College roommates sometimes come up with fantastic ideas. Not my roommate and I — our greatest idea together was mixing rum with white wine, which we called Caribbean chloroform, and the result was one chipped tooth and our having to replace our dormitory floor’s fire extinguisher. It is good to see that students today are doing better than that, as exemplified by the efforts of the founders of Slap Happy Studios.
The thing began in 2015 when University of Minnesota students Erika Bloomdahl and her roomie Beth Ann Powers were leisurely kicking around ideas after class one day, and rather suddenly conceived a play that they wanted to produce. It wasn’t unnatural for them to do so — Beth Ann was then studying for her major in theater, and Erika had already cut her teeth in scriptwriting. They outlined a script in only four hours, and shortly thereafter were joined by Erin Cargill, their stage manager and production designer, and Rachel Chevremont, their social media coordinator. With so little quickening, Love and Idleness was quickly born.
“We both loved Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said Erika, “and we wanted to modernize it to focus on the play’s darker aspects and bring up unresolved issues from a new perspective. For example, in a couple of scenes Helena was treated pretty poorly by Demetrius — I don’t know many girls who’d keep going after a guy who told them ‘I am sick when I do look on thee.’ We didn’t feel her reaction was very reasonable, especially given that he had threatened her with violence, too, so we wanted to explore how we could refocus the story with new feminist points of view.
“We love faithful productions of the classics, but we feel that reimaginings like Love in Idleness are important as they make themes like Shakespeare’s more accessible to people who might be put off by his relatively strange language. Taking chances with old treasures doesn’t harm the source material, it only risks presenting what makes them beautiful to a whole new audience.
“After Love and Idleness, we all hit the drawing board together, which is to say we joked around and threw out ridiculous ideas until something clicked with everyone. Somehow the Bechdel test especially captured our imaginations. It’s basically a set of three criteria that measures how women are represented in fiction: Are there at least two female characters with names, do they talk to each other, and, if they do, is it about something other than a man? This conversation developed into the The Bechdel Show, a sketch comedy show which incorporated diverse gender experiences that the mainstream media often neglects such as LGTBQIA+ issues, emotional intimacy between men, and the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’ a female character who suddenly pops into a man’s life, turns it on its side, and then disappears just as quickly.”
(At this point in my conversation with Erika, I realized that my favorite movies including Predator, John Carpenter’s The Thing, For a Few Dollars More, The Shawshank Redemption, and Emperor of the North all fail the Bechdel test miserably, if only because there are virtually no female characters in them. I would have included The Devil Wears Prada in my list, but it neglects important themes like being hunted by an alien or walloping Ernest Borgnine off of a moving train car with a fireman’s axe.)
After tackling such deep subjects, the Slap Happy crew took a lighter turn with their production of Punk Rock Sock, a show which utilized sock puppets to explore the meaning of just what it is to be punk, replete with laundry-themed parodies of punk rock songs. The play taught audiences that “no matter their knit, pattern, or purpose, anyone can be a punk.”
“Last year, somehow the idea of whether Bigfoot is real or not overwhelmed us,” continued Erika. “It opened up a conversation about the ridiculousness of conspiracy theories, and why we believe what we want to believe. This led way to Footprints, where a reporter from Seattle ventures into a small town in the Pacific Northwest to investigate some strange goings on there. Things start going wrong very quickly, as there’s a cult sacrificing people to Bigfoot in order to protect their town, but the whole thing was actually very campy, an homage to terrible camp B movies.
“Like it usually does, that project gave way to a lot of new interesting ideas to flesh out. Right now we’re working on The Last Santa, definitely our wildest production yet, in which it turns out that Santa isn’t one person at all, but rather an entire species of Santa-like creatures who have to overcome global warming in order to save their habitat, their toy factory, and ultimately Christmas.
“What we’d love is for Slap Happy Studios to become a full-time nonprofit operation, where we can always perform and share with the community. That’s a little ways off — we’re just in our fourth year now, and the thing’s only alive at the moment because we all love it so much. We’ll have a lot of fun growing until we’ve all made it.”
You can learn more about Slap Happy Studios and their upcoming productions on their website slaphappystudios.org, which has links to all of their social media. They’ll be quite worth keeping an eye on — at the pace they’re going at, the scopes of their future plays will defy anyone’s abilities of summarization.
By David Scheller