It’s interesting that one of sketch comedy troupe ForePlays’ influences is The State, because that group has ten men and one woman. ForePlays is nearly the opposite, with all women.
On Friday, Stage Werks in San Francisco will bring an end to ForePlays’ current show, “This American Lie,” which has given the comedians a weekend night to showcase the talents of troupe members Kate Jones, Emma Rose Shelton, Nicole Hammersla, Ruth Grossinger, Meredith Terry, Rachel Rockwood and Jessica Mele.
“Lie” features a smattering of sketches inspired by a family dinner gone bananas to an elusive children’s book character. In between are performances by local female stand-up comics and musicians, giving the show a variety vibe.
ForePlays is an offshoot of PianoFight, a popular San Francisco theatre company with a couple hundred shows under its belt—and big plans for the future. “This American Lie” is bittersweet for the members of ForePlays, as two founding members, Ruth and Nicole, are stepping away from the group.
Nicole is heading to Los Angeles to pursue writing full-time, and I sat down with her, Kate and Emma at The Sycamore in The Mission to chat about ForePlays.
Corey Andrew: You’re used to performing in the Mission.
Emma Rose Shelton: Yeah, we’ve done it for the past year. February last year was basically our last show at Off-Market Theaters, kind of in the downtown area. PianoFight is in the process of purchasing the old Original Joe’s.
Kate Jones: We just signed a lease.
Emma: It’s gonna be like a bar and a restaurant and a personal space for us, different theatres, and a cabaret stage.
Kate: It’s gonna be amazing.
Emma: It’s a big project. We’re a little ways out from it. Stage Werks is a great in-between space for us.
Corey: How long has your group been together?
Kate: Since November 2009. A few of us were part of PianoFight more or less from the get-go. After a while of being a part of it, we wanted to develop a stronger female voice in the sketch world. It’s really great and abundant here, but it’s also a lot of men, talking about male issues. We basically got together writing pieces not with the intention of doing a show, just to generate material, and we generated some great material. We presented it to Rob Ready, the artistic director of PianoFight, and he said, ‘Great. Can you put a show up in a month?’
Emma: ‘Do it on Monday nights.’ We were like, ‘OK.’
Kate: We wanted to tailor it as specific as possible, so it was Monday nights, female driven, and we have variety in it, too—music and comedians. We made it so specific so there wasn’t anything like it.
Corey: Were there some challenges getting your voices heard with PianoFight?
Kate: They were pretty open and eager. They were very good about giving us the ground to do what we wanted. If we asked for help, they would give it to us, and when we didn’t need help, they were hands off. It’s been very supportive.
Emma: I don’t think it was a challenge so much as they wanted to make sure we knew what we were getting into. I think it was fortunate to have an outside eye that wasn’t part of the production team or writing the material. They could take a bird’s-eye-view, and they cared about the project and cared about us.
Kate: We were super fortunate to be part of PianoFight which is all about new work and new artists. So we happened to be with a company who had that mission.
Corey: Let’s talk about this show. How did it get put together?
Nicole: We had a break from our last show in September. We knew we had the stage space available at Stage Werks. So that was kind of the impetus of producing content. There were a lot of different types of sketches being written. ‘This American Lie’ turned out to be a theme that we saw come up in a lot of sketches.
Kate: We all get together and put out ideas to the group in what we call a riff session. We go around and throw out our two cents on it, and then we come back and keep riffing. Then we start drafting scripts. For the most part, we all write individually. Sometimes little groups will get together. For this show, ‘Waldo and Carmen San Diego,’ that was written by Nicole and two other girls.
Nicole: I came up with the concept, and we riffed around the table, and I wrote notes. Sometimes, along the workshop process, they turn into collaborations.
Corey: Once it’s a riff, you can improve it.
Nicole: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if this happened?’ It becomes a bit of a melting pot. I started watching (former MTV sketch show) ‘The State,’ and it became influential in the shorter pieces I was writing. Jess and I both started watching the shows, and it inspired us to not only write shorter pieces but have them connect. Have characters come back. That inspired me to write the first short pieces in the last show.
Corey: I love that The State inspired you because some of the generation performing now hasn’t seen that show, and I thought it was groundbreaking.
Nicole: I love how they tackle the absurd and how they really take those sketches to an intense level. That is something we had started to do before Jess and I had our renaissance with The State. It inspired us in different ways than Kids in the Hall or ‘SNL.’
Corey: How much drag casting do you do for a show?
Kate: We cast men in our shows.
Emma: Sometimes we’ll do drag for the fun of it. We’ve mixed it up, not for a lack of men, but, ‘You read that part so well.’ We have a wealth of men in PianoFight that have been great about working with us.
Corey: Where does your comedy come from?
Kate: I think one of the cool things about the group is we all write so differently and about such different things. I tend to write about things in my life, my take on things. Jess is very political.
Nicole: This show, I wrote six pieces, and I think all of them come from different places. Whether you read something in a magazine, read an article online. I was in a child’s book store and saw this ‘Where’s Waldo?’ book and thought, ‘Waldo in an existential crisis. Great!’ We did riffs, and Carmen San Diego came in. We did a rap last time called, ‘Boom Splat Onamonapia,’ and it was about grammar, and this time around I was seeing so much about the Affordable Care Act. So that became a new rap. There’s commentary about cafes and organic food in San Francisco and how that can be a joke. There’s a piece that was inspired by a family dinner that goes awry, and it’s based on my own experience.
Emma: As part of PianoFight, we’ve been doing these creative retreats. We’ll go away with 30 of us and generate creative juices. It’s a wide array of things: sketch ideas, film ideas, music ideas. It’s 48 hours of creative riffing. That’s helped a lot with what we’ve done.
Kate: It’s interesting about where ideas come from. I get creeped out by the ideas I have sometimes. I wrote a piece about a guy finding a lucky penny, and the penny ends up killing people. It’s amusing. How was that in my head?
Corey: But you had to get it out.
Kate: My mother was worried.
Corey: As well she should be.
Corey: Is there a healthy competition within the group?
Nicole: Super healthy.
(They all laugh.)
Kate: I think definitely. I think we all push each other. We have a sisterly thing going on, which means we are very, very open. If one of us knows another can write a better piece, we will push them to get to that point.
Nicole: Competitive isn’t a word I would use. We all want a good product. When you are passionate about something, you want it to be the best it can be.
Corey: If you had your druthers, where would you like to see the group go?
Kate: We would like to do a lot more online, videos. I’m from Chicago, and it sucks that my family and some friends can’t see what we’re doing. I’d like to bring it national. I’d love to make a name for it across the U.S., and producing new shows in this new space is going to be amazing.
ForePlays’ “This American Lie,” will be performed at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 5, at Stage Werks, 446 Valencia St. in SF. Visit pianofight.com/triplethreat for more information.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.