RJ Hufnagel — by day editor of the USW@Work magazine and by night an “Off the Record” lyricist and performer — listens to a lot of music. Inspiration for the show’s storied parodies can come to him at any time.
“I was driving down the Parkway East toward Squirrel Hill when I heard ‘My Guy,’ ” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Hmmm, sounds a lot like AI.’ ”
Kismet! Artificial intelligence, a constant media coverage topic and source of much, much debate, inspired the theme for “Off the Record XXIII,” set for Thursday at the Byham Theater Downtown: “A.I. — It’s a Real Drag!” Proceeds mainly benefit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Hufnagel and producer Sharon Eberson don’t want to give much more away, but the songs and more will feature a sketch about the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette trying to rebrand the tagline “One of America’s Great Newspapers” using AI, bemoaning evil AI, supporting the drag queen community and lamenting those damned spotted lanternflies.
The 23rd edition welcomes back longtime KDKA-TV news anchor Ken Rice as emcee. This year, it will pay tribute to late Pittsburgh broadcasting legend Stan Savran and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, honoring his years of service to the region and his support of “Off the Record,” according to a news release. Christine Laitta, one of Pittsburgh’s best-known performers and a teacher at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts, will direct this year’s show.
Eberson said in addition to AI being a natural target for the show, she has been horrified at the threats to the drag community in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so she and the steering committee decided to include its support in this year’s show, building on sketches in last year’s show.
The announced cast — it includes some Pittsburgh media standouts, including Heather Abraham, Mary Ours, Jon Delano, Sally Wiggin and David Highfield, and Pittsburgh CAPA students as those lanternflies — is an ever-changing roster, she said. “One of the rules of ‘Off the Record,’ ” she said, “is that if you get a paying gig, that takes priority. We’ve had actors come and fill in with two days’ notice.”
The cast has been rehearsing at donated space in Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s West End site. Another assist came from a new venture — Create PA: Pittsburgh Film and Theater Works — created this year with state funding that has been helping with the production’s videos, Eberson said. Pittsburgh Public Theater and the Pittsburgh Film Office got together and pulled together a program to help film crews, film sets and backstage.
“They work with IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees], too,” Eberson, who has been with the production for about 13 years, said. “We have so many great partners — CLO provides our microphones, Public Theater — props and scenery. We have help from everyone.”
Hufnagel said Matt Freed, a longtime PG photographer currently on strike, helped write many of this year’s song parodies, along with former PG copy editor Samantha Bennett (who is the longest-running cast member at 20 years), Eberson and Maria Sciullo, another former PG reporter.
What is he looking forward to? “There is a scene honoring Stan Savran. The scene is going to be both funny and touching,” Hufnagel said. “A few memorable Pittsburghers who are going to be resurrected — via artificial intelligence — some memorable Pittsburghers. I won’t get into specifics so I don’t spoil the surprise.”
What keeps Eberson and Hufnagel coming back each year?
For Eberson, a former PG reporter, reviewer and editor, the biggest thing is the cast’s and volunteers’ camaraderie. She also is mindful of the show’s reach into the arts community she writes about as editorial director for the website onStage Pittsburgh.
“This is putting myself out there in the community instead of just supporting the arts through writing,” she said.
Hufnagel has been involved with the show since 2008, back when he worked in the PG newsroom, and he serves as assistant producer for this year’s version as well as being in the show. “Honestly, it’s all different, but it’s all fun, whether I’m on stage, in the audience [or] writing songs,” he said.
The news release reminds everyone that purchasing tickets to the show provides a great night of entertainment while supporting our neighbors in need. Every $1 donated can provide three meals for those with food insecurities in southwestern Pennsylvania. One in 10 of those in the region face hunger, and the need keeps rising.
“The Food Bank is so incredibly thankful to be the charitable beneficiary for ‘Off the Record XXIII’ and to be part of an event guaranteed to put a smile on your face,” said Lisa Scales, president and CEO of Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, in the news release. “These are financially trying times, and many of our neighbors are struggling. It’s so inspiring to see everyone come together to share a laugh and support our community in such a powerful way. Thank you to everyone who makes ‘Off the Record’ a success. You are helping make sure that every neighbor has enough to eat.”
Since its 2001 launch, the show has raised nearly $800,000 for the Food Bank, scholarships and other charities. The performers, whether professional or amateur, donate their time and talent.
“Off the Record” is presented through the collaboration of three local unions — the United Steelworkers, Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh/CWA, SAG-AFTRA Ohio-Pittsburgh — along with volunteers and generous sponsors including UPMC Health Plan, Bakery Square / Walnut Capital, ALCOSAN, Seneca Resources, Eastern Atlantic States Regional, Council of Carpenters, and Gatto Associates.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for preshow mingling, free light food fare and cash bar; curtain’s up at 8 p.m. Tickets: $80 (VIP), $50 and $30.