I haven’t been doing this for very long. I don’t know all the players in the scene. I don’t yet know all the venues or the history or the nuances of Philadelphia comedy—sketch, improv, stand-up, or otherwise. But I’m learning. One of the things I’ve noticed thus far is just how friendly and supportive it can be. Everyone seems to have a lot of faith in each other and want general success for the entire scene. This is what I was thinking about as Tara Demmy, experienced improvisor and lead actress in a new play by Nile Arena and Harry Watermeier Call On Mister Blue, generously stood with me after the play ended and briefed me on all the comedy credits and history of the cast in preparation for my interview with them.
Meanwhile, SHANNON HOUSE hasn’t been doing this for very long. In fact, as I was to learn, this is the company’s first production. SHANNON HOUSE is a collection of comedians, actors, directors and general theater-y type folks in its infancy. The thing that struck me most about SHANNON HOUSE is how they seemed to have that same faith in and enthusiasm for the Philadelphia comedy scene that I had observed elsewhere. The play itself was an example of faith rewarded, for the cast (Tara Demmy, Luke Field, Bryan Kerr, Brent Knobloch, and Craig Lamm) all delivered wonderfully.
Call On Mister Blue was set in apparently-modern Indianapolis, narrated charmingly and, at times, hilariously by a characterization of Southern Renaissance writer William Faulkner for reasons which aren’t immediately (or, arguably, are only intermediately) apparent. It focuses on the evolving lives and relationship of a young couple and how their lives and relationship interact. Additionally, how these things interact with the transforming sense of self and life goals that come with early adulthood. The themes run much deeper and the dialogue is rich, being both realistic and clever simultaneously. An entertaining play from start to finish, it was very thoughtful and sincere, with moments of sadness as well as some serious laughs.
After the show, the members of the cast who were available and director Harry Watermeier sat down and let me ask them a few questions.
Matt Aukamp: So how did you all get involved in this production?
Bryan Kerr: I did the Arden Professional Apprenticeship at the Arden Theater Company in Old City. Harry, Tara, and I were in the same year two years ago and so we got to know each other. Harry first asked me about nine months ago if I wanted to direct this, and I never responded to his email. I read the play and was like, “I don’t know what’s going on,” and then just didn’t respond and didn’t respond and didn’t respond… And then Harry moved to Philadelphia and so I couldn’t avoid him anymore. He said, “I know you’re busy, Bryan, so maybe you can just be in it and be William Faulkner.” So I said “sure” because I knew Harry and Tara and I support them.
Craig Lamm: I got involved because my girlfriend is now in the same apprentice program with the playwright [Nile Arena.] So I met them through my girlfriend and we got to talking about the show and they asked if I wanted to do it so I joined the team.
Tara Demmy: No auditions, just, “Hey, do you wanna be in this thing?”
MA: And Harry, you directed the show; how did you come across it?
Harry Watermeier: So Nile Arena wrote the show. We’re both from Indiana—we went to Indiana University—so we’ve known each other for awhile. He was living in Chicago and he was kind of looking for his next thing to do. I completed the Arden apprenticeship and I [told him about it]. He applied, and he got the apprenticeship and he moved out to Philly. I knew he was a playwright, and I knew he was working on something. I had come back to Philly from Indiana to sort of capitalize on some of the weight that the APA program carries, so I was looking to get into something and I liked the script a lot. I was hoping to act in it at first. I was hoping to play Russell, the male lead. That was the idea but then I thought it was probably best for me—in order to get it on its feet— to direct it. And I offered it to Bryan and I’m so glad he acted in it. I thought Bryan was fantastic.
MA: Had you directed before?
HW: No, not really. I mean, I directed some scenes in school. This is my first full-length thing that I’ve directed.
MA: So, I get the connection to Arden, but there’s a lot of Philadelphia sketch and improv people in the play. How did they come in?
HW: Well, Tara does a lot of improv. You know Tara is a FIXTURE of the improv community, I would say…
TD: Oh, shut up!
HW: And because of that, most people [in Philly comedy] just know me as “Tara’s Boyfriend,” which is WONDERFUL, and she knew Lizzie [Spellman, who opened the show] and I was lucky enough to do a show with [sketch group] The Flat Earth for the Fringe Festival, so that’s how I met Brent [Knobloch] and Luke [Field], and I knew how great they were.
MA: And were you worried at all about, coming from improv and sketch comedy, that the acting would be any different? That it might be a challenge for people stepping into dramatic theater?
HW: I wasn’t worried. That actually made me more confident in their abilities. You know, I hate auditioning, as an actor.
MA: That seems to be what you hear from every actor all the time.
HW: I just wish I could talk to the director and say “Look, I can do it, I promise I can do it.” So you know, I didn’t audition them. Luke and Brent, they’re both razor sharp. Everyone involved in the show is, and I was so confident in their abilities. You know, someone coming from a comedy background and an improv background, they’re very generous to their audience in ways that often dramatic or classically-trained actors are not. Improvisers are super aware of the audience and what the audience needs and how to play certain beats for the audience. That, I hoped—and I think did—bring the play into brighter lights. They really knocked it out of the park and they exceeded all my expectations.
MA: So do you have any other future productions planned with this group of people?
HW: I’d like to do more. I mean, we’re working on just a small thing. Nile and I are writing something…
CL: Name-drop the title. It’s great!
HW: Grime and Punishment. It’s an adaptation of Crime and Punishment. But I feel like I got really lucky with this cast. Just really really talented people. So I would jump at the chance to work with them again.
TD: We’re starting a thing called SHANNON HOUSE. That’s sort of the company. But I’d really like that name to still be on whatever Nile does, Harry does, Bryan does, Craig does…
MA: Was SHANNON HOUSE put together to be the production company for this?
HW: [Yes, and] the idea was that Shannon House would be the name of the sort of collective thing that we’re trying to work on. And we wanted Call on Mister Blue to be sort of a soft open for us.
TD: Before we’re on Broadway!
HW: Just something we could put together quickly and put up and just sort of get us started. So hopefully the next project we’ll take a little more time with.
[Then everyone started sighing and clapping their hands together and saying “goosebumps.” I have no idea why it was happening. I started to worry I'd stumbled into a murder cult.]
TD: I want to direct an adaptation of Goosebumps. But it will probably be with mostly improvisers. I really think improvisers make really great actors. And especially if they don’t have a theater background, just improv and comedy. I’d like to create a show that’s improvised, and then put to script. And it’s about Goosebumps! I don’t know where that’s going to go. But hopefully [it will debut] in the spring.
HW: Yeah, hopefully in the Spring. I don’t know how copyright laws work?
TD: It’s satire! You can do whatever you want!
If you’re a comedian interested in being part of SHANNON HOUSE’s next production, contact Tara Demmy at email@example.com.
Matt Aukamp is a writer, performer, and occasional improviser (The Win Show). You can usually find him bothering the world on Twitter at @mattaukamp.