A weeklong festival of solo performance works, “JillineFest,” opens Monday at Plays and Players Theater in Rittenhouse Square.
JillineFest is named after Jilline Ringle, who passed away 11 years ago. She was a “6-foot redheaded Amazon from Hell whom all men desired,” according to herself. The popular comedian and cabaret singer performed original shows in Philadelphia and Cape May.
“I have never worked with anyone quite like her,” said Owen Robbins, a pianist who often accompanied her. “She was so smart with her music. That was a very special something about her. It’s hard to quantify.”
One of Ringle’s frequent collaborators was Jennifer Childs, the artistic director of 1812 Productions, who — by the way — is short. Between them, there was almost a 1 1/2-foot height difference. They were a natural comic pair.
“I remember she went for an audition and came home and said, ‘Apparently I’m too tall for “Three Tall Women.”‘ People didn’t know what to do with her,” said Childs. “And she was all, ‘Hell, I know what to do with me.’ She made incredible cabarets.”
Childs and Ringle would often make up characters to amuse each other, including two old ladies doing Chekov while chain-smoking: “I’m so bored. You know I’ve never been kissed. Let’s go to Moscow.'”
They also created Peg and Patsy, two working-class South Philadelphia women with lots of opinions. It was a way for Ringle to teach Childs how to master the Philadelphia accent. They were working up a comic bit for a show that never happened.
To this day, Childs performs Patsy as a solo act. Every year for “This Is the Week That Is,” a play about current events, Patsy holds forth improvising answers to audience questions. She always delivers a preamble.
“I used to sit out on my stoop with my best friend Peggy, God rest her soul,'” Patsy announces from the stage. “She used to say, ‘You know Patsy, you’re so goddamn opinionated you should have your own show.’ So I have my own show.”
A legacy of helping other women
In 2005, when Ringle was just 40 years old, she died of cancer. Almost immediately, Childs created the Jilline Ringle Solo Performance Program, which helps women performers create solo work, both artistically and financially. After 10 years of quietly assisting dozens of shows find their feet, there is enough material for a festival.
JillineFest is a week of cabarets and full-length solo works by artists who have gone through the program.
Sarah Gafgen was an artist in residence two years ago, working up a show about Ethel Mermen.
“It’s such an inspiring idea to create your own work, to make something that is your gift to the world. Somebody needed to see it,” said Gafgen. “Jilline had a knack for knowing what she needed to say. That’s such a cool, inspiring thing.”
The last show Ringle performed was “Always a Lady,” a holiday tribute to female comics, with Jennifer Childs and 1812 Productions. Her cancer was creeping up on her toward the end of that run.
“She said, ‘I want to do something that allows people to do what I did,'” said Childs. “She didn’t say it this way, but she found her voice through solo performance.
“Even very, very sick, she made relentless fun of me for crying. She would want me to bring music. ‘We got to work on our show.’ Up until the end it was, ‘We’re working on the show,'” Childs remembered. “There was no room to talk about the fact that that show was not going to happen. In some ways the Jilline program is …,” here Childs eyes get glassy. “… working on the show.”
Somewhere, up there, Ringle is having a chuckle at her expense.
Childs said the performances in “JillineFest” will mostly be comic — some laugh-out-loud funny, some poignant funny, and some, she said, will be “ha-ha-ouch” funny.