When Jennifer Childs, artistic director of all-comedy theater company 1812 Productions, watched her daughter turn 7 and her mother turn 70 in the same year, the idea for her newest play was born. Or, rather, conceived — and, as she says, “It’s been a long time gestating.”
So long, in fact, that the play would have to be an elephant for the metaphor to hold. It’s My Party: The Women and Comedy Project is the product of nearly two years of exhaustive research. Comprising three acts, each being its own party, the play functions like a symphony with a number of distinct movements: part storytelling, part musical, part choreography.
It’s My Party opens at Rittenhouse's Plays & Players Theatre in April, but it all began with those birthdays and the observation that the two people being celebrated were incredibly funny in ways as different as their 63-year age gap would suggest. Childs was struck by her mother’s newfound self-assuredness and her daughter’s willingness to experiment with new comic personas, even the outrageous slapstick of the Three Stooges. This all connected to a pre-existing interest in the function of comedy in women’s lives — which isn’t surprising, considering Childs has been referred to as “the funniest woman in Philadelphia.”
This isn’t her first play on the subject of funny women. Eight years ago, she co-created and co-starred in (with the late Jilline Ringle) Always a Lady, which charted the journey of groundbreaking female comedians like Phyllis Diller, Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett and Ruth Draper. Inspired by a quote from Diller, the play examined what it meant to be a lady — particularly a lady comic. “The first act was all women who made us laugh because they broke every rule of ladylike behavior,” Childs explains, “and the second act was all women who commented on it from the inside, who ridiculed ladylike behavior by playing a lady.” After its run, Childs couldn’t shake the feeling that there was another show in this material, a story at once more personal and universal. Always a Lady was about women in comedy; It’s My Party is about women and comedy. The difference, Childs says, is crucial.
With It’s My Party, Childs hopes to document the influence of comedy in women’s daily lives. To capture this honestly, she has conducted more than four dozen interviews. While a handful of her interviewees had impressive comedy pedigrees — one example being Lucie Arnaz, scion of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — most were just ordinary women. Childs found that the best way to discover the information she’s looking for was not by asking people directly about how they use comedy in their day-to-day lives, but by a simpler strategy. “I just ask people to tell me stories,” Childs says — stories about the time they first felt like an adult, about a time they were embarrassed, about a time they did something they never thought they could do. “The way that they use humor is evident in the telling of the story,” she explains.
Though only bits and pieces of these interviews will end up in the final version, their energy allowed her to create a work that feels communal: “a collage of all these different voices.” This collaborative feeling is further buttressed by the blog (womenandcomedyproject.blogspot.com) she’s kept, inviting visitors not only to read about her process but to provide feedback and personal experiences relating to women and comedy.
The title might refer to “my” party, but it’s no work of narcissism. Rather, it expresses how she hopes all women will feel about her show — that it belongs as much to them as it does to her. “When people come to see it, I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, I know the girl who made that,’” Childs explains. “I want them to look at it and go, ‘I helped to make that.’”
April 25-May 19, $22-$38, Mandell Theater, 3201 Chestnut St., 215-592-9560, 1812productions.org.