Alums stage spicy theater fun
“Hidden Valley Ranch” on menu
Wheaton College graduates and siblings Patricia and Alfred McKeever have returned to campus this month under the auspices of the Evelyn Danzig Haas '39 Visiting Artists Program to present their play “Hidden Valley Ranch” at the Kresge Experimental Theatre in Watson Fine Arts.
The show they wrote, a raunchy, campy soap opera take-off, will be presented Thursday, Oct. 24, through Saturday, Oct. 26, at 9 p.m. It features a cast of 18 Wheaton students, and is one of three college productions this semester that will provide more than 40 students with the opportunity to perform on stage.
For Patricia and Alfred, it’s a return to Wheaton after more than a decade. After the pair graduated in 1997 and 1999, respectively, they bid farewell to their nearby hometown of Mansfield, Mass., for a destination common among their fellow theater majors: Broadway.
Like many aspiring actors, the McKeevers spent their days waiting in long lines to audition, and worked other jobs to pay the rent. Over time they began looking for other creative outlets, and, soon, they found one that tapped into their mutual taste for bawdy, fast-paced wisecracks: freelance comedy writing.
"We've always had it in our blood that we wanted to do something a little different, a little avant-garde," Alfred said.
The siblings found work in New York's eclectic late-night variety scene, penning jokes for drag queens like Shequida (from "America's Got Talent") and other performers. Before long they weren't just writing the jokes—they were delivering them on stage.
"In this business what you really need to be is a shape-shifter," Patricia said, "because if you're not getting work in one area you need to open up doors for yourself in other areas."
During one of their nightclub gigs, the McKeevers dreamed up “Hidden Valley Ranch,” a naughty comedy about the inheritance battle in a dysfunctional family after the death of the father, who made a fortune selling salad dressing. ("There were no boundaries," said Al, laughing.) They wrote a new “episode” every week, and enjoyed it so much that in early 2011 they devoted four months to condensing the 30 or so hastily penned skits into a full-blown 75-minute play.
Though they were pleased with the final draft, they didn't have the resources to mount an actual production—until now, thanks to the support of the Haas Visiting Artists Program.
In keeping with the nightlife roots of “Hidden Valley Ranch,” the curtain goes up on the performances at 9 p.m., a later start than the typical Wheaton production.
Stephanie Burlington Daniels '97, chair of the Department of Theatre Studies and Dance, applauds the siblings for coming back to Wheaton to connect with students.
"We are always looking for ways and opportunities to expose our students to all kinds of theater-makers who can share information about the life they have made in professional theater," Daniels said.
She hopes the experience will leave the students not only inspired but "also motivated to take ownership of their own work—not wait around for someone else to give them work."
Patricia agrees: "It's important to pass on to these students that you have to have your own voice as artists."
One of the cast members, Erika McCormack '15, said bringing in guest directors to produce an original work "shakes things up" for the actors.
"Patty and Al are fresh and full of energy," she said. "They are also comedic geniuses."
There is also a bittersweet element to the story of how “Hidden Valley Ranch” came to Wheaton.
The McKeevers' mother passed away suddenly last winter, and the siblings moved home to Mansfield to support their widowed father. After they returned Professor Daniels reached out to Alfred to offer condolences, and eventually she suggested the duo bring their talents back to the college.
"It's a little bit surreal, but it feels like coming home, honestly, especially in light of our mother's passing," Patricia said. "It feels very comforting."
Tickets are required but are free of charge, contact the Watson Box Office at 508- 286-3575 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.