If you were asked to make a shortlist of the icons on Sixth St., it might look something like this: drunk students, eccentric street personalities and Esther’s Follies. Two of those help inspired the moniker of "Dirty" for this particular downtown bar scene, but the last one has added plenty of class — with a dash of bawdiness — to this mecca of Austin entertainment.
The big, colorful theater on the corner of Sixth St. and Red River is just as vibrant as ever as it enjoys its 37th season of entertaining locals and out-of-towners. Musical numbers, magic acts and skits — with biting comedy and satire threaded throughout — are the signatures of the weekly shows. Keeping things current and fresh provides some unique challenges, and opportunities, for the resident writers of Esther’s.
"In general, we have the luxury of time to work on stuff to make sure it’s actually funny before we put it up," says writer and performer Ted Meredith. "But there’s also that pressure to keep things fresh and put in new stuff."
Fellow writer and cast member Shaun Wainwright-Branigan adds that timeliness can also be on their side. "Very often, the novelty of when you write like a medley song of something that just happened that week, it doesn’t have to be so funny because it hit that week, but two weeks later you have to find a really funny punch line or write something new."
Politics, both national and local, are the show’s bread and butter when it comes to comedy fodder, but the writers don’t expect the audience to know the ins and outs of the Beltway or the Pink Dome.
Wainwright-Branigan remembers how head writer — and the only non-performer of the writing team — Steven Baranowski told him "our audiences generally aren’t newshounds the way we are." Meredith agrees. "Unlike The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, we can’t just spend the first minute explaining what the story is and then give you the joke; you already have to be kind of on the same page."
Once a joke and a punch line are nailed down, the challenge of incorporating them into an entire song and dance number, such as Esther’s signature medley of parody songs, starts. The time devoted to writing those medleys can change each week. "Some of them just come right out and they go up, and some we have to hack away at for a while or we have to wait until more people know about it," says Meredith.
While Esther’s caters to new audiences each week, the writers account for returning fans who yearn for classic performances, like co-founder Shannon Sedwick in her trademark role of Patsy Cline singing "She’s Got You." Says writer Donnie Loa, "Even though it’s all brand new stuff, people actually come back and they’re like, 'I want to see that! I told everybody about this!'"
The goal to bring back fans — with new and classic material — is something that writer and performer Matt Hislope says sets Esther’s Follies apart from other productions. He says, for much of the audience, Esther’s "might be the only theatre they see, and that’s far different from the people going to the theatre every weekend [who] are really interested in contemporary performance."
Adds Meredith, "There’re lots of people up in Williamson County for whom this is their dirty little secret."
August marks the beginning of Esther’s Follies’ Hot, Hot, Hot August Show!, which runs Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets to the "dirty little secret" with a 37-year history can be purchased online.