In an archetypal Bloomington basement a few Friday evenings ago, a merry band of ten or so 20- and 30-somethings are actually not playing beer pong.
Instead, in the dimly lit glow of Christmas lights — wrapped around exposed pipes and ceiling beams like wild, multihued vines — this group is moving in a tight, almost cult-like circle, energetically pingpong-ing from exaggerated Santa bellows to darkly humorous quips about communist mind-control methods. This is just a warmup for the latest show by Sitcom Theatre, Trading Faces, an original play written by Sitcom Theatre co-founder Bethy Squires, in collaboration with Erin Tobey and Michael Barton, which premieres at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7), September 25 at The Back Door. Squires describes it as a “1950s sci-fi adventure story.” The event poster, designed by local graphic designer Brick Daniel Kyle, is complete with clever alien and UFO renderings that resemble scenes from campy ’50s sci-fi B-movies.
Sitcom Theatre is not a cult, to be clear; it is a close group of friends — a local, diverse theater troupe of bakers, printmakers, graphic designers, baristas, students, and teachers who, for the good of the organization, also moonlight as actors, scriptwriters, set designers, and producers, et al. Sitcom Theatre creates wildly experimental plays that span genres and time periods, with a tight lens on the absurd and cleverly bizarre. And though the group possesses a serious work ethic — rehearsing sometimes multiple times a week and writing new material between productions — a look at the banner photo on the group’s Facebook page, from a recent performance during Bloomington’s annual Fourth of July parade, shows that they don’t take themselves too seriously.
Squires, a teacher by day, runs the show. On a muggy, late-summer afternoon in her house, which doubles as Sitcom’s rehearsal space, she explains how the group was born in June 2014: “I was going to a lot of punk shows at the time…. The scene was kind of dominated by men, and shows could sometimes feel awkward. It just felt like something was missing.”
Squires phoned fellow show-goer and friend, an IU French-literature graduate, William McHenry, who felt similarly. One rainy day, the pair convened at Soma Coffee House, conspiring how to add a vehicle to the performing arts community that might ease their frustrations.
“Also, to be honest, I was just itching to get back on stage in some capacity,” McHenry says with a laugh, reminiscing on his theater background. While talking at Soma, they discovered a shared love of sitcoms ranging from The Brady Bunch to The Nanny and offbeat cartoon series like Bob’s Burgers and The Powerpuff Girls.
“We realized we wanted to try to create our own live sitcom, so to speak, and we liked what worked about all the shows we grew up loving,” Squires adds.
Sitcom Theatre was formed.
For the group’s debut show a few months later, Squires and McHenry recruited some friends to help with production, including Colin Jenkins, who worked on lights and sound. The result was a reimagined version of an iconic Friends episode. It premiered at Excess, an experimental performance art space that was once adjacent to Soma. Squires dressed in male drag as Chandler.
The show was Janelle Beasley’s first performance. She had met McHenry during a dodgeball game, and he immediately recruited her. “I was so nervous,” Beasley says. “It was my first time dressing up and playing a part. I wore a long blond wig, playing Jill Goodacre. I only had a few lines, but once I was out there, laughing, and being supported, it made me feel more confident. I mean, I’m dressing up as an alien for this next one, so I guess I can’t be too self-conscious.”
The show was packed, and Sitcom Theatre quickly found a supportive audience. It became a platform for the group to try out new ideas of improvisational theater. Now, says Squires, the group focuses exclusively on creating new material, such as Trading Faces and a musical-murder-mystery-paranormal-rom-com, performed last February, called Love Afterlife. But from the success of the Friends show came new group members, such as Tobey. “I just thought what they were doing was so cool, and their wacky humor was so in line with the stuff I laugh at all the time,” Tobey says. Part of the group’s support might also have to do with the company’s free-show/donation-based model.
“It’s low-pressure that way, and it kind of goes nicely with the ethics of the punk scene I’d been a part of,” Squires says. “Donations are encouraged, but no one is turned away for lack of funds.”
Another aspect of Sitcom Theatre’s shtick is how they often play up queer themes in their shows. “Camp plays a huge role in what we do,” Squires says. “It can often drive a funny point home in ways a more serious approach will not. It’s also important that I don’t actually write aggressively straight theater,” she adds, saying she often writes from a perspective that has queer ideologies in mind. “Drag is not uncommon in our shows.”
Though their plays often possess queer sensibilities, McHenry adds, they would not necessarily identify as a queer troupe, either.
“Even if you’re a straight, square kind of person, there’s something for you in our shows,” Jenkins says, confirming that audiences of Sitcom Theatre productions thus far have in fact been quite diverse.
“But we are a bunch of weirdos, and queers, and feminists, and people who really love and appreciate art,” McHenry says. “And me being queer myself, it’s also fun to play against type, so to speak.” In Trading Faces, for example, McHenry will be playing a hyper-masculine high school football coach and teacher, “which I’m so not,” he says, laughing.
And in the spirit of ingenuity, the group often designs their own sets and costumes. For the Fourth of July parade, for example, Beasley made a watermelon costume to strut around in and Squires made a costume with “Hero Astronaut” written on it. Their performance and float were eye-popping enough to gain press from The Herald-Times and the Indiana Daily Student.
Squires is an adaptable show runner, and the way she confidently works the room is not dissimilar from how a head writer of a popular sitcom might run a writer’s room. Barton and Squires often swap writing duties, but this time, Squires is the one directing. Think 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon character, played by Tiny Fey, sans crippling neuroses. Ideas fly around on what to add or take out, and the energy is always harmonious and collaborative. Squires takes notes in a Lisa Frank binder — it is worth noting that she actually is always writing down ideas.
During a rehearsal, Squires holds court in her living room to go over script edits while her high-spirited group members buzz about somewhat hurriedly. Actors in the show slowly trickle in. Beasley flits about with a feather boa and a gown her mom once made her for Halloween. Courtney Foster appears and lounges in a wooden chair beneath a black-and-white Kesha poster on the wall. After 15 minutes, they head downstairs to warm up. They gather in that tight cult-like circle and stage-whisper, “Fuck you, Martha,” erupting in melodic fits of giggles.
They quickly shift gears to a scene in a high school classroom setup. In this scene, Squires acts as a character who seems to be so out of touch that her classmates wonder aloud whether she’s human or extraterrestrial. “What do I do with these FEEN-gars?” goes one line. In another scene McHenry’s character barks orders to the misfit football players about the “fundamentals” of wearing “heterosexual butt pads.” There is also a meet-cute scene between Foster’s and Barton’s characters that finds the two trading lovesick sentiments about Stalingrad and “Lenin-grad,” said in unison.
“Some girl named Alicia tweeted at us, saying it was her favorite part of the parade,” says McHenry, reflecting on their Fourth of July parade performance. “We should totally dedicate the next show to Alicia, if she’s out there.” The room fills with laughter at the thought of Alicia being on the promotional posters for the next show, in lieu of press reviews.
Squires is laughing, too. “Actually, that’s a good idea,” she says. “I’ll write that down.”
Sitcom Theatre’s latest show, Trading Faces, is an original play written by Sitcom Theatre co-founder Bethy Squires, in collaboration with Erin Tobey and Michael Barton. It premieres at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7), September 25 at The Back Door.