Chicago -- Every Friday night for the past decade, a group of improv actors from Second City, I.O., ComedySportz and other smaller troupes have gotten together at Chicago's Annoyance Theatre to perform a unique, two-act, totally improvised comedy thriller inspired by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Their show is called "Hitch*Cocktails," and what makes it unique is actually in the title of show. Because, yes, there are cocktails and other alcoholic beverages served during the show. But in addition to drinks being served to the audience, the actors are also imbibing on-stage, drinking alcohol from a fully-stocked bar, which is stage right.
In fact, drinking is part of the show's overall structure. There's a rule that any character offered a drink during the hour-and-a-half show must finish their cocktail before the scene is over.
"As you may recall, this is a two-act show," said "Hitch*Cocktails" artistic director and performer Cynthia Bangert. "So by the end of the show, it can get pretty wild on stage."
This May, the good folks at "Hitch*Cocktails" are celebrating a milestone. It's the 10th anniversary of the show, which began at Chicago's Annoyance Theatre in May 2012.
The troupe staged special shows at the Annoyance to commemorate the anniversary on May 19 and 20.
"It's the most unique show I've been a part of, it's the longest show I've ever been a part of, and it's my favorite show I ever been a part of," Bangert said. "Sometimes you come out and introduce the show and you can tell right away that it is gonna be a party from start to finish."
But this party has become an institution in Chicago, a staple for Friday night audiences looking for a different style of improv. The troupe has also performed and taught at workshops throughout the country. And they were named the "Best Improv/Sketch Group in Chicago" by the Chicago Reader in 2016.
Members of the show say its combination of improvised narrative theatre with alcohol creates an element of surprise, which is different from most other shows.
"There's a real feeling of spontaneity," said C.J. Tuor, a performer and co-founder of the long-running show. "It's one reason theater is different than television or movies, anything that happen, because it's live."
One thing remains the same: at the beginning of each show, the performers ask for audience suggestions about a potential theme of the show.
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"The suggestion we look for is a fear," Tuor said. "We want unique fears. We've had suggestions like mustard, escalators, jamming your toenails so hard it falls off. And from those fears, we do a complete 1940s-, 50s-, 60s-style genre thriller."
After they get their audience suggestions, the actors begin the show, aided by pitchers of mixed drinks, vaguely identified as "brown" or "less brown" by the cast.
That cast has a variety of other alcoholic options behind the bar, from charcoal-filtered vodka to Malort. In order to prove that the drinks from the bar on-stage are really alcoholic, a few audience members are asked to do a taste test before the show starts.
"If you come to our show, you might be lucky enough to be selected to drink the horrible mixtures that we're drinking on-stage," Tour said.
Although the veteran actors are careful to maintain control during scenes, working while drinking has its obvious challenges.
"Hitch*Cocktails" performer Bri Fitzpatrick, who is also the show's culture coordinator, said the group is always aware of how to deal with those challenges.
"We do some really risky things on-stage," Fitzpatrick said. "We drink and then we have love scenes and death scenes, and we do sometimes ill-advised stunts, but we always check in before every single show we deal with, and do what's called a consent check. And everybody is always kept safe."
Fitzpatrick said that audiences who do go to see "Hitch*Cocktails" will experience something that's unlike the usual show at Second City or I.O.
"It's definitely different than something like some of the short form improv games some people might be used to," Fitzpatrick said. "It's long-form narrative theatre with a complicated plot line. And, as we like to say, the plot gets more complicated one way or another, because were also drinking."
"Hitch*Cocktails" is staged every Friday night at 10 p.m. at the Annoyance Theatre, 851 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago.