Does this tutu make me look funny? No, seriously!
By Krista Apple
At left, Childs as Patsy. Right, with Steven Wright in This Is the Week That Is (photos by Mark Garvin)
All Jennifer Childs wanted as a kid was to be like Vivien Leigh. A Great Actress. Dramatic. Serious.
"But then...I also wanted to be in a Bugs Bunny cartoon," the comedienne confesses. "I really wished that when people did something stupid they would turn into a giant sucker for just a second."
It was a conundrum. "Then I saw Carol Burnett's version of Gone with the Wind," she adds, "and I thought: Oh. I can be both...I want to be both!"
These days, Childs is letting her funny flag fly. Part Looney and part Leigh, she's got an indefatigable combination of soul and spunk that has transformed a doe-eyed ingénue into Philadelphia's comic queen. But for Childs, who is also artistic director of the 13-year-old company 1812 Productions, being funny has become serious business.
"Comedy is incredibly demanding," she asserts. "But the people who do it best make it look easy—they look like they're having fun. And how can something that's fun be important?"
It certainly looks easy in Childs's hands. On stage and off, her humor is disarming, genuine, down-to-earth. She lures audiences in with such sincerity that it's impossible not to come along for the comic ride she's taking—all the way to its roiling, rollicking conclusion.
Among the memorable stage characters Childs has created, her personal favorite is Patsy, a self-appointed political commentator and host of her own "bi-non-partisan" talk show. As part of 1812's yearly political farce This Is the Week That Is, Patsy declaims her opinions on news and politics from her South Philly stoop in a clownish turn that channels Gilda Radner's Roseanne Roseannadanna from "Saturday Night Live." Patsy is a brazen bulldog of a woman whose earnest, no-nonsense attitude epitomizes the best and worst of the Philadelphia neighborhood that Childs herself calls home (Patsy's front stoop, in "on-the-streets" video footage, is mere blocks from Childs's own).
But Patsy is clown, not caricature—hanging on the sidewalk in her slippers and bright pink Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt, she is a loving (if tongue-in-cheek) homage to what Childs loves about her city, holding forth on what she finds "int'resting" about "dis an' dat." "She's kind of my clown persona," Childs admits. "I love her because she has no self-doubt."
1812 Productions is Childs's (and Patsy's) comedic home in Philadelphia. Childs serves as artistic director of the company, and was its co-founder in 1997 along with fellow actor, director and teacher Peter Pryor. Under their leadership, 1812 has brought more than 33 comic concoctions to the stage, including 14 world premieres. And—funnily enough—theirs is one of the few TCG member theatres devoted exclusively to comedy.
In addition to mounting regional premieres of published playwrights—David Sedaris, Itamar Moses, Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin, among others—the company has become a unique home for the development of new work that celebrates America's legacies of laughter. The 1812 holiday slot traditionally is dedicated either to This Is the Week That Is or to a holiday-themed variety show that tackles a specific comedic genre. Its first such holiday offering, The Big Time, was a "fast and furious quick-change homage" to vaudeville. It was also, for Childs, a personal tribute to her grandfather, the son of a vaudeville entertainer who, in her youth, fed Childs a regular diet of vaudeville-era poems and punch lines.
"Part of what fuels my work," Childs acknowledges, "is the question of how structures and forms that are traditionally associated only with comedy—stand-up, improv, vaudeville, sketch—can have resonance in a contemporary theatre setting. How can they be used as theatrical storytelling engines?"
Subsequent productions have allowed Childs to celebrate a range of comic heroes with Philadelphia audiences. Double Down, written and directed in 2005, paid tribute to comic duos, from vaudeville's Zeb and Zarrow to Martin and Lewis and the Smothers Brothers. Cherry Bomb, created in 2008 with Pig Iron Theatre Company's James Sugg, offered a musical burlesque tribute to the Cherry Sisters, the famously out-of-tune vaudeville act. And Always a Lady, conceived and performed with fellow comedienne Jilline Ringle, was inspired by the fearlessness of Childs's and Ringle's "comedy ancestresses" (Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball and Marie Dressler, to name a few).
"They were funny on their own terms," asserts Childs of the women who inspired Always a Lady. "Yes, sometimes it was humor that came from the ridiculously unfair expectations that were imposed upon women. But our focus was on the originality and uniqueness of their talents. They weren't just women who could hold their own. They succeeded at bringing a new kind of comedy to the stage."
1812 Productions owes its genesis and its name to an unassuming row home at 1812 Pine Street in Philadelphia's Center City. "It was a sort of artist's flophouse," Childs recalls. "We lived with a collection of actors, dancers, sculptors, painters and the occasional German tourist."
"We'd worked together on a few things in college," adds Pryor. "But mostly we spent a lot of time on Pine Street cracking each other up."
While teaching and performing together in the burgeoning art and theatre scene in early 1990s Philadelphia, Childs and Pryor recognized their calling. "We used comedy in our teaching all the time," explains Childs. "When people are laughing, they are open. Look at their body language—mouths open, arms uncrossed. It's a really effective way of connecting with people." Looking around Philadelphia, they also noticed a dearth of laughter in the seasons of established companies. So they took matters into their own hands, mounted a production of The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged), and voilà!: 1812 Productions was born.
Childs's latest endeavor, Why I'm Scared of Dance, is her most personal creation to date. She's developed nearly 10 shows for 1812, but Dance marks the first time the comedienne is writing about herself (as a character), for herself (as a performer). The solo performance, which runs Oct. 7-31 at Philadelphia's Plays & Players Theater, chronicles Childs's attempts to master the art of dance in all its delicate—and frightening—forms.
She reports with brutal honesty on the reasons why she gave up dance quickly as a child ("There were no snacks in ballet"), and on the truly torturous experience of taking a ballet class at the age of 40, in spite of the "breezy French terms" that make it all sound so easy.
"For me," Childs confesses on stage, her belly and thighs belted and bungee-corded to a chair to preserve some semblance of a first-position turnout, "ballet really is the Guantanamo Bay of the dance world."
Her inspiration for the piece? "Turning 40. Having a daughter. Thinking about the fears and limitations we have and how we unknowingly pass them on to our kids. The importance of facing your fears.
"And...the fact that I look really funny in a tutu."
It's fortunate for the rest of us that Childs still takes her funny side seriously, and vice versa. "When we founded 1812," she recalls, "there was a statistic floating around that the average person laughs only once or twice a day. Clearly, the world needs more comedy."
Krista Apple is an actor, writer and teaching artist based in Philadelphia.
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