Political theater and Elizabethan comedy collide tonight in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Will on the Hill” performance.
More than 15 Members of Congress will join notable journalists, including NPR’s Scott Simon and Susan Stamberg, the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and ABC News’ Rick Klein, onstage. Serving as this year’s professional acting anchors will be Richard Schiff, best known for his performance as Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing,” and Tony Award nominee Veanne Cox.
The show benefits the theater’s many educational programs across the Washington area, including Text Alive!, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s semester-long theater and literacy program.
The program teaches students to critically and creatively engage with Shakespeare specifically and literature generally.
The students work with their teachers to adapt and produce their own version of the Shakespearean play they’ve spent the semester studying. Each group’s work is performed in a final production where they compete to be the opening act for “Will on the Hill.”
“[Last year] one of the schools was in my Congressional district,” Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D) said.
Her district’s kids performed for the packed house.
“It was a great night out for them,” she said.
According to “Will on the Hill” playwright Peter Byrne, the script the adults will bring to life will be “very meta.”
Byrne said he wrote this year’s theatrical treatment, “Speak the Speech, I Pray You,” after five years of watching organizers and the director of “Will on the Hill” bring together amazing performances after just one day of rehearsal and with last-minute adjustments to the production and script.
This year the play is about a fictional producer, a fictional director and the performers who are trying to pull off a charity performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“They only have the one hour to do it,” Byrne said.
And, spoiler alert, somehow the pack of zany theatrical characters manage to pull it off, while cleverly tossing off timely political quips.
“I will say that the people in the play are not nearly as nice and sporting as the [evening’s] actual performers are,” Byrne said.
For fans of farce, this show will be analogous to “Noises Off.”
Still, however fun the plot may be, the evening’s draw is watching lawmakers — including Edwards, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) — stand and deliver lines and jokes pulled straight from headlines and political issues at the center of Washington’s consciousness.
To help stick the zingers, Byrne is getting an assist from the guys at West Wing Writers, a Democratic speechwriting firm with a penchant for political humor, for a second year in a row.
“I write the script in full,” Byrne said. “I hand it to them and, basically, they do a punch-up.”
“They’ll say, ‘This reference is a bit broad; let’s make it more specific,’” he said. “And then they bring the script back to me and I invariably say, ‘That’s funnier.’”
Still, Byrne’s a writer, not a saint.
There have been about five or six jokes where he asserted his “diva privilege” and said, “Actually, my joke was funnier.”
But, for the most part, the collaboration between playwright and speechwriters is ego-free.
“Their work is so good,” Byrne continued. “As an author, especially as a playwright, it’s always a collaborative effort.”
Two of the West Wing Writers partners, Jeff Shesol, former deputy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and Jeff Nussbaum, former speechwriter for Vice President Joseph Biden, take the lead on the “Will on the Hill” script revision. “It’s unlike anything else we do around here,” Shesol said. “We’re here to lend our Washington perspective.”
“And that may be the first time anyone’s copped to having a ‘Washington perspective,’” he quipped.
“We live here and we work here and we know the audience,” he continued.
And the jokes reflect that.
“There can be a problem of writing the skit too soon,” Byrne said. “Last year, we performed the day after Osama bin Laden was killed.”
The playwright and the speechwriters immediately inserted mention of the mission and bin Laden’s death into the evening’s show.
“It felt like we had to acknowledge it in some way,” Byrne said.
“This year the jokes have primarily focused on — pardon the pun — the primary,” he said.
For those who expect to hear jokes poking fun at the Secret Service’s not-so-secret Colombian pastimes or the General Services Administration’s Hawaiian vacations, don’t.
“We want to be funny, we want to be up to the moment,” Shesol said. “[But] there’s a limit to how edgy you get in an event like this. The dynamics are very different from the White House [Correspondents’ Association Dinner and] the spirit of this evening is a little different.”