PIRATE King Shawn Pfautsch On Making It His Duty to Crack You Up

A most imaginative, re-imagined take of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic PIRATES OF PENZANCE will begin January 23, 2018 at the Pasadena Playhouse. We had the chance to chat with Shawn Pfautsch, one of the members of the Chicago theatre ensemble The Hypocrites, who will be performing in the role of Pirate King, in The Hypocrites’ wacky beach party version of the Major General and his zany crew’s exploits.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Shawn.

How’s rehearsals going for the Pasadena Playhouse production?

Rehearsals are going great – six hours a day of making a fun play with friends, old and new. We’ve put our PIRATES OF PENZANCE up almost a dozen times and those of us who have been with it all these years still have fun playing this music and cracking each other up. 

Is this your first time working/attending the Pasadena Playhouse?

This is my first time at the Pasadena Playhouse. Not only are we excited to visit a new theatre and a new audience, but it’s currently 24 degrees and snowing here in Chicago, so we’ll be extra happy to see you all.

How would you describe The Hypocrites’ version of PIRATES OF PENZANCE (vs. the original Gilbert & Sullivan edition)?

It’s really hard to describe in words! When I try to explain the show to friends who still haven’t seen it, I mention that it’s promenade style (you can/should share the stage with us), that we re-orchestrated the show for ten actors who play instruments (guitar, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, clarinet, accordion), and that there’s a bar on stage. And, that 300 shows later, even I still enjoy watching the show every night. Someone in Boston once remarked that Gilbert would have loved it, and Sullivan would have hated it, and I think that pretty much sums it up for G&S traditionalists! It’s silly and fun and a little bit different every night and I love it.

Have you experienced the more traditional production of PIRATES OF PENZANCE before?

I’ve never seen a traditional stage version of PIRATES (I have seen the Kevin Kline/Linda Ronstadt version on video, years ago), but… my grandparents were both classical singers and musicians. They brought me to many operas after I started taking voice lessons in my early teens. I was never a huge fan of the story-telling style of classical opera. My grandparents and I would get into debates about what I saw as staid staging, un-involved acting and interminable, self-congratulatory curtain calls.

But, then I saw a production of THE MIKADO at Ohio Light Opera in the late 90’s. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is fun!” It was a very traditional version, but it was still silly and charming and the performers were clearly having fun. It reminded me of the Victor Borge and PDQ Bach send-ups of serious music that my family also enjoyed.

When Sean Graney asked me to be in PIRATES; I thought of that production and Sean’s distinctive aesthetics; and didn’t have to think too hard about saying yes.

You’re playing the Pirate King in this Pasadena Playhouse production. You’re been an Ensemble Member and the understudy for Major General in earlier Hypocrites’ PIRATES, so you must know this show inside and out.

And I just got through playing Frederic in New York!

As one who’s inhabited different roles in PIRATES, is it advantageous to you to take all you’ve known about the show and just re-work everything for your new character? Or do you need to throw everything out and start from scratch from a new perspective?

My directing professor in college liked to remind us of the old quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” So, with that in mind, I’ve the immense fortune of getting to steal from some really talented performers while also being given a lot of leeway from Sean to make each role my own. I do like to imagine, though, that each character has a key element that unlocks them. For the Pirate King, it’s definitely the cigarette holder, which Rob McLean (who originated the role) and I like to refer to as “the character.”

In spite of their obvious differences, what characteristics would you say the Major General and the Pirate King have in common?

They’re both very clear about what their ethics are, are outraged when other characters affront those ethics, but then go ahead and break them without a second thought. To be really on-the-nose, both of them are hilarious Hypocrites. And they both like to tell Frederic what his Duty is. In fact, can I just change my answer to Duty? It’s all about Duty. Duty!

Since you’ve done both, which character type would you prefer tackling – the hero or the villain?

I’m confused, which character is which? In all seriousness, I do like a good villain. I can really indulge in some shmacting. Of course, with Gilbert & Sullivan heroes, I can also indulge in some schmacting. Can I change my answer to Duty?

How did you originally connect with Sean Graney and The Hypocrites? Back in 2010, right?

I moved to Chicago to start a theatre company in 2000, and one of the first companies I became a fan of was The Hypocrites. So, I’ve known Sean for a long time. But I didn’t work with him until I vocal coached his THREEPENNY OPERA in 2008.

So how does the company distinguish addressing you and Sean? Shawn P. and Sean G.? Or something more fun and crazy?

Heh! Good question. Unless Sean is saying “Shawn,” I basically ignore my name when I hear it at the Hypocrites. Mostly, they just call me “Pfautsch.”

I have a not-so-common first name also. So, when I meet another Gil, we have to carry on ‘comparing notes.’ Did you and Sean do the same when first meeting? Or have you run into a lot of other Shawns/Seans?

I know a fair number of Shawns/Seans/Shauns. But, yeah, it’s unusual enough that when I meet one, we “compare notes.” Strangely enough, I know a couple of Gils here in Chicago. Let me know if you want me to put you in touch with them!

Are you familiar enough with the Los Angeles theatre scene to compare it with your Chicago theatre happenings? Or the Boston theatre vibes?

When Chicago actors talk about Chicago, they say, “But we DO have lots of film and TV!”

When L.A. actors talk about L.A., they say, “But we DO have lots of theatre!”

When Boston actors talk about Boston, they say, “We pahk the cahr in Hahvahrd Yahd.”

Or something like that.

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling with this show is getting to know each city’s theatre scene and I’m excited to finally really get to know L.A.’s.

So which do you prefer – basking in the live audience responses with yourself onstage acting? Or sitting in the back of the theatre hearing the audience react to your written dialogue?

Ooh another great question! I like you!

It’s harder to enjoy moment-to-moment reactions to successful acting because it’s like you’re driving a car really fast down winding roads. If you stop to look around, you could easily fly off the pavement and explode. You have to keep focused ahead. That said, I actually find acting more healthy for my anxiety because I don’t have time to sit and worry that the next line is going to land correctly like I do when sitting in the back while watching one of my plays. But, when a joke or a catharsis that I wrote lands, I do a little dance. So… comme ci, come ca.

What is the next project on Shawn Pfautsch‘s radar?

Well… I’m glad you asked.

My play HATFIELD & McCOY opens January 28th back in Chicago at The House Theatre. It’s a pretty drastic re-write of a script first produced in 2007. It’s based on the idea that the only two books on the McCoy family mantle were the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. These were brutally intelligent and eloquent people and something about complete investment in those two books makes their feud make so much more sense to me. And in 2018, a story of gun-violence and domestic polarization feels even more timely than it did in 2007 (when it was first produced) to comment on the Iraq war and the Bush Administration. Matt Kahler (the Major General) collaborated on the music with me. He just wrote a beautiful love song for it that we’re very proud of.

So… I’ve been going to PIRATES rehearsals all day and HATFIELD rehearsals all night for the last few months. It’s a good problem to have, although I’m sad to miss opening night of my play.

Will the Pasadena Playhouse audience be hearing your musical strumming proficiency on the ukulele, guitar or banjo; by chance?

Guitar and mandolin! You’ll have to see our MIKADO to hear my mad sax skills

Thanks again for your time, Shawn! I look forward to experiencing your Pirate King exploits.

Thanks, Gil! Nice talking with you and I can’t wait to do my Duty in Pasadena!

For PIRATES OF PENZANCE ticket availability and scheduling through February 18, 2018, log onto PasadenaPlayhouse.org