PHOTO from the top: Steve Rashid, Victoria Zielinski, Paul Barrosse, Dana Olsen
On New Year’s Eve 2023 at Studio5 in Evanston, the laughter was loud and nonstop, the mood celebratory, the joy palpable, and the air electric. Who created that magic? It was the legendary Practical Theatre Company, specifically Paul Barrosse, Victoria Zielinski, Dana Olsen and musical director Steve Rashid performing their long anticipated Post-Pandemic Revue.
The sketches were fresh, smart, hilarious and relatable. Greek gods Zeus and Hera dragged each other to marriage counseling. Pepe Le Peu got “Me-Too’ed.” A mathematics professor grappled with numerical intersectionality. (“What if 1 + 1 identifies as 3?”) Shakespeare landed in L.A. and had a meltdown. There was an ongoing bit about a clueless houseguest that ended in a delightful surprise. In between the comedy, Steve Rashid and his band wowed the crowd with one virtuoso performance after another. And there was so much more.
When the show ended, after the standing ovation, everyone seemed to rise slowly and reluctantly, lingering at the exit not wanting the evening to end. Studio5 co-creator Bea Rashid stood by the door, thanking everyone for coming. It felt like the highest possible echelon of sketch comedy – a la Nichols & May, the classic heyday of Saturday Night Live, the birth of Second City …
…or more accurately, like the return of an iconic comedy juggernaut. Now celebrating their 44th anniversary with a new season, the Practical Theatre is on track to make Evanston a world-class comedy destination. And not for the first time. The four current PTC members met as Northwestern students in the late ‘70s. PTC was originally created by Paul, his roommate Brad Hall and fellow Wildcats Gary Kroeger and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
The troupe first played to sold-out crowds at a storefront on Howard Street. Soon, Second City came calling. If you’ve been to Second City’s e.t.c. stage, know that it was originally the “P.T.C” and custom built for the Practical Theatre. Six weeks later, Saturday Night Live execs traveled to Chicago to witness the PTC phenomenon. The very next day, Paul, Brad, Gary and Julia were whisked off to SNL. Meanwhile, the rest of PTC remained in Chicago earning consistent critical acclaim. They included Richard Kind, Megan Mullally and Victoria (who was also a Shakespearean actress and earning a law degree).
Meanwhile, on the Monday after graduation, Dana was already on the Paramount lot writing for Laverne & Shirley. He would go on to pen box office hits like The ‘Burbs starring Tom Hanks and George of the Jungle starring Brendan Fraser.
Steve Rashid became an Emmy Award-winning musician and composer. Paul and Victoria married and moved to L.A. Dana later moved back to Evanston to raise his family. Every so often, the four reconnected and created another sold-out show. A few years ago, Steve and his wife Bea built Studio5 as a flexible dance and performance space (with ample parking, I’ll just mention for the Chicagoans who know what a lifesaver that is).
Last year, Paul and Victoria moved back to Evanston, too. With Dana and Steve, they spent 2022 perfecting their Post-Pandemic Revue. When the Revue quickly sold out all six performances, they knew they had a new calling. The Practical Theatre Company is now ready to soar again with multiple new offerings April 8-July 2. Paul, Victoria and Dana kindly gave me a sneak preview of this exciting new season in Chicago comedy.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Teme: What emotions are you feeling as you launch this new season?
Paul: Excitement because we’re back in front of an audience on a regular basis and a bit of nervousness because we’re doing some things we haven’t done before. This is where you want to be as an artist – challenging yourself and a bit on edge.
Dana: It’s always bittersweet at the holidays to put in a tremendous amount of work and then it’s over in six performances. I’m delighted that we’ve established this residency at Studio5. I love that space and Steven and Bea. I’m really happy and really looking forward to what we’re going to do.
Victoria: Well, a little bit of fear. We were sitting around our kitchen table, coming up with revisions. We’ve written a lot of new material, too, on political and social topics. Dana looked at me and said, “Are we biting off more than we can chew? Is this too much too soon?” I said, “Hey, look, I’m in my mid-60s. It’s either now or never. We can’t pussyfoot around. We’re not trying to get famous. We’re trying to enjoy and entertain.” And he went, “You’re right.” Notice the story I tell is that he said I’m right! I don’t know how exact that is, but this is the story I’m sticking with. So there’s a little bit of fear, but also a sense of fun and excitement. And gratitude that this worked out and that Steven and Bea are so willing to give us all the chance.
Teme: If I had a recording of your New Year’s Eve Post-Pandemic Revue, I would watch it over and over. What is your method for writing at such a consistently high level?
Paul: We constantly tinker. We’re usually inspired by an improvisation that we did on our feet or something we were kicking around at the table. We’ll script that and then we keep revising. Some scripts are in their twelfth or fifteenth draft by the time we perform them. Once we hear what the audience responds to – and where there’s maybe a dead moment or an extraneous line – we make those trims.
Dana: We know what makes us laugh and what works for us. That’s been true going back to the very beginning. Over the course of our individual careers, we’ve become better writers. We’re harder on ourselves. We’re more ambitious in our writing. When we were doing improv in our twenties, we worked hard, but if it made us laugh in rehearsal, that’s pretty much how it went into the show. Nowadays, we rewrite exhaustively. We’re perfectionists more than ever before. We can smell potential. If we smell additional potential in a sketch, we don’t just let it lie there. We want to find everything that’s funny about a premise and use only the funniest stuff. It’s so much fun to work together, we’re all willing to put as much work in as possible. We like to have a varied menu. We always want to do a mixture of the silly and the smart.
Victoria: We are all readers and love literature, comedy, film, and television, and we long for an opportunity to have high grade stuff. One of the premises of a sketch in an upcoming show is Aristotle wrote the Poetics, and we have his treatise on tragedy, but no one has ever found his “Comedia.” So we intellectuals “discover” it and … it’s all about farts and dick. We enjoy entertaining ourselves with language and politics and history and social commentary. This gives us a forum to share it. The other part of it is we’re Boomers. We’re struggling, as so many are, with a new world and coming to terms with it. All ages can vibe with that.
DECISIONS AND DEBUTS
Teme: How did you decide which shows to create in this new season?
Paul: Dana, Victoria, Steve Rashid and I brainstormed over a couple nights.
Dana: We looked at Studio5 and all the different things that we can do there. There’s pretty much nothing that we can’t do in such a versatile space. It would be difficult to run a sketch revue constantly, so we wanted to give ourselves a break and time to write new material. We wanted to do a couple of other things that would be fun and different for our audience, and just do a bunch of different flavors and energies that wouldn’t kill us.
Victoria: We want to take the best of what we’ve done over the years and add to it and keep it vibrant. We definitely don’t like the idea of closing a show we sold out and that’s it after two years of writing. So we want to resurrect the New Year’s show for the summer and keep it always changing, much the way Second City does revues. We’re the only people I know to shut down a hit show to write another one!
Teme: So your new season actually began on March 18 with a Preston Sturges Film Night!
Victoria: We screened Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek on the big screen at Studio5. We had twenty people, but they were wonderful people. They were laughing out loud at Preston Sturges. I’ve seen the film about 200 times, but never in a group of folks laughing. We’d stop the projector and talk and laugh. Couldn’t happen anywhere but Chicago. We pretended to be … well, I pretended. Paul and Dana are legit film experts. I talked about the Hays Code and Dana talked about the business of Preston Sturges selling his first screenplay for a dollar so that he could direct it. Paul, of course, had all kinds of little oddball notations about Preston Sturges’ life and challenges and idiosyncrasies, and it was just wonderful. Then we had a cuckoo trivia contest and we made somebody take home these terrible kitchen towels we’ve been trying to get rid of. We called it the “Bad Christmas Grab Bag.” It was hilarious. People kept giving them to one another because they didn’t want them, so it was doubly, triply funny.
COMING UP NEXT
Teme: Please highlight some upcoming shows!
Paul: We’re throwing a birthday party for the Practical Theatre. We had a vibe at our little 42-seat theater on Howard Street. It was freeform. Someone might read a poem. We’d tell jokes between sets. Musician friends played music onstage. People would dance. We’re going to throw a party like that on the Practical Theater’s 44th birthday, April 15th.
The backbone of the party will be my daughter who was a baby when we started the theater company. She’s now an accomplished musician and singer. She’s going to do a set. I’m going to do songs I’ve written over the years. I’ve already had people say that they want to come [as surprise guests] and say a few words and do stuff.
Victoria: The Practical Theatre birthday party is in the grand tradition of the old theater, which is whenever there wasn’t a show, there would be a rock party where people could sing or dance or recite, or relax and listen. Or participate. But it’s not as tightly choreographed a show as our comedy revues. So that will be fun.
Dana: The summer revue is going to be a blast. We’re going to revisit some things that we’ve done before and add new things. We’re looking forward to the radio show that’s coming up the first weekend in April. We did a radio format review a couple of years ago that worked really well.
Paul: Dana and I love films. We love the work of Larry Schanker, who we’ve known since college way back in The Meow Show. He’s such a talent. He’s going to do a night where he plays live to a series of silent comedies by Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. We’ll talk about each of those artists, what they meant to us and how they affected our notions of comedy.
Dana: Larry Schanker will improvise a music track like they used to do one hundred years ago, and that’s really cool and really something to see.
We’re also bringing in Richard Henzel, who’s a wonderful actor in town. He is also taking part in our Shakespeare’s birthday party on April 23rd. I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I will be there and pitch in my non-scholarly approach to Shakespeare.
Victoria: We’re going to do some really risky things with the Shakespeare birthday that I cooked up. Richard Henzel is a friend of mine from way back. We did Feiffer’s America at the Northlight way back in the 15th century together. I invited him to recite Shakespeare because who’s got a better voice? I called him up out of nowhere and without hesitating, he said, “I’ve always wanted to do something with the Practical … just send me the rehearsal schedule.”
I’ve written a compendium of all the worst swearing in Shakespeare that we’ll read as an ensemble. No one swears better than Shakespeare. We have five words in English that really bring it home, but Shakespeare has 50,000 words to tell a person that they’re brainless.
There are so many really cool evenings coming up. Carla Collins is one of my favorite female comedians in L.A. We invited her to do an evening of comedy with Emilia, our daughter, who wrote for Veep. And then there’s another great Chicago comedian who will be in that threesome lineup, which will be a very, very high quality and fun evening. And of course, getting Larry Shanker involved whenever we can.
This season, we also want to add a sequence where we say, “Here’s a sketch we did that didn’t make it to the final cut,” and have the audience vote [on whether we should include it]. Literally up until opening night [of the Revue], we were fighting over the running order. Some stuff we liked best had to be cut for time and to keep the show light and moving. I like the idea of having an improv moment where audience members get to take sides in the debate over what makes it and what doesn’t. We love to break the fourth wall and feel that crackle of excitement when we get the audience involved. We want to do more of that.
Teme: Are there any surprises you can tell me about?
Paul: During our Post-Pandemic Revue, we felt that the transition between sketches took too long. For our next revue, instead of us moving the furniture in the dark, we’ll have dancers who dance our furniture off. Even the transitions will be entertaining.
Dana: We may have a special guest or two for the summer revue. The Practical Theatre family is broad and wide, and we have friends on either coast so there’s always a chance that we could yank somebody in and force them to work with us again.
Victoria: Believe me, there are probably surprises I don’t know about. Our schedule is set in stone now, so any surprises will exist in terms of how we approach each of those evenings.
Teme: Do you have a favorite kind of character to play?
Paul: I like characters where I can bring a different physicality to each. I find something in each character, so that when I walk out, the audience sees right away that this character is something new like, “Oh, hey, we haven’t seen this before.”
Dana: We have a couple of sketches set in academia. I always like to play an academic in an old school, buttoned up, sixties era, Second City type of way, and respond to Paul and Vic being more maniacal in their characters. I like to put on a dark suit and a thin tie like I’m in the sixties, and go retro comedy. Those guys were my heroes. I also like to get silly. One of the sketches I really enjoyed doing in this last show was the one that we called the “Lucky Burglar” where Vic and I are a married couple playing out a scenario for the sex therapy handbook. That was a lot of fun to do.
Victoria: Well, I like language, so I always like an opportunity to yell at somebody. And political sketches are my absolute favorite. I would say my favorite kind of character is a character that gets a lot of laughs however we have to do that.
THE PRACTICAL GETS PERSONAL
Teme: What are some of the guiding principles in your life and comedy right now?
Paul: The first guiding principle is that comedy is essential in our lives, certainly essential in my life. I couldn’t live without it. When I’m watching the news, my first reaction is not to scream at the TV, but to make a joke about what I just heard. It’s part defense mechanism, part survival technique, but it’s also where I find the most joy.
The other thing is that the Practical Theatre has always been about the love of theater. We don’t always have to be doing comedy. Before we get [a piece] in front of an audience, we’re not going to listen to too many people saying, “Oh, I don’t know if you should do that”, or, “Maybe that’s going too far.” We’ll hear all that, but as long as we believe it works, and as long as we believe our hearts are in the right place, we’re going to do it.
Dana: To be self-effacing. To be truthful. To absolutely point out the absurdity of aspects of modern life that I think everybody is struggling with. The noblest quest, I think, is to take the pants off the ridiculous things that we’re faced with day to day as adult Americans in this particular time.
Victoria: Paul always used to say, “We want to change the cultural consciousness.” That was a very ambitious thing for a young man to say. We want a forum to express our concern about some political subjects, but with a sense of celebration about the community coming together to reckon with that.
We got some flack about that sketch about political correctness in the math department. The idea was that we are so woke now that there’s nowhere you can go to escape it. Not even in the world of numbers. With the best of intentions, a very talented young filmmaker and actor gave us a note about our joke, “What is one plus one?” And Dana says, “Two.” And I said, “Well, what if one plus one identifies as three?” The person who gave us the note wanted us to remove that line. I said, “You absolutely don’t understand. It’s a legit confusion.” We left it in. Having the conversation is therapeutic as long as we’re mindful of not hurting anyone and simply expressing the confusion that we all feel about some of the political and social issues of the day.
Teme: What question would you like someone to ask you right now and how would you answer it?
Paul: “Why do we still do it at this age?” The answer is that artists don’t retire. There’s work I do, especially in television, that may taper off, but working in the theater will never taper off. The roles are there. You can play them at all ages. It’s a great experiment for us and an adventure as we get older to explore what we can do in this format that’s generally associated with young people.
If you were there [at the Post-Pandemic Revue], you know that we were not the only gray hairs there. But the younger people who come also enjoy it because they get it and because it’s funny. There’s nothing better than going somewhere and laughing for two hours with a bunch of people around you who are laughing. That’s the other thing. In this post-pandemic world – hopefully post-pandemic – it promotes good mental health. It’s just nice to be laughing in the same room with a bunch of people.
Dana: It would be an interesting question if somebody asked me, “Where do you see comedy going from here?” I would say I hope it steers itself back to where it used to be, because everything is so “dangerous” now, with cancel culture. I feel like people are so quick to be offended, and I think that’s a huge mistake for everybody on so many levels. I hope comedy circles back to where it used to be, where we can all take a second to laugh and not be offended and not be so damn serious and sensitive about everything. For God’s sake, how can you go through life, especially in this day and age, and not laugh? That seems to me a very sad, dark and weird place to go.
Victoria: “Do you have any regrets?” I don’t know if I would like that question, but I’m at the inevitable point when you start asking yourself that, as you get a greater sense of your mortality as you revolve around the earth. Paul and I were looking at each other the other morning and we said, “Do you have any regrets?” Things could have gone a number of different directions over the course of our lifetimes. And we said, no, we don’t. We’re lucky. Nothing is perfect. We suffer just like the next guy, but as long as we can see the twinkle in our eyes and in the audience’s eyes and we’re so lucky to have the collaborators that we have … No, no regrets. None.
THE PRACTICAL THEATRE COMPANY’S 44th SEASON
Studio5 is located at 1934 Dempster St., Evanston
April 8 & 9, 8-10 p.m. Practical Radio Theatre on the Air
A comedy revue in an old-time radio show format — with hand-made sound effects and other classic radio craziness! Vic & Paul & Dana perform with special comedy and musical guests, accompanied by pianist Larry Schanker, the Practical Theater Company’s original musical director. Tickets: $30 for general admission, $40 for cabaret seating.
April 15, 8-10 p.m. A Practical Birthday Party
The Practical Theatre Company got its start on April 11, 1979, at Shanley Hall on the campus of Northwestern University with a performance of Clowns, a play about two improvisational comedians written and performed by artistic directors Brad Hall and Paul Barrosse. To celebrate the PTC’s 44th birthday, the company rekindles the joyous spirit of their parties at the John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street, with songs and performances by PTC members backed by Steve Rashid & the Studio5 All-Stars. A night of singing, dancing, laughter and cocktails! Tickets: $10 for general admission, $15 for cabaret seating.
April 23, 8-10 p.m. The Bard’s Birthday
Victoria Zielinski hosts a unique celebration of Shakespeare’s birth with readings from his plays and sonnets — and original comedy sketches inspired by The Bard of Avon. Tom Mula, Richard Henzel, Paul Barrosse and Dana Olsen will join Victoria onstage to perform selections from the greatest body of literary work in the English language. Come celebrate the 459th birthday of the incomparable Bard of Avon with an evening of classic poetry, drama — and of course, comedy! Tickets: $20 for general admission, $25 for cabaret seating.
April 30, 8-10 p.m. Silent Comedy with Larry Schanker
The brilliant pianist Larry Schanker plays a live score for three short silent comedies by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Hosted and with commentary by Victoria Zielinski, Paul Barrosse and Dana Olsen. Tickets: $15 for general admission, $20 for cabaret seating.
May 13 & 14, 8-10 p.m. Stand-Up Comedy Night Hosted by Dana Olsen
The Practical Theater Company presents a night of stand-up comedy featuring Emilia Barrosse (who has written for HBO’s Veep and the truTV sitcom Tacoma FD) with veteran comedy festival performer Josh di Donato and, from Los Angeles, Carla Collins — honored as the 2015 Comedian of The Year by the Southern California Motion Picture Council. Tickets: $15 for general admission, $20 for cabaret seating.
June 15 to July 2, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 8-10 p.m. The Summer Vic & Paul & Dana Revue
Featuring Victoria Zielinski, Paul Barrosse, Dan Olsen and Steve Rashid & the Studio5 All-Stars, plus a troupe of talented dancers — this sophisticated adult comedy revue will combine classic PTC sketches with new material and songs for an evening of comedy that will start the summer off with lots of laughs. Tickets: $35 general admission, $50 cabaret seating.