By Mark G. Auerbach
When some staffers in the office of a Congressman planned a 1981 holiday office party entertainment, little did they know that their evening of skits and songs would grow into The Capitol Steps, one of America’s most successful and popular musical political satire groups. Today, Elaina Newport, co-founder of The Capitol Steps, has built a team of 35 actors, singers, musicians, technical crews, and support that perform 400-500 performances per year.
As Newport recalls, “Our first idea was to stage a nativity play, but in the whole Congress we couldn’t find three wise men or a virgin. So, we decided to dig into the headlines of the day, and we created song parodies and skits that conveyed a special brand of satirical humor.”
In the years that followed, many of the Steps ignored the conventional wisdom (“Don’t quit your day job!”), and although not all of the current members of the Steps are former Capitol Hill staffers, taken together the performers have worked in a total of 18 Congressional offices and represent 62 years of collective House and Senate staff experience.
“We were a very informal operation from our first show until 1984, when our boss, Senator Charles Percy, lost his re-election,” recalls Newport. “It was at that point that Bill Strauss and I realized this might be a career rather than just a sideline. So Bill started working with the Steps full-time. I stayed on the Hill for another three years, but left the Hill in January of 1988.”
The Capitol Steps set up shop in Washington, DC, as an incorporated business, and the company has grown into a full-time, year round producing and performing organization. Since they began, The Capitol Steps have recorded over 30 albums, including their latest, Mock the Vote. They’ve been featured on NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS, and can be heard twice a year on National Public Radio stations nationwide during their Politics Takes a Holiday radio specials. The Capitol Steps perform every weekend at the Reagan Office Building in Washington, DC, and several troupes traverse the country, performing on major arts series, in small theatres and clubs, and at conferences and conventions.
As the news business and the arts industry has evolved, The Capitol Steps have grown too. “We’ve had to adapt to a faster news cycle, that’s for sure,” says Newport. “Our audience knows a story right away and they expect the show to be updated to include the big news of the day. Of course, the good news is, we can also communicate so much faster with our performers. New songs or jokes can get to a performer in seconds – recently, I texted a joke to a performer while he was waiting backstage to make his entrance!”
Making it work
The Capitol Steps operation was built specifically to manage The Capitol Steps. Newport says “We have an entire office, ‘Capitol Steps World Headquarters,”’ I like to call it, which is staffed with seven people: (1) a Bookings Manager (2) a Poo-Bah of details, who puts out the cast schedule and plans travel, (3) a publicity person, (4) a technical person for audio recordings, (5) a “Prop Tart” who does props, wigs and costumes, and who also fills orders for CDs in her spare time, (6) a bookkeeper, and (7) me! And we use an outside payroll company and accounting firm.”
Newport found some of her best business advice from other laugh-makers in the business. “I read Tina Fey’s book and one thing she said she learned at SNL was that the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it’s 11:30 pm. So, you do your homework and everything you can to have the show as funny as possible…then at some point, it’s curtain time and you have to let it fly!”
She adds, “If your business is creative like ours is, it’s really important to have people who can take all of the other stuff off your plate. Good accountants and good lawyers. It’s really hard to be creative if you’re worried about the next tax filing!”
“My first job was in politics, and it was an interesting perspective because I really learned the importance of politics in business,” says Newport. “I’ve always looked for ways to thank the audience, like having the cast stay after the show to say hello and take photos, and to develop relationships with the clients. I’d pay attention to the small things like follow up notes or sending CDs after the show. When it came to press interviews, I would be just as willing to do the small college radio station as the big newspaper. It’s all important.”
Since Newport has been with The Capitol Steps from the beginning, one wonders what will happen to the troupe, if she decides to step down and retire. She replies “Oh, this is so much bigger than me at this point. There’s a whole corporate structure, dozens of performers, tech crew and support staff…I think they’d certainly carry on!” And, will The Capitol Steps ever run out of material? “When we first started The Capitol Steps, we worried that the politicians would someday become quietly competent and solve all the problems. We worried about that for, maybe, five minutes.”
That’s succeeding in small business.
At The Capitol Steps website, there’s a complete schedule of upcoming appearances, bios of the current performers (including Newport) and soundbytes of songs, and links to performance clps on YouTube.
Two clips that “showcase” The Capitol Steps:
Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.