I recently saw the play Drunk Talk at the Dragonfly in Hollywood, and I got to say, it was pretty clever stuff. As soon as you walk in, you know you’re in for a different theater experience. The place is setup like a regular bar — McSwiggins — complete with bartenders serving drinks and what looked to be some drunks lounging on bar stools. Tables and chairs were set up facing the bar and people were just hanging out, waiting for the show to start.

As I stood at the bar, ordered some Scotch and waited for a seat, an old chatty dude in a Hawaiian shirt asked me if I knew what this thing was all about. He said he knew the bartender and he could get me hooked up. I smiled, told him I didn’t know much about what to expect and said no thank you to his drink offer.

Once everyone took their seats, the play started unfolding. The cocktail waitress at the bar continued to serve drinks throughout the show, but the bartender who served me my Scotch was actually Steve Sears, the actor who plays the Bartender and the old drunk guy was already-in-character Bruce Schroffel, who plays Earl, the old timer, loud-mouth regular drunk that you see in every bar.

As the show started, I thought this whole setup was pretty cool. Rather than being detached from the stage action, the audience felt like they were actual participants in the play. Cute girls in the front would get a surprise hand on the shoulder from Earl. Everyone was instructed to salute and drink whenever any character mentioned the word McSwiggins. At one point the cast members even passed out shots to everyone in attendance. A lively, interactive time was had by all.

The whole play was written as an outrageous, farcical comedy. Regulars at a bar lament over the fact that their beloved drinking hole is going to be shut down. Drunk talk ensues. Tobias Jelinek, who played Joe, was a total scene stealer. I also really liked the Mayor, played by Kim Estes. The entire cast pulled it all off, let everyone in on the action and made sure that everyone had a good time. You can’t really ask for more.

Drunk Talk was produced/directed by Thomas Blake, the LA and SF co-producer/director of the wildly popular “Point Break Live!” and written by Lance Whinery, who writes for the CBS sitcom Rules of Engagement and acted in the play as well. I had a chance to ask Lance (who also played Jerry in the play) some questions about the show and other fun stuff:

CS: I read that Drunk Talk was entirely conceived at a bar. Are the characters based on friends of yours or are they composite sketches of typical people you’d find at a bar?

LW: More of the latter.  It seems that there’s always that couple that constantly is on the rocks, the old timer vet, the guy chasing his dreams, the drunk flirt, etc…  I definitely knew the types and then they kind wrote themselves — though certainly a few jokes were based on actual conversations I’ve had along the way.

CS: The coolest thing about the atmosphere at McSwiggins is that the audience feels like they’re actually involved in the play. What was your inspiration for breaking down the audience wall and letting audience members in on the action?

LW: A lot of that came from Thomas Blake, the director.  He was really interested in doing something in that environment.  My first conception of the play was not that, more of just these ten people in an empty dive bar.  But after talking about it with him, we both got excited about really opening it up, making you feel that you yourself watching are practically a character.  Plus, it just seemed to provide a lot of different laughs that you could only get in that format. And, much like in a real bar, since you never know what could happen when seventy or eighty other people join you in the room, each show is a little different with how our actors deal with it.  People enjoy the idea that they aren’t going to see a play, they’re going to a bar where a play happens to break out.

CS: What the hell was in that shot you guys passed out to everyone? My guess is Tequila and Kool-Aid.

LW: That’s as good a guess as any.  I think it’s some variation of a Sex on the Beach but I could be wrong.  I wouldn’t expect to see them featured on any fine dining programs, but McSwiggin’s is a dive bar so I guess they fit.

CS: You wrote the play and you perform in it as well. What do you prefer, acting or writing?

LW: Acting is a ton of fun, especially when you get to work with so many talented and funny performers, but writing has been my main pursuit.  And since I often tend to write characters that come from my own voice, it’s easier for me to fall into those roles.  I probably would get a bigger thrill, however, from someone who said they loved my writing than loved my acting.

CS: How long did it take you to write Drunk Talk?

LW: I wrote the first draft probably in about a month.  Honestly, back in that bar when I was first discussing it, it was going to be a drama.  Then I came up with the ending and thought that would really be funny and realized this would play much better as a goofy comedy.  So I came up with the characters and kind of wrote it backwards.  But even now, I’ll tinker with jokes or try something different one night to see if it gets a better response, and of course the improv moments that change every night, so in a way, the writing is never quite done.

CS: What’s it like writing for a show like Rules of Engagement? How do you generate ideas and how is writing for a sitcom different than writing a play?

LW: TV shows are a great place to work, it’s basically about ten writers sitting around a table cracking jokes and somewhere in the middle of the day, someone brings you lunch.  Many stories are based on an actual event (usually less funny) from somebody’s life, and then the room will try to figure out how that could be funny with our characters.  All the writing is filtered through the head writer/Executive Producer of the show and it is all very collaborative.  The main difference is there I am at the bottom of the totem pole, trying to squeeze in a joke or two while the play is my baby where I get to be in charge.

CS: What are you working on now?

LW: Rules is my Monday through Friday job and I will be doing another script for them this season.  And Drunk Talk is my Sundays.  My other job is at various bars around the city doing, uh… research…

CS: Do you still do stand-up?

LW: I don’t do a ton of stand-up anymore, but every now and then I will pop up and do a set somewhere.  The cool thing about stand-up is you can write something and be up on stage that night seeing if anyone thinks it’s funny.  Though it is harder to blame someone else if it all blows up in my face.

Drunk Talk is extending it’s run, so if you’re in LA, go see it. You can get your $15 tickets at Brown Paper Tickets. It’s worth it.

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