The United States has a long tradition of sketch comedy, with origins in vaudeville and later popularized on radio and eventually on television shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Carol Burnett Show from the 1970s. Ty Boice and Cassandra Schwanke, formerly of Portland’s Post5 Theatre, are keeping the tradition alive in Yamhill County under the banner of Gigglefest, an occasional and limited-run comedy-sketch series that returns Thursday for an April run.
The couple’s Soul of Wit Productions launched Gigglefest last summer with four weekends crammed with more than two dozen performances, with a new “episode” each weekend. Tucked into a makeshift theater in Mac Mead Hall (a “Viking-themed” mead-and-honey-wine bar that hosts game nights and is one of the city’s best-kept secrets) on the second floor of the Union Block building in downtown McMinnville, Gigglefest sold out night after night, winning friendly reviews on Facebook.
It was a strong start, Schwanke told me, but it was also too much.
“We bit off more than we could chew,” she said. Having a new lineup of comedy week after week took a toll, given that the comedy duo was doing everything from producing and writing to hanging flats and setting lights. But with a generous sponsorship by local arts-supporter Ronni Lacroute and some visiting guest artists from New York and Portland, Gigglefest worked.
“It was an insane ride that totally paid off,” Schwanke said. “Everyone was so ecstatic that we were in town because there isn’t anything like that here. So it was really well received. But we recognized that had we bitten off a less, we could have made better-quality comedy. So that’s what we’re doing this time.” Gigglefest 2.ohhh! is pared it down to two episodes, she said.
I met Schwanke in 2000. She was in high school when we appeared in Gallery Theater’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank (she was Miep, I was Dussel). She grew up in Dayton, then headed to the University of Oregon to study biology, but switched to theater. An instructor, she said, played a key role by making her realize that theater and performing were not simply an excuse to play. “He made me realize it wasn’t frivolous,” she said. “Even doing a comedy sketch. It’s not frivolous, what artists do.”
Between there and here, Schwanke earned her MFA at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, earned her equity card (playing Desdemona in Othello kicked her points over the threshold), and worked in small films and commercials in New York City before spending a couple of years traveling the globe. She visited nearly 30 countries before returning to the Portland area, where she met Boice.
He’s originally from Medford and was first bitten by the theater bug seeing a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Schwanke got involved in his Post5 operation, and they made plenty of theater together. She played Lady Macbeth and directed his Malvolio. She also played Beatrice while he (naturally) Benedict. After a few years, family considerations brought them to Yamhill County.
Interestingly, Schwanke learned along the way that she was more of a “process person” who enjoys creating rather than performing. While she was on a train seeing the world, she started writing comedy.
Venturing from deep-blue Portland into a rural, red county to poke fun at everybody was a balancing act last summer, but it worked. “We learned that this community really loves comedy,” she said. “They’ll come out for it, and we don’t have to hold back. We were worried about our audiences in this area — being in a smaller town than Portland or Seattle — that we would hit some triggers and offend some people, but it didn’t come out that way at all. So we’re taking the gloves off this time.”
The giggles begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 4, and the show runs four weekends, with the first episode running through April 14 and a new series kicking off April 18 and rounding out the month. Stand-up comics will warm the crowd up every performance. The shows contain adult themes and language and are not intended for the easily offended or those younger than 17.
Gigglefest 2.ohhh! tickets may be purchased online or at the door starting 15 minutes before each show (some nights have two shows) or online. Climb your way to Mac Mead Hall, (405 N.E. Third St., McMinnville) up the stairs just to the right of Union Block Coffee.
BREAKING POETRY NEWS: Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford’s April 4 visit to McMinnville is expected to draw such a crowd that organizers have changed the venue since last week’s column on National Poetry Month appeared. Instead of reading at the monthly Poetry Night at The Gallery at Ten Oaks, Stafford will appear beginning at 6 p.m. in the roomier McMinnville Public Library. Bethany Lee will provide music, and an open mic session follows.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.