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Iowa City actor, professor, comedian and playwright Megan Gogerty was having a terrible, horrible, very bad year. So of course, she turned it into a one-person show, which will launch Riverside Theatre’s first full season at its new home in downtown Iowa City.
Titled “Chipmunk’d,” the world premiere, directed by collaborator Saffron Henke, opens Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, and continues through Oct. 2. It’s billed as “the play for when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
But as soon as he saw a Zoom reading of the script last December, Adam Knight, Riverside’s producing artistic director, knew it was the right show for right now.
“The play just immediately struck me as a story that I wanted to hear, and I wanted Riverside to share,” Knight said. “It felt like it captured so many of the questions we’re asking right now: When things are good, waiting for the bad things to happen. When things are bad, wondering why. Feeling like we’ve finally figured things out, and then things take a wrong turn.
“In some ways, it’s a COVID play that isn’t about COVID at all, because I think it’s about this time that we all seem to be going through and these questions we all seem to be asked. And it’s funny,” he added with a laugh.
What: World premiere: “Chipmunk’d,” solo show by Megan Gogerty
Where: Riverside Theatre, 119 E. College St., Iowa City
When: Sept. 9 to Oct. 2; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $35, Riverside Box Office, (319) 259-7099 or riversidetheatre.org/chipmunkd/
COVID protocols: Masks required
Content warning: Appropriate for adults and older teenage audiences. Contains adult language and mature themes.
Artist’s website: megangogerty.com/plays
Just when the pandemic shutdown couldn’t seem to get any worse, a dead-looking chipmunk in Gogerty’s backyard rallied long enough to bite her as she scooped it up in a plastic bag.
“I was like, ‘Well, this is stupid.’ And I had to go to the ER, because it broke the skin. I don’t want to spoil it, but a lot of absurdities came out of that,” Gogerty said. “ ... So the title ‘Chipmunk’d’ is a metaphor for chaos — like, what's going to happen next?”
That biting incident provided the genesis for the play.
“I had a really terrible year — 2021 was just chock-a-block with calamities,” said Gogerty, now 47. “Some of them were really dramatic. And some of them were just really stupid.”
Like breaking her leg roller-skating.
“I’ve had so many dumb calamities,” she added. “The first calamity, you go, ‘OK.’ By the second calamity, you go, ‘All right, this is bad luck.’ But by the third, fourth and seventh calamity, you start going, ‘What’s going on here? Was I born under a bad sign?’
“I found myself living in this crouch, where I was waiting for the hammer to fall, like, ‘What’s around the corner? What’s the next calamity that’s going to hit?’
“I thought about how I’m having this feeling for very specific, individual reasons, but it’s also a feeling that I think a lot of people can relate to in these pandemic times, right? We’ve all suffered through this pandemic the past couple years, where we’ve been living in this sort of constant state of dread and what’s coming -- and we don’t know.
“So I wanted to write about that. But I also really wanted it to be a comedy. I really feel like my audience needs and deserves to laugh their butts off,” she said.
“It has been such a hard couple of years, especially for the theater community, but really, for everyone. When I write plays, one of the things I think about is, well, what kind of play do I want to see? Because I think if I want to see it, then maybe other people might want to see it, too.
“I’m really hungry for a comedy that makes me laugh and cry at the same time. I just really want to get all my feelings out. So I thought, ‘Well, I’m a comedian. Go forth, Megan, let’s make it.’
“So it’s a play about existential dread, but it’s also a comedy about existential dread. I try to cram as many jokes in it as I can. I’m just trying to delight and titillate my audience as much as I can.”
Putting it together
The show came together quickly. No stranger to the art form, she said this is her sixth solo show, and she considers Riverside Theatre her artistic home. The last one she premiered there was “Feast,” in the fall of 2019. She did a few projects around the Corridor in 2020, before turning her attention to formulating “Chipmunk’d.”
“Riverside has always had a history of betting on me as an artist,” Gogerty said, noting she always felt supported by Riverside’s founders, Ron Clark and Jody Hovland — who stepped down from their leadership positions in 2015 — and from Knight, who took the reins in 2018.
Gogerty began writing the show in earnest in the fall of 2021, and called the early draft that Knight saw in December “still kind of a hot mess.”
“And he’s like, ‘Not only are we going to put it in the season, we’re going to open our season with this play.’ That's how much Riverside believes in me, and I don’t take that for granted,” she said.
“I know that relationship is rare, and I’m so grateful. That is in part because Riverside audiences are so loyal. People are coming out to see me and to support Riverside in a way that is just humbling and heartwarming, and makes me feel really excited. It makes me want to give them my best work.”
Her days and nights are full, with teaching, doing standup comedy, and keeping up with her husband, two children and a dog. So she writes in bed in that sweet spot at 6 a.m., when everyone else still is asleep.
Otherwise, “you have to fight them all off with a pitchfork,” she quipped. “When I get the impetus to write, I barricade my time. ... The other thing that helps me a lot is I’m a real deadline writer.”
Gogerty is on her 13th draft of this script, which she hands off to “a small army of close friends” in the business who know her, know her work and will be honest with their observations. Among that trusted group is her husband, Chris Rich, who is Riverside Theatre’s technical director, and her director/collaborator, Henke.
“I think directing a one-person show is a particularly thankless job, because the director’s fingerprints are invisible,” Gogerty said. “But she has done such an extraordinary job with this play. She is pushing me.
“In some ways, ‘Chipmunk’d is a return to form for me, but in other ways, I'm breaking new territory, in part from Saffron urging me on. She has, I don't want to say coerced me, but she has mentored me into trying new stuff that I have never tried before,” including some technical razzle dazzle from husband Rich.
Employing a traditional “proscenium” theater configuration, all audience members will be sitting in rows in front of the artist.
“They do it that way, in part, because we want as many people to see the show as we can. I want to sell out every show if possible. It is my attempt to bring a little joy to this time — tell the truth and amuse the audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Give them a gift.”
It’s a gift she hopes to keep on giving. She’s trying to figure out how to tour the show around her class schedule and other obligations, but wherever she goes, she said she hopes people will laugh and “recognize themselves.”
“My art really is funny plus feelings. Comedy plus real heart,” she said. “It’s a romance. It’s a little bit sexy — it’s not R rated, but it’s like nine o'clock on network television. ... It’s a play about and for grown-ups; I use the word ‘penis’ more than once.
“It's a sexy comedy about dread.”
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