New Millennium Theatre Company: Pioneers in Chicago Pop-Culture Theatre

By Heather Wixson

It probably wouldn’t surprise many that Chad Wise, Artistic Director of the New Millennium Theatre Company is a child of the 80s.  After all, over the last ten years he and the cast and crew at NMTC have taken on some big pop-culture icons including Leatherface, Mr. Miyagi, Scooby-Doo, Top Gun, and the Evil Dead trilogy characters.

As a student at Illinois State University, Wise got involved in the theatre community; however most of the productions just weren’t for him.

“I probably only saw about half of the productions while I was there,” said Wise. “Traditional theatre just bored me and I was really only interested in the edgier performances.  When I moved back up here, I knew I wanted to start a theatre group, but definitely something non-traditional.”

So, in 1998, the NMTC was born with a mission to entertain audiences in a very non-traditional form, but still stay true to the essence of being a true “theatre” company.  “We didn’t want to do different just for the sake of being different.  We just wanted to create productions that we’d want to see as young pop-culture fans but focused on also reaching the audiences that generally don’t go to traditional theatre shows,” explained Wise.

The NMTC saw its share of ups and downs for its first few years. However, it made quite an impression in 2001 with audiences through its successful adaptation of the old Scooby-Doo Mystery cartoons in live action form.

“This was right before the movies came out and the wave of nostalgia was high for Scooby-Doo,” said Wise. “We adapted two cartoons into a play and decided to do something different and make Scooby into an actual person and that the reason everyone saw him as a dog is that they were just too stoned to realize he wasn’t.”

“The show was a bit of a challenge in terms of doing the crazy chase scenes that the cartoon was always famous for,” added Wise. “So, what we did was we pre-recorded the chases in random areas around Chicago and then played them on a TV for the audience.  The response to the show was quite a shock- it took off like gangbusters and we ended up having to expand our run.”

That success gave Wise and the NMTC group a taste of what audiences were looking for in avant-garde theatre.  After a few years of some hits and misses, Wise had a stroke of brilliance in 2003- adapting the Sam Raimi classic horror flick Evil Dead into a musical.

“I had a friend who ran a theatre out of their backyard and they had built this little cabin there,” said Wise. “So it really clicked for me to take Evil Dead, a movie that I loved that was based out of a cabin, and turn it into a show for the Halloween season.”  Wise wrote the script and the musical numbers himself and the audience response was through the roof.  Every show was a sell-out and they had to turn people away almost every night.

Wise’s adaptation came before the trend of turning cult movies into musical productions, and it also happened before many of the “Sam Raimi-approved” staged productions of Evil Dead that stormed the country.

“What I always tell people when they confuse what we did with our play versus what everyone else has done on stage is that were did Evil Dead first but Broadway did it better.”

But soon enough, Wise ran into a bit of a legal snafu.

“One day, I got a fax from Raimi’s lawyer with an order to cease our production and I started panicking,” explained Wise. “We were getting an amazing response from audiences, we had just booked some of the cast who wanted to see the play for a meet-and-greet, and I couldn’t believe that our little play in someone’s backyard would have even been on Raimi’s radar.”

Wise called to cancel with Ellen Sandweiss who plays Cheryl in Evil Dead and was also booked to come to Chicago for the meet-and-greet with fans.  Sandweiss told Wise to give her an hour and she’d call him back. Within one hour, Sandweiss made a call to Raimi, explained what the NMTC were doing, and got him agree to finish out their run.

From there, Wise decided to dip into the Raimi well again but didn’t want to risk getting another letter from a lawyer. So, in 2004 he adapted Army of Darkness into a parody musical entitled BOOMSTICK!, which was told from the perspective of Sheila, Ash’s main squeeze.

In 2005, NMTC produced Hack/Slash: Stage Fright for that fall season which was based on the popular graphic novels published by Devil’s Due Publishing.  Then, in fall 2007, NMTC tested the waters with Manos: Rock Opera of Fate which didn’t win over audiences as much as Wise had hoped.

But this year’s fall production of The Texas Chainsaw Musical exceeded all of the expectations that Wise had and the group is already looking towards the future.

Up next for NMTC is The David Bowie Hepzikat Funky Velvet Flarney Solstice Spectacular Live… From Space! (David Bowie’s Christmas Special 1977 network edit). NMTC is already planning for the Halloween season next year with a parody based on Ed Wood’s cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space called Plans 1-8 From Outer Space.

When he reflects on the last ten years, Wise finds a lot of satisfaction with what the NMTC has achieved.

“We get to do the stuff we really want to do and that’s just so important,” said Wise. “We’ve done productions based on things that are part of our pop culture lexicon and for me, that’s just very cool. We give audiences an opportunity to get an interactive theatre experience and open up the actual theatre-going experience to those who generally might not want to ever step foot in a traditional theatre.”

The David Bowie Hepzikat Funky Velvet Flarney Solstice Spectacular Live… From Space! (David Bowie’s Christmas Special 1977 network edit) runs Friday and Saturday nights at 10:30 pm, November 21 through December 27 at National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago. Advance tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.nmtchicago.org or reserved by calling 312-458-9083.