The May/June issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine includes a feature by Sara Felder titled “Juggling the Truth: True and Semi-Factual Confessions in Solo Performance.” We’re pleased to present a number of Felder’s interviews with her fellow Bay Area solo performers that went into the article.
Upon winning Best One-Woman Show at United Solo in November 2011 in New York City, Marilyn Pittman's spring run of "All the Rage" at the Marsh in San Francisco has been extended through May 27. A GLAAD Winner for her "out" comedy, the radio host of "Out in the Bay" on KALW also coaches talent for NPR. Visit marilynpittman.com.
“Love and Death”
Marilyn Pittman interviewed in person by Sara Felder, February 22, 2012.
Is “All the Rage” your first solo show?
My first was “Thank You for Sharing” and “But Enough About You.” “Thank You” was sketch material and standup. “Enough” was in the 1996 Solo Mio festival and was more autobiographical and more about how tech and advertising were changing our world.
Why this story? Why did you want to tell the story of “All the Rage” on stage?
I want to tell this story for my mother. She did not have the choices and the freedom I did, and she suffered a lot from that. I also want to tell the story because I feel that we aren’t talking about the issues it raises: domestic violence, PTSD, veterans and the effects of war, mental health aspects of dysfunctional marriages, and the now constant gun violence we seem to accept. One of my main goals is to get the audience to understand that my parents were regular people just like them, that this can happen to them. Murder-suicide is now so common, it seems.
I knew I had a solo show when it happened. On the day it happened in 1997, I had to cancel a comedy booking, and Mark Davis, the comic I called, agreed that some day it would make a great solo show. I’m sure that was us both in a bit of shock, but I also know how comics think.
It has Shakespearean proportions, both comedy and tragedy. But it took me 10 years to even begin, to get well enough and strong enough to open the Pandora’s box and stop compartmentalizing it. I thought I would be fine after two years, then five, then 10, and even then, in 2007, after developing 20 minutes, I walked away, not ready. But in 2009, I was ready and I had an arsenal of stories of my survival that were burning in me, and I knew a lot of it was very funny. And making people laugh is my greatest joy, even though as an actor in college I always did the dramatic roles like Hedda Gabler and Ophelia. So this gave me a chance to show both sides of myself for the first time.
Is it important that this show is based on your own experience?
I’m a journalist. I teach at Berkeley’s journalism school. I coach NPR reporters. My “brand” in this work is one of extreme honesty, and I value that as well in my relationships. So in approaching this material, it was crucial for me to get it right, factually. That’s why I read their exact words onstage. My mother kept journals all her married life, and my father wrote love letters when he was courting her. I transcribed the therapy session he went to a few weeks before their deaths. I want the audience to get to know them, but not through my filter. The story of what it was like for me to endure this horror, all the chapters in that saga, I wanted to be as truthful as possible. Remembering wasn’t hard because it felt like it was seared into me.
Developing the material with Charlie Varon and David Ford for the New Performance Initiative at the Marsh, I would bring in a page or tell a story and over that nine months, we culled it and edited it and used what popped. It never occurred to me to make something up. Because I really set out to report to the audience what this trauma was like to endure, to experience, how it changed my life.
David Ford, my director, once we had ordered the pieces—there are 28 scenes in 60 minutes—found some holes in the narrative and told me to write a piece about love.
So I wrote a meditation on love which became “Why We Stay.” It happens after the murder scenes.
How has it been for you to do the show?
Deb, my wife of 13 years, says it best: “Before you did the show, it owned you, and now that you’ve done the show, you own it.” I felt like I had no skin the first year I did it, in 2010. I had to “come out” to my public radio world. I had to take the risk of people perceiving me differently once they knew this horrible thing about my family. I kept those worlds so separate, but the stress of compartmentalizing all of it, keeping it locked down inside me, was starting to harm me, and my marriage. The play is about how a marriage turns from love and passion into fear and hatred and I wanted, above all, to keep mine sane, intact and healthy.
I was ambivalent about the solo show form. It seemed like, beginning in the early ’90s with Rob Becker’s “Defending the Caveman,” that solo shows were the path for comics to stand out. So I did two and they were successful, but with this story, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing it as therapy. Because it is therapy, it has healed me and continues to do so. I worried that people just weren’t ready for a show that was funny about something so awful.
But now that it’s been extended, and the little man is clapping in the chair, and they come expecting to laugh as well as cry, I think its time is here. I think people are now looking for something that will really make them think and feel and be transformed. A lady came up to me after the show one night and said, “My husband and I have a lot to go and talk about right now.” Another person said, “There are so many things to think about.” I am fulfilled by that. I am an educator, after all.
You win in the dysfunctional family thing.
Try to top that, bitch! It trumps almost everybody. Yes, that’s my ego. Hey, I’m a comic, we’re competitive. (Laughs)
On the process of developing the work:
During the process of writing, I almost quit three times. I wrote a letter to the Marsh, saying, “I’m outta here” in January 2010. I didn’t send it. It was treacherous for me emotionally to pry open the box and look inside. I read my mother’s journals and my father’s love letters. I am shaky, and I want to bolt. But I made it past those fragile moments, and kept going, and kept being fed by the Marsh experience.
I started learning what it was to be a writer. How you’re in the middle of your life and you think of something, a memory is triggered, and you write. I’m watching these dolphins on TV and this scene pops in and I start writing, just a page or so. It’s called “Sharon.” I use her real name. We swam with the dolphins in Kona during the Reagan era and were friends for 10 years, and when it happened, she abandoned me. Writing that, and writing about wanting to drive off the road in Moab and wandering down I-5 in the Central Valley helped me see that my madness was entertaining.
On performing the show:
I feel less alone when I do the show. I get to share it and entertain people in the process. But the process was, like I said, shaky. Will this work? Will this catch on? Will this be too much for an audience? Well, that depends on how I am onstage. Am I taking care of them, letting them know that I’ve got them? To have to perform it and just hope that it worked theatrically as a piece. Now know that it works. It’s 28 scenes in 60 minutes. A real rollercoaster. I think it does what theatre is supposed to do, which is to make you feel something and to transform you. And make you laugh a lot very hard. But I haven’t known sometimes if doing the show was good for me.
I feel really vulnerable. Promoting it, trying to entreat an audience to embrace it, has been very stressful. Like, “Oh, come to my show about my parents’ murder-suicide! It’s really funny!” Hawking it, hoping for a review, butts in the seats, all very tough on the ego and the heart. And, frankly, I didn’t know if I would have more skin this time around. But I do. In fact, because it’s successful, I’m having a blast and can’t wait to get back onstage. I felt validated by the New York award last fall, and now I feel like it’s doing what I hoped it could: moving people, making them think.
What have been the reactions of the audience?
I get standing ovations, because it touches people. My courage inspires people. But it’s intense for the audiences. They cry, they laugh, they are moved. And that is what I wanted. I try to be available shortly after the curtain call because there are always a few people who need a hug and to tell me their story or what they feel.
Is it cathartic for them?
I hope so. I hope it opens them up and they leave and go talk about it over a few drinks. And then think about for a few days afterward, let it seep into their consciousness. David Ford and I, in crafting it, felt it was important to take care of the audience. David was brilliant in that. People know that I’m okay and I’m making sure that they’re okay. Without that, it wouldn’t work.
Can you talk about the role of comedy in this show?
It’s the funniest show about murder-suicide you’ll ever see. The murder-suicide isn’t funny in any way. It’s tragic. What’s funny is how I coped with it: road rage, driving off into the sunset, dealing with all the personal trials and changes in my life and my family. We had a lot of fun.
How important is it that it’s based on actual events?
I think we’re living in a time where authenticity is at a premium. I think solo performance is so appealing because we’re in search of the honest truth, as a culture. There’s so much artifice and commercialism. We are searching for something kindred.
The show is about survival. Healing. Recovery. Trying to get my life back. Doing standup again. When that event happened, it was a punch in the stomach. Now I’m getting back to where I once belonged, only this time it’s much, much better.
Sara Felder is a local solo performer. She recently workshopped a new play, “A Queer Divine,” at the Marsh on June 6, and is teaching solo performance at Berkeley Rep this spring. Visit sarafelder.com.
Marilyn Pittman in “It's All the Rage” at the Marsh.
Photo: Patti Meyer