As we in Silicon Valley sit by our screens mourning Twitter and wondering how long TV shows will be delayed by strikes, gifted theater professionals in our own backyard have been hard at work creating content in tune with this moment in time.
Now playing at 3Below Theatres, Thanks For Playing! The Game Show Show, from San Jose Playhouse, comes as we are becoming more conscious of the ethics, practices, privilege and scandals behind television storytelling. The story mixes comedy, nostalgia, trivia and history all wrapped up in a musical theater package.
“It’s so much fun,” says Shannon Guggenheim, who co-wrote the show with her husband Scott, the show’s director (though there are many Guggenheims in the play, Shannon is the only one interviewed here).
Shannon also stars as plucky protagonist Frankie, an everywoman called forth into an alternate reality, where her hopes and dreams are played out like the many beloved televised games that Thanks For Playing! satirizes. As the story progresses, audiences meet producers, directors, hosts and b-list celebrities that shuffle, thwart and support Frankie through the plot, whose stories are affected by the choices they make.
There’s even a little bit of audience participation—though no need to worry, if that thought gives anyone hives. The participants are usually subscribers who know it’s happening, but it’s still fun to watch. We even got a little game card to play along at one point.
When working on the concept, the producers realized “game shows have been a part of our lives since childhood,” Guggenheim says, the kind of programming that kept them company on sick days as they grew up, shows like Wheel of Fortune, Price is Right and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Although they set out to write something light, they quickly realized there were larger ideas to explore.
“What’s important? Is the prize at the end of the show what’s important or is it the steps you take along the way?”
The story plays with this theme and others, like glass ceilings, meddling sponsors and keeping secrets. While the show is “nothing beyond PG-13,” Guggenheim promises, there is a bit of bawdy innuendo and bleeped-out swear words.
Live, she handles the material with great timing and a lovely voice. Our leading man, Stephen Guggenheim (Scott’s brother), with his own knockout pipes, plays American TV producer Bill Todman, a fictionalized version of a real-life historical figure.
There isn’t a weak link in the six-person cast of professional actors. Ric Iverson is particularly memorable as Fred “Trip” McMurray—another historical figure, portrayed here as comic relief with some skeletons in his closet.
In the end, the team aimed to give the South Bay a show suited to today, one with plenty of spirit and humor, strong characters and funny songs but one that lets audiences “have something to ponder on” at the end, says Guggenheim.
As of today, the team has been working on and tweaking the show for nearly a decade, having raised an impressive $50,000 through KickStarter to finance and workshop the piece at the RetroDome—to enthusiastic reception. About 30% of the current show is brand new, Guggenheim says, with many of the original actors reprising their roles.
Both the music and the onstage games are reminiscent of familiar game shows a lot of us grew up with, like The Price is Right, the Match Game and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. The 1950s and ’60s had Americans glued to their sets watching game shows like a national pastime. After all, there was a lot going on that people wanted to escape from—just like in these turbulent times.
It’s no secret that local theaters across the country are in trouble. As Shannon says, “If people don’t come back to theater, it won’t be there for them when they’re ready to.” Recently, both the Tabard Theater in San Jose and Jewel Theater in Santa Cruz have stopped holding live theater. That’s one reason that 3Below and San Jose Playhouse are trying to diversify their offerings, hosting films, sing-alongs, food—even classes. With Hollywood on strike, one of the best ways we can support artists is to do so locally.
In an area this rich with award-winning, hard-working, content-creating wizards, it’s as easy as tuning in, and stepping right up.
Thanks For Playing! The Game Show Show
Through Aug 20, Various Times, $25+
3Below Theaters, San Jose