By Kate Hamilton

Greeted by old-fashioned microphones, a piano, and an illuminated APPLAUSE sign, this February, the audience in the Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater was transported to 1940 to serve as the live studio audience for the Burns & Allen radio show.

John Wells Directing Fellow Rachel Karp’s It’s in the Bag used comedienne Gracie Allen’s prank presidential run to track female presidential candidates through history. The result? A play at once hilarious and poignant that captured the nuances of female political candidacy.

Adapter/director Rachel Karp  hatched the idea for It’s in the Bag’s in January 2017, while in class learning about presidential candidates Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood. This lead to an interest in exploring other female presidential candidates and the details of their campaigns.

Along the way, she came across Gracie Allen’s Surprise Party campaign and realized that Allen’s joke was the perfect framework for the stories she wanted to tell. Armed with the freshly realized shape of the play, Karp transcribed all 12 relevant episodes of the Burns & Allen Show. She immersed herself even deeper into her research, eventually gathering way too much material for a theatrical event. Karp shared that one of her largest challenges was cutting the material down and being forced to parse or replace some women’s stories with others. At a certain point, she realized that the play could likely have an alternate life outside of the theater to share all of the trials and tribulations she uncovered.

When the initial meetings with the creative team began, the early process involved going through the script to identify and understand the jokes. Gracie Allen was famous for corny puns and bits. After spending time with the script and leaning into 1940s jargon, the team began incorporating elements of the radio show form, like a foley table and special on-air guests. The radio show bits were intercut with projected footage of actual female presidential candidates. Actress Lily Ganser seamlessly toggled between Allen’s endearing ditziness and empowered embodiments of other candidates.

When asked about her artistic goals, Karp said that she aims to make theater that entertains, educates and encourages corrective action if audiences don’t like what they learned.

By that standard, It’s in the Bag was a success, especially in light of the media surrounding the upcoming 2020 election and its historically large pool of female contenders. Without being didactic, Karp’s piece demanded action.