Posted: 12:00 a.m. Thursday, January 11, 2018 Austin-American Statesman
Personal politics aside, Shannon Sedwick had plenty of reasons to feel distraught on election night 2016. As the owner and producer of the Esther’s Follies comedy stage show, much of her waking life is spent planning and performing political and issue-focused material at the troupe’s home on East Sixth Street.
With a large production in the nightly 90-minute show dedicated to an expected Hillary Clinton presidential win, Sedwick and her cast had roughly one day to scrap, rewrite and choreograph much of their show for the weekend run that starts every Thursday night.
“Miserable,” is the word that Sedwick, a Democrat and progressive, uses most readily to describe the scramble.
“We were just seeing what we could do to change (verb) tenses and leave the show the way it was, because we were still making fun of a lot of things to do with Hillary,” she said. “We just had to make it so that it wasn’t the Republicans who lost.”
Working life for the Esther’s cast hasn’t gotten any less frantic under the Donald Trump presidency. Trump’s large volume of gaffes, contentious decisions and the speed of social media commentary puts the troupe on a topical tight rope every week.
And since political and issue-based material has been a key ingredient for the group’s 40 years — along with magic tricks, song and dance and more evergreen comedy material — sitting out on the political humor is not an option.
“We’ve never had a president before that dominates the news cycle in quite the way that Donald Trump does,” said Ray Anderson, the group’s magician, director and choreographer. “You might write something for one week and then it’ll be gone because it’s old, whereas in the past you could keep it for a while because he’ll be on to the next thing the following week.”
During a late-2017 show the cast mixed in heavy doses of Trump humor — complete with an oversized almost orange wig — with jabs at House Speaker Paul Ryan, both Clintons and Barack Obama along with broader bits about proud “red state women” living in Austin, and housewife football fans role reversing with their doting husbands.
The sheer volume of weekly material burn for individual skits and dance numbers that average a joke or gag roughly every 10 seconds makes for hard work for head writer Steven Baranowski and two cast members/writers.
Anderson points out that an even tougher job can be knowing how to balance the show to keep the news-based material from feeling too heavy.
“Within the (time) that Trump’s been in office I’ve seen fatigue at times with our crowds, where they don’t want to hear very much about him because he’s in the news so much,” he said. Yeah. “You have to have a sense of that as well. Some people want to escape the news cycle for a little while and just have a good time.”
Even with that tough task, Sedwick and Anderson maintain a high level of energy and enthusiasm for the troupe that has endured, they admit unexpectedly, from an assembly of almost three dozen theater and comedy enthusiasts who put on shows that stretched for three hours in the late ‘70s. Esther’s Follies has run continuously through a series of venue moves around Sixth Street to the current property that the business owns, giving it a stable future with young cast members who are committed to its long-term health.
Local author Jesse Sublett spent much of the past two years working on the new book “Esther’s Follies” that celebrates the troupe’s 40th anniversary. He said the shift in comedic tone from the founding days in the late ‘70s has reflected both the makeup of the players involved and the tastes of the times.
“In the early days you’d have something like someone doing Marlene Dietrich or some poetry reading to open up the show and it would go on for a while, but now it’s so much more topical because pop culture is really zeroed in on people’s minds,” he said. “It used to be that you do Watergate material for 10 or 20 years, but with all that’s going on politically and how connected we are to everything, it means they’re rewriting things every week or even the day of the performance.”
“40 Years of Esther Follies” opens Jan. 14 at the South Austin Popular Culture Center with a special event from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Free for members, $5 suggested donation for non-members. Free admission during regular gallery hours, which are 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. The Follies exhibit continues through February. Information: southpop.org.