In the fall of 1990, Illinois State University students Brendan Hunt ’96, Jeff Grafton ’92, and some friends came up with an idea…
Brendan, who was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing this year, remembers:
“It felt at the time—perhaps not wholly correctly—as though there were more students than there were opportunities to perform. In particular, there seemed to be an energy around the place, a student body churning with creativity. There were bands in the department, comedy shows being written… the kind of creativity that maybe wouldn’t be best served by being judged under the same criteria as more orthodox academic submissions.
That’s the fancypants, hindsight-is-20/20 way of looking at it anyway. Put more simply, we all just wanted more stage time, and we didn’t necessarily want faculty telling us what to do with it. So, very spontaneously, we decided to start holding these underground midnight shows. And they stuck.
Don’t go thinking that the faculty were some kind of cruel overlords who needed to be revolted against. They in fact fostered a constant culture of independent creativity (there was even a faculty-only avant garde company at the time), and that is an under-acknowledged element of the Ted origin story.”
And so on October 20, 1990, Theatre of Ted was born, with Brendan Hunt as the first host, and with a tradition that has lasted the entire 25 years: starting and ending each night with a call-and-response of “Theatre of Ted… Enthusiastic Applause!”
There was no person named “Ted” nor did T.E.D. stand for anything.
“I do remember that Jeff Grafton and I were standing in the hallway between the callboard and the department office,” Brendan notes, “and we immediately had a name that we loved, a name that would surely ring through the ages—Theatre of Bob. Todd Stashwick ’90 happened to pass by at that moment (he wasn’t even still a student, he was just down visiting his girlfriend) and, overhearing us, reminded us that the residence known as House of Bob had only recently completed its seminal tenure as the student body’s pre-eminent party house. Lest there be any confusion, we summarily changed the name to Ted.”
It quickly became a popular late-night Saturday event, not just for theatre students, but for students across campus enjoying the idea of a kind of uncensored, underground, theatrical venue at midnight. Performances ranged from standup comedy and sketch comedy, to music, poetry, performance art, political rants, and just about anything. Anyone could simply show up and sign up to perform, and the hosts would set the order and announce them.
With this uncensored approach, and the hosts not knowing what was being performed in advance, there have naturally been pieces that were shocking or offensive to some, but that just encouraged other students to create their own pieces in response, often leading to artistic and social dialogue, liberally mixed with silly entertainment.
According to Adam Fox ’01, now Theater and Civic Arts Manager, Town of Normal:
“You never knew what to expect at Ted, and that’s the enduring brilliance of it. Because whatever chaos was going to unfold, you always knew it was happening in a space that was safe for you as a performer to try whatever you wanted in order to see what would happen. To push yourself. To try something new. To see how far the audience would go down the rabbit hole before it was clearly too far, and then to have the chance to work your way back out without anyone passing judgement. And a place where that can happen, week in and week out, is rare indeed.”
A band called The Kingpinz tried out its material at Theatre of Ted and later recorded an album and inspired the musical Ball of Justice (created by Ted alums) at Strawdog Theatre. New Millennium Theatre in Chicago largely came about through members doing skit work while students at Theatre of Ted, and the Chicago-based performance art company The Living Canvas got its start at Ted. Two now-published poets (Artemis Steakley-Freeman ’14 and Jake Giszczynski) developed their poetry at Ted. A student-written musical called Sheep’s on the Lamb by Ethan Goldman was workshopped and performed through Theatre of Ted a few years ago, and in August of this year that show was given a professional production at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago.
As the organization notes on its Facebook page:
The rallying cry of Theatre of Ted is Dare to Suck, which is not “try to suck” or “aspire to suck,” but rather a challenge to aim for the heights and possibly fail—to take risks. To dare—and maybe fall flat on your face, with a community of supportive friends to help you up.
That motto has since been used by a number of others, including improv companies and life coaches. Michael Miserendino ’07, a teacher at Bartlett High School, is one of several Theatre of Ted alumni who have taken the motto “dare to suck” and introduced it into classes they now teach.
“They laugh at first,” says Miserendino, “but then I explain that it’s about challenging ourselves to step outside of the box, and to admit that it’s OK if we fail. We just have to get up and try again and continue to explore. The motto also encourages students to take safe risks in the classroom.”
Numerous performers over the years have used Theatre of Ted as a way to try out material and artistic approaches. Keith Habersberger ’08, now a producer at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures (and one of “The Try Guys”) as well as a founding member of Octavarius, LLC:
“The four years I spent performing at and hosting Theatre of Ted allowed me to test and develop my comedic voice. Ted was essential to the type of performer and type of person I have become. There’s really nothing else like it…which is both sad and wonderful.”
A number of famous alumni have pointed to Theatre of Ted as an important part of their time at Illinois State University, including Sean Hayes, Nelsan Ellis, and Craig Robinson.
Over the years, the Theatre of Ted organization has expanded as an independent Registered Student Organization and hosted other activities, including:
- The annual Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow-cast production (this year being performed at the Normal Theater, October 28-31)
- End of semester dances: Winter Ball and Mock Prom (including the Goldfarb Awards, a mock version of the Tony Awards named after former theatre professor, school director, dean and provost Alvin Goldfarb)
- Four-square marathons for student scholarships
- Alumni guest artist programs
In an accomplishment that is extremely rare for a student organization, Theatre of Ted raised close to $30,000 for a fully-endowed scholarship fund. Since 2013, the Theatre of Ted scholarship has been awarded annually to College of Fine Arts students. The application requires the creation of an artwork (in any media) explaining what “Dare to Suck” means to them as an artist. The scholarship funds are intended to help the recipient further pursue their artistic risks. The current president of the Theatre of Ted organization, Dominique Jackson, is a past scholarship recipient, recognizing her emerging work in photography.
Theatre of Ted has multiple times won the University’s Outstanding Social/Entertainment Program of the Year and this year received honorable mention in the Cultural Diversity Awards for best Registered Student Organization. And it’s the king of late-night activities, something that has been recognized by the Dean of Students’ office.
The police have also been fans of Theatre of Ted, in part because of Ted’s role as an alternative late-night activity. Officer Bob Malone of the ISU Police Department says:
“The students seem to really look forward to this event and work hard to make it fun and enjoyable. [The] students seem to be a close knit group, enjoying and appreciating each other’s hard work and effort. That is what Theatre of Ted is all about. I’ve [also] had the opportunity to work the Mock Proms and Winter Balls. The students work hard and really look forward to these two events. It is a great time for them, as well as a great stress relief from the usual daily course requirements. Never had a problem with any event put on by the theatre faculty or students. They have been enjoyable events and entertaining to work.”
While Theatre of Ted is open to all students across the University, and embraces all art forms, there’s no doubt that it has always had a particular attraction for theatre students. School of Theatre and Dance faculty member Cyndee Brown observes:
“I think that the events sponsored by Theatre of Ted for the students in the School of Theatre and Dance are an important part of the social fabric of the School. The fundraising for scholarships, the camaraderie fostered by the activities, the testing of performance limits—these things are meaningful to our students.”
The Theatre of Ted 25th Anniversary Celebration will take place on Saturday, October 24 (during Homecoming Weekend at Illinois State University). Registration is required for the main reception at 8 p.m. in CVA 110. The reception will be an opportunity to relive memories and reconnect with Theatre of Ted alumni as they celebrate the past and continue to encourage artistic expression for future Theatre of Ted members. It will be followed by a special edition Theatre of Ted performance.
Brendan Hunt was asked how it feels to know that Ted is still going, 25 years later.
“It blows my mind, frankly. It shows that if we hadn’t started Ted, something else would have come along. It’s a student body that is inherently populated with passion and frustration and the search to find avenues to release those feelings through art, or something like it. Becoming a performer or writer, put practically, takes reps. It’s essential to get them wherever and whenever you can, and also helpful to occasionally do so in an arena that will not penalize you for putting up work that is far more raw than perfect. I always felt it was an invaluable outlet and a huge part of my life as a theatre student. It’s a great feeling to know that this mechanism is still of use.”
Anne Tobin, one of this year’s Theatre of Ted co-hosts, is happy to be continuing the legacy:
“It’s the students who make Ted—different audiences bring different things and they make it their own. The great thing about hosting is we get to help make the “Dare to Suck” attitude live. Watching people take advantage of that is why I love Ted.
Theatre of Ted… Enthusiastic Applause!”