In any normal year, Philly’s long-running 1812 Productions – famed for being the only professional theater company in the U.S. dedicated solely to comedy – would start its annual run of “This is the Week That Is” on the first days of December and end by the second week of January.
The live, six-week look at the ever-shifting news cycle and the current cultural zeitgeist, local and national, in a sketch comedy revue showcase setting – something 1812’s co-founding Producing Artistic Director Jennifer Childs calls “a cross between ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and ‘The Daily Show’” – would take place at Delancey Street’s Plays & Players Theatre.
Here, onstage and on a nightly basis, 1812 would sell out the glamorous, but cramped 108-year-old building – all 290 seats. It would thrill its all-age audiences with satirical routines, new (nightly news stories, ripped from the headlines, and made into epic mini-musicals based on current hits), or tried-and-true characters (Childs’ stoop-sitting, cig-smoking, South Philly-accented maven, Patsy).
Along with satirical, self-penned original musicals (arranged and composed by cast member Pax Ressler) and parody, copycat musical numbers (1812 loves ABBA songs), a portion of the 1812 troupe’s board time would be dedicated to a stage-bound news anchor, Sean Close, “throwing” to “reporters” such as Dave Jadico wearing a trench coat, making his way through the audience, and speaking in a dramatic baritone comically at odds with his scripted or non-scripted jibes. If the audience is lucky, snow will fall, and Jadico – who must leave the building to get through to its front door, and down the aisles – will be covered in wet, white fluff.
Childs’ pink sweat suit-wearing “Patsy” will come out for a “youse,” “dose” and “wahder” filled exit reverie. The cast will sing and dance a comic refrain similar to the evening’s grand musical introduction, and “The Week That Is,” will be the night that was.
That’s a normal year. 2020 has hardly been a normal year.
Using that irregularity as its guide, 1812 in 2020 has had to shift from being live, on-stage sketch and improvisation into something less tactile, and move into the virtual realm. With that virtual-ity – and its accompanying screens, monitors and online settings guided by director Justin Jain and co-head writer/stage manager Thomas E. Shotkin from home – the remote-from-wherever “This Is The Week That Is” has actually become, somewhat, closer to a real news broadcast.
While maintaining its comic theatricality, the team’s feel for live and recorded material – with no one performing on stage at Plays & Players, and no one performing together in any sort of physical unit – has the packed-tight, forward thrust of “Action News” – theme music, and all.
“This Is The Week That Is,” or “TW20” as it’s dubbed, is now a makeshift news show with an anchor cutting to a team of safely-distanced cameras, reporters and skits around the city. Just as a real news team would do – a real fake news team pulling off real fake news. The realest of fake news, only much funnier and still audience interactive, “TW20” is guided by Childs & Co.’s well-honed sense of what makes delicious political satire and smartly, skillful parody turn for 15 years, as of this 2020 production.
(So prestigious on a national level is the annual “This Is The Week That Is” that the American Theatre Wing, the voting body behind the Tony Awards, commissioned a documentary, “In the Field; Conceiving Satire: The Making of ‘This Is The Week That Is,’ in 2019. It was nominated for a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award for Arts Program/Special.)
“We’re still like ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ meets ‘The Daily Show,’ but this year, it’s all on TikTok,” said Childs about coming to grips with their production’s mix of live streamed theater and news, and additional pre-recorded bits of humoresque.
“We’re learning the new rules of this medium, day-by-day.”
Assistant Director Briana Gause, the filmmaker of the bunch, added that this year’s “TW20,” is a “political, hybrid digital showcase of humanity and humor.”
To get to where 1812 is “This Week,” you have to get where 1812 was during “The Week That Was’” second week, March 2020.
“For me, what the best comedy and the best satire does is transform all that is current events into something joyous.”– Jennifer Childs
“The first week of March, we were doing a special show, ‘Patsy Bingo,’ and even had the opportunity to reference the still-new coronavirus,” said Childs.
“We didn’t have a joke, but we mentioned it in a light-hearted way, and moved on.”
By week two, however, COVID-19 was already less of a laughing matter than it had been seven days prior. While preparing 1812’s final show of its 2019/2020 season, a world premiere musical, “Tyndale Place,” it became apparent that Philadelphia, like most of the planet, was going into lockdown.
“We left 1812’s office so quickly that it looked as if an alien abduction had occurred,” said Childs, remembering half-filled cups of water leaving rings on desks and toppled trash cans spilling behind them.
“It was if we had been raptured.”
Tom Shotkin, production stage manager at 1812 for 19 of the company’s 23 years of existence, claimed it was more frightening not knowing what the near future would hold, let alone the far-off future.
“What we did know was that the season was over at that point which was sad, depressing, you name it,” he said.
“Looking ahead, though, I remember thinking that – no – we probably wouldn’t be able to do ‘This is The Week That Is,’ live. But, if there was ever a show that could adapt to being done online, it was that because of its episodic nature and its sketches. I believed that audiences would be very forgiving, having to see three or four boxes on your computer screen, as opposed to live.”
Before they figured out the minutiae of its next season, 1812 was able to stay afloat through 2020, buoyed by PPP loans, without financial panic (“I had plenty of other things to panic about, and still do,” said Childs), or having to lay off employees and company members.
From there, the producing artistic director crafted a 2020/2021 season based – for the most part – on all things virtual with “Set Model Theatre” and “The Way I Walk” coming up on the heels of “This Is The Week that Is.”
“Set Model Theatre” is 1812’s way of working with diverse directors and stage designers visions, a series that Childs flippantly refers to as a master’s thesis meets “Cupcake Wars,” with three teams tackling one play. It was kind of like Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with radically different concepts and set models. Such miniature dioramas allow directors and designers to dream big, and the “Set Model Theatre” series, then, is a five-episode, behind-the-scenes look at the creative process heightened by 1812’s comedic twists.
“The Way I Walk” will be a virtual, streaming, chatty, four-woman comedy showcase – a collaborative work by Childs, Melanie Cotton, Bi Jean Ngo and another 1812 member, Tanaquil Márquez – but, with many questions attached to it, such as how digital it must be when it premieres in spring of 2021.
“Could there be live components by that point? Will it be more live than virtual or vice versa? Will things be safer in April? We’re still up in the air in regards to what will be what,” noted Childs.
There is no doubt as to what “This Is The Week That Is,” is, even when there are multiple questions.
“And there are so many questions, daily, about what this is and what will happen,” said Childs. “But isn’t that just like 2020 itself?”
Starting with the production, Shotkin is stage managing “TW20” far and away from his stage crew and performers – like a news broadcast producer or an air flight traffic controller – but, certainly not alone.
“We’re still like ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ meets ‘The Daily Show,’ but this year, it’s all on TikTok”– Jennifer Childs
“It’s tricky as Ben [Levan, production manager] is manning the hardware, but I’m calling the shots, literally, while managing the time, the actors, the artistic team and Ben, all from my house. Everything’s over Zoom. Everything is over the phone. Nothing is as it was, filled with interpersonal interaction.”
Justin Jain, directing the episodic “This Is The Week That Is” for the first time, also had to learn about film work on the fly, troubleshooting technology, and how to bring theatricality to the screen.
“It’s been a lesson in adaptability and not being precious with letting things go,” said Jain, late on a Saturday night after a lengthy preview performance.
“The most rewarding part of this experience has been the act of collaborating with my fellow beloved artists – THAT is one of the few tenets of theatre-making that transcends any medium and is at the crux of what we do best – connecting with one another, and an audience, in real-time…Being with these people every day has been a lighthouse in these incredible times.”
The tech process with “TW20”’s six actors (plus special guests such as Philly-based essayist R. Eric Mitchell making cameos), various directors and designers on stage going through a show scene-by-scene, and incrementally adding and subtracting lights and sounds, has been altered by the pandemic’s new virtual playbook. What was once stage lights might now be ring lights on actors’ laptops. The intricate network of omnidirectional stage sound and electro-acoustic transducers probably comes down, solely, to the microphones on each performer’s computers.
“These are strange adjustments; so much so that all of my usual paperwork, stage stuff and such, have all flown out the window, in lieu of all this visual and sonic tech stuff,” stated Shotkin, who quickly shouted out Philly theater all-star video and sound designer and Barrymore Award-winner Jorge Cousineau as mastering the divide between the physical and the virtual.
“We cannot be in the same room together, even to film,” said Childs, wound up by the circumstance.
“So, each performer was outfitted with cameras and sound equipment – all storyboarded by Jorge – with each actor filming themselves at home or outdoors, sending the video to Jorge, and with him putting everyone together so that they look as if that they’re in the same room. It is astonishing and incredible work.”
The new version of the “TW20” segment focusing solely on news and current affairs also finds co-writer and anchor Sean Close acting as any anchor does, throwing to “reporters” at the “scene,” on a more frequent basis. Childs claimed that the effect of going between live, on-the-scene reports and pre-recorded bits and skits will result in something of a ricochet.
“We’re even looking to surprise viewers, interactively, by presenting something that looks pre-recorded, but, instead is live, and asks everyone to join in on the chat,” she said of online suggestions that could determine what comes next during the broadcast.
“There are many real-time opportunities to create even-newer content during the show based on what the audience says or suggests,” said Childs.
While her “Patsy” character may phone Philly celebs during “TW20,” Dave Jadico – a member of both 1812 and ComedySportz’s improvisational crew – has his own series of planned accidents to get through.
“Audience members can even type in the word, ‘Ha,’ if they so choose,” said Shotkin.
“They can give thumbs up or down to a character. That creates a sense of community.”
Far beyond dealing with technology and interactivity, the biggest change to “TW20,” is the combustible daily rigors of the news cycle itself, and how the 1812 team will choose to cover it.
As an equal opportunity skewer-er over its years, this writer has watched the “This Is The Week That Is” writing team take down presidents both Democrat and Republican – from Bush to Obama to Trump – generals and majors, wars and stars, mayors such as Nutter and Kenney, and every sports team in town.
“Gritty, the Phillie Phanatic, the teams and the players; they’re always good for laughs and boos. Sometimes way more boos than laughs,” said Childs.
But, in a year so dour, so horrific and so often fraught with ugly emotion and genuine sadness, how does 1812 handle the topicality of the funny – a year filled with 365 Nine-Elevens – in sketch or fake news reporting fashion? What is so fucking humorous about the deaths behind Black Lives Matter, the protests, the calls for social justice or the police who want to maintain law and order, but often motivate the public to said destructive refute?
What’s hilarious about the on-going COVID-19 plague, its physical death toll or the mountain of jobs it is killing in its wake? Is Mayor Kenney funnier than DA Krasner? Can you poke fun at Police Commissioner Outlaw and not seem racist or sexist? And the battle between Trump and Biden? Sure, there are a million laughs to be found behind a president who loses and refuses to leave, and sends lawyers to the Four Seasons Total Landscaping as opposed to a tony hotel. But what about the incoming president-to-be, Biden, a man once known far and wide for his bungled and botched speeches, and his own wheeling-and-dealing peccadillos?
“There’s been no shortage of humorous personalities this year, always a rich field to mine.”– Tom Shotkin
“One of the reasons that Justin Jain was the person for the job of directing is that he had a real sense of being joyful,” said Childs.
“In terms of recounting the year and reliving all that was wrong, bad and horrific, people are doing that for themselves. We’re not shying away from difficult topics. For me, what the best comedy and the best satire does is transform all that is current events into something joyous.”
Before any rehearsals and before scripts were written or laid out, Childs asked her actors and writers to film their own bits about what was important to them during this messy year. Diverse as the 1812 cast and crew is – gay, straight, nonbinary, Black, brown, white, male, female – each self-written and filmed clip informed what the whole of “TW20” could and should feel like.
“That made the show more personal with many different perspectives,” said Childs.
“What are the effects and ripples around THAT THING that could be funny?” asked Gause.
“It feels easier to laugh at the circumstances around THE THING.”
Childs recalls the old saying: “You can make fun of the smoke, but not of the fire,” before stating that 2020 has been, almost exclusively, a series of eight-alarm blazes.
“It’s been a year of nothing but fire, but we’ve managed to find smoke.”
Co-head writer Shotkin also claimed that, with everything that went on this year, making light of personalities is usually funnier than making fun of incidents or actions.
“There’s been no shortage of humorous personalities this year, always a rich field to mine,” he said.
As an example, Trump is easy to lampoon. Biden not so much.
“Biden’s been a difficult character to find what his comic persona is during the election cycle,” said Childs, before noting that actor/anchor Sean Close plays “Biden” for 1812 this year.
“Think back to George W. Bush for a second. Comedians instantly honed in on what his comic persona was. Trump? It’s been easy to find his comic persona too. Biden, though? Look at ‘Saturday Night Live.’ They’ve gone through like 15 different people to play him. He’s tricky. Then again, I’m happy to have a boring president right now. I’m ready to be bored.”
Everything is funny in Philadelphia, sure. But, locally, 1812’s “TW20” has had to use great restraint and finesse in dealing with a troubling season in hell.
“When I look at this year, locally, the first thing that comes to mind are the protests, the tear-gassing on I-676 and Kenney’s reaction,” said Shotkin.
“There’s not really anything funny about any of that. But, what we will do is come at things in a roundabout way.”
Gause reminds us, too, that the nightly “TW20” show, live streaming and recorded, sifts through the “couch cushions” of the news to find the dimes amongst the pennies and the dust bunnies. Plus, it’s crucial to note that “This Is The Week That Is” deals with fresh topics, daily, and that this lousy fucking year is not quite over with.
“Things are still developing in the news as we speak, and I’m curious to see what else bubbles up that can be immediately put into the show. That’s as scary as it is fun.”
For tickets, times and more information about everything 1812 Productions has going on, visit 1812productions.org.