“I can’t tell you how incredibly, outrageously funny this show is.” So said Ann Randolph about her solo show Loveland, which recently opened at Arena Stage as part of its Kogod Cradle series.
When you talk to someone about the project they are working on, they are usually enthusiastic about the piece and encourage you to come and see it. Occasionally, you experience something more intense, a sense that the person believes in the value of a project and its achievement with more ardor than usual. It’s not just the normal “come see me do what I happen to be doing.” You get the feeling that it’s something the person will be talking about, long after the final performance, just as passionately.
That’s the feeling I got from Randolph. And if it seems self-centered for a performer to feel that way about something she not only performs, but also wrote — well, the piece involves an unusual amount of audience interaction. In fact, there’s a writing workshop after the performance. And Loveland ran in San Francisco for two years. That’s right, for two years.
At the beginning, Loveland was an exercise in “anticipatory grief: the fear of losing my dad. My dad was dying; my mom had a stroke and started drinking for the first time. The grief was overwhelming. I’m always writing about what is significant in my life,” Randolph told me. “How the show came to be was as a way to get through the loss. My coping skills got out of control.” She mentioned both eating and “hooking up with old boyfriends.” As it turned out, “writing was the most valuable tool.”
Randolph noted that “in general, people shy away from talking about deeply painful experiences.” What we find most challenging, we tend to hide from, “especially death.” She used, as an example, “the language we have around it. ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ for instance, and other pat ways of talking about it. It’s hard for people to feel, at such a challenging time, that they can share their story.”
So how does Randolph process grief into something that is “outrageously funny?” That begins with her family. She described how her parents, in the very midst of their experience, were “very irreverent” and very funny, and she gave some examples. Her mother: “Don’t have so-and-so sing at the funeral. I don’t like her, and she sings off-key.” Her father to her mother: “You got me in my grave before I’m even dead.”
Loveland runs about 70 minutes. Randolph takes a short break of five minutes or so after the show and begins the next component. She then spends about 25 minutes conducting a writing workshop for those who want to stay. How did this concept come about, I asked? She said that people would wait in the lobby after the show and tell her stories related to the themes of the play, stories they had never shared before. That post-show engagement with the audience started her thinking.
Frannie Potts is the chief character Randolph plays. (She also plays many other people Frannie encounters on her plane trip home to attend a family funeral.) “She’s unable to face death at the top of the show.” The audience finds Frannie “so vulnerable, so outrageous” that they think that they can share their own stories.
“I teach writing, and I love it as much as I love performing. The show rips the lid off all those taboo things and gets people talking about their own stories.” She thought, why not do a writing workshop in the theatre? The workshop component has been done at alternative spaces, universities, smaller venues, one-night stands, but the Arena engagement will be the first time the workshop is part of the evening during an eight-show-a-week run.
I spoke with Randolph the day after her first preview at Arena. So how did it go? “It went great. I had a ball! About half of the audience stayed and wrote. Some got up and shared their stories. There were stories of really traumatic loss, stories that were deeply personal. Some stories were funny. I was laughing and crying with the audience as they shared stories. It’s an incredibly moving experience.” And, she pointed out, with the play proper and the workshop afterwards, it’s like getting two evenings of theatre for the price of one.
The title, by the way, is the actual name of the town in Ohio Randolph comes from. Does the name operate on another level? “Another level is that landing in love is the only way to get her through it.” With such obvious autobiographical aspects to her work, I asked if Randolph’s mother has seen the show? “She loves the show.” Randolph took the show home and performed it as part of a fundraiser for Loveland Stage Company, the local community theatre, whose building had burned down. “The whole town came out.” She spoke about the strangeness of seeing her kindergarten teacher in the front row during a scene in which Frannie has sex on the plane.
Her father died two weeks before the show opened in San Francisco, but he got a preview: “I pulled back the privacy curtain to do sections of it for him in the hospital.” Frannie’s mother is a hard-drinking chain-smoker. Randolph explained that she only used some aspects of herself as Frannie and her mother as Frannie’s mother, but certain embellishments notwithstanding, “the emotional truth is there.” Randolph said that her mother doesn’t smoke, as Frannie’s mother does, but is still drinking at her nursing home.
Randolph talked about why the show was such a success in San Francisco. She stressed again the strong audience reaction: “they cried, they laughed, most of the time uncontrollably. The depth of the piece is so identifiable, the way the character deals in such an open, raw way” with what she’s going through. “In the beginning, she’s hard to deal with. She’s the last person you’d want to sit next to on a plane. At the end, you grow to love her, you see yourself in her. The audience goes on the same ride. People went crazy over the character. The divide between Frannie and the audience disappears. It’s total love and identification.”
How (based on the tiny sampling of one preview) do D.C. audiences compare with those in San Francisco and L.A. (where it also played)? Very interesting answer: There was apparently one joke that went over like gangbusters in Ohio, but didn’t do so well on the West Coast. It “worked so beautifully in D.C. D.C. laughed so hard! There’s something about the sensibility. I thought it would work here and it did; there was a resonance with it.” Making clear that she understands that we’re not a small town, nor a midwest one, she said San Francisco was “too politically correct” to laugh at it. She went on to say (her long run there notwithstanding) that “the last place comedians will go to do a show” is San Francisco or, worse, Berkeley. “D.C. has more wiggle room.” That said, “I had a ball there” in San Francisco.
And now, the “amazing story” that brought Randolph to Arena Stage.
She teaches at Esalen Institute, a place she described as facilitating creative exploration of mind and body and spirituality. Taking her program “along with all these kids” was an 80 year-old Baptist preacher named Fred Taylor, who leads the Church of the Savior here in D.C. He made quite an impression on her; he worked 30 hours a week, along with the others, doing jobs like scrubbing floors along with participating in the programs. As the others in the class presented tales about blow jobs, anal sex, incest, and abuse, Taylor, who she described as a gentleman, “had never heard stories so raw, so exposed. It pushed his envelope.” Though he had come expecting to hear stories of a more positive nature, what Taylor learned in the end, Randolph told me, was that he saw “God in the irreverent and the profane. God inhabits all of us.”
Taylor was extremely enthusiastic after seeing Loveland and told Randolph that he knew someone on Arena’s Board. He wanted to use that connection to bring her show to D.C. That Board member, Richard W. Snowdon, went to Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith. Randolph then heard what she always hears: send the script or a DVD. But that doesn’t work for her: “Comedy you have to see.”
So her response to Smith was, “I know you’ll book it if you see it.” And, Smith agreed, “took a risk,” and Randolph got very do-it-yourself to make this audition of sorts happen. She bought a plane ticket, sold tickets on brownpapertickets.com, and handled reservations, while Arena supplied “the incredible technical staff.” Between Arena getting out the word and Taylor inviting his congregation, Randolph did the show to a packed house. (Randolph was also invited during that jaunt to D.C. to give a sermon at Taylor’s church, which she described as one that was a little more “irreverent” than what the congregation was used to, but which was warmly received.)
Anyway, after the elaborate audition, Smith came backstage and said that she loved the show. So, a couple of years later, Randolph is at Arena for a run of several weeks, and she’s thrilled to do the piece at such a prestigious regional theatre.
Closes April 13, 2014
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
1 hour 15 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $25 – $40
Wednesdays through Sundays
During an early run of Squeeze Box, a colleague at a writing workshop told her, “I’ll bring my in-laws to see your show.” It was, to say the least, a surprise when those in-laws turned out to be one of Hollywood’s power couples — Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Bancroft was entranced: “I love this character. I want to make a movie of it, I want it to go Off-Broadway.” The couple became very hands-on: “Mel helped me shape it down to 90 minutes. There was no middle-man; I was working with them there, at the house.” The bittersweet result was an Off-Broadway opening the year that Bancroft, this “incredible mentor,” was succumbing to cancer. “It was heartbreaking. She died the year the show opened in New York.”
Bancroft was an actor of many facets: ingenue, dramatic actor best remembered for her Annie Sullivan on stage and screen, sophisticated femme fatale in her other iconic role as Mrs. Robinson, and a gifted comic actress who did Neil Simon and, of course, Mel Brooks. She was also, with her landmark television special Annie, The Women in the Life of a Man, an important part of a female sketch comedy continuum that runs from Imogene Coca through Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner to Tina Fey. (I saw the show in the 1970s. My favorite skit was Bancroft playing a somewhat clueless auditionee who sings “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” for a bewildered Lee J. Cobb. Bancroft’s character doesn’t realize that the point of the song is that you need to pronounce the words differently to make the song funny; she pronounces tomato and potato the same each time she sings them.)
Knowing Bancroft’s work, but without having seen Loveland — though having gotten a taste of it from this video trailer
I feel as if I can see what it is about Randolph’s work that would have engaged Bancroft.