Katherine Biskupic and Leah Frires are the duo Pure & Weary and together their creativity has sparked a show that accomplishes the impossible, or at least what seemed impossible before they did it. Their show Roaring in Our 20s provides an original, healing, comedic perspective on our current confusing sociopolitical times. That would be enough, but it’s not all. The show also has a fresh and funny take on some challenging personal times, namely that decade known as our twenties.
So how do they do it? Unexpectedly and ingeniously! The title Roaring in our 20s has two meanings. It’s about young women in their twenties during the 1920s. But wait, the 1920s were nearly one hundred years ago! Everything was so different … except that Katherine and Leah’s thorough research turned up a long list of surprising parallels.
Together with their director Mike Gifford, they saw big commonalities between outspoken, “convention-flouting” flappers and women today and also discovered echoing and ominous political slogans. Characters include everyday figures just like us and historical figures like gangsters, writers and musicians who, it turns out, are also like us and who share some timely concerns and insights. Unlike other outlets these days, this perspective is therapeutic, lighthearted and funny. As Katherine noted, “If we don’t have the audience laughing right away, we’re not doing our jobs.”
You can see Roaring in Our ‘20s at the Annoyance Theatre on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. through April 18. If you’re in L.A., you’re also in luck because Leah and Katherine bring the show to Second City in Hollywood on Wednesday, April 5 at 9:00 p.m.
Leah and Katherine tour throughout the country and have been featured at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, Philly SketchFest, the Dallas Comedy Festival, the Chicago Improv Festival, the iO Really Good Film Festival, Chicago Women’s Funny Festival, the Crossroads Comedy Festival, the New Movement Theatre-NOLA, the Big-Little Comedy fest, and the NYC Sketch Fest. Following its premiere at Chicago Sketch Fest, Roaring in our ‘20s had a successful run at Second City’s Beat Lounge and was then picked up by The Annoyance.
Katherine and Leah kindly took time out to speak with me by phone about how they got together, why they’re “Pure & Weary,” and what it means to “Charleston through the ups and downs of their 20s.”
Teme: How did you meet and become Pure & Weary?
Katherine: We met at the University of Wisconsin at Madison about ten years ago. We both went to school there and we met in a voice class in the theater department …
Leah: … and we were in a couple of shows together.
Teme: How did you start working together?
Katherine: After college, we were both in Chicago. We were friends and Leah was doing a lot of work at the Annoyance, and I was doing a lot of work at Second City in the training center. Second City has a format, and the Annoyance is about no rules. So we always talked about combining the two worlds.
Our demeanors were opposite in a complementary way and we got along so well. We talked about writing together for a long time, and then our schedules opened up and we decided that we wanted to write what we were performing rather than auditioning for things that were already written.
Leah: That’s how it started. We would write scenes together and the ease was so nice. I’d tried to write with a couple of different people, but with Katherine our humor synced up so well even though we’re opposites. Then we started doing open mic nights and performing our sketches, just to get a crowd feel. And so we built up enough sketches to put up our first show.
Teme: How would you say you’re opposites?
Katherine: I like to write with a bit of structure and think through exactly what the beats are and Leah is really good at just being funny right on the spot and coming up with amazing jokes without needing any time. So we end up complementing each other.
Leah: Also, physically when you look at us, we’ve got blonde hair and brown hair. One of us is tall. One of us is a little shorter.
Teme: How did you come up with the names Pure and Weary?
Leah: So that actually took a long time. It was the hardest decision we ever had to make as a duo. It’s the meanings of our names. “Pure” is what Katherine means, and “Weary” is what Leah means.
Teme: That’s so cool. I never would have guessed! So how were each of you inspired to go into comedy?
Katherine: I was doing a lot of straight theater and Shakespeare and I started taking classes at Second City. I loved the freedom of being able to create and write on my own. I hadn’t had that freedom before. I was working so hard auditioning for things that were already written that I didn’t always connect with. So having the power to write and create with improv on the spot, including creating the roles that I didn’t see out there for women, that’s what got me into comedy.
Leah: I used to do a lot of straight theater as well, but I gravitated towards the comedic roles. I started taking improv classes and I liked it a lot, but I still craved the structure of theater. So when Katherine and I got together and we realized you can write your own things and give yourself every funny line, it was perfect.
Teme: What have been some of your favorite, craziest, or best things that have happened since you started working together?
Leah: One of the best things is that we’ve been able to travel so much and take our shows to different places and to different audiences. It’s fun to see how different audiences react, especially in different parts of the country.
Teme: What regional differences do you see?
Leah: One of the funniest was a show at Katherine’s old high school. There was an afternoon show and an evening show. We had a sketch where we were two older women who say whatever they want. We were talking about online dating and we said the word “vagina.” It did not go over well with the afternoon crowd in a small town in Wisconsin. Though I will say that the later crowd definitely eased up.
Katherine: Yes, got to give 7 p.m.-Appleton a little bit of credit because they were okay with vaginas. But 3 p.m.-Appleton could not.
Leah: 3 p.m.-Appleton was not feeling that.
Katherine: We’ve performed in New Orleans, Dallas, Philly, New York, Wisconsin, and Cleveland, which is where Leah is from. And then we’re going out to L.A. Everywhere is different and we grow from each experience.
Teme: What is your writing process?
Katherine: We start with a theme. Two shows ago was Nerd Alert. It was all the things we nerd out about. We also did Liquid Courage based on drinking sketches.
For the current show, we knew we wanted to write about the 1920’s and talk about our twenties. So we come up with the theme and then we make a list of the things we want to talk about. And then we start, either separately or together, on each sketch. We write at my apartment usually. That’s Pure & Weary Headquarters. We use Google Drive, so we can both be in one document at the same time and go back and forth on each sketch.
Leah: Our best friend, Google Drive.
Katherine: That’s the third part of Pure & Weary.
Teme: How did you decide on the 1920’s theme?
Leah: We’re in our late twenties and we wanted to write about what our lives have been like. The more research we did into the 1920’s, the greater parallels we found with our world now. It’s pretty bonkers.
Katherine: We knew we wanted to filter this show through the 1920’s, but we were also influenced by how charged we were after the election. We were researching Warren G. Harding, and his campaign catchphrase was “return to normalcy,” which was very similar to “make America great again.”
Once we had that, we had a way to bring the eras together. But even before the election we were thinking about how the definition of flapper is an outspoken woman who does what she wants and how female comedians fit that description. So that’s how we tied those two worlds together.
Teme: I never would have made the connections, but it makes so much sense. What are some of the other parallels?
Katherine: We’ve set things that happened in our twenties in the 1920’s. For example, in your early twenties, a theme is your relationship with your mother now that you’re an adult. In the 1920’s, there was a gangster theme. So we have a gangster scene, but with a mother and daughter.
We also have famous characters like Eliot Ness, Al Capone, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Leah: One of my favorite scenes is called “Order Up.” Katherine’s character bounces into a bar and she says to the bartender, “I think you got my drink wrong. I ordered a different life.” And we go through all the parallels, with drinks being what you want in life, and what you don’t want in life. “Okay, I’ll dump your drink, ma’am.” “Wait, I don’t want to be dumped!”
Teme: I can really relate to that, too.
Leah: Yeah, you can’t order your life.
Teme: Right. I always thought that you could. If you worked hard enough and did all the right things, everything would come together like a chemistry formula or an algebra equation.
Leah: Yes, it would all fall into place.
Teme: What lessons can we take from the 1920’s?
Katherine: We have one scene that is at an ob-gyn office. It’s a doctor from 2017 and a patient from the 1920’s. It ties all our themes together. Although the flapper is shocked that there hasn’t been a female president and that women still don’t have certain rights, she acknowledges there still has been some progress.
And there are the parallels between “return to normalcy” and “make America great again.” With both, the idea of going backwards won’t lead to progress. Looking backwards is never going to work.
Leah: We make the parallels apparent right off the bat so that the audience is ready for the rest of the show. We point out that nostalgia is such a luxury.
Teme: Do you think we’re heading for a disaster the way the Great Depression ended the 1920’s?
Katherine: I say no. I don’t think we can parallel history that directly. It’s good to look for cues, and to learn. We’re surrounded by a lot of good people in Chicago who are very focused on activism and awareness, so that keeps me hopeful.
Leah: There’s so much more activism now that wasn’t apparent in the ‘20’s. People aren’t afraid to speak up and speak out anymore. So I think that helps.
Katherine: The nice thing about comedy is that you have to start with making people laugh, which is a nice task to have and very cathartic.
Teme: How has writing and performing the show changed your lives? Has it helped deal with the current political environment or life in general?
Katherine: This show has a bit of everything we want to say, and it’s also very fun to do, and it’s super entertaining. So all of that feels really good, whether it’s at Chicago Sketch Festival, at different venues, or in different cities. It’s a show that we feel is very much us right at this moment. So it’s enjoyable for us as artists. And we hope it’s enjoyable for the audience right now in this moment, in this country. So that is very comforting.
Leah: It gives us an outlet, too, for any frustrations that we have, to be able to spin them on their head. It feels good to make light of things that can be so dark.
Teme: If you could have an after-show drink with anybody from the 1920’s who would it be?
Leah: Any jazz musician from that time.
Katherine: I loved researching Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I didn’t know anything about Alice. I knew about Gertrude Stein and her parlors with Hemingway and Picasso. But I didn’t know anything about her partner. So reading the letters that they wrote each other, and their dynamic was very fascinating and humorous. I would love to meet them.
Leah: Just to be a fly on the wall in a speakeasy would be amazing.
Teme: What else would you like people to know?
Katherine: For the end of the run, we have different sketch groups writing pieces inspired by the 1920’s, and they’ll be opening for us. They are from the Second City Conservatory, independent groups, and brand new groups.They include Fun N’ Dumb, Rehner & Nixon, Cat Booty, The Wednesday Night Rejects and The Girls Room.
It’s fun to see what people discover when they’re prompted to find parallels between the 1920’s and today.
Roaring in Our 20s is at The Annoyance Theatre, 851 W. Belmont at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 4, April 11 and April 18. Tickets are $6.
Roaring in Our 20s is at Second City in L.A., 6560 Hollywood Blvd. at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 5. Tickets are $10.