Joseph Scrimshaw is a busy man. I catch him in an Uptown café, where he is sipping Coke from a bottle and generally looking as though he's enjoying a brief interlude of inactivity. Who can blame him? He's just come off writing and starring in The Damn Audition, the bestselling show of the 2010 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and starting this Friday he's opening Deadwood: The Last Bleeping Episode with his company Joking Envelope.
The cursing cowboys: Scrimshaw (left) and the cast of his Deadwood send-up
Deadwood: The Last Bleeping Episode Joking Envelope at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater; 612.825.8949
Scrimshaw gives a knowing laugh when I bring up the fact that "Fringe Favorite" has in recent years been almost a permanent lead-in to his name. With Joking Envelope, he's scheduled a full season designed to build on his summer success.
"Part of the point of forming the company and giving it a name is that there are mores to doing theater in this town that no one thinks about," says Scrimshaw. "But if you have a company name and a season, you're doing theater—rather than being that guy who does stuff once in a while."
While it's true that Scrimshaw's name on a show guarantees Fringe ticket sales and a stamp of quality (The Damn Audition boasted a stellar local cast, but Scrimshaw's script was also biting, acerbic, and crackling with wit), a downside is the festival's one-hour format. Trying to get companies in other towns to produce a one-hour show is difficult, Scrimshaw concedes. Such is his faith in Audition, though, that he foresees digging back into it and expanding it to two acts.
"Rewriting is almost construction work," he says, for the moment not bursting with enthusiasm over the prospect of returning to a play so recently completed. "It's a matter of going back in and moving where the support pillars are, so the second act isn't just tacked on."
Scrimshaw also mentions doing similar renovations on Adventures in Mating, an interactive choose-your-own-ending, audience-participation show that premiered at the 2005 Fringe and has since been produced in New York, Seattle, the U.K., and Bulgaria.
For Deadwood, Scrimshaw turns his comedic eye to a parody of the HBO western. "It's intelligent and really crass at the same time, so obviously that appeals to some of my sensibilities."
Indeed, in person Scrimshaw is low-key and thoughtful—in another life, perhaps the coolest high school English teacher you never had. He knows his stock in trade is colliding a probing, sophisticated outlook with a willingness to attack anything for a laugh. (It's the sort of high-low dichotomy that led him to name his company after a line from Viennese funnyman Sigmund Freud.)
Scrimshaw, who is co-writing Deadwood with Tom Poole, speaks with a hint of glee about the lofty and the lowdown in the material he's sending up.
"One of the main things about the show is how dense the swearing is," says Scrimshaw. "People who know the show and love it—diehard fans—they all ask about the cocksuckers, because it's infamous for using that word constantly. You'll have almost Shakespearean monologues, with beautiful imagery, but with all sorts of swearing mixed in. It has both beauty and harsh reality."
In addition to Deadwood, Scrimshaw is also playing local legend Dudley Riggs in next month's Brave New Workshop-History Theatre collaboration, Rigged for Laughter. And along with actor-director Zach Curtis, he's scripting the banter for the Ivey Awards this month. While he's not lacking for work, he sums up the goal of Joking Envelope in simple terms: "Comedy with ideas to it."
"I like a laugh a minute, but without cheating on the reality of the characters, and being willing to say something dark and true about the human condition," he says.
"Just smart things that are fast-paced and engaging. I don't think there's anything wrong with that flare of excitement—without selling yourself out."
It's a tightrope Scrimshaw walks with agility. If past performance is any indicator, Deadwood will be quick, smart, and aggressively goofy. Trash with class, you might say.