Brian Matuszak, Rubber Chicken’s Comic Wizard Lives for Laughs

DD ARTIST PROFILE SERIES – Brian Matuszak, Executive Producer of  Rubber Chicken Theater. 

“Doing theater and comedy makes me happy. There is joy in connecting with audiences in emotional ways. Laughs, gasps, sobs, it all makes us human. As an art form, live theater can’t be beat. Every performance only happens once. It can’t be repeated . . . Those connections between live audience and live actor are magical,” said Brian Matuszak, Executive Producer of “Rubber Chicken Theater.”

Matuszak’s own theatrical journey didn’t really didn’t happen until he went to UW-Superior for college. While he did speech competitions while attending AlBrook High School in Saginaw, the school did not do much theater.

“My speech category for four years was Humorous and I quickly learned the intoxicating power of standing in front of an audience and making them laugh,” he said.

He added, “In 1984, I was cast in my very first Duluth Playhouse production ‘Fools’ by Neil Simon. One of my cast mates was going to UW-Superior and told me about their theater program, so I traveled across the bridge to check it out. It was a perfect fit.”

He also met Sue, now his wife of 37 years, at UWS. After graduating with a Theatre degree in 1987, Brian went back to get his Master's in Communicating Arts.

Brian and Sue looking through some driftwood on a hike at Wisconsin Point. Photo submitted.

It was also at UWS that Matuszak met John D. Munsell. “Without question, the late, great John D. Munsell was my biggest mentor. John was the head of the theater department at UWS when I started there. It was through his teachings that I found my way into theater. He instilled the importance of the art form but paired it with a sense of fun. ‘It’s called a play for a reason’ was one of his favorite quotes.”

It was acting and directing a few student shows at UWS that really clicked for Matuszak. “Their program was so hands-on for students . . . it was just a wonderful, productive time to be a theater student.”

Jobs, Theater and Communications Intersect

Matuszak’s resume includes a number of jobs that led to some of his interest in writing, performing and eventually teaching and directing.

Working at KBJR as part of the floor crew for newscasts, he later moved into Creative Services, writing and producing news promotions and advertisements.

After being an overnight announcer at KQDS, he went into Continuity at KDAL/96 Lite for many years, again, writing and producing commercials.

“In 1999, I applied to direct a theater production at Lake Superior College, and they also asked me to teach some of their theater classes in acting and directing. That led to me to teaching theater full-time back at my alma mater, UWS,” he noted.

“I did that for eight years before moving across the bridge to UMD, where I currently work in the Communication department, teaching classes in Public Speaking and Interpersonal Communication.”

Winding Road Leading to Rubber Chicken

At UWS, Matuszak met Jack Starr, who told him about Duluth’s sketch comedy troupe, “Colder by the Lake,” which needed actors.

“I jumped at the chance to work with legendary local comic artists such as Margi Preus, Julie Ahasay, Andy Nelson, Donn Hanson, Bruce Ojard, Susan van Druten, Buddy Backen, and so many more.” Matuszak noted. “I soaked in as much as I could about sketch comedy from those geniuses, but I also got a chance to jump right in and learn on the fly.”

In a production of “Assassins," Matuszak plays Samuel Byck, a would-be assassin of President Nixon. Photo credit Sue Matuszak

After Brian had worked with “Colder” for several years, the group decided they wanted to do different types of theater and less sketch comedy. Donn Hanson and Matuszak asked a few friends to join them, and they changed their name to “Renegade Comedy Theater.” Their first show, “The Christmas Enquirer, or, I Saw Mommy Kissing Elvis’ Alien Love Child,” debuted in December of 1991.

Musical Guests Dance Attic, Suzi Ludwig, Jimi Cooper, play a polka while Nicole Armstrong looks confused and Chris Nollet sings and dances along, from last year’s Chicken Hat Plays. Photo by Brian Matuszak

“The show went well, and so we all decided to keep the name ‘Renegade’ and we began staging all the different kinds of shows we had never had a chance to do,” said Matuszak.

For the next 17 years, “Renegade” staged scripted plays, original sketch comedy, outdoor family melodramas, radio shows, Tugboat Children’s Theatre, The Out of the Hat Plays, and lots more.

In 2008, Matuszak and “Renegade” parted ways, but Brian wanted to keep on doing a wide variety of theatrical activities, so he and Sue started up “Rubber Chicken Theater,” which is still going strong today.

“At “Rubber Chicken,” we are devoted to producing funny, original, local theater, created entirely by funny, original, local theater artists. From scripted plays to original sketch comedy revues to live-read shows, Rubber Chicken Theater does it all!” according to their website.

John Pokrzywinski and Ben Chadwick build a lift bridge in a play from last year’s Chicken Hat Plays. Photo by Brian Matuszak

“it makes my heart explode with pride now that my daughter Kaylee is a part of our Rubber Chicken Theater sketch comedy revues. She is such a strong comedic performer . . . It’s amazing to share a stage with her,” Brian added.

Teaching, Coaching, Directing, and More Acting

Over the years, Matuszak has taught theater classes at UWS and Lake Superior College, He also taught a Theater History class at Mesabi Community College in Virginia.

He was an assistant speech coach at Hermantown High School for two years and coached his daughter Kaylee’s “Destination Imagination”  teams for six years.

Outside of his various directing and writing gigs for comedy sketches, etc., he has also directed for the Duluth Playhouse and Children’s Theater productions for Mesabi Community College in Virginia.

Some of his favorite acting roles have been in “Macbeth,’” “American Buffalo,” “Comedy of Errors,” “Assassins,” and “Fool for Love.”

Lady Macbeth (Michelle Juntunen) consoles a blood-soaked Macbeth (Brian Matuszak) after the murder of King Duncan. Photo by Rob Larson

When he is not working on his theatrical pursuits or his teaching, Brian enjoys traveling with his wife Sue and their grown daughter Kaylee. His hobbies include geocaching, hiking, and listening to Kaylee when she performs around town as a singer/songwriter.

Sue, Brian, and Kaylee at the Archway in Kearney, Nebraska, about to start a tour. Photo submitted.

“The Chicken Hat Plays” Cluck for One Night Only

“We premiered the concept of the “‘Out of the Hat Plays” at Renegade in May 2003. Rubber Chicken did their version of them in 2008, renaming them ‘The Chicken Hat Plays,’ and we’ve been doing them ever since,” noted Matuszak.

Duluth Mayor Roger Reinert (before he was Duluth Mayor) was an actor in the Chicken Hat Plays, playing an intense football coach. Photo by Brian Matuszak

The interesting premise is that they first gather prompts (Who, What, Where) on social media from anyone who wants to submit them. On Friday night before the shows, the eight writers and all the actors gather at Harbor City School’s theater. The writers each draw three prompts, one from each hat, and then randomly draw their cast names out of another hat.

They then have until 8 o’clock the next morning to write up a ten-minute play that incorporates those prompts and cast. Saturday morning, everyone shows up and eight directors randomly draw their scripts out of a hat.

With scripts and casts in hand, everyone goes to work, finding props and costumes, learning lines, and working on their play.

Nathan Payne as a French Taunter and Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness as a frustrated writer in this play from the Chicken Hat Plays. Photo by Brian Matuszak

Each director has 45 minutes onstage during the day to figure out their blocking and tech needs. At 5 pm, Matuszak  has the show order figured out, and they do a final dress rehearsal of all eight shows. At 7:30 pm, they perform them in front of an audience.

Matuszak said, “I’m always most proud of the success stories at the end of the night. When actors are nervous and don’t think they can pull it off, and then they hear those cheers from an appreciative audience, my heart soars!”

“I’m always most excited to see how the format allows for so many unique opportunities for collaborations,” he added. “A UMD Theatre student might get a chance to be directed by a UWS Theatre professor. A high school actor might get a chance to work alongside a professional actor from the Twin Cities. Anyone might be acting in a play written by the mayor of Duluth. The Chicken Hat Plays are the only time most of these artists will have an opportunity to work together, and it’s golden.”

Information on The Chicken Hat Plays
One Performance Only: Saturday, June 15 at 7:30 pm
Harbor City International School Theater. 332 W Michigan St, Duluth,
$20 per person, Cash or Venmo only
General seating—call-ahead reservations are encouraged
(218) 213-2780
Info: Brian@RubberChickenTheater.com

COMMON CAMEO: (Will appear in all 8 shows)
Hailey Eidenschink
Host of PBS North's "Minnesota Historia"

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