists in your direct family?
SH: My grandfather on my father’s side was a painter and a wildlife photographer. He started off as a commercial artist, and then the family got a camera when my dad was little. My grandmother didn’t want to use it so my grandfather started taking pictures. He quickly became more interested in animals instead of people. He would make these short films without audio, and then he would take them around the country as part of the Audubon Society and he'd narrate them as they were being presented. He did that for many years. He retired from that ‘cause the cost of film was too expensive. He then took painting back up again and made a bunch of paintings before he died.
JP: Did you get to watch him do any of these lectures?
SH: We’d visit him down in Florida and he would do them for us there. But one of the funnier things was how he would get us to write letters to him. He started writing a science fiction story that featured the four kids. Every time we’d write him a letter, he would write a segment of the story back to us. We would get these letters, we’d all be very excited, or at least I was, I was the youngest. I remember it very vividly. We’d read them aloud after dinner to see what’s happening next. Basically he was writing a serial. The setup was that my older brother had a job at a space port, and he was giving us a tour when, you know, the doomsday signal goes off, right? It’s supposed to be that all these spaceships are for various politicians so they can flee the planet in case of a nuclear Armageddon. We were in one of the congressman’s spaceships when the Armageddon signal went off. So we just fled the planet. "Sayonara." [I laughed right here. And I am relaying this fact now to you, the reading audience, because this seemed to be one of those perfect childhood stories I sometimes feel can only be made up but is true in the life of Scott Hermes. It quite frankly made me laugh not only because it made me giddy, it made me nostalgic, and perhaps even envious. Which I rarely allow myself to acknowledge. It is safe to say it made me feel many things.] So the four of us left, and so we’re in suspended animation, and we wake up and some alarm’s going off, we’re going to the wrong place!. So we crash-land on some planet. It’s a whole brand new planet for us to discover and we have all these adventures. One of the first things that we meet are these carrot people. He would also do paintings to go along with the stories, it’s one of my favorite paintings that I still actually have in my bedroom, It’s like a Dr. Seuss type thing with these brightly colored carrot people sort of dancing around. It's based on the painting The Rite of Spring. There’s some famous painting where there are maidens sort of dancing around in a circle. It’s based on that but these are alien carrot people instead. [laughing]
My oldest brother was becoming disillusioned with all that kid stuff so he stopped writing my grandfather. This upset my grandfather so he killed him and knocked him off the story line.
SH: I think I was in third grade. But yeah, all the four kids are characters in the story. And then, you know we start reading it and my oldest brother dies. I start crying uncontrollably, I’m weeping. My dad had to get on the phone, talk to his father and have my older brother miraculously come back to life. So the story is adjusted and it turns out he was just in suspended animation. [JP laughing] The plants can induce paralysis, he was really fine. And so these other weird aliens on the planet came and did this ceremony that brought him back to life. It was kind of like a spider stunning its prey, and he was about to be eaten and die but he looked dead, and so the coma.
JP: I think you were very lucky to have something like that in your life. That kind of experience growing up had to have aided your very own creativity.
SH: My older sister, my sister, my only sister, is very dramatic and she would put on shows. Actually, [laughing] I forgot about this, we shot the best movie ever when I was a kid, that my brother directed. We just found it; it's on super 8 at my Mom's home. I had the great fun of showing it to my wife and my two daughters. We watched it two or three times, and every time we’re going through it I’m pointing out more and more fantastic little details. One of the guys did a great acting job in there I was really shocked. It was my childhood friend Bobby Schleimann. He was really extraordinary. He did a really great death scene, he just died, you know, when he was dead his body was completely limp. You really couldn’t tell he was alive at all, it was fantastic acting. [This weekend I just had an interview with Bill Coleus, one of the original NYC cast. He had mannerisms similar to ones I had seen in Scott and Greg K. I asked him if he was inspired by them, and he says that Greg taught him a game where one person grabs something from the air and meddles with it until it becomes a killing device and then he kills, and then the killed must discover another killing device. Death and it's expression seems to be an intriguing tool for these boys of infinite talent and inspiration.] It was a monster movie. And I was the monster. My brother Dirk shot it. It was his idea, his script. We had some family friends, the Schliemanns. My brother Dirk had a friend John and I had a friend Bobby and my sister Chandra had a friend Terry. So we all had three friends in this same family. So they all came over and then just one day we shot a movie. Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Are there any other art or theater incidences that you can think of that may have influenced the choices you have made in your life?
SH: My father’s mom and dad met doing a play. My grandfather tried out for the play just to meet my grandmother ‘cause he knew she was gonna be in it. My mom and dad met doing a play. My wife and I met at theater school, and my sister and her husband, they met when she was doing a community theater production of Oliver. [Many men Neo-Futurists have said in these interviews that they took up acting to meet women, The Hermes clan seems to have had a string of successes.]
My mom was always very theatrical minded but also she had come from a very long line of Scots, right, Scottish people, who are frugal, very thrifty, very, uh, pragmatic. So what was drilled into my head was, you’ve gotta make money. No matter what you do. And people in their generation had lived through, you know, (and then he says in a deep voice) the Great Depression. So they had suffered greatly through it, had eaten... raised their own chickens and killed them (Scott viciously stabs his pad Thai with a chopstick.). So. [pause] Even though my grandfather was able to make his living, artistically, that was sort of held up as the exception not the rule. My grandmother always did go off on these tangents about the financial opportunities they’d missed, and I don’t know, for whatever reason, it stuck with me. So, when I was looking around to go to college, I didn’t really look to do a straight theatre degree. My mom had convinced me that... [Scott doesn't imitate his mom but his tone changes a bit, one could say with a more calming yet pedantic tone.] "You can get a job and you can, you know, if you wanna act you can act. Nothing’s ever going to stop you from acting, right? If you want to actually act, you need to find something to make a living, you don’t want to starve to death." That was driven into my skull at an early age.
JP: So they weren't so strict as to boot you out if you pursued creativity.
[I am putting on a slight comic tone here, but I do have friends where this was actually the case, and even one who attended the very same school that Scott eventually attends (UOC) My friend Tammi Blustein, who is now in LA writing and performing for many sketch shows, was told by her parents that if she didn't commit her time in school fully to Mathematics they would "disown her." They specifically did NOT want her to take any theater classes or even step on a stage. She shared this with me. Moments after we performed an improv scene at Jimmy's Woodlawn tap she broke down crying and then told me about her present dilemma. She chose to pursue acting, and hopefully her parents chose to keep her. I haven't seen her in awhile. So like I said I knew this wasn't the case with Scott, but also I knew the influence these words could have no matter how caring they are said.]
JP: Well with such dramatic undertaking on the big 8mm screen in your childhood career, you must have ventured into some kind of theater in high school.
SH: In ninth grade the very first thing I had done was a musical, it was The Boyfriend. It was in the summer, they used to do musicals in the summer, and I just did it because I had been in choir and one of my friends was doing it, so I said okay, I’ll do that. So I tried out, I didn’t get any speaking parts. I performed in the chorus and became a stagehand. But at one part I did have a featured dance number just because I was the smallest boy. They paired me opposite the tallest girl in the chorus to do a dance number .
JP: [laughing] For comic effect?
SH: Oh yeah!
SH: My hair was spray-dyed black too, it was very good!
[The excitement Scott imbues this last description of himself with reminded me of a description a future friend would say of him. Phil Lortie: "First thing to know about Scott was that he was the skinniest dude I had ever met. He was more like a chipmunk than a human being. But, it being the 80s, he worked that rail-thin profile to the hilt by adopting a punk aesthetic. Old pictures of him will show periods of experimentation with mohawks, piercings, and really, really cool clothes. A bit of a gym shoe aficionado too, as I recall. He had it going on is what I'm trying to say."] - (I planned on putting more of Phi Lortie's comments in here, but I had to save them for the outtakes.)
SH: I had a ball, I had a blast, a lot of fun. So then I just did a lot of plays during high school, and spending more and more time in there, spending more and more time hanging out with people, it was good.
By the time I was in my senior year I was getting more leads, major parts. I’d always get the funny, the funny accent, the funny character stuff. I had a good friend, Len Clayton, who was from Canada and had traveled around a bit, his family was transferred off to Venezuela, his dad’s an engineer, and then he came back. He exposed me to some of the external influences that formed my comedy ideas. His dad is English and so he introduced me to all those English comics, like, the Goodies, Monty Python and The Two Ronnies.
[In the Chicago suburbs I was lucky enough to have been influenced by all these same shows thanks to the late night broadcasting of channel 11, and the nonchalance of my mother's bedtime policy. Other shows we both enjoyed were: Not The Nine O Clock News, Dave Allen at Large, and of course Benny Hill. Channel 11 also had the tendency to leave in the "naughty bits."]
SH: On Wikipedia there was a list of unusual deaths, and so I was sharing it with my kids. My daughter was amazed that people had died of uncontrollable laughter. Someone died of uncontrollable laughter after watching a Goodies episode. [both laugh] It’s pretty amazing.
JP: Do you think you had a vision of yourself as a sketch performer, a character actor or a leading man.
SH: I never saw myself as a leading man. I always saw myself as a character actor. For instance, in our senior talent show, me and my friends did, two Monty Python skits and were basically continually booed through the entire beginning to end. [JP laughing] We even rigged up our own sixteen ton weight. I was the one who it got dropped over, but there was a screw that was coming through the piece of wood that was like the brace and it came down and it cracked me. It hit me perfectly, whack!, right in the back of my head, blood was coming out. Other than that we were just sort of booed continually through the entire rendition of our two sketches. [pause] We did some Shakespeare too. Again me and one of my friends, Vince, we went and did an audition for a production of Taming of the Shrew. That’s a great way to grow up fast is to be like in the 1970s be a sixteen or seventeen year-old hanging out with a bunch of community theater actors.
JP: That’s what happened to me, too. Yeah, we were all "experimenting." Huffing this weak suburban drug called Rush that basically just gave you a short term dizzy spell and a long term headache and Ya' know, running around forest preserves nude in the middle of the night [both laugh]
SH: Yeah, you sort of look back on it now and go “what the hell happened?” My wife Wendy and I try to explain to our kids, what things we did, it was the 70s, you know? Things happened like this all the time and nobody thought anything about it. [JP laughs.] So my friend Vince, we were sixteen or seventeen, and sort of having a grab at some twenty-one year-old actress there, yeah just hangin’ out, smoking dope and drinking and partying with us, and no one thought anything about that. [pause]
I was looking for something to do after I’d had so much fun doing the Shakespeare. My mom had been doing a lot of modern dance her whole life, and as a kid I used to watch these, she used to do a children’s modern dance where she was the rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. I would hang out at her rehearsals, ‘cause you know she had to do something with me. I was always very much into dance and movement. So someone had started this experimental movement dance theater improv thing, that was based on Sylvia Plath. And while I was dong that someone told me what a great city Chicago was. Then I got this catalog. I mentioned it to one of my teachers. I had a really good teacher in 11th and 12th grade, he was a former college professor, Fred Von Daacke, who had taught in Louisiana. One of his students later became like the Ku Klux Klan Wizard, like the Grand Wizard of the KKK. So now he was trying to get kids earlier on, to try and mold their minds when they still had a chance, ‘cause by the time they got to college he saw it was pretty much formed. So he was very much challenging our beliefs all the time and he really taught me how to write. He’s the one who said the University of Chicago’s a great school and you should go there.
[When I was sitting with Scott this was very clear, but I just want to make sure the reader realizes that Fred decided to teach younger kids because he wanted to help inspire critical thinking to help avoid minds being corrupted by prejudice and ignorance. That's my take on it.]
JP: Was UOC your one and only choice? Did you have other options in mind?
SH: [laughing] No. I mean, it’s ridiculous. I don’t know what you were like, I was seventeen and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I mean now my daughter’s getting ready to go to Prospect High School, and so they’re asking her what kind of career path do you think you want? She’s like, ‘I have no idea.’ [laughs.] ‘I’m thirteen!’, you know?
JP: I imagine some guidance counseling was going on in my school, but my family life was going through so much conflict: Father left, my older brothers were all causing trouble, arrested and drug trafficking, so my mind was elsewhere and my mother was too busy to get involved. I saw other people preparing for college and I didn’t do any of that. I worked for a year and then I helped start my band (Screeching Weasel) which allowed me to tour the country and eventually the world. So who can blame me?
SH: Beats the hell of out college.
JP: But later, on my own initiative, I decided I wanted to go to school to learn more so I went to Columbia College.
SH: I applied to MIT, University of Chicago, and University of Miami. Those were my three schools.
JP: Why Miami?
SH: I was interested in science, and my family’s always been very nature-oriented, So I figured marine biology, sun, sand. I got into the University of Miami with a full ride scholarship. I got turned down by MIT. One of my classmates got in to MIT, Lionel Sleeper.
JP: Lionel Sleeper? [I found this name very funny. It reminded me of my English teacher Lyon Trainer.]
SH: [laughing] so he deserved it man, he was much smarter, a far more hard-working student. I was a complete slacker as a student, even though I finished fourth in my class, it all just came to me, I never had to work at it and he worked really hard, he deserved everything he got.
I got a partial scholarship for University of Chicago which made it possible for me to go there. It was also the furthest away that my parents would pay for me to go visit. I wanted to get the hell out of Schenectady. It’s a physically very beautiful place, but there’s a lot of racism and close-mindedness growing up. I wasn’t really aware of it at first, but as I started getting older and I would go to Albany [A much larger city] I would interact with people different than me. In this dance-theater troupe I was also interacting with more diversity, a couple African Americans, different people. I began saying to myself, ""Well, all these things I’ve been hearing my life just aren’t true." And just knowing, realizing, that this is not the way I wanna be, and I don’t want to be around this close-mindedness. So one of my goals was to get as far away as I could from Schenectady.
So I visit Chicago and I love it. It’s hard to imagine this now. I was seventeen and my parents just sent me out, they put me on a train. "See ya!" [laughs] I checked out the city and the school, liked it. I got ripped off on a bad drug deal. I tried to buy dope from somebody in the Palmer house, they went to go get change, [JP laughing] and they never came back.
JP: You learned some lessons?
SH: Yeah. When I started at UOC I was a math major. I always loved math. And then I started doing shows even though University of Chicago didn’t have a theater department at the time,
JP: Yes, that’s what I always think is so interesting about that school, it’s brought out so many amazing performers and yet it didn't have a program for theater. It really is interesting, the culture that that college manifested, it just had it in it, whether the students had a theater department or not, it just seemed more organic, like the whole approach to University of Chicago seems to lend itself to creativity in any field. Does that make sense?
SH: Yeah, definitely, there was more of a DIY aesthetic there. "It doesn’t matter what you say we can do, here’s what we’re gonna do." Right? there’s always been that sort of attitude there. There’s a very rigorous academic agenda, but also a thriving underground, even if we’re having a good time it’s got to be intellectually challenging. So the school attracts a lot of people like myself who were good in school and smart, but also had this artistic side they wanted to explore but didn't want to go to a school just for the Arts.
JP: Were you aware of this complexity before going to UOC?
SH: I knew that there was no acting program, but that there was an acting club, University Theater. So the guy who ran University Theater when I got there was Steve Schroer. Steve is a lot like Greg Allen in a way, a very strong sort of vision of what he thinks is good art and what is not good art, but he had bad people skills. At some point he started an improv club. Improv at the time was predominantly coming from Second City. Whatever happened in today’s news we’re gonna mock that or, it’s making fun of the latest thing that’s going on TV. So Steve's idea, which was great, and certainly this carried through in my writing, is that we weren’t allowed to mention any references, any contemporary references whatsoever.
[I laughed here. But it wasn't in disbelief, it was a glorious recognition of my own beliefs, a belief that one tries to appeal more to the relative and the universals, dealing more with getting to the roots of things, creating timeless situations and character studies.]
SH: You can’t make fun of slogans, you can’t do a Mayor Daley impersonation. He was exploring improv but also using it as a tool for generating writing. We did a combination of written skits at first, mainly he did all the skits and we did all the segued improvisation in between.
JP: Did that lend you more to focusing on relationships and character?
SH: Well... [pause] Yeah number one he went back to the roots of improv which is always about what is the other person doing? How can you help the other person? It forced you to generate imaginary worlds, parallel universes.
In Aftertaste, the musical that Cardiff Giant ended up improvising, years later, it still had the Steve Shroer influence on us. Our cola was called Krispie Kola. You just make up parallels. There's no classical references, but the idea was to write timeless stuff, or to perform in a way that whatever you did it wouldn’t just be getting name recognition laughs which he felt was the cheapest laugh.
JP: This group lead by Steve influenced you greatly. This is where you met many of the people with which, for years, you would continue to create great theater.
SH: I met Mark Holman, and John Hildreth, and Phil Lortie. [And later Greg Kotis] Avant Garfield was our first thing we performed at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, which was where the Compass Players also performed.
JP: Yeah, I performed there with a group called Sheila, which was a direct descendant of Avant Garfielde.
SH: Yup. So we would open up with a variety act, this would bring people in, and then we would perform. We’d do a combination of games and skits and after a while we stopped doing skits and just did games. Then later on we took a class with Del Close. He came down and taught us the herald. We also got to meet David Shepard.
The Jimmy's stage was a six feet deep platform. We would put curtains across the back window. Jimmy’s is a classic Chicago tavern, where it’s got a wooden railing that goes up halfway across the window where you can look down on the street, people can see in. They took three basic bars and jammed them together so there’s three separate rooms. You start in the front, you go through the main bar, there’s a middle room, and then finally there’s a back bar where we were. So we could be isolated from all the other places. We were stuck at the way at the end of the bar. We would be on one end on a slightly raised platform. We built railings, took down the existing railings and made railings that were detachable. We had hinge-pins we’d pull off and have to stack that so we could then have the complete stage. There was an exit door on the left where people could walk out. Above it was an area to store our props. We had a ton of props, a ton of hats and wigs. We would fasten some clip lights, announce to people we were starting the show, so people who didn’t want to be bothered would leave. We’d perform for free and then afterward just pass the hat.
JP: That space was a great lesson to me. You had to get up and go, ‘cause these people were just here drinkin’ and to get them to listen you had to have an abundance of energy right out of the gate. For me it was a nurturing of the big, I had a hard time trying to do anything smaller there.
SH: I think that initially we had to be big and funny and fast
JP: What I'm pushing towards, what I experienced there perhaps through oral history and perhaps through osmosis, was a style that incorporates large, quick, yet detailed gestures. I see this style in common with you, Greg K and Phil. Do you think this style was nurtured at Jimmy's?
SH: Yeah... I think what happened is that we, as a group, as an organism developed an idiom, developed a way of working together, sort of signals that we would give one another. Doing that show was one of the best times of my life, without a doubt. We’d rehearse twice a week and then we would perform once, and then later we were working on long-form shows. We spent a lot of time together honing our craft. After a while it became so seamless and when it flew it was just fantastic and crazy. We didn’t necessarily have to be big and we could do quiet and smaller stuff but I think it was just that we liked to be big, loud and fast. Insane characters. We would always want to keep cranking it up ‘til you had to kill someone, that was the only logical ending [JP laughs] to any scene. We had all kinds of murdering props, a huge duct tape hammer that we would use that was left over from another show we did.
JP: When did Greg Kotis come into the picture there?
SH: Sheldon Patinkin came in and helped start the Off-Off Campus, Greg K and Bob Fischer were in that. So after that was done, Steve asked them if they wanted to join us. Steve had worked with them as well, he was part of the whole UT, University Theatre. Those guys were just great. The first year of Avant Garfielde was me, Mark [Holman], John Hildreth, Phil Lortie and Dawn Brenann, who’s also a really great artist, just beautiful, huge, insane paintings. Then Bob Fischer and Greg joined and then even later on Greg Reynolds joined us. And after awhile I went to theatre school at Depaul. We’d actually graduated and still did the show for a year. Then, basically, I wanted to learn how to act. Between my junior and senior year I went off to New York and did Strasburg Theatre Institute through NYU for the summer. I got a lot of positive feedback from the instructors there. I was very encouraged by that, so when I came back I decided I wanted to do more acting. I was struggling along, going out and auditioning and I got one role at Court, I was like second night watchman in Much Ado About Nothing. It was fantastic and a lot of fun, but I decided I wanted to learn more about the craft of acting and so I applied to Northwestern and DePaul, and I got into both. Northwestern’s incredibly expensive, so I went to DePaul theatre school instead. That was a great experience.
JP: And that is where you met Wendy Goeldner and Phil Ridarelli, one of the best actors I know. Phil told me that DePaul didn't quite know what to do with him and it seems you may have had a similar experience since the three of you ended up in the same Sketch comedy show. Nobody knew what to do with you.
SH: Yeah, exactly. Nobody... I don’t know who let me into that school. [JP laughs] I have a feeling it was this guy Rick Murphy, ‘cause he was at my audition. So for whatever reason I got in. They saw something. I wasn’t classically trained, I didn’t really fit in. So what we did was a thing called Dream Story. That’s where I got to work with Phil and with Wendy, the second show I did with my, at that time girlfriend, now wife, then Wendy Goeldner now Wendy Hermes. I met her in What the Butler Saw. We had a great time doing that, and then we got to do Dream Story together. This speech teacher, Bill Burnett, wanted to explore storytelling and dreams. It was free-form. We would basically do whatever we wanted to any given night.
JP: Were you still working with the gang in Hyde Park at this time?
SH: Nope. I would sometimes come down and join the improv set. At that point they were trying to crack into the North Side and they were doing, I think that’s where Phil also got involved with them, Roxy’s on Fullerton. They were doing an improv show there for a while and I would see them there. I had a big falling out with Steve [Schroer], the director, ‘cause I criticized his skits. They did a sketch show at Straw Dog and it was universally panned and ripped. I saw it during my first year of theater school and I’m liking all these theater school ideas jammed in my head. So unfortunately I shared them with Steve. He asked ‘What’d you think of the show?’ I told him honestly what I thought, and so the next day he called me up at home and was like, "I can’t believe you said those things to me last night, I never want to talk to you again, you can’t work for this group again, you’re never gonna make it in this business." So I didn’t talk to him again for two or three years. [pause.] Then inside of Cardiff Giant there was a revolt, they kicked Steve out, they took over the group themselves. So I worked with those guys again. And eventually I saw Steve later and he was apologetic about his behavior.
JP: When did this group become known as Cardiff Giant?
SH: So Avant Garfield became Cardiff Giant when they started performing on the North Side and they did their first revue. It was basically Steve’s idea. It’s a P.T. Barnum story, a P.T. Barnum scam. A farmer in upstate New York, Cardiff, comes and says "I found this petrified body of a giant." And P.T. Barnum goes and sees it, immediately recognizes that it’s fake. But all these crowds are showing up to see this giant that once walked the earth. And so Barnum makes his own. The guy with the original Cardiff Giant sues him, and P.T. Barnum says "You can’t sue me, it’s a fake, a total fake, it’s a fake of a fake." So Steve liked that idea of acting as being a fake of a fake. People are pretending to be something that they’re not, we’re pretending to be people that we’re not. The idea that there’s something... implicitly scamming about performing.
The last year of my MFA at DePaul, that’s when Cardiff Giant did LBJFKKK which was their first show by themselves, improvising without Steve directing, fully improvised rehearsals turned into a scripted play, it was a huge hit for them.
JP: You weren’t involved with that?
SH: Nope. It was really hilarious because I knew they were going to open it, so I was talking to some of my theatre school friends, "I’m going to go see some friends of mine tonight, does anyone want to come along?" They’re like, "Oh yeah what is it?" "Oh, it’s this group called Cardiff Giant, doing this show called LBJFKKK." "Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah! yeah!" [Scott imitates a few different emphatic excited voices, as if cheering. And then referencing himself he says in a calm, deadpan voice,] "Oh, okay." [both laugh] The Reader had just published a great review of the show by a critic who just never liked anything, EVER, always ripped everybody a new asshole. And he just went on for paragraph after paragraph expounding about how brilliant Cardiff Giants' show was, how he’d blown snot on the back of the people in front of him he was laughing so hard. So I went to see it and it was brilliant. They blew me away, I was so happy for them.
When I graduated I started working with them again, and so we did Love Me, Rancho Obscuro, All Eight Die, and then we improvised our first musical, Aftertaste, and then I directed Dreamy, which did incredibly badly. It was the worst show, in terms of attendance, that we ever did.
JP: You guys were a transient company, you didn't have your own space?
SH: Yeah we were just renting spaces. We started off with a bunch of shows at Mary Archie Theater, then Straw Dog, and then we got our own space, which later became Factory’s space up near Loyola
[What is odd is that my group Hope And Nonthings and my friends' groups; David Cromer's Big Game and Nick Digilios' Factory Theater were all using these exact same spaces and to my recollection I never overlapped or even heard of Cardiff Giant. So much was going on at that time in storefront theater. In retrospect, not knowing about them was a serious loss to me.]
JP: The first people in that Loyola space was David Kromer and Anna Schapiro with Big Game.
JP: There are so many crossovers that existed in the world of small theater in Chicago. [Our minds were being blown at the moment, that might also have to do with the four glasses of wine we just drank.]
SH: Yup, it’s a small scene.
JP: Molly Brennan was a part of Factory and then hooked up with Adrian Danzig who was a neo-futurist, and Molly's company she helped start Barrel Of Monkees have a long running show still play at the Neo-Futurarium. And my friend Steve Walker has worked with almost all these companies, and with you!
SH: Wow. I was talking to John Hildreth the other day, John went on and did a lot of work with Second City and the northwest SC company and directed a bunch of stuff, worked with Second City a lot. He’s teaching at Columbia now too he also came back and directed me when I did my Jeopardy solo play. At some point during that run we all got to start reminiscing about the old days. And he says something like, "You know, it’s just different now because... we had no thought other than putting up our current show." We would improvise for six months, that’s all we would do, five days a week, Monday through Thursday night and then Saturday and Sunday and then the director would tape it, and the director would go home and transcribe what we had rehearsed, and come back in, and then at some point we would start putting it together. We’d find good stuff then the director would start saying okay, go this direction, improvise this way, improvise that way. We’d start putting the skeleton of the plot together, but basically for six months all we’d ever do was just work on the play. But now, at least according to John, it’s very hard to get that kind of commitment out of people. ‘Cause everyone’s doing this thing as a way to get showcased. So that they can have someone to come see them so that they can get to the next point in their career. In Cardiff Giant we had no other idea other than that we were gonna put on the best show we could put on. That really drove us.
JP: I sadly never got to see a Cardiff Giant so I would like to spend a bit more time with you looking at the history of Cardiff Giant shows.
SH: LBJFKKK was huge, Love Me did well, Rancho Obscuro and then All Eight Die. All Eight Die had a couple great moments in it... Greg and I had a great orphanage song and we had this one extended bit which always killed, which is the pudding people. So All Eight Die was basically, in the title, all the character’s are gonna die, but it’s basically about some village called Southtown, directly south of Northtown, and there were developments moving in and we’re getting run down. The pudding people are our central myth. [both laugh] It's a story that everybody knows but again this stuff that Steve [S] early on imbued us with, this idea that we can’t reference anything in the real world, we'd make up our own mythology all the time. So people don’t know what we’re talking about. But we do. ‘Cause we would spend months rehearsing and improvising. We would have all these scenes that would never make it into the show, but our characters knew that we did these things and our characters knew this about each other. So we had history that would never show up textually on stage, but would always show up in our relationships. Things that had happened through the process.
Then it was Mark Holman's turn to be director. He wanted to do a musical. We thought he was nuts. We had never done a musical before. So he brought in this great composer, Patrick Sinozich that he’d worked with elsewhere. We just started from scratch and every once in a while you’d have to bust out the rhyming dictionary, and Patrick sort of taught us how to fake songs, um, that like you’re trying to improvise-- you know, so we’d always improvise songs during the show and some of us were really good at it in our improv and some were not, but, like, like for me he, when, the great advice that he gave on like, trying to write a song, take an existing song, and then re-write the lyrics to it, ‘cause then you know you’ll always scan well, right, so... you can always write new music to it, right. So you can take “We’re Off to See the Wizard”, right, and you can, you can re--over, you know, “follow the yellow brick road” or “somewhere over the rainbow” and as long as you write lines that scan to that, you can put any music behind it, and it’ll still scan. It has an internal alignment. So you don’t have to worry about having uneven lines. That was my problem when I was writing and improvising song lyrics, they were all over the place, they didn’t scan. So Aftertaste was this huge hit. We actually opened it the night before I got married. So we had been trying, we thought we were going to do it in like three months, it took us six months to put it up. I thought my wedding was gonna be at the end of the run, and my wedding ended up being the day after we opened. I performed this thing, I got it up, did the first weekend, went off, had an understudy fill in. I got married, went out on my honeymoon for two weeks, came back and jumped right back in. The show kept selling out that little Factory Theatre space again and again and again, very popular. That’s when Phil came in, because he took over for John, ‘cause John had some other commitment. [pause] It was actually kind of sad, it was sort of the beginning of the end for us.[This was NOT because of Phil. Scott goes on to explain why things began to dissipate.] The show was so popular, I don’t know if you’ve run into this before, it’s where success dooms you. You start bringing in structure and People raising money and putting together a board. I think that tore us apart.
JP: After you had left the Neo-Futurists we had similar pains that tore us not completely apart, but it caused rips that I still haven't recovered from. We lost Diana Slickman, David Kodeski, Dave Awl, and Anita Loomis when we went from a more traditional collective to a board run non-profit.
[This didn't have to happen, as Diana Slickman and David Kodeski will talk about this in their upcoming interviews. Bringing on a board doesn't have to tear a company apart, and it took us years to get to the point where we have a pretty great board right now.]
END OF PART ONE:
PART TWO WILL BE UP IN ONE WEEK.