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Improvisations and Obsessions 

Lauren Weedman writes what she sees and says what she means

The idea of putting me on the phone with Lauren Weedman is, in theory, a good one. We're both playwrights who've worked at Boise Contemporary Theater. We're both girls. We're both funny. Or, at least, we try to be, which could mean (especially in a world where a Vanity Fair cover article entitled "Why Women Aren't Funny" can be taken seriously) that we are also both neurotic. There is only one real problem, and that is that we both talk like we write—throwing random things out until they coalesce and (hopefully) make sense. Generally, we end up somewhere, even if this somewhere is not where we initially planned to go. We feel fine about this. Never mind the insecure jokes. Unfortunately, our hour and a half on the phone, Lauren in Los Angeles, me in Seattle, resulted in five single-spaced pages of transcribed conversation, plenty of which make exactly no sense.

Since it's my job to make you feel as though in fact you were on the call with us, I'll give you a little background.

Lauren Weedman is the author and star of a newly commissioned play at Boise Contemporary Theater. She is (to take on another stereotype) a funny girl who isn't remotely funny looking. There is no physical something that forced her to develop her sense of humor. No wandering eye, no skewed once-broken nose. Weedman has longish wavy blonde hair, blue eyes and awesomely toned biceps. I eyed them jealously for two hours the last time I hung out with her. She belongs to that rare class of writer—the kind who is attractive enough to get mistaken for an actor. Of course, Weedman is an actor, and she's in a rare class there, too—the kind who is skillful enough to be mistaken for someone else, using no props, and no special costumes, just a precise gift for embodying the things that make each character human.

Bust, a semi-autobiographical account of Weedman's volunteer gig in a women's jail in Los Angeles juxtaposed against her less-than-charmed life in Hollywood, ran at BCT in January 2007 to rave reviews. In Bust, Weedman transformed herself into a slew of different characters, including the editor of Glamour Magazine, an incarcerated fraud-practitioner and a tough guard who had a lot to say about just how much contraband can fit into one man's ... I'll just leave that alone.

Weedman uses the raw material of her life and relationships to create something thoroughly unique. This is a woman who has no problem saying the things that girls aren't supposed to say. We all want to be the prettiest girl in the room. (OK, so not all of us have volunteered in jails in order to ensure that ratio). We're all mad, bad and desperate for love, and plenty of us have the same one-sided crush on Jon Stewart that Weedman did, though I can safely say most of us have never hopped up and down in front of him crying, "I just want to please you!" Though we might, given the chance. Still, most of us are not brave enough to admit publicly to our flaws, our lies and our obsessions.

Lauren Weedman is.

That's why I dig her, and I'm not alone. She has a resume that includes stints as a featured correspondent on The Daily Show, a regular on NPR's political satire show "Rewind," an off-Broadway run of her solo show Homecoming, and a book, A Woman Trapped in a Woman's Body. Lately, she's been writing "Inappropriate Girlfriend," (working title) a TV adaptation of four of the stories from her book, for Imagine Entertainment, 20th Century Fox and the Fox Network, and working on a new play for BCT. Unlike Bust, which premiered in Seattle and went through some evolution before it hit the boards at the Fulton Street Center for the Arts, the new play will debut here, giving Idahoans the chance to impact the final product. As in, if you're laughing at her jokes, she might keep them. If not, things could change. Suddenly.

"I improvise in performance," says Weedman. "I want to be affected by the audience's response. I'll try something for two or three nights and then add it to the script if the reaction is good."

Unfortunately for this process, at the time of our call, Weedman had just returned from a run of performing in a city where the reaction was ... um, nonexistent.

"The whole front row, which is basically onstage, was full of sleeping men," she says. "They didn't care that they were in the light and that I could see them. I could also see their wives tugging at them, trying to get them to wake up. It was like no one had told them that this was a live person performing. This is the bad thing about solo shows. I started wanting someone else to look at onstage, even if it was just someone with a cello or something. Someone to communicate with and say, 'It's not you, it's them,' when the audience started snoring."

The napping front row (hard to picture—Weedman is a powerhouse performer, along the lines of, say, an early, extra-nasty Lily Tomlin) made the show difficult and Weedman panicky.

"In Boise, I was able to find out a lot about Bust, because ... Matt [Cameron Clark] has built an audience that really wants to be there, watching theater, and BCT does challenging and diverse stuff. I've never felt audience engagement so strongly as when I've been there. Normally, I like the whole event of live theater. I like to feel like we're all listening, like it's a conversation ... and then I can change my performance to fit the audience. In (unnamed city of woe), though, I had to find a way that I wouldn't be bothered if someone's wheelchair brake went off and they glided onstage next to me, still asleep! Or if they, like, died in the first row. I had to disengage from the audience and put up a really strong fourth wall."

Weedman has mentioned that most of her work comes out of whatever she's obsessed with, and that lately, as in the above story, her predominant emotion can be encapsulated by the phrase, "What is wrong with these people?"

Frustration with the rest of humanity is a venerable vein for comedy, and plenty of comics have made entire careers using that single punchline. The thing I love about Weedman's work, however, is that it goes deeper than simple irritation. It attacks the aggravations and injustices of the world through the filter of Weedman's impatience with herself.

"That's what I mean," she says. "People are starting to look at me in a worried way, like I'm a grouchy old man. And they've started to call me ma'am. It's not good. No one can tell whether I'm complaining or joking."

It seems, however, that frustration is part of what fuels Weedman's creative process.

"How I used to write a new work, was that it was all obsessions. If I was obsessed with the fact that crazy people seemed to be really attracted to me, I'd write that down and make a show out of it. Even the jail thing was organic, because I knew I was going to volunteer anyway. I'll start writing moments of stuff, things that have been intense, characters, people, and then music that I've been digging, or art, even ... but I always want to find a story. To find a story is hard if it's not there right on the surface in my life. The play commission came up at a time when I knew I'd want to be creating something. What do I want to create, is the question? When I first start off and I get scared, I spend the first month thinking of crazy ideas, things I can't do, fueled by this fear of failure ... I start thinking I'll add stuff that worked from the last show into the new one. Like the joke about contraband hidden in a person's colon. For example. People laughed, and so I start thinking that I should add that to every show from here on out. It was during this time of crazy ideas, when BCT started asking for a title and a synopsis for their grant applications, that I told them that I'd be doing a show about gay adoption, and I'd be, like, a drag queen narrating it, and now ... well, that's not happening."

"Wait," I say. "We need to back up. What's this play about again?"

It's July as I write this, and Weedman has warned me that the stories in her shows don't usually coalesce until the third week of rehearsal, which means that sometime in October, she may be able to answer this question. I ask anyway.

"I think it's going to be about these 'new families,' in the sense of all my gay friends that are adopting kids. And people adopting kids that have problems. And then, parenting, coming into a family, into an unusual situation, and making it work."

"So, it's a show about nontraditional families?" I say.

"'Nontraditional.' I don't love that word. That's so broad and huge, and what does traditional even mean?" she says. "I'm 39, and I was thinking about having a kid this year. And I was also talking about the topic of adoption, because I'm adopted. Somehow in there, Matt assumed that I was going to adopt, and that that was what I was going to write about, and I thought, for a sick second, yeah, that'd be great material for the show! Awesome! Then—OK, I've already been adopted myself. Do I want to adopt a baby so that I'll have something to write about? Also, the paperwork takes a really long time."

We laugh about that for a moment, and then her voice takes on a dreamy tone.

"What I wanted to do was interviews," she says. "I wanted to go on a Rosie (O'Donnell) Family cruise, but gay and straight people both mocked me. They said, 'What are you gonna do? Be the creepy woman on her own?' I managed to miss the deadline anyway. They apparently only do one a year. Seriously, I'm obsessed with the Rosie cruises. Anytime I see anything about a Rosie cruise, it makes me want to cry."

It makes sense that Weedman would be interested in doing a show about non-typical family structures, having been brought up, as an adopted child, in one, and given the fact that she's in another one now. She's written about her own current state of affairs family-wise, paired up in Los Angeles with a widower and his teenage son. Families are one of those topics that everyone, by virtue of being human, can relate to—and hopefully, not only laugh at, but really think about. Weedman mentions that her performance hero is Danny Hoch, author of Jails, Hospitals, and Hiphop, among other pieces, in part because his shows get at serious topics through comedy.

"You can love him as a performer, but you don't come away with just hero worship of him," she says. "It's what he's talking about that you're paying attention to. He's smart and funny and—Wait. I think I do have hero worship of Danny Hoch."

Bottom line, Weedman doesn't want to be "doing the Lauren Weedman thing" with every show. She's interested in using herself to talk about other things, rather than doing a show that is "all about me. Even if it is, on the surface, all about me. After performing Bust, I had a discussion with two ladies who came up and wanted to talk about women and the media and jails and I was like, 'This is what I want to do!' I want to know that I'm talking about something that goes beyond me."

At one point during our call, Weedman said, of the impetus that drives her to create new work, "I have to find people who believe in me more than I believe in myself." Then she said that it sounded creepily needy. I don't think so—every performer wants an audience that is really listening. An audience that is laughing. An audience that is (please, please, please) awake. And hopefully, an audience that wants to learn something from someone who knows something interesting. Not that Lauren Weedman sees herself as a teacher. She's more likely to tell you that she's as lost as anyone else.

Still, she says, "I have one moment in Bust that I have tweaked through the shows. There's a quote in the prison chaplain's office, something about how it's the little steps that we take that will change humanity. I go on to say that I feel like I'm taking little steps, but side to side. I used to say this line like a joke, but lately, I've started saying it directly to the audience, like a preacher, to make people respond. 'We have to take little steps!' It feels good to act like I really know something."

Personally, I think she does. And even if she's joking, the best jokes are rooted in truths. Lauren Weedman is that kind of funny.

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