Tunapost 3: laughter in the ambient light

Mid way through our second ten out of twelve. The company is in good spirits. The zany energy of the play has infected us all, and even the ridiculous six-second costume changes don’t get us down. John and I frequently come off stage and look at Jess and Angela in a panic, having no idea who we’re supposed to be changing into. The girls tend to steer us into our next costumes and position us for our entrances. John is finding some comic gold, especially with two of his drag performances: Charlene and Vera. I struck my own gold as R.R. yesterday, when I chased a “U.F.O” lighting effect around the stage like a deranged house cat. Leonard Childers is so fat I resemble a Macy’s Day parade blimp, and Bertha’s buns are padded right down the backs of my thighs. I display said buns prominently at my first Bertha entrance. For the first time today, I got through the Rev. Spike’s eulogy without calling for a line. I’m not saying I got ’em all right, I just didn’t ask for ’em.Greater Tuna is the kind of play looked down on by the theateratti. It is low-brow comedy in the best American tradition: populist, self-effacing, uncomplicated in its message. There is barely a plot – it’s really a series of comic sketches loosely strung together through the conceit of a day at the local radio station. Its value lies in the performance of it, and so it claims its place as pure comic theatre along the lines of commedia dell’Arte, successful only if a talented enough company can bring it to life, meeting the transformational challenges it presents with brio. I hope we are up to it. I sense we are, but we will learn a lot as we add audiences in previews next week.

The Walnut Street theatre, which is producing this production, is Philadelphia’s great populist theatre. Long sneered at by our local theateratti, it has never-the-less maintained the most robust subscription base of any local theatre. It thrives by knowing who its audience is, giving them what they want and doing it well – at least well enough that the theatre remains fiscally sound. I sneered at the theatre myself when I arrived I arrived in town some thirteen years ago. I raised my nose at its consistent menu of American musicals and “old chestnuts”. But as I have matured, my nose has lowered and my perspective has shifted. I now admire this theatre for being what it is unapologetically, and am grateful for the work I have been offered here (three shows in four years). Interestingly, Greater Tuna is a collaboration between one of Philly’s most outrageous theatre artists (Madi diStefano, our director) and its most conservative theatres, in terms of play selection. Madi is founder of Brat Productions and well-know for both her direction of gritty, site-specific Conor McPherson plays in local bars, as well as her theatrical performances in her own plays, Popsicle’s Departure and Sweetie Pie. But she has made a useful alliance with Walnut Street, having appeared in at least one of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound plays here. Bernard Havard, the artistic director here, has taken a shine to her, and I remember being in auditions watching the two them – Bernard in tweedy British jacket-and-tie style and Madi in post-punk black leather and bleached white hair – and laughing inwardly at the pair they make.

Tonight, peering out from backstage during a break, I took in Madi and our designers sitting in the dark house, their faces lit by the pale ambient light of computer screens and small note-taking lights. Each is doing what they love, I thought, and isn’t that a measure of success? I am particularly fond of Elisa’s costumes (all 20 of them) and Christopher Coluccci’s sound design. He’s picked some great southern rock for accompanying music, and given us a variety of goofy sound effects to use as Thurston and Arles in the radio station. Turning my head, I saw Jess and Angela scurrying around and getting the next change set up, and John dressed half in Petey and half in Arles. I felt proud to count myself one of them: an artist at work, hell-bent on making people I don’t know laugh as much as possible.

I long for an end to the snooty judgments. But as I have written here before, I fear our academic institutions are too deeply invested in passing judgments, and they pass on that tendency to the students they instruct. And so we get a division along an ancient fault-line: on one side the academic intellectual aesthetes, on the other the populist, pragmatic workers. For years I have been trying to live on both sides of that line simultaneously, and the result has been a certain amount of stress and academic professional disappointment. It’s as if I am being led again and again away from colleges and universities, led backstage and into costumes and out in front of audiences. But I am stubborn and head-strong. I refuse to leave my students. I refuse to believe I can’t have it both ways. There must be a way to lift up Greater Tuna next to Antigone and say “both/and” rather than “either/or”.

Making people laugh is serious business. Indeed, in this wounded war-torn world, one might argue it is more urgent than the business of making people cry. So just watch it if you lift your nose at me about Greater Tuna. I just might poke it.