The Thrilling Adventure Hour
Behind the scenes of L.A.'s geekiest cult theater experience, which brings Hollywood stars and nerds together.
Backstage at a performance of The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a bit like a circus. On a boat. That's on fire. There is the cacophony coming through the velvet curtain from the stage at Largo at the Coronet, a charmingly old-school 280-seat theater on La Cienega, as the four-piece Andy Paley Orchestra rehearses. There are guest stars -- such as Parenthood's Jason Ritter, Southland's Ben McKenzie and Key & Peele's Keegan Michael Key -- rereading their lines with the desperate studiousness of medical students on cadaver day. The show's creators, TV writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (Supernatural), have the thousand-yard stare that comes with writing and producing a live show once a month for the past eight years. And the director, TV writer-producer Aaron Ginsburg -- who tugs sharply on the vest of his three-piece suit like a naval officer who wants to look sharp before combat -- mock pleads to a reporter, "Just make us look cool."
A sci-fi stage show in the style of old-time radio is how Acker and Blacker describe Adventure Hour. Actors, dressed to the nines in suits and gowns, perform onstage in front of microphones while working from scripts they're holding in their hands, like the Mercury Theater of old. Except this hourlong show is all about comedy of the geekiest variety, with recurring segments such as the Space Western Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars and Beyond Belief, which basically is Nick and Nora Charles' drunken adventures with the supernatural. Acker and Blacker do it because they love it -- as do such industry fans as Once Upon a Time producer Jane Espenson, Lost star Jorge Garcia and Fringe co-executive producer David Fury, all of whom have tweeted their support. Even though the show's creators sell out every monthly performance at $25 a seat, their homespun enterprise only breaks even, and they're turning to Kickstarter to build for the future -- to fund graphic novels, a web series and a concert film. But Adventure Hour's beginnings were rather humble.
"I think it was just going to be a one-off, 'Hey, we wrote this thing,' " says Criminal Minds' Paget Brewster. She and actor-comedian Paul F. Tompkins have been part of Adventure Hour since its start and form the center of the WorkJuice Players, the core group of actors who perform at every show -- which includes Community's Craig Cackowski, Hal Lublin, Annie Savage, Mark Gagliardi, Marc Evan Jackson, James Urbaniak and the most recent addition, Cougar Town's Busy Philipps. "And then they wrote another," continues Brewster, "and then it just became a monthly thing."
Acker and Blacker met at the Syracuse University registrar's office ("Hey, your name sounds like my name," recalls Acker), and one of the first things they wrote together was inspired by an idle perusing of an atlas. "I saw there was one town called Sparks, Nevada," says Acker. "I knew that was going to be our hero. We were just so taken with Sparks that we wrote a feature." They held a reading of their Sparks Nevada script in Blacker's living room with friends (including Brewster and Tompkins), and it all clicked.
"This is a fantastic way to do theater in L.A.," says Ginsburg, a writer-producer on NBC's Do No Harm who joined the Bens a couple of years after they got Adventure Hour up and running in 2004. "We could get a full house by only doing one performance a month." Being in L.A. also allows them to recruit a staggering array of guest stars -- Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Ed Helms, Colin Hanks, Josh Malina and Alison Brie -- who relish the ragtag vibe of the whole enterprise.
"They act as though I'm doing them a favor," says Fillion. "But to be included in a group of incredibly talented actors in those kinds of circumstances. … When they ask you to come and join them, it's a big deal. I'm always honored."
While everyone involved would love to see the Little Show That Could grow into a Massive Multimedia Monster, no one wants to give up what makes the experience so special. "To have people so happy to see you," says Brewster, "like, we're all damaged, insecure, be it from a broken home or childhood ugliness or whatever. We all need a room of 250 strangers to go, 'Oh, you are my favorite thing to see right now!' This is why we all got into acting. We're putting on a show in a barn."