CSUN Alumni create an open-mic night with a play that works the acts in to a cohesive event

Morgan Marx

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As the four-piece indie band finishes their short set, a collection of friends, family and curious couples applaud. The room is near full.

It’s Friday night at what could be any one of a number of open-mic nights in the Valley- except for the princess lying dormant just behind the kick drum, her worried father pacing madly amid the amps and the court jester skipping over the guitar cords.

The scene is part of “The IN,” a mixture of scripted theatrical performances that also showcases a variety of musical and comedy acts. The trilogy of plays is hosted at the Complete Actors Place in Sherman Oaks on the first Friday of the month. The production was conceived by two members of the CSUN community, Roger Chagnon and Jason Brain.

“Live music, comedians and poets are featured in 20-minute sets,” said writer-director Chagnon. “It’s more than just a variety show or play, it’s a creative soup.”

The pair met while making the rounds in the open-mic scene in Encino. Chagnon, a senior screenwriting major, had moved from San Diego to attend CSUN. He took a theater class with Professor Lillian Lehman that called to mind his experiences participating in high school productions.

“It reignited the theater bug,” said Chagnon, 23. “I had forgotten how much I loved it. I connected with theater folks and it got things going mentally.”

Chagnon began hanging out at open-mic nights, even after the performances were finished. There he met Brain, a liberal studies graduate. The two bonded both personally and creatively. After the pair had become roommates, they began to work on a project that would meld Chagnon’s desires to write and direct with Brain’s production skills.

What would become “The IN” grew organically from their shared open-mic experiences. The two wanted to bring a more structured element to the typical open-mic night. Chagnon crafted a serialized play that would introduce the live performances and weave the night together. His creation casts familiar theatric tropes, like the conflicted king and the town drunk, against a comedic backdrop.

As the story unfolds, the open-mic performances are incorporated into the action. In the second installment, a musical act is introduced as a possible cure for the wicked sleep that has befallen a princess. The actors stay on stage, in character, throughout the band’s set.

Several of the actors and performers are taken from CSUN’s entertainment community. Brain, who founded his own production company, Imagine Nation Entertainment, views CSUN as a valuable tool for his projects.

“CSUN is a great catalyst for putting on events,” said Brain, a Sherman Oaks native.

Jon Hickenbottom is one such performer. The CSUN theatre major met Chagnon and Brain at the Soapbox Sessions, a series of open-mic nights created by Brain in 2006. Hickenbottom is a singer-songwriter and guitarist with a soulful voice. “The IN” would mark his first true showcase performance.

“I love performing,” said Hickenbottom, 25. “I get nervous, but once I’m on stage, it’s a rush like nothing else. Jason and Roger are welcoming and great. They provide everyone with a creative outlet.”

Still, Chagnon sees ways CSUN can improve its artistic endeavors.

“Personally, I think it could grow stronger and be doing more,” Chagnon said. “I want to contribute and bring a creative community feel to CSUN.”

A community is something Chagnon and Brain have already created with “The IN.” As the musicians and comedians step on stage, they are made part of a larger performance. The crowd is already laughing at the actors. The mood is welcoming and supportive. The positive feelings are something Chagnon wants to extend to the audience as well.

“The bottom line is that we want people to feel comfortable and be entertained,” Chagnon said. “A visitor can expect a little bit of everything: laughs, music and free drinks. An onslaught of good stuff.”