As cofounder and leading lady at 1812 Productions, which bills itself as the nation's lone non-improv troupe devoted exclusively to comedy, Childs has painted Philadelphia's often-serious theatrical palette with streaks of laughter and splotches of silliness. Currently, she is directing 1812's production of Jeffrey Hatcher's comedy "To Fool the Eye," which opens Wednesday and runs through March 3 at Drexel University's Mandell Theater.
Not that Childs ever envisioned her life unfolding this way. Making a life onstage wasn't even in the picture, at first.
"I was really intent on being a doctor. I loved doing theater, but I never thought about it as a career," she said during a break in a recent "Fool the Eye" rehearsal.
But during a family trip to London when she was in high school, "I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was the first Shakespeare I'd ever seen - 'Henry V' with a then-unknown Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. And I went, 'Oh, my God! I had no idea theater could be this.' I came back and realized I am really terrible in science and math, so I shifted focus."
The Columbus, Ohio-bred Childs came here to study at the University of the Arts, a first step, she figured, toward a career as a Shakespearean actor.
"If you'd ask me where I'd be now when I started [UArts], I would have said, 'I'm working for the Royal Shakespeare Company,'" she said. "It was my dream and actually, after school, I moved to London for a while under the delusion the Royal Shakespeare Company was waiting for me. They weren't. So I bartended there and saw a lot of great theater."
Things didn't improve once she returned to the States. "I was lost for a little bit," she admitted. "I really wanted to go back to London, but I didn't have the money for it. So I thought, 'I know people in Philadelphia. I can move back there.'"
Childs returned to Philly in part because it was familiar, but some surprises were in store.
"In the '80s, you really couldn't make a living in theater in Philadelphia. When I came back in '91 . . . the Arden [Theatre Co.] had opened. There were smaller companies popping up. People were starting to use local actors, and it became possible to not just work here, but have a life here."
Still, the town was supposed to be a way station for the ambitious young actress. "I thought, 'I'll stay here until I get my [Actors'] Equity [union] card.' New York was never a calling for me. It was always London, maybe Chicago. But once I started working, I wasn't being cast in Shakespeare; I was being cast in comedy. I discovered not only did I really like it, I was really good at it."
During those early years, Childs lived at 1812 Pine St., a stately town house she and her cohorts turned into "kind of an artists' flophouse." Among the residents was Pete Pryor, a fellow UArts alum who today serves as associate artistic director at People's Light & Theatre Co. in Malvern.
"We lived there five years with a rotating crop of actors and painters and sculptors and filmmakers and theater people," she recalled, laughing. "We always say it was a place where we had nothing, but made something out of nothing, and we were laughing a lot and being young and doing our thing."
The "something" was 1812 Productions, which she and Pryor formed in 1997 and named, of course, after their address.
"We looked around and thought, 'We're good at [comedy]. It's a powerful tool. We wish there were more of this happening in the city,'" she said.
A year after its founding, 1812 won acclaim for its production of "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)." But it wasn't until 2000 that Childs really found her groove with her first original work, "The Big Time."
The self-described "research nerd" went to the Library of Congress "and exhumed all these comedy routines. The earliest one we used was from 1893 up to the '30s. Half [the show] was old sketches, and the other half was in the style of vaudeville, which was big on singers who couldn't sing, dancers who couldn't dance."
The idea of talentless performers led her to conceive "The Siberian Ballet Company." It featured ComedySportz stalwart Dave Jadico and local theater superstar Tony Braithwaite. Childs and Scott Greer, to whom she has been married for 14 years, portrayed the ballerinas.
1812 Productions took off from there, with Childs, who counts among her influences Burnette, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg, leading the way as performer and writer. It is the latter role she most cherishes.
"It felt like I was firing on all cylinders. Since ['Big Time'], I've made over a dozen pieces for the company. As I've gained more confidence as a writer, using other people's material is of less and less interest to me."
What does interest her is vintage comedy. As such, many of her pieces - including "Like Crazy Like Wow," about 1950s nightclub comedy, and "Double Down," on the history of comedy duos - are historically rooted.
And while she relishes playing the clown, her work is not just about the laughs. "I like comedy with a heart," she insisted. "My work is really presentational. I acknowledge the audience. I don't do a lot of things where there's a fourth wall, no kitchen-sink sitcom kind of things. It's very much 'We're all here in a room together. I acknowledge you.'"
Her peers and reviewers have acknowledged Childs. She was nominated 11 times for the now-defunct Barrymore Awards, which saluted achievement in local theater (she won for supporting actress in 1996).
"She is an incredibly talented actor, writer and artistic director," said veteran reviewer Howard Shapiro, formerly of the Inquirer and recently named theater critic for WHYY-FM (90.9).
As for her future, Childs, the mother of 9-year-old Lily, harbors no great desire to spin her local success into national or international gold, though she'd love to find a wider audience for 1812.
Being a big fish in a smaller (if growing) pond suits her just fine.
"This is not to say I wouldn't accept it if they came knocking," she admitted, when asked about aspirations to do TV or film work. "I've done some independent film, but it just doesn't do it for me as much as theater. There's just something about that live exchange that is so vital."
Mandell Theater, 3201 Chestnut St., tonight-Sunday and Feb. 28-March 2, times vary, $28-$38, 215-592-9560, 1812productions.org.