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Jeff Griggs Brings Red, White and Blaine from Waiting for Guffman to the Chicago Stage

Theater fans will finally have the opportunity to hear (part of) their favorite movie live.

In 1997, Sony Pictures Classics released Waiting for Guffman, the second in a now-storied series of mockumentary films directed by and starring Christopher Guest. A loving parody of the universality of community theater, Guffman was set in the fictional town of Blaine, Missouri, and followed the flamboyant director Corky St. Clair (Guest) as he attempted to put on the (fake) musical Red, White and Blaine to celebrate the city's 150th anniversary. With an eccentric cast populated by Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, and Bob Balaban, the film's climax hinged on whether or not a theater critic by the name of Guffman would attend one of the performances and review the piece well enough for it to move to Broadway.

Cut to 17 years later. Chicago-based improv performer/director Jeff Griggs has finally brought Red White & Blaine to life onstage. The production of Chicago's iO Theater plays weekly on Saturday nights in the Chris Farley Cabaret from November 15-December 27. Griggs chatted with TheaterMania about how this new show will pay homage to one of the theater community's favorite movies.

Top: Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, and Christopher Guest in a scene from the film Waiting for Guffman. Bottom: The moment re-created in Red, White and Blaine by the iO Theater company.
(© Sony Pictures Classics; Jeff Griggs)

Many theater fan calls Waiting for Guffman one of their favorite movies. The idea that you're putting Red, White and Blaine onstage is very exciting.
It is for me, too. I watch it four or five times a year. You do realize the irony of this phone call, a big New York City theater-type person calling this small Midwestern director about their show? Pretty hilarious.

How did this idea come about?
A few years ago, I was performing with a group in Alaska, and as we were sitting around a table, I mentioned that I'd like to turn the actual musical into a production. Someone across the table dropped their fork and said, "You have to promise me that at some time you will do it." It came to be that we had a good time to put it up at the new space at iO. I thought why don't we just do it, and I grabbed some of the best improvisers in town.

In the actual film, we only see snippets of the musical. How do you translate that in real life?
We have this delicate balance of trying to put on a production about characters putting on a production, and trying to make it great, while still maintaining the charm of the fact that it's not a great production. The musical [on-screen] is only thirteen minutes. We put in a few new songs, some deleted songs, and have got it stretched out to fifty-five minutes. It's a two-act musical with a fake intermission.

Without giving too much away, can you give me a rundown of what happens?
We start out with the audience coming in and the characters milling about the theater talking to them as if they were members of Blaine, Missouri, coming for the sesquicentennial. Corky delivers a welcome to everyone and then he gets the phone call that [character] Johnny [Savage] can't come to the performance and be in the show and we launch into the musical. We have the intermission where it normally is, and we choose an audience member to come up onstage as the guy who everybody thinks is Guffman. If he says he is Guffman, everyone gets excited and Corky gets a telegram telling him that the person is a liar. Then, Corky has a breakdown and gets to sing a torch song, which is "I Hate You and I Hate Your *ss Face."

Are you able to work in some of the audition songs, like Parker Posey's "Teacher's Pet?"
We had to figure out a way to get those in; those are a huge part of it. Everybody wants to see that. I think we found a clever way to slide "Teacher's Pet" and "Midnight at the Oasis" in.

Why do you think Waiting for Guffman means so much to theater people?
For theater people, this is our Star Wars. This is our movie. Corky St. Clare is our Yoda, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia all in one package. This is a huge tribute from us and hopefully everybody will see it that way.

Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Christopher Guest, Parker Posey, and Eugene Levy in the Red, White and Blaine section of Waiting for Guffman.
(© Sony Pictures Classics)