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1812 Production’s annual send-up of current events starts gently. It can be traumatic if you choose to partake in the news cycle. The characters onstage acknowledge that being informed is not always emotionally easy, and confide to the audience: How are we going to write this show? The one you’re watching right now?
You may try to weave and bob your way around stories of congressional stalemates, two major wars, gun violence, and the inflationary “soft landing” gymnastics of the Federal Reserve by distracting yourself with your favorite pop star. But then get tangled in the whirlwind of Taylor Swift nation.
“I need a distraction from the distraction!” cries Jennifer Childs on stage.
1812 has shown it knows how to navigate the minefield of news. For 18 years, it has staged “This Is the Week That Is,” a variety show based on current events.
This year, the play marks the company’s 100th production.
In 1997, Childs co-founded 1812 Productions with the goal of doing nothing but comedy theater, and she has never run out of material.
“I look at everything in the world with a comedic lens,” Childs said. “It’s how I grapple with things that I don’t understand. It’s how I take the power away from things that scare me and transform fear into joy.”
In its 26 years, 1812 Productions has produced 10 world premieres by outside writers and 40 original plays. A student of comedy history, Childs is serious about funny: even her most frothy comedy confection has a core of earnest truth.
“If you tell a joke and people don’t laugh at it, and there’s nothing underneath it, you fall flat on the ground,” she said. “But if you have this base of something that is true, even if they don’t laugh they connect to that truth. Otherwise, what are we doing?”
“This Is The Week” is written by a committee, largely in bull sessions starting months before curtain, to get a wide variety of perspectives on news headlines. The writer’s room mantra is: Make fun of the smoke, not the fire. That means the jokes don’t make light of serious issues like disease, war, or gun violence, but rather the way people respond to those concerns.
“It’s a roundabout way to get us to laugh at some of the things without pointing directly at the issues, but how those issues may affect our daily lives,” director Melanie Cotton said. “It’s not about being pointy as much as opening the door for us to maybe even laugh at ourselves.”
For a mid-sized theater company to survive long enough to stage 100 productions is no laughing matter. 1812 Productions has a full-time staff that puts out a season of three to four plays every year. During the pandemic, when all theaters were forced to close, Childs tried to keep in front of audiences through a series of live video streams with her husband, actor Scott Greer, called “I Put On Pants For This.”
1812 even kept up the annual tradition of “This Is The Week That Is” during the shutdown by staging the show as a live Zoom session with actors isolated in their respective homes.
Since the pandemic shutdown, most companies have not seen audiences completely return to theaters. Childs said last season 1812 Production saw about 60% of the audiences it had pre-pandemic, and expects that to rise to about 70% this season.
Even if the ticket revenue is not where she would like it to be, Childs is not shrinking production values. If anything, the plays have become more extravagant. She said the way for American theater to recover from the pandemic is to give people a reason to come back
“Let’s resource everything as much as we can and give people a full, lush experience,” Childs said, pointing to a play from last season. “’The Play That Goes Wrong,’ a title that many people know, was a ridiculous thing to do because it was, like, five times as big as anything we’ve ever done. But it was a huge hit and brought a lot of new people in, and a lot of others back.”
Perhaps the biggest attraction theaters can give the audience is the audience, itself. Cotton said the fact that there are other people in the room lends the theater its excitement. She carries with her a constant reminder of the power of theater.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to just read it to you,” she said, pulling out her cell phone. “I’ve kept it on my phone for a really long time.”
Cotton has saved to her phone a quote from playwright Thornton Wilder (“Our Town”) which he gave in 1956 during an interview for The Paris Review:
“I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. This supremacy of the theater derives from the fact that it is always ‘now’ on the stage.”
Cotton has worked with 1812 Productions for many years and is part of its Artistic Core of collaborating artists. She said she’s proud to be part of a company that reached 100 shows and is enthusiastic about its future.
“It’s not gonna look the same as it has always looked, but, as theater people, we are innovative,” she said. “We know how to roll with the punches. We’re creative beings, open to see how theater can change shape, given that we went through a pandemic. It’s not the same, and that’s okay.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.