Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 22, 2017

Capitol Steps 2017

One-on-one interview with Mark Eaton, co-writer
Cranwell, Lenox, MA
by Shera Cohen

Tell us a little about your background.  I started with the Steps back in 1993. I was still working on the Hill [D.C.] and joined the group as a part-time performer. I may have been the last staffer the Steps could find who could sing and dance. Then I lost my mind in 1999 and decided to do this full-time.

Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?  You just never know which will come first. You might have a couple ideas for a song, and have to hit the rhyming dictionary which might then spark a cover tune for the idea and lyrics. Other times you might be driving and hear a song come on the radio, and your brain instantly changes The Byrds “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man” into “Hey, Mr. Tangerine Man.”

How do you know when you come to that thin line between humor and blasphemy? Fortunately for us the audience is the ultimate arbiter of what is or isn’t funny, and what ultimately stays in the show. We have written plenty of things we think are outlandishly funny only to perform them before stunned audiences.

But we aren’t trying to be outrageous or blaspheme anybody. We are trying to be equal opportunity offenders who go after both sides of the aisle in an attempt to make people laugh. Because if we don’t laugh at some of this stuff, we will certainly cry about it.  

When do you feel it’s time to retire one sketch and replace it? The show changes as the headlines change. There are sometimes songs/skits that are gangbusters, but only for a brief time. The story is gone too quickly. And others we are forced to retire simply because we’ve done them so long the audience may have seen it a couple times. But fortunately for us there is never a lack of material. The American voters have been very kind to us in that regard.

I would imagine that working as a writing team is difficult. What is the process? The hardest thing is keeping up with the craziness of D.C. But unlike the way most folks imagine it, we don’t sit around a table and spitball ideas. Elaina Newport (one of the founders) or I am typically to blame for the material. We might write an entire song, send it to the other person and ask “what do you think?” We might tinker with a different joke or leave as is. Other times we might not have more than an idea for a chorus or half a song that doesn’t have a solid ending. The other person might punch it into the end zone.

Do you have particular characters in mind when the actors/singers are cast? When we have auditions we do require performers to be able to do some “voices” and, more importantly, be able to sing in that voice. If you can talk like Donald Trump, but can only sing like Pavarotti, it would be confusing! So somebody might be singing “My Way” for their audition, and we might yell “now sing it as an angry terrorist.”

Is there a conscious effort to balance White House stories with global issues? Absolutely. As mentioned before, we try to go after everybody.   There is way too much going on – besides at the White House – that deserves to be mocked.

Are there any anecdotes to tell us? One of our favorite stories was performing for George Bush, Sr. at the White House. Well, the staff told us to not do any material about him. We had plenty of material to do such as VP Dan Quayle. After the show, the President walked to the stage and announced, “Now I want to see the stuff about me,” and returned to his seat. Well, we scrambled about and did all the material about him, and he loved it. He got it! Being made fun of goes with the territory when you enter politics.

Performances: June 30 – September at 8pm, except Tuesdays

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