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Behind The Scenes | Esther's Follies

Backstage with the cast who keep 6th Street laughing.

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At Esther's Follies, sketches are in constant flux. And that's because sometimes the smallest change—one word, one comma—can make a huge difference in the laugh the joke commands. And laughter is important, explains cast member and writer Ted Meredith, perhaps none more so than the very first laugh. "Laughter is the best, fastest way to create a bridge between you and the audience,” he says. The best part? Winning an audience over: "There's nothing better than being onstage and having the audience in your thrall, so that they might laugh at things that maybe they didn’t think they would laugh at, and you can feel this connection you’re making with them.”

The cast at Esther’s Follies makes that connection 50 weeks a year, often to sold-out audiences in its historic 300-seat theater. Producer and performer Shannon Sedwick has been there through it all, for 37 years and counting. And she says the Esther’s audience has changed dramatically. “Our audiences now have all grown up learning about comedy,” she explains. "So it's not like when Esther's first started and just about anything would do. Now we have an audience that’s honed on all manner of comedy, so we have to compete with Jon Stewart and other people that are doing things daily—we have to find a new way to say something. That’s a trademark of Esther’s, writing with a twist, so that you don’t see it coming.”

The show is a mix of timely song, sketch, and magic that feel uniquely Austin. Magician Ray Anderson performs spellbinding tricks with busy Sixth Street as his backdrop, often leaving audiences to guess which passersby are in on the fun and which are simply revelers. Cast member Ellana Kelter acts as Anderson’s assistant, a role she never imagined for herself but says she loves. Though the magic doesn’t come without its risks: "Years ago there was a magic illusion that used fired, and by accident one of the curtains up in the catwalk caught on fire," Kelter says. "We were able to hose it down and get the fire out behind another curtain, thus keeping the show going. I don't think the audience even knew, but it was pretty ridiculous backstage.”

In general, Kelter says, because Esther’s Follies is live theater, the cast is always kept on their toes. They have to be, because the audiences just keep coming: "Esther's is successful because it is accessible," Kelter says. "They have a long reputation of being a very funny, topical show—there's truly something for everyone to enjoy.”

Esther's Follies, by the numbers

  • 13.5: Hours of writing/rehearsal each week.
  • 275: Average number of shows per year.
  • 45 minutes - 1 hour: Average amount of time it takes a seasoned cast member to prepare for each show.
  • 20 - 25: Number of sketches, musical pieces, and illusions per show.
  • 37: Years in operation. (April 1 will be the 38th anniversary.)
  • 2: Number of stopped shows.

During the Memorial Day Flood of 1981 they ended up having to shut down early—(Whole Foods famously flooded, along with other businesses.) John Travolta was at the theater that night to see the show, but the rain was so severe they had to end early. During another show, there was an electrical issue with the breaker system in the alley, and smoke crept into the theater, which caused someone working the lights to deploy a fire extinguisher, which then caused someone to call the fire department. "They arrived and insisted that everyone clear the room," Kelter says. "Other than that, we usually keep things going—there have been small fires, major injury, and all that, but we cover within the cast and get through to the end, usually without the audience knowing!"

Credits

Photography by Daniel Brock

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