Friday, September 25, 2009

Stephen Colbert

Hey, We got Stephen Colbert back on our neo-interviews. Thanks to Willy Appelman who interns with the Neo-Futurists, we have a glimpse into the neo past of this well known "news" reporter.

Number 7: My Interview With Stephen Colbert or How A Comedy Legend Changed In Front Of Me…GO!
By: Willy Appelman

I sit in a chair across from Stephen Colbert’s desk. He is wearing khaki pants, and a black and white thinly plaid button up shirt. His Manhattan office on floor 2 ½ is sprinkled with Lord of The Rings paraphernalia, art by avid Colbert fans and various types of American flags. Stephen hands me a black pen and a yellow notebook and says, “Shoot”.
As well as being an intern at The Colbert Report, this will be my second time interning with The Neo-Futurist Theater Company. The Neo-Futurists attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes in their popular show Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.
Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, was cast in the ensemble in the early 1990’s, but never got the chance to perform with The Neo-Futurists. After being a part of The Neo-Futurists Theater Company for one day, Stephen was invited to perform with The Second City Mainstage. His short but comical stay with The Neo-Futurists left an imprint not only on the company but on the performer as well.

Willy: How did the theater scene in Chicago affect your career?

Stephen Colbert: You can get up on stage in Chicago. I was doing improv almost every night around town and sitting in on improv sets at The Second City. Many times my friends and I got a space, picked a play or wrote one ourselves, called the critics and put it up. The availability of stage space was fertile ground. We were constantly producing material, and it took very little to get attention or an audience. Excuse me…

[Stephen steps to the side and unbuttons his black and white thinly plaid shirt. Not wanting to look, I take a deep breath and continue with my next question.]

W: What drew you to wanting to work with The Neo-Futurists?

S.C: I heard about the show through all the buzz. My first show was in early September 1990. I just remember that it was great, exciting and young! I thought that [The Neo-Futurists] were creating something new. I was so excited by every aspect of it. I loved the randomness and the emotional investment of the audience. They want it to work, because there is a game besides the plays, and the game sustains you for when the plays don’t work. It’s about honesty and brevity to me. This was the most exciting thing in Chicago theater- this and Theater Oobleck’s, “The Spy Threw His Voice.” Those two things blew me away.

W: What was your first Neo-Futurist play about?

S.C: I had a history of writing very short stories. I think I once wrote a story about a guy who has a wart on his finger, and he tries to remove it. When he can’t get it off he takes to wearing a ring. It was very much in the style of Barry Yougrau’s, “A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane.”

[Stephen steps back to his desk in suit pants, a crisp white shirt and a black and blue tie.]

W: You left the Neo-Futurists and joined The Second City resident company. How important is The Second City philosophy in your development as a political satirist?

S.C: At Second City I didn’t write one political thing. I had zero interest in politics. Paul [Dinello] and Amy [Sedaris] and I worked together mostly on characters and relationship scenes. We may have referenced Nixon once, but I didn’t want to reference politics, it was all character jokes. Half the joy of doing theater is being with people you admire. Amy Sedaris really got me to lighten up because in the beginning I was pretty theatrical.

W: At Second City there is a scene in which you bring Steve Carell back to your hometown where you are treated as an elderly black woman.

S.C: I really wanted to do a scene where I played Maya Angelou.

[The thought of Stephen playing an elderly black woman brings a smile to both of our faces. Stephen tightens his belt and takes a seat at his desk.]

W: How did you come up with your premises?

S.C: I wanted to do a scene as Maya Angelou, and I wanted to do a scene where I brought Steve Carell to my hometown where, because it was home I acted very differently, so we combined the two. That was one of my favorite scenes I did at Second City because it just happened. It was organic. We improvised the scene once and then scripted it pretty much the way it was.

[Stephen stands up and pushes his chair back. His khaki’s and black and white thinly plaid shirt are hung neatly behind him. He is wearing a grey pin stripe suit, white shirt and a black and blue tie, however I imagine him now in something much more colorful. His suit is a closet full of costumes and he is wearing all of them.]

W: How do you incorporate that into what you do now?

S.C: What I do now is political, but through a character. I am a comedian with a theater background.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Diana Slickman Part Two


[Slickman was the first theater manager the Neo-Futurists had, she created the position. It may be what eventually burned her out. This "job" she took on ate up more time than she got paid for, and in those days our office was just a little closet next to the State Park. No more than two people could be in there at a time. And she lived there day in day out. In understanding the reasons for the building of a more stable system within the company I felt it very important to get Slickman to talk about this aspect of her career with the Neo-Futurists.]

JP: You come into the company, you’re acting and you’re writing your own material and somewhere along the line you find out there’s no organization.

DS: There’s an organizational vacuum!

JP: So talk about that.

DS: Well, when I first started the show we did everything. Talk about DIY. My God, we did everything. We cleaned the space, we ran the space, we made brownies, we manned the snack booth. Which meant you got there and you made cookies and brownies and you made coffee. And then as soon as you could get everybody into the State Park you ran around and you were in the show. And one of the rotating responsibilities was taking care of the money because every night people brought us cash money and it had to be accounted for. So you had to reconcile the rolling sheets...there’s a form now, which I instituted. But people used to just take a piece of paper and make a grid each night and do the tally marks. And cast members would buy things for the show and turn in little scraps of paper and get reimbursed for them, sort of. You know, it was kind of loosey goosey. Doing the money was like a closing duty. Some people who were interested in that stuff did that stuff? And it seemed…it was kind of haphazard to me. I’d been a bookkeeper at the Westport Cash Saver, I’d done bookkeeping here in Chicago as my day job. And I believe in order. And I also believe that money is a form power, because I think that’s evident, and if you’re not keeping track of your money you’re not keeping track of your power. And a theater company, what don’t have no money, they should keep track of everything that they have. And nobody was doing that. I mean, it was getting done. The money was getting deposited. And we’d get paid. I remember Scott Hermes—for some reason—was, in my mind, the one who was always doing the money. Sometimes Greg would be counting the money, but I always seem to think of Scott as someone who wrote the checks and took care of things which doesn’t surprise me. He’s a math guy. But it didn’t seem very…well, it didn’t seem very organized or very business like. And one time the day came when we couldn’t get paid. And why couldn’t we get paid? Not because we didn’t have the money, but because we ran out of checks. How can that happen?? How can it be that no one noticed that they had written the last check? And then I thought, well, okay somebody clearly has to corral this. I wrote a little job description for myself and thought I’m gonna do this. Because I’d been the company manager for the Shakespeare company, and I wrote up a little job description of things I would do. Keeping up with schedules and scheduling the space, and doing the bookkeeping. I think six dollars an hour or something was what I was going to get paid to do that. I was immediately shot down. Immediately shot down. Because it was not a…it was the beginnings of a hierarchy. Somebody in charge of one particularly thing all the time. But I remember that meeting, as many did in those days, that meeting ending in tears. Because I had good intentions, my intentions were good, my intentions actually were to sacrifice myself for this thing for the betterment of the company so that we didn’t run out of checks again, or get to the theater at 10 on a Friday night and find out that there was no toilet paper. Or find out that nobody had done whatever it was that we couldn’t go on without doing, that nobody had bought soda or coffee or, you know, whatever it was. And I thought, I’m offering myself upon the altar of the theater to make everybody’s lives better and I was seen as somebody who was grasping.

[Slickman here. If John can throw in parenthetical remarks, I think I should get to, also, yes? I want to say here that I know I sound exactly like the big ol' drama queen that I said I hated in the early part of this interview. And despite the way I go on here, I wasn't the only one who thought this stuff needed to change and wanted to do things to make the company run better. I wasn't the only one working hard on that.]
Eventually, I got my way. And I don’t know how or why, I don’t know what turned the tide on that, I don’t know how I managed to convince people that that was actually a good idea. But I blame myself for everything now. That's what I do, John, I blame myself. For everything. Because at the time, having come from a theater company—the Shakespeare company—that had a very specific hierarchy, although I enjoyed the collective model, it was exhausting. We couldn’t make a decision about anything without talking about it—there was no time limit on our meetings in those days. [Anita Loomis, who actually instated many guidelines including a special fund where by every year all the cast members could take a class in any field of study they wanted and get 200 dollars reimbursed from the company. This was to keep us learning, to keep us bringing fresh ideas into the show. It was called the Loomis Fund. So Anita suggested we put a cap on how long we met. 8:45 to 10:30, and then we had to call it a night no matter where the conversations was going. We mostly still stick to this, but often we need a reminder to limit how much each person talks, and repeats themselves.] We met on Sunday nights after the show and talked until two in the morning if we had to. It was awful. I advocated that we have an artistic director. I thought we ought to have an artistic director. We didn’t have one.
We were hindered by not having an organization. It was a lot of work just to maintain that space, and it was a lot of work just to run that show. And there were only 9 of us. We were doing everything. We were writing grants, we were administering the show, we were writing press releases, we were doing all these things and we were…you know, there was no…and some people were working harder than others as is always the case in those situations. Everyone had their thing that they were good at. Annie did a lot of the early posters, she would put together the press materials because she worked at New City, she knew a lot of people in that arena. But no one was being compensated for those things. And we were getting paid like $12 a show. Or a week or something. It was nothing. We were getting paid nothing. And it was a lot of work for the joy of doing it and the glory of the show, but it was…I saw people putting in a lot of work without getting any remuneration. They didn’t get any…there was no incentive. Eventually everyone was gonna burn out. And so I thought, if we can compartmentalize, if everyone can have a job that they get paid a little bit for, that will make things easier. Everybody’s gonna know who’s doing it, you’re gonna feel like you’re valued because you’re getting a little money. You’re getting recognized and you’re getting a little pocket change. You’re getting drinking money, if nothing else. I thought it was a good idea, but in some ways it goes against the collective idea. And I think that that did institute a hierarchy that did change the dynamic of the company. In a not good way. And I think the good thing was we all started getting paid more. Because we knew how much money was in the bank. We could make a budget, we could start writing grants. You know, I think one grant had been written before…in 1992? In four years? A show that was running every weekend to sold out audiences? That seemed absurd to me. I didn’t know why that wasn’t happening. Because I knew the money was out there. I thought if we organized a little, we’d get more done. We’d get paid better. And we did. Some of that stuff happened, but then it..lines started to be drawn.

JP: You started the company's savings account.

DS: I thought that was important. Again, because people brought us cash-money every week. And it would sit in our checking account not doing anything until we needed it. And, you know, why not put it in a savings account? Why not start a reserve? Because, you know, early on in my tenure there, we started talking about whether we could stay in that space forever. You know, we didn’t have that big office space at the time. I was in that closet. The current office was a Romanian library. That was unpleasant, a fraught relationship with them. We thought we were gonna have to move out of there eventually. And I thought, if we’re gonna move we gotta start saving money. Because we’re gonna have to buy a building or rent a building and to get grant money for that stuff? We’re gonna have to demonstrate that we’re fiscally responsible. I thought, what happens if we get closed down? What happens if this space gets closed down? We’re gonna have to start renting from somebody. We gotta have money in reserve so we can rent from somebody. So that’s why I started the savings account. Every good business should do that. You should have six months in reserve in case…the catastrophic happens. Your building burns down, your CEO dies. You have to have a little nest egg. So that’s why I started that. And, you know, we started keeping our books on the computer. We started a mailing list that was computerized, a database, that wasn’t on spreadsheet, somebody typing it into Word or something. My God. So we started doing that kinda stuff to build our audience and to be more effective. Especially as we started doing more prime time plays. So we could get people in there. And we wanted to tell our Too Much Light audience that we were doing something else. So I wanted to build that part of it, the mailing list and all that stuff. It’s a lot of work. And even then, you know, with everyone pitching in and doing stuff it’s still a lot of work.


JP: You were in a closet.

DS: I was in a closet.

JP: Not only were doing the show and maintaining the space, you were spending your afternoons and evenings in a small office that was in actuality just a closet. A small closet at that!

DS: ‘Till 1:30am. At one point I was there 7 days a week. Because I had 3 part time jobs, one of which was to work part time at the theater as managing director. I would be there from, like 4 to 7, Monday through Friday. I’d be at rehearsal on Tuesday nights, I’d be at the show Friday, Saturday, & Sunday nights. I was there all the time. And then I got burnt out. I got all burnt. out. [Diana has an intensity in her eyes, strong but as if she could cry at any moment, and this intensity in her whole self is infectious. Just the way she said she was "burnt. out." had me with my head in my hands cursing the world.] And I had to go. I took a sabbatical in the 2nd half of ’96—right before you came in—and that helped some, but I decided I had to do that after David Kodeski and I got into some fight. We got into something—you know Kodeski, he’ll fight with you about anything. We got into a fight about…about…we were doing a summer shorts, it was called, and we were doing a series of short plays. You know, 3 a night and there were 2 different programs that we did in different repertory. One night you do one, do the other the next night. And we got into a fight about which one went first. About which play goes on which schedule. And I had decided one thing for, I’m sure, some very good reason and David had decided another thing for, I’m sure, some very good reason. And we started yelling at each other about it. And he made me cry. And he made fun of me—well, I made myself cry—but he made fun of me or dismissed me for crying, and I said, “I’m leaving right now and I’m not coming back for 6 months and don’t come after me.” And that’s exactly what I did—and I still, I was still managing director but I was not in the show for six months. Because I was crispy. Crispy all over from burn out. My God, I crackled. And, you know, that was what? Last half of ’96? And end of 2000 was my last show. My last full-time show. [When I came in Diana was still the major force behind the administration, and she would bring all the business to us, and we would hash out every goddamn decision that had to be made. It was painful, painful as all getgo, but some sadistic DIY part of myself enjoyed it. So Slickman was still very active, and if this was her being "not so active" I can't imagine the "active" Slickman. But I did see her participation decrease and then she left Too Much Light and left her position at the theater.]

JP: [A few weeks later I conducted an interview with David Kodeski, and I knew that these two were tight, tight friends and still allowed themselves to tackle each other in a full out verbal war. So I wanted Slickman to talk a little about David.]


DS: [David] is a particular guy. He’s…I don’t know why we get along as well as we do. We’re at odds a lot of the time. But from the beginning we were good friends and part of that was just from coming into the show, being new at the same time. Although Lusia and I get along, we don’t have that same sort of…you know David and I sort of hooked together somehow.

JP: And you still work together.

DS: Oh yeah, we still work together. He’s such a good writer. He writes really beautifully. He can be really funny onstage. And like Kotis, he’ll write things that are totally just…plays about farting, and then he’ll write something that’s so beautiful, both with equal facility. Many of us will write things that are completely unsuccessful, and yet will fight for this completely unsuccessful thing and it’s not that successful but we want it in anyway! He’s got that stubborn streak that in some ways served him really well in the show, that ability to fight for the things that you think ought to go into the show. He was not shy about expressing his opinion, which I think was really valuable. We were all pretty tough in those days. But he’s…um…he’s a generous performer, he’s a dear person. But he’s got a mean streak. Which he’s the first to admit, I think.

JP: In David I sometimes see my friend Peter, they both emulate this lovable drunken Irish [Polish] bar mentality where the more you argue with someone the more it means you like them.

DS: It’s almost pugilistic. It’s not about being right, it’s about winning the fight. And sometimes that can be aggravating, but sometimes when you get into that kind of fight with him it’s just a stupid thing. And it doesn’t have any bearing on how much you like him, it’s just an aggravating thing that he does. It’s like cracking his knuckles. It’s like the psychic equivalent of cracking his knuckles all the time. I’d still like him, but I wish he wouldn’t do that. Yeah, he’s…it’s the Polish.

JP: Did that combativeness come out in business meetings too or mostly just on the creative side? Was he like that across the board?

DS: I don’t remember us getting into it about that stuff so often. But just, you know, and partly, too, I think he sometimes is just a contrary…you’ll take a stand, he’ll take the opposite stand even though maybe he doesn’t care that much. He just doesn’t think you should have your way.


JP: I’ve found recently that people will call me a contrarian. I’ve always taken it kind of hard. I’ve never thought of myself that way.

DS: No. You strike me as someone who sort of goes his own way.

JP: That’s what I always thought. I see myself as just slightly off. Like, I’ll try to understand something but I can only understand my perception of what I think is going on so, I think that makes me have a sort of slightly different opinion? Which is different to me than saying, “Oh, I get what you're saying and you're wrong.”

[Reviewing this next section, I feel about myself that over the years, becoming one of the senior members, I had to actively make myself be more vocal. It is important to have genuinely opposing opinions to better our decision making abilities, to be more aware of our responsibility to each other. I look back at Diana's evaluation of me, and I agree with it, but I don't like it. I think I have changed... for the most part.]

DS: “I get what you're saying and you're wrong.” That’s David’s way of doing it, and what I think your way of doing it is “I see what you’re doing and I think that you’re wrong so I’m going to ignore it.” Whereas David jumps into the breach, you wander away from the breach and occupy yourself in something else and pretend it’s not happening, whatever it is, whatever the argument is. “I’m just gonna wander somewhere else…” where as David is in there going (insert growling dog sound), tooth and nail. And that’s the difference in your style, but you may be exactly the same people. Everybody’s got their way of dealing with conflict and as David will himself say, he likes to have the last word. And he’ll get entrenched. And even if he thinks maybe it’s not worth being in that trench, he’s gonna stay in there until you admit it.

JP: There’s a lot of Neo-Futurists who are that way and it shows itself in different characteristics. Dave Awl picks his battles very specifically and makes sure he has all his "ducks in a row" so that his last words appear "educated." Greg, in his interview, talked about an incident in his childhood in elementary school. After watching a play he decided he wanted to be the last one clapping, so he continued clapping until his whole class was out in the hallway just to make sure he was the last one. It must have been an interesting period being with all these people who—

DS: Very. Strong. Personalities. Yeah. Nobody in the company was a pushover. There was not a lot of yielding. Which made for better theater in some ways. Made for very difficult rehearsals, sometimes it made for very difficult business dealings, sometimes? But the shows were good because we talked about everything. Nothing went into the show without discussion unless it was just so universally delightful that you couldn’t deny it. Sometimes the longest part of the night was deciding what would go in. Which I think is…in the later years that I was in the show and the couple of times I went into the show after I had quit full time, people were anxious to get out of rehearsal as quickly as possible. When I was originally in the show, often Tuesdays were your longest nights at the theater.

JP: The current NY casts spends a copious amount of time discussing each play. Each piece is talked about extensively.


DS: We used to talk as much about the plays that we didn’t put in as the plays that we did. And that was incredibly valuable feedback. Some people didn’t want that feedback but they got it anyway. Or, sometimes you’d bring something in to read it and say "tell me what you think about that. I don’t think this is going in this week, but I want some feedback on it." And that was how it was with the Feminist Theater Collective, that’s what I was used to. I was used to bringing something in, reading it, gathering information, sifting through that and deciding what was valuable and working through what I had written based on those comments. We made better theater, we made better plays because we talked about what was successful and what wasn’t. And sometimes you couldn’t separate what was being said from how it was being said. We would have arguments about, if this play goes in I’m not gonna be in it. Because I don’t agree with that point of view and I don’t want to be seen as agreeing with that point of view. And that…that was fine. You could opt out of a play because I don’t’ want to espouse that point of view. But, you know, they were strong points of view. Which was great. I think that’s when the show is best, is when there’s a lot of diverse, strong points of view being put forward. Contradictory. Often. We’d have shows where some important thing had happened and there’d be two or three plays that dealt with it saying something different. And sometimes in direct opposition of the play that came before. That’s lively theater. That’s good stuff. Because that leaves the audience to think about it and decide for themselves instead of being told. Or just entertained. Not that I’m against being entertained but we were less concerned with—although we wrote some very funny plays—we were less concerned with making the audience like us as making a show that was interesting. If we had too many funny things we’d take a couple out.

[This challenge to Neo-Futurists to be openly critical is an ongoing battle. It ebbs and flows. We will get to the point where we have just stopped commenting for awhile, then someone will say, "We need to get back to more critical rehearsals." This ebb and flow seems to happen more frequently over the years. I feel it is not the quality of artists, I think the quality is always there, I feel it has more to do with the reality that each artist isn't in the show as consistently anymore, that we are all on different alloted time schedules: 16 weeks, 24 weeks 32 weeks 40 weeks. It is hard to build a strong critical relationship when the ensemble is changing week to week. It is a struggle of the modern neo times. One in which I do not feel we yet have a satisfactory solution.]

JP: There is a struggle for artists that to simplify is a balancing act between our own oblique unique selves and finding a relationship with the audience, where they can sympathize or even just be entertained by you. In searching for our own voices I feel often artists turn it into this hate of the audience, or referring to them as monkeys. [Not Barrel Of Monkeys, ACTUAL monkeys.] Perhaps that's a defense mechanism against being persuaded to appeal to the "majority." It's a difficult challenge to not distill your creativity in order to regularly be entertaining.

DS: More important than entertaining the audience is reaching the audience. And if that means I’m gonna make ‘em mad or uncomfortable or tell ‘em something they didn’t know before or present a point of view they hadn’t thought of. Or make them laugh until they pee, that’s fine. But they don’t have to like everything I say. And I think that some of the shows I’ve seen in the last few years, it’s been really concerned with, “I want the audience to like me,” For me it was more important to make the audience listen than to make them laugh. Although I’m all about making them laugh if I can. If I can do both. And I think we were less concerned with entertaining the first 2 or 3 years I was in the show. Not confronting them but engaged. We wanted them engaged, is I think the best way I can describe it.

JP: Okay. Now we can move forward to…You burned out, but you stayed around for almost two years. What eventually tipped you over the edge?


DS: You know what it was? The thing that tipped me over the edge, we went through that whole reorganization thing and I don’t know how it happened. I have no idea how it came to the place where we were having all day retreats about the organization of our company. How did that ever happen? I mean, yes, we needed—we had kind of fallen apart in what had been when I started, a sort of all-for-one mentality to a four people do all the administration stuff. And we had to have a board. We had had a straw board forever. People who were in the show. In fact, people who were no longer working with the company were on our board. Like I think our board was Phil, Karen, Tim [Reinhardt], & Greg [Allen]. Well that’s—half of those people are being paid by the company. Well, you can’t be on the board of a non-profit if you’re being paid by the company. This had to change because, especially with that PPA [debacle]. [I don't want to get too far into the PPA explanation but over the years there has been a Chicago code that has put plenty of storefront theaters out of business, and in summer/fall of 1999 the city came down hard, unreasonably hard on storefront theaters. We were put through all the aforementioned meetings orignally as measure to prevent us from being closed down, over time it morphed into something bigger and more complicated. Slickman eventually left in December of 2000.] The spotlight was being shown on small theaters and whether they were licensed to do what they were doing and we had to have a proper board. And truthfully, we needed a board. And, I’ll say it again, I don’t know how it happened but we had hired someone - a nice person, good intentioned - who had been working with theater companies that were not in anyway like our theater company. They were traditionally, hierarchally arranged theaters that she had worked with. And even then we fancied ourselves a collective. And she basically wanted us to be run like a business. Which, in some ways, was a great idea. But she also didn’t like the idea of artists having any control over the business aspects of the company that they had created and were funding through their work. She didn’t think that it was important for the people who were making the money to have decisions about how the company was run. And that was a mistake. She brought in someone to help us reorganize our company the way she wanted it organized. We went through a lot of exercises about being re-organized, and how to run our meetings and it turned out badly. I think it just broke us down rather than building us up. It was meant to build us up and it broke us down. The person whose idea this was, she was a catalyst for drama and we didn’t need anymore drama. We had plenty of drama at the time. Lotta personality conflicts in that company, didn’t need any help there. And that was the tipping point for me. It was no longer fun, it was no longer rewarding and I…it was emotionally draining. I didn’t need it. I couldn’t do it anymore. Every decision became fraught and it was like pulling teeth to get people to do anything because everybody felt sort of embattled or put upon or being asked something of. You couldn’t get anything done. And…yeah, I don’t know. It was unfortunate. And I don’t blame the board members, they were fine. I don’t blame the idea of the board. It was that process. It really…disintegrated things. It brought up a lot of long standing grievances that got aired in an unproductive way, that maybe never should have been aired. We could have gone on for a long time. Or eventually sorted things out ourselves or quietly disbanded instead of disbanding in a ball of flame. Which is why we ended up sort of losing people.

[In this ball of flame the company lost, throughout the next year or so: Diana Slickman, David Kodeski, Lusia Strus, Dave Awl, Anita Loomis, and me. (I was reactivated a few years later, although it was hardly noticable that I was inactive, in the grand scheme of neo-futurism.)]

DS: And the other thing about it is…what was fun about being in the company was doing the show. And all that other stuff we did because we had to do it and because we wanted the company to be successful. And then when you take that away from it, you start to resent people for the success of the company or when you think they’re getting attention for the success of the things that you think you worked for? Stuff you think you make possible but you’re not getting any credit for? That’s when being in the show stopped being fun. And when people started saying, I don’t wanna clean the toilets, I don’t wanna write any grants, I just wanna be in the show. And then the people who are doing that work are saying, “well, fuck you! maybe I just wanna be in the show, too. But I’m working here and you’re not doing shit but being in the show having fun.” That created a lot of tension. You know, people that were blowing off the duties we had all decided that we would do together. Because they didn’t wanna do that because that wasn’t fun. Or they had a job. Or whatever.


JP: I’m wondering now is it a paradox to grow and yet try to hold onto all the day to day duties we do for the company? I feel the success of the show has a lot to do with the idea that we actively engage ourselves in the grunt work—it’s important to me that the audience sees us taking the garbage out every night or rolling them in and taking their cash, talking to them before and after the show. Is there a point where we can give too much responsibility away and just become hired actors, which is a strong fear of mine. Do you believe that these tasks we give ourselves actually affect the quality of the show?

DS: Well I think that’s…at least in my later days in the company, that was the tension. There were the people who just wanted to have fun and be in the show and didn’t wanna do all the other work that’s involved in running the theater company. That’s not what they were interested in. They were interested in writing and performing. Great. It should be fun. You should get to do the fun things. But I guess I believe in that ideal. That…I like the collective notion. I am in favor of people taking responsibility. That’s the bottom line. I think if you’re part of a theater company, or any endeavor, you should take a certain amount of responsibility for its success - which sometimes means doing things that aren't so fun.

JP: Correct. Can you go so far as to say this effects the quality of the performance?

DS: I don’t know. But I can say that I think the best experience I had was in the first two or three years when that’s what the company was, was everybody doing everything all the time and sharing responsibility for the things no one wanted to do to a more or less greater degree. I don’t know if it was just that group of people and the attitude that they had towards making this particular kind of theater. I can say that they were concurrent? But I don’t know that they were causally linked. I don’t know if one made the other possible. But I think we had a different attitude toward what the company was.

JP: I feel I’m in a Quixotic position now because I don’t wanna be doing all of that work, but sometimes I feel I have to for it to get done. That's what has driven me to realize that I am now one of the older statesmen at the company and this holds a large amount of responsibility because I truly believe in that idea, the aesthetic. It’s important to be working hard for the privilege to perform your own unique art.

DS: And that there is no line between what happens onstage and what happens offstage—which of course there is—but if the ideal is that your life onstage and your life offstage be inextricably linked or being the same, then you can’t just be in the show, you know what I mean? You have to be part of the whole. Even if that’s exhausting and you’re doing things you don’t wanna do. You know, welcome to the world. The world’s like that. If you want something to be successful you have to work at it. And if that means making a pleasant environment for the audience to come into—you know, the toilets are cleaned, the State Park is swept, whatever, then that’s what it means. But I think there’s a separation between those two things now. That the show is one thing and the running of the company is a different thing, and the maintaining of the space is a different thing. When we [Theater Oobleck] were performing Trojan Candidate in there I was appalled at the state of the space. Appalled. I mean, that poor space. It suffers so much because the landlords don’t give a flying fuck about it. But it also appears to not be cared about by the people who work there every day. You know, I took better care of that space when I was there in the six weeks of our run than I saw anybody else do. And it’s like, that’s not right. I know, I know, people are there too much already they don’t wanna take the time to mop the space when they leave, but the audience has to come in there. You don’t want it to be sticky when they come in. There was no pride of place. Which I think we had when first came in there. Like the the Hall of Presidents. What’s that doing there? Why is there a Hall of Presidents in the Neo-Futurarium? Because Ayun and Greg K thought there should be something in that hallway for the audience to look at. And Greg thought it should be presidents. I don’t know why. So they made it happen. They went to the trouble to make the space happen because they thought it should be a better place for our audience. I don’t know that that would have happened now. Are you looking for a portraitist now for Obama?

JP: Oh yeah, yeah. Well, we’re waiting. You have to wait for them to have a long enough time in the office.

DS: We didn’t do that with Bill Clinton.

JP: We waited to see what Bush would do. I think it is a smart idea to wait until we have a bit more of a picture between the intended goals of the new presidents and what actually is achieved in the presidential office.

DS: Gotta give the artist something to go with.


JP: You are considered inactive/an alum, yet you still frequent the theater, and you stay in contact with many past and current Neo-Futurists: Kodeski, Ridarelli, Riordan, Claff—

DS: --and Mrs. Shaw.

JP: And Mrs. Shaw. And you keep in contact with the Kotis/Halliday family.

DS: Sure, sure, and Hermes. Lusia and I still talk every once in awhile or get together when she’s in town. Dave Awl and I still work together sometimes. We’re gonna do a Partly Dave Show later this month. [These took place at the Neo-Futurarium over a three month period, and I hope Dave will do them there again. Partly Dave.] Yeah, I’m still friends with all those people. I still see you every once in awhile, we’re sort of in business together. [Slickman has co-produced all the theater releases on my publishing company.] And I work with Steve and Sean every once in awhile, Heather I see all the time. So yeah, still connected with all those people. Wouldn’t have it any other way I don’t think. But yeah, I work with Theater Oobleck now. Which isn’t so different in a lot of ways, just in that the company is not so structured. It’s very much still a collective of people.

JP: There are a hand full of companies that have recently celebrated their 20th year, and many of these have chosen not to pursue having their own space. I find that pretty interesting. Perhaps some wanted a space but were too poor or lazy to find out how to get one, but I also thing it may have helped them in other ways.

DS: Having a space is like home ownership. Suddenly you have lots more responsibility that can’t be ignored. You know, when you rent a space on a show by show basis it’s not your responsibility to clean the toilets or deal with the landlord or try to figure out what to do about the roof that’s leaking that the landlord doesn’t wanna deal with or figure out how to make the space better for the audience. You breeze in and you breeze out and I think that for Oobleck, you know it’s funny because there are how many companies this year and last year having their 20th anniversary? The Neo-Futurists, Curious Theater Branch, Goat Island, somebody else I wanna say.

JP: Redmoon? [This isn't the company Diana was looking for, but they did start in 1990 and are closely approaching their 20th.]

DS: Four pillars of the Chicago fringe theater scene all celebrating their 20th year—what the fuck was in the water in 1988 is what I wanna know? What? That was just after I moved here and right after a whole bunch of other people moved here. There were a whole bunch of people coming to Chicago at that time, excited to make theater. And it’s an easy place to make theater. You put 3 actors in a room for 15 minutes and you’ve got a theater company, is what we used to say. And that was very much true at that time. You could rent empty storefronts and put on a show. It was easy. Still is. That’s one of the great things about Chicago.
I think a lot of those companies don’t have spaces because of the responsibility that comes along with it—not that they eschew responsibility, but it forces you to do things you might not wanna do. It forces you to put on 5 shows a year so you can keep money coming in so you can pay the rent. The thing that has allowed the Neo-Futurists to do that is, again, cashflow and it’s Too Much Light that brings in cash every week. It pays the rent. Then you just have to worry about finding money to pay the actors and pay the designers and make the publicity and pay the staff. But, without a space, you don’t have to put on a show just because you need to make money. You know, it’s hard. It’s hard to get people who are not theater administrators to run a space. We’ve seen that happen. We know it’s not easy. So I think for a lot of those people, you don’t have to produce if you don’t want to. And I think that’s the appeal for a lot of it. You just don’t have the responsibility. And you don’t have to start doing things you don’t wanna do because you have that responsibility. I think that’s why a lot of these companies don’t have a space. Oobleck’s been putting on weird ass shit for 20 years, crazy-ass shit. Curious Theater Branch, they’re prolific those folks. But they don’t have a space. You don’t necessarily need one in Chicago. Plenty of people who have it are willing to rent it out. Which is great. But, Oobleck’s a lot like the Neo-Futurists used to be. We have meetings where everybody signs up to do something. Everybody’s taken on some aspect of producing our next show. As they can. Everybody sharing responsibility, everybody knowing that there are unpleasant tasks that have to be done that will be made easier because everyone’s doing it. Or you know you have one unpleasant task and I’ll be doing it next time.

JP: What's up with BoyGirlBoyGirl?

DS: That’s a solo performance ensemble, which is a nice contradiction in terms. It started out with David Kodeski, Edward Thomas-Herrera, Stephanie Shaw, & Susan McLaughlin-Karp. They were each tired of putting on solo shows for six weeks that were attended by, like, 7 people per night. They decided to create a company where they could perform solo pieces together in one evening that would be completely attended because it was one-night-only and they each had their own audiences to draw from. And they’d be guaranteed a pretty full house for that one performance. And the idea for the show is to take a piece of found text and create pieces inspired by that piece of found text. So I think the first show they did was called…New More Shocking Secrets! or something. But their inspiration was like a tabloid magazine or a romance magazine or a true crime magazine or something. And they all did pieces inspired by that text. And then they did The Art of Italian Cooking, which was a cookbook, and they all did pieces about food or about traveling to Italy or meals, it was very fun. When Stephanie went back to school to get her master’s degree, and Mrs. Karp got pregnant, the ladies’ auxiliary (Rachel Claff and me) was formed. So the 6 of us have been performing off and on since then. And that’s fun. It’s…I like…it has some of the good elements of Too Much Light, you know, there’s a restriction? There’s a narrowing of the field which helps me at least, it inspires me to write if I’m made to think about a particular thing or made to write in a certain way or have a time constraint, so that’s been real fun. And, you know, you get the best of both worlds. You get to be a solo performer and you don’t have to draw crowds all by yourself. And we’ve branched out. No longer just the one night stand. We find that 3 or 4 is our best number. We’ve done, like, 6 performances for a show and we found that it just didn’t work out. Three’s the magic number. Gives people just enough opportunity to see them.

JP: It's a great group of people... A great group of friends.

DS: Yeah. Yeah. It’s fun. We’re all odd and dysfunctional in our own ways, which is good, in complimentary ways. So it’s nice.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Diana Slickman Part One

Diana Slickman, it is my belief that Slickman is one of those fairytale orphans found by a nice family of common folk, and then somewhere down the line we find out that she is of royal blood, that she is a princess. But along the way of hardship, and the kindness of the family that raised her, she has learned how to be compassionate yet tough, how to survive on her own funds on her own terms. She is one of the few that can criticize and praise simultaneously inspiring you to make "something" better, the world, or at least a small part of it. She is rational and logical in her approach to her life, yet all life seems to float around her in a romantic haze. Her pragmatism has helped keep afloat some of the most scatterbrained companies in Chicago, including The Neo-Futurists and Theater Oobleck. I give you Part One of a woman most often referred to just as "Slick."


JP: alright, so, Diana Slickman. Where were you born?

DS: I was born in KC, MO in 1961. August 31st is my birthday. And lived there until 1985 when I moved here.

JP: Were you one of those kids who enjoyed school?

DS: I was one of those obnoxious children. That’s what I was. One of those obnoxious children.

JP: What do you mean?

DS: I had a neighbor when I was very small who used to say, “you wanna be a movie star when you grow up!” and I was like, “Yeah! That’s exactly what I wanna be! I don’t wanna be an actor, I wanna be a movie star.” And I was like, five. So I was one of those children. Attention seeking, unpleasant. My mother tells a story about herself that when she was a child she would make her classmates gather around her on the playground. She would stand on a tree stump and sing Shirley Temple songs. And wouldn’t let them leave. That’s the kind of child I was. Very unpleasant.

JP: As a child were you aware that you had this quality in common with your Mother?

DS: I didn’t know it at the time, but later when she told me that, I was like, “Oh Jesus Christ, that’s me.” But at the time, sure, I liked attention. I’m the youngest of 6 children so I had to fight for attention. And I got a lot of attention because my older sisters were much older than me so I was their doll. I was there for entertainment purposes in some way. Until I did something they got blamed for. Yeah, especially my two oldest sisters. They’re quick to praise me for any bit of creativity that I show. There are pictures of me in a beehive hairdo standing on our front lawn looking miserable because they’d ratted my hair, made my hair look “pretty.” So they paid a lot of attention to me, so I think I got a taste for that early. But I’ve always been a smart-ass and a wise-cracker so that’s how I’ve always asserted my personality. Through being funny. Or trying to be funny.

JP: I’ve noticed that a lot of Neos I’ve talked to: Scott Hermes, Heather, Dave Awl, David Kodeski—a bunch of people tend to come from smaller areas or at least smaller schools. Do you consider where you grew up to be small?

DS: I wouldn’t say it’s a small town, but it’s…as Midwestern towns go, it’s pretty big. I think the metro area probably has a million and a half people. So it’s not like, Carbondale. It’s a pretty big city. It’s as big as St. Louis, maybe?

JP: So, you had friends that lived close? Scott tells me his closest friends lived like 2 miles away.

DS: Oh no no. I played with the Martinis who lived just across—you went through the Singleton’s driveway to get to the Martinis’s house. I went to Catholic grade school and Catholic high school and there were a lot of kids in our neighborhood. It’s actually a nice town, Kansas City. Pretty; hilly. And in the 60s, you were pretty much left to your own devices as children. I didn’t have any afterschool activities, I didn’t play sports. Nooo. There wasn’t the regimentation there is now. You would come home and you just played. My brothers were in football, but my sisters and I didn’t have anything like that. And I played by myself a lot as a child. I liked to talk to trees. We had a big garden in the backyard and that was my house. Certain rocks were certain rooms and any time I went to a big building, that was my house too.

JP: Did you have specific or reoccurring imaginary friends?

DS: No, my brother did. My brother had 3 very specific imaginary friends with names. I’d talk to mannequins, I’d talk to trees. I really didn’t have anything specific. It was just whatever was handy. And I had a couple of really close friends in grade school. Alise Martini was my very best friend. Yeah, through about 8th grade. Then I went to a different school and she went to a different school and that was that. I was one of those kids that didn’t—this may be revisionist history—but I didn’t clique very much. I wasn’t somebody who ran with a specific crowd. Or like, to the exclusion of-- everybody kind of claimed me even though I didn’t always claim them. Especially in high school, you know, all girl high school, St. Teresa’s. I was funny, so everybody liked me. I like to think. Maybe everyone was just pretending and every one hated me, which is rude.

JP: You wanted to be a movie star when you were younger. Did any of that energy transform into actual performances? When did you first start acting?

DS: The first thing I would say I remember being in was, of course like many of us, the Christmas pageant. You know, classes sang Christmas carols and I think probably in 1st grade I got to be in the Christmas thing. We sang a carol called “The Huron Carol.” I don’t know where it really comes from, but it’s supposedly a Christmas carol as composed by Native Americans. I don’t know. It’s dumb. And I got to play an Indian squaw and that was GREAT. I fancied myself as part Indian anyway, for some reason. There’s no one in my family that has Indian heritage, but I decided that I was Indian because I had long brown hair that I wore in braids a lot, so that’s probably why I was an Indian. And I got really tan in the summer. But that’s really the first theatrical performance I remember being in. And in high school I was in as many plays as I could be. We did a play every year. I don’t think I was in a play freshman year, and then sophomore year I was going to be in a show but then it got canceled because our teacher got lupus and she couldn’t direct it. And then I was in a production of Our Town, of course. Like everybody is. And then senior year I was in You Can’t Take It With You. I played Penny Singleton.

JP: I don’t know if you know this, but there’s Phil and Greg's Father—

DS: Everybody’s been in You Can’t Take It With You. It’s one of those things that’s done in high school a lot. Especially high school of a certain era.


JP: How did theater work at an all girl school. Were there boys in your shows?

DS: Yeah, we did partnered performances. There’s a brother school to my high school, Rockhurst High School, and it’s an all boy Jesuit high school and we would often draw upon their talent pool for our male cast members. And I performed in a couple of shows over there. But for some reason I ended up being in a couple of sort of oddball student written productions. There was this really funny thing written by Ned Shine. I don’t remember what it was about, but I played Sister Mary Ellen Rogers. Now, Mary Ellen Rogers was Wally Cleaver’s girlfriend in Leave It To Beaver, so he’d written this play that was all sort of characters from television and it was about heresy. Now, how it got produced at this all boys Catholic school was, I have no idea but it was really funny, as I recall. But yeah, we traded cast members back and forth. Then my senior year we had the guy who…one of the few male teachers at St. Teresa’s at the time, he was a recent graduate of Catholic college in Kansas City, also called Rockhurst.. And he had guys that were friends of his, or guys that he knew from college? [You will notice that throughout this interview Slickman will make a statement into a question. In print it sometimes looks like she is unsure of what she has experienced, which may be true, but in "real life" she is just making sure you are following what she is saying. She is motherly in that way, wanting at all times to make sure that you are comfortable and understanding what she means.] So there were some college guys in our show, too. In You Can’t Take It With You. We didn’t have female performances in drag or anything.

JP: I often wondered what it would be like to go to an all boys’ school or Catholic school. I mean, obviously there was interest in boys. Did you look at these as opportunities to…

DS: Oh yeah, totally. Opportunity to be in close proximity with the opposite sex? Yeah. But you know we had that anyway. It’s not as restrictive as it sounds, I don’t think. At least it wasn’t then. I am all in favor of same sex education, I’ve gotta say, as a product of an all girl Catholic high school. I think if I had gone to a co-ed school, well, I wasn’t a very good student to begin with but I would have been worse. I was a terrible student. Until I got to college and then I got steadily better. Because I started taking things I wanted to take. I didn’t like being a child because I didn’t like people telling me what to do. Hated it. I still hate being told what to do. So I didn’t do well in school because I didn’t like them telling me what they thought I should learn, or doing it on their time schedule. I didn’t like deadlines. I’m kind of an obnoxious person. So when I got to college and I could take things that I wanted to take and I could make my own schedule I did a lot better. But in high school I would have been an even worse student if there had been boys on the premises. But you know, they’re Catholic so there are large families with boys everywhere. And my grade school, that was co-ed so I knew a lot of guys from my grade school that I was friends with throughout high school because they all went to Rockhurst. And there were dances and parties. It was just when you were on campus you didn’t have any guys. It was hilarious, there was this circular drive in front of St. Teresa’s and some guys in a convertible would drive around the circle. Honking. And you would think that Jesus Christ had arrived on the green because girls would rush to the windows, scream. And I’d think, I’m gonna see them later on this evening. I don’t understand why we have to do this now. And you know, girls are catty. So there were a lot of cliques and a lot of in-fighting. It wasn’t terrible. Not the way it’s sometimes portrayed. But I was sort of oblivious. I was apolitical sort of, in terms of who I hung out with so there wasn’t a lot of meanness that went on around me. But I think there might have been for other girls who were more popular or more concerned about their status. I remember it as being a sort of benevolent experience. Nobody really cared enough about me to snipe about me.

JP: You are a very intelligent woman. During this hardship in school did you already know that you were intelligent? Did you ever question it?

DS: Oh I liked to think I was real smart.

JP: So there was some hubris involved?

DS: Oh yeah, that’s partly why I still don’t like being told what to do. I think I know better. And I certainly thought I knew better in school. And I’m lazy. That’s the other thing. That’s the other thing that made me a bad student, I’m lazy. So people tell me I gotta do these workbook pages between now and tomorrow at 2? Uh, I’d rather not do it. So I got bad grades.


JP: Were there other artists in your family?

DS: Um…you know, not really. I mean, I’m considered the odd one. I’m the “fancy” one, I’m the creative one. My mom was a very forceful personality. She liked to paint but wasn’t very good at it. Probably could have been better if she’d had more training and time to work on it. And she had a flare, you know, to say she had a flare for the dramatic makes it sound unsavory, but she had a very lively and extroverted personality, and I think she was the closest thing we had to someone very creative in our family. My dad was a doctor and very practical and mathematically inclined. My eldest sister is a nurse and also very practical and has a good mind for science, I think, and probably would have been a doctor if my dad had permitted her to go to medical school to be a doctor. My sister, Pat, is really…she’s got a lot of energy and a really great…she’s got a lot of personality on her though she might deny that she has any creativity about her. And both of my brothers in their very different ways are men of action, but neither of them “creative.” Though my elder brother, Drew, has a great way with words. My brother, Dan, likes to tell a story in a very detailed way. You dreaded him coming home from the movies because he was always going to recount every single scene of the movie in vivid detail. Which he could remember. And then my sister, Laura, knits these amazing things. I think she took art in high school, and she probably did okay. But none of them are performers or theater people and they think I’m a freak. A good freak, but yeah, none of them have that outward facing creativity, you know what I mean? They’re creative in their work or in their homes but their creativity doesn’t face out if that makes sense.

JP: That does makes sense.
[I catch myself using the word "creative" to mean people who write and perform instinctively, but I am constantly reminded that any pursuit, job, that requires you to use some small part of your imagination is tantamount to being creative. Often this is not acknowledged, and leads people to say that they are NOT creative.]

JP: So you chose to go to an arts college. Last part of high school, what lead you to make that choice? Was there any sort of epiphany?

DS: No, it was really the only thing I ever wanted to do. And in some ways I felt like it was the only thing I was suited for because, at the time, I didn’t feel like I had any practical skills. I was good at drawing attention to myself and that seemed like a good place to start. I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than a performer of one kind or another. Anytime I had an opportunity to take any class where I could perform something, any oral interp or debate, I took. But I really thought…I really was aiming for a traditional theater career. Yeah, career I guess, for want of a better term. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to perform onstage as other people’s text as an actor. And that’s what I did in college although, it’s a big school, the University of Missouri at Kansas City. And a pretty big theater department at the time. I was a declared acting major from the time I walked into the building. That was my trajectory, that’s what I wanted to do. I found out late in my senior year that the department head and a couple of other key figures in the department thought I was a tech person. Which kind of explained why I had not been cast as much as I thought I should. And I was stunned by that information, and infuriated because then I realized I had lost opportunities because somebody somewhere just hadn’t noticed. I don’t know where they got that except that I hung out with the tech people all the time, I LOVED the tech people.

JP: You’re a great actor, Diana. In fact, some of the people I’ve interviewed have said you’re one of the best actors that they ever met. But you don’t come off that way!

DS: I seem normal?

JP: No, it’s not even that. You seem, too intellectual. You feel more to me like the George S. Kauffman of the Algonquin Table with the sardonic wit and incredible writing ability.

DS: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I’m trying to think…I’m trying to think…isn’t it funny? I don’t have any friends from—I do have some friends from college still. But most of the people that I see from Kansas City when I go home for the holidays are friends from grade school. But I don’t…you know, I lived with a lighting designer. I lived with a stage management student. One of them I still keep the in touch with, the other one, I don’t know what happened to her. I can’t find her anymore. But I didn’t hang out with, in fact I didn’t befriend actors that much. Which is sort of odd looking back, it’s kind of an odd thing. Why I didn’t identify with those people, why I didn’t seek out their company, they were too…well, probably because they took attention away from me! I guess. I don’t know… I still sometimes would love to be an actor. A regular actor.

JP: They were around all the time.

DS: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I’m trying to think…I’m trying to think…isn’t it funny? I don’t have any friends from—I do have some friends from college still. But most of the people that I see from Kansas City when I go home for the holidays are friends from grade school. But I don’t…you know, I lived with a lighting designer. I lived with a stage management student. One of them I still keep the in touch with, the other one, I don’t know what happened to her. I can’t find her anymore. But I didn’t hang out with, in fact I didn’t befriend actors that much. Which is sort of odd looking back, it’s kind of an odd thing. Why I didn’t identify with those people, why I didn’t enjoy they’re company, they were too…well, probably because they took attention away from me! I guess. I don’t know… I still sometimes would love to be an actor. A regular actor.

JP: I feel the same way. I was always more attracted to the tech people. I preferred their company and their smaller parties. Even now I’m often more fascinated with the snack people than the people I’m in the show with.


DS: It’s funny, the show that I’m in now I play bearded lady. [The Art of Unbearable Sensations] And I’ve got this fabulous costume—my tits are all pushed up, I’m very open in through here. I’m told that I am “absolutely mesmerizing,” never more attractive than I am with a beard. Now I was thinking about that the other day and thinking what—it’s odd because I’m not usually objectified in that way? You know, I don’t think there are many people who, when they think of me they think, “ooh, sexy.” But now in this show with my beard, I’m this person. And I was thinking, well what do I think I am? I must think I have some appeal. What is the appeal that I think I have? And I decided that I think, I want to be seen as attractive for what I can do, you know? If I imagine myself as a person who is attractive, or sexually attractive or sexy, it—for some reason I want it to be for the things I can do. My efficiency! Which nobody finds sexy. For being capable. My capability is what I think is going to make me attractive to men. It’s like, um…not really but that’s okay. So I think that sort of fits in with my…I think where I was going with that thought is that sort of fits in with why I liked to hang out in those days with people who did things. These people have skills that make them useful, or make them valuable to the theater which seemed to me more valuable than being an actor who, we’re a dime a dozen. We’re—everybody gets paid before we do. The musicians get paid before we do. The house manager gets paid before we do. You know, I think there was a little bit of that in my rejection of actors, because they felt sort of superfluous. Even though the show cannot go on, literally, cannot go on with out us—I don’t know, there was less value to being an actor to me, I think, at the time.

JP: It’s hard to put a value on this, but is this really what you were feeling at the time?

DS: No, I definitely didn’t consciously think about it at the time. Although there are definitely personality types that I don’t like. I don’t like divas, I don’t like people who, you know, make a big fuss for no reason and demand special treatment because they are what they are instead of because they offer something that is essential or needed. And there was a lot of that in my—in every theater school—there’s always a lot of drama. Personal drama. And I didn’t care for that.

JP: I went to Columbia College here in Chicago, and the social habit I was known for—there were always parties going on, and I had [and still have] mixed feelings about going to these parties. I would literally get up to the door about to knock and then decide not to go. Sometimes I would just pace in front of the party until I walked away or someone made me go in. I wanted to be part of the drama in some aspect but I just couldn’t do it. Like, something in me thought, it’s not my world. I feel out of that. I felt more comfortable with the late night people in the kitchen talking quietly rather than being an integral part of the drama.

DS: It’s funny because Rachel’s [Claff] piece in the show we’re doing now, the BoyGirlBoyGirl show, is about that manufactured drama, the manufactured intrigue and that that sometimes surrounds the theater. Being catty for no reason or deciding that something is a big deal when it probably isn’t, but wanting to live at that sort of heightened state. Which I probably did on some level, and not only wanted to but probably did? I mean, I know there was a lot of drama in my life, things that I got really worked up about, but you know, I don’t know. They weren’t…I don’t know, I maybe…looking back maybe through filtered glasses, but I didn’t like the actors much. I think maybe that makes me a bad person. My best friends are actors, you know! It’s weird. It’s weird to be a theater person who—although, you know, most of the people I like don’t like actors, either. Even though they are some. And act like that, you know? It’s weird.

JP: I think some of this stuff is not talking in black and white. It’s grays, but I think what you’re saying is true about yourself. There’s always those perceptions.

DS: Oh yeah. I was young once, and foolish.


JP: Were you introduced to anything performance styles other than traditional theater when you were in college?

DS: No. Un-uh. We did plays, you know. That’s what we did. We took other people’s text, we performed them. I didn’t take any writing classes. I had a theater history class that was taught by a fantastic teacher, Felicia Londré, a woman who still teaches there and she was - maybe still is - the dramaturge for the theater there. She’s also a scholar - she’s written books about Tennessee Williams and productions of Hamlet in different countries and so on, but she had a theater history class that everybody loved. Everybody loved taking Felicia’s class and because it was a requirement, I think, she knew she had a lot of people in her class who were not going to go on to become dramaturges or theater historians or whatever. The way her classes were structured were you could turn in five projects—five short projects, like one or two page projects throughout the semester, or you could write a big paper at the end of the semester. So what I did—

(Bob enters. he forgot Diana was doing this thing. he got a haircut. it is short and nice.) [Bob Stockfish is Diana's partner and the inspiration for a character in Greg Kotis' Urinetown.)

So the things that you could do for your little projects would be, you could write a short, surrealist play or your could make a slide presentation about the Fauvists, you know. All these sorts of things that clearly geared for the actor or the lighting designer or the playwright. You could pick and choose these things. So I would always choose those things instead of the big paper at the end of the semester because that bullshit I didn’t like. Oh, and turning in two pages was much easier for me, and doing something creative. So I did get a little bit of a taste for things like writing short things based on a theme, or short things based on a style. I wrote a Dadaist play based on a painting by Salvador Dali. Well, okay. Not sure how that furthered my education, but I did. So I did get a little bit of a taste for that in a theater history class, which is ironic to me. My last semester there I took an independent study under her direction and I wrote a fifteen-minute play. But I guess I wrote another couple of things, too, because one of them was produced right after college, come to think of it. But I didn’t perform anything that was sort of out of the ordinary. You know, undergraduate playwriting class projects.

JP: It’s funny, there’s a lot of people who go to theater school and don't get any introduction to Dada, The Futurists, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Happenings, etc. They are considered visual artists but these individuals and movements began to blur the line between theater, music, and art. They helped to create "performance art."

DS: Felicia's class was great. There were two sections of it, one was up to maybe 1850 and then the rest was there to modern. Everybody wanted to take her class. She was a great teacher. Really made things come alive. And she was—still is—very tall, sort of bony and very sharp looking and if you met her in the hallway she would always sort of look shyly around and say, “hello,” in a very timid sort of nice-to-see-you sort of way. But in class she was really dynamic, and she would read—I’ll never forget—she read a passage from…Phaedra? the Racine play? In French. In the class. None of us understood French, but just so that we could hear the language of the play, the poetry of the play. And she was a completely different person. I think that she is actually a closeted actor that lacks the personal…you know, whatever that impulse is, that extroversion to put herself in front of an audience. But she did it every week in class. She was so much fun to be in class with, because she knew so much. And she was always excited about theater history - you know, we all have our own enthusiasms. But I really liked her, I really learned a lot in her class. Probably more than in any other class I took in college. But most of the acting I did was straight up theater.

JP: We're nearing your graduation. What are you thinking? What's next?

DS: Well, I applied to graduate school all over the place. Nobody wanted me. I picked five schools, auditioned for all of them, applied to all of them. Nothing. So I thought, well, I’ll just move then. I lived in KC for another couple of years after that, I think, and did a couple of shows with some small theaters there and had a great time but I didn’t wanna stay in KC. Because at that time, there wasn’t a lot of theater there? And what there was, there was dinner theater and community theater but not a lot of professional theater besides the big one at school.


JP: So were you working a lot of odd jobs in KC then?

DS: I worked at the public library all through college and then I worked at the Westport Cash Saver the two years after school, which we called Fellini Mart because it was just crazy there. And sometimes it was Diane Arbus day at Fellini Mart and that was really crazy. It was just a circus. Everything but dwarves was what we had. Oh it was quite a place. Still is, for all I know. Every day was some kind of new drama there. But, yeah, I just decided yeah, I’ll move then. So I picked five cities and did some research and narrowed it down and narrowed it down and finally decided on Chicago. Mostly for the theater. And that was 1985 and about a month—it must have been like the month I moved here, there was an article in Time Magazine about how Chicago was THE city for theater and if you wanted to be an actor you should move there. And EVERYBODY did. EVERYBODY DID. And I’m not saying I was ahead of the curve but I was just ahead of the article. So then within six months, I would say, there was a HUGE influx of actors in Chicago. Steppenwolf was very hot at the time, the Goodman’s profile was very high.

JP: Were there other elements that sold you on Chicago?

DS: Yes. It wasn’t as expensive as New York, it wasn’t as cold as Minneapolis, it wasn’t as rainy as Seattle, and it wasn’t that far from home. Seemed affordable. Somebody I knew had moved here. You know, like a lot of cities in the Midwest and the Rust Belt, Chicago is the next step up. The next biggest city. Part of it was climate, although I regret it now. Every single day of the winter I regret moving to this frozen, northern wasteland of a city. [Diana begins to let some of that quickly building stream subside. She is incredible at bringing comedy and venom together and then letting it dissipate into a cutesy smile.] And because it was starting to get a reputation for being a really good place to do theater.

JP: Did you jump right into auditioning?

DS: I had to acclimate to where I was. I don’t remember stepping into auditions right away. But not long after I moved here I started working with the Chicago Shakespeare Company, and I think they were formerly The Free Shakespeare Company. They needed somebody to be a board op or something. So I started doing that and eventually started getting cast with them. If they needed an extra body here and there they would put me in. Then I started saying in earnest that I wanted to be in the next show so they started casting me in stuff. I’d say about 4 or 5 years I worked with them. And we did, you know, not very good productions of Shakespeare. Not VERY good. Some were better than others, and I did some—you’ll discover a pattern—I started working there with ambitions to be an actor, and then I decided that maybe they needed somebody to be a company manager, to do some of the administrative tasks. Because nobody was doing them and that drove me mad. I ended up doing the bookkeeping. I didn’t know anything about bookkeeping—well, I knew a little because that’s what I did at Fellini Mart. I abhor an organizational vacuum. Apparently. I can’t help myself. So I ended up being more valuable that way than as a performer, I guess. And I was miscast in a lot of things, but there were a lot of things that I loved being in. I was in a production of The Winter’s Tale that—I played the role of Paulina and I loved playing that role. Because she’s right all the time, and I love being right. And she got to be indignant, and that was fun. Never liked playing ingénues, never liked that. They made me do that in KC a couple of time and it just—even when I was one, it wasn’t a good situation. No, they’re boring. Nothing’s more boring than an ingénue. I played Hero in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in Kansas City—Hero doesn’t do anything in that fuckin’ play. Except stand around and look—and be hurt. And faint. That was the most fun I had all day. I can’t wait till I get to faint, because then I get to do something. Mostly I just looked wounded. I hated it. But no, I love the characters of action. Paulina was a character of action. She moved the play along, she makes things happen, she yells at the king. It’s good. It’s fun. So I liked doing that. They cast me as…Olivia? In Twelfth Night? Who’s sort of an ingénue? I wasn’t good at it, I wasn’t sexy enough, and they said so, and recast me. I was like, wow, that’s not nice. But that’s okay, I got over it. And I played Mariah instead, who is lusty and earthy which I also am not. So I was miscast again but in a way that was more acceptable. But you know, I sort of enjoyed doing stuff with them. I got cast in men’s roles a lot. In Measure for Measure I played the provost, the guy who’s in charge of the prison. The administrator. I like that. I played the apothecary and Mrs. Montague, you know, Mrs. Montague has no lines. She basically says, “Oh!” at one point, somebody dies and she gets upset and then she perishes. But I got to play the apothecary, that was fun. I was a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was Hippolita and that was good. I can get behind being an Amazon. That was fun. But, on the whole—oh oh oh! And I played the Duke of Venice! I played the Doge of Venice. And I had a great costume. But I—always as women in these men’s roles.

JP: Scott and Phil talk about being at Goodman and the teachers and directors just didn’t know what to do with these guys. Did you feel similar ways during the earlier part of your performance career? It sounds like you got a lot of roles but did it feel like you weren’t coming into your own in these performances?

DS: Well, I’ve definitely fancied myself as lead material. I would like to have played…I, of course, always thought I was a better actor than whoever they cast or whatever they wanted. I don’t feel that way anymore, but at the time I would often be indignant that they gave the role to someone because that person had been around longer or complained more loudly or put themselves forward in a way. The thing I suffer from, if I suffer from anything in my “career”—in quotes—I lack ambition. I don’t put myself forward as often as perhaps I ought to. Or perhaps my career would have taken a whole different path if I had been more aggressive about pursuing theater work, I think. I’d probably be doing straight theater at someplace like Great Lakes Rep or something. I’d be playing Mrs. Capulet now somewhere. But I didn’t…I think that’s why I didn’t figure out until my senior year that they didn’t know I was an acting major, because I never went into the office of the department head and said “why am I not getting cast?” Well, I’m not getting cast because there are other people in the department who are better than me or, whatever. And at the time, in the Shakespeare company, I really did think that I was not being utilized well and that I would have been better than some of the women who were being cast in the roles that I wanted. And I don’t know that I ever expressed that out loud because theater is so political. I was sort of new to the company. The company had been around for awhile—Jane Lynch was in that company. Jane Lynch, who’s in all the old Christopher Guest movies now. There’s a person with force and ambition and personality. And talent. She’s very funny and a good actor. But she’s the kind of person who would put herself forward and say “this person should have this role. I should have this role and here’s why.” Whereas she would say that, I only thought it. I’d complain to someone on the side, but I would never say something to the company at large. Although I think I may have done that once or twice and been shot down. So, you know, I was relatively young at the time. They didn’t know me from Adam. They knew me as the person who came in as a board op. But they knew I was also an actor. I don’t know, it’s interesting.


JP: I don’t want to keep pushing for a revelation that you may not have experienced, but how did you get to where you are now? What was going on with you? I mean solo performance and Neo-Futurism is a very different world from what you were experiencing in Shakespeare.

DS: Here’s what I was doing. When I left the Shakespeare company, I did some auditions. I auditioned for The Goodman a couple of times, I did some commercial auditions—never got anywhere with that. I half-heartedly started going to agents. Again, my inability to put myself forward as a product of course completely hindered my ability to get any work through agents because unless you basically punch them in the face every day with who you are and what you are and what you do, they’re not gonna get any work for you. It’s the total squeaky wheel gets the grease syndrome. So I backed off from that because I just didn’t have that kind of energy. I was looking through The Reader one day, like you do, and I always looked at the audition notices and the Wanted notices, and there was an ad looking for women who were interested in writing to start a women’s theater collective. Well I answered that ad. I’m a feminist. I answered that ad. That’s how I met Anita [Loomis]. A bunch of women started to meet on a regular basis and we would write things and read them to each other and talk about feminist issues and talk about issues of the day and it was kind of a reaction to the—whether it was real or perceived—this sort of guy…theater was very much a guy’s game in those days. Steppenwolf was full of guys who were walking around naked five feet from the audience and spitting on each other. It was in reaction to that because we didn't think women were getting enough work in theater, we didn’t think women were getting enough attention as performers or writers. So we would meet regularly. And we wrote things for each other, we’d give each other assignments, and the next time we meet we’d read them. And that’s what we did. It was fun. We put on several shows together. Stand-up comedy in those days was HUGE, and was completely a men’s game. There just were no women in stand-up comedy, certainly on the local level, very few on the national level. And that was very interesting to me, as someone who is funny, who thinks she is funny. I thought that was a good fit for me. So I wrote—I was writing stand-up for myself. And then we put on 3 or 4 shows. That was when I started writing because I had never written anything before, aside from the assignments at school, I had never thought about myself as a writer.

JP: Comedy was just not at all inviting to women.

DS: Yeah, women aren’t funny. That was still the…you wouldn’t think that as late as the early ‘90s that there would be that sentiment that feminism negates humor. Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience. But that was a prevailing sentiment, women are not funny. And that’s because the guys were performing at Zanies every weekend didn’t want chicks around unless they were fucking ‘em. They didn’t want that competition. They had enough competition within their own ranks. And they did not—I have to say, in 1992 I was crowned the funniest unemployed person in the greater Chicagoland area. I was in a competition and I performed, I think it was at Zanies. And to his credit, there was a guy who was on the comedy circuit. I don’t think he was headlining there but he came up to me after the show and he said, “You’re really funny and you need to pursue this. Because there are not enough women doing this in the world.” And he gave me his name and his phone number and his address and, you know, I never got in touch with him. Again, my total lack of ambition. I think he must have been the only man on the planet who was doing that in that world, who was pursuing—he said, “you’re looking at things the right way out of the corner of your eye. You’ve got the right attitude and you should pursue it.” And, you know, I didn’t. I didn’t like it much.

JP: No?

DS: Yeah. I mean, I love it for all the same reasons I love solo performance. If you do well, it’s all you. If you do bad, it’s all you.

JP: Were you good with an audience?

DS: I think I could have been. It’s intimidating. Yeah, like, working with a microphone is very odd for me? And not something I was used to from my years at school? I was taught to stand and project. So that, and I think a lot of—I know it sounds ridiculous—but a lot of comedy is how you use the microphone.

JP: Music is that way, too.

DS: Yeah. It’s a skill. And I was intimidated by that. I think there are a lot of stand-ups who write that way. You know, everything is planned. Steve Martin is one of those writers, I think. There’s no improvisation in his act. But then I think the people who are really brilliant are the people who have it scripted but do have room for improvisation. Which I don’t think I have.

JP: One of my all-time is Paula Poundstone?

DS: Oh my god!

JP: She was amazing!

DS: She’s still hilarious. She’s on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! every now and then.

JP: But she was—male or female—the best I saw at using an audience.

DS: Yeah, yeah. Knows how to work a room. Yeah. She’s great. I would have liked to have been her. Not gonna happen.

JP: So did this group have a name?

DS: Yeah, I would say after about five meetings of deliberation, came up with the EXTREMELY creative title of The Feminist Theater Collective. Oh, that makes me wanna go see their shows! Although, we actually did have a little following, after 3 or 4 shows. And you know, it didn’t hurt that there were about 18 of us in the group and we all performed and we all had a couple of friends and we performed at Club Lower Links. I loved Club Lower Links. Lower Links was so dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face down there. But along with the people I met in that group, I went on to do other stuff. So, Anita, my friend Barbara Babbitt. I can’t remember if Susan Booth, who is now the artistic director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, at the time was working at Northlight, was in the FTC or not. We started sort of another theater company—well, “theater company” makes it sound like we were in any way organized, which we weren’t. But I started working on shows with these other gals, or the some of the gals from Feminist Theater Collective, and we started doing…in some way the same thing that we do now with BoyGirlBoyGirl, which is to take a piece of found text or an idea—mostly found text—and then create a show out of that text. And when we finally had to put our name on something, we came up with the name Matchgirl Strike which was…apparently there was a strike in New York among matchgirls, literally, girls who sold matches and it was a big deal. You couldn’t buy matches on the street anymore because there was a strike. It was a sort of labor movement. Early feminists unite. And we thought it was a cool thing, so that’s what we called ourselves. Matchgirl Strike!

JP: That's a very punny title. Very witty.

DS: Yeah! Look at that! Look at that! You see how it resonates. We did two or three really fun shows even if I do say. The first show we did was called “A Different Kind of Blow Job,” We took the transcripts of the 1983 Minneapolis obscenity hearings, which was trying to decide on an obscenity ordinance for the city of Minneapolis, and we made a show out of those transcripts. Sure. That sounds like a lot of fun. That was actually pretty fun, we performed that at Club Lower Links. We did a different show called “Women’s Day: A Living Magazine.” We did a living newspaper treatment of a single issue of Women’s Day magazine. We did both of those shows through the old Zebra Crossing, and that was really fun. We took an issue of Women’s Day and sort of deconstructed it, poked holes in it. We would have run it a lot longer but the guy who was one of the duo who ran Zebra Crossing worried about the copyright issues, called up Women’s Day magazine and said “we’re doing a feminist deconstruction of your magazine. Is it okay if we do that?” He identified himself and what theater company he was from and basically we had to shut down before they sued us. So that didn’t work out. The third and last show we did was called “An Act of Obscenities,” and we chronicled obscenity law from the beginning of the country to present day based on a book called Girls Lean Back Everywhere, which is a history of obscenity law. And that was fun, too. That was me and Barbara and Anita. Susan directed it.


JP: Around this time you were introduced to the Neo-Futurists. Is that correct?

DS: I was in the Feminist Theater Collective and we were performing our first show, “Wild Women Get The Blues?” I had written 25 minutes worth of stand-up material about female protection. Which was fun. Greg Allen came to see that. There was a woman in the cast who was roommates with Miriam [Greg Allen's wife to be at the time, now ex-wife] He introduced himself and said who he was and it didn’t mean anything to me because I didn’t know anything about Too Much Light. It had been running 2 or 3 years by then. He cast me in something. Lexus Praxus at Zebra Crossing. In this series they would take non-theatrical texts and adapt them to the stage. Greg had adapted a short story by Richard House called “Milk,” with Chet Grissom who was Karen Christopher’s first husband. The Neo-Futurists had been not long in the Neo-Futurarium? This must have been ’92 so they had just moved in…or they were renting space from Oobleck. So that was how Greg and I got to know each other. And then in late ’92 I was at work at the Actor’s Center, minding my own business, and Greg called me up and said, “what are you doing?” and I said, “well, I’m working.” And he said, “The Neo-Futurists are having auditions tonight,” and I said, “Oh.” And he said, “Well, do you want to come by and audition?” and I said, “Well, okay.” and I said, “What do I have to have?” and he said “You have to have 2 minutes of original material.” And it just so happened that I had about 4 minutes of original material that I had written with the gals, with The Feminist Theater Collective. So I said, “Well, okay.” I didn’t have anything else to do. I don’t think I’d ever seen the show— I knew about it, but I’d never seen it. Or if I had—I don’t think I’d ever seen it, I’ll say that again. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what I was getting into. So I went and while I was going there I was cutting and cutting and cutting from this piece that I had. And I was imperfectly memorized, I’m sure. But I went and I auditioned and it went okay. Everyone was very friendly and spoke to me afterwards and the next thing I knew, I was trapped. And then I started in January of 1993 in Too Much Light.

JP: Did you come in with other people?

DS: Lusia and David (Kodeski) and I were cast all at the same time. And Lusia and I started the same week. David started about three weeks later. It was fun.

JP: Okay, we’re there now.

DS: Yeah, it took long enough! Yak, yak, yak.

JP: You had never seen it before, but do you remember…what is your first memory in the show? Just being in it?

DS: I remember getting my nametag. Barbara Babbitt and I went together, I think, right after I got cast. And that’s all I remember getting my nametag and thinking, that’s bullshit. And then sitting—I think at the time you had to be interviewed—back, ooh, way back in the day.

JP: They still did the interviewing of the audience when you started?

DS: Oh, oh yeah. I talked to people. I still think that’s a good idea. We also had the audience write whatever they wanted on the back wall with chalk [This was before we even had a chalk board on the back wall. They were just writing on the wall itself.] This was a pain in the ass because every night you had to wipe it down and start all over again.

JP: Did you like it?

DS: Yeah, oh yeah. I thought it was a good idea or I wouldn’t have said yes. It seemed like fun. It is what it is. It’s fast-paced and clever, the people seemed interesting, it obviously had an audience. There were a lot of people there who had, some of them, had obviously been there before so I knew that it had a following and it was an exciting thing. There wasn’t—and still isn’t, as far as I’m concerned—anything else like it. It was absolutely filling a niche at that time. There was no late night theater. There was very little late night theater, I should say. There was comedy clubs…and that was about it, really. Comedy clubs. You had to be 21, you had to buy drinks to go. Nobody was doing that. Nobody I knew could afford to do that, was interested in doing that. So this was doing something that nobody else was doing, you know, for people who were under 21 or theater people. There was a real—in spite of the fact that there’s that lack of theatricality about it—these were clearly theater people. This was clearly put on not by comedians but by people who were theater people. In the best sense of the word. Who cared about connecting with the audience. And I liked that it wasn’t all funny, that there was room for—because I was a little more serious in those days. I was sort of going through a phase where I didn’t wanna be funny all the time even though I was doing stand-up at the time. I liked that there was a range of tone and a range of intent behind what was being presented. And I thought the people who were in it were smart, funny—and that was a big draw. That made it really appealing. There were people who were clearly smarter and more talented than I was working on it.

JP: You came in right at the beginning the only time when the show had a consistent cast for over a two year period.

DS: Yeah, I started in January of ’93. And they had been I think a fairly stable cast for a while. And I can’t remember who we were brought in to replace. I think Tim Reinhardt was quitting. I think Betsy Freytag was quitting, and I think Spencer was on her way out. That sounds about right. I think that’s actually who we were replacing…you know, not replacing, but we were filling those empty gender slots. Yeah, I was in the show with Greg Allen, Heather, Scott Hermes, Ayun Halliday, Dave Awl, Greg Kotis, me, Lusia & David. Us 9. For two years. It was great. It was great. Everybody was good. Everybody carried their weight. Everybody brought something different to the show. We didn’t always get along, in fact, we almost never got along. Rehearsals were fraught. But it was because we all wanted to make the show the best show that we could make it and we often disagreed on what that meant. Everybody had a different way of challenging each other, whether they knew it or not. Scott Hermes told me that—and I’m sure he’s said as much in his interview—that his goal was to get 100 plays in the show every year. That’s ENORMOUS. To get that many. Considering the show was only running 50 weeks a year and you were maybe performing—we had to make people take vacation—you were maybe in the show 48 weeks a year. That’s more that three plays a show. That’s a lot!

JP: Which meant he actually had to propose more than that.

DS: Oh my god. The man was a generator. He would bring in 5 plays a week. They weren’t all successful, but 3 out of 5 were pretty good. Good enough. And Kotis every week challenged himself to bring in something different or he just explored so many different kinds of styles. Even though he has a very distinctive Kotisian style. That overly formally, declamatory style that suits him so well. But he just used to bring in things that made you laugh so hard you couldn’t breathe or took your breath away, they were just so beautiful. Or strange, or looked at things in such a funny…or were just hilarious. Or all of those things. And Lusia just brought that Lusia energy. She just had something. That…her writing got better over time. I think all of ours did in that group. But she always had that magnetism onstage. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her. There was a sexual tension to her interrogation plays that wasn’t always savory. And Heather, always the master of the mundane couched in the extremely odd. Wonderful strange stuff. And Annie just has a cock-eyed way of looking at things and a way with language that’s really fun.
She would bring a very personal take on a hot button issue for want of a better term. Her plays about abortion or racism or gun control were always…sometimes you didn’t know what she was saying. You didn’t know whether she was coming down for or against, but they were provocative in a personal way. She always brought a very personal and personally revealing take on issues of the day, things that other people might not be comfortable revealing about themselves. She also is the master of reduction. She would take whatever movie everybody was seeing at the time? She would reduced it to two pithy and very pointed minutes.

JP: That’s something I’ve always admired that I just don’t have.

DS: Minutiae. She has a real gift for that, stripping a piece of popular media down to its ridiculous bones so that you can see the ridiculousness of the premise. Like The Piano. It’s a stupid movie. But she really showed you how stupid it was. But I don’t think anybody thought it was stupid. “Oh no, it’s a great movie!” She was like, “No. It’s stupid, and here’s why.” The audience loved Annie. The bagel was her thing and people, I’m sure, who have no other recollection of her know the bagel. Know that she’s the bagel lady. And, you know, she was beautiful without artifice onstage and I think that made people…she was really attractive to people and they would listen to her say things that they might not listen to other people say.

[Here I tried to phrase a question about the relationship between Greg Kotis and Ayun Halliday. They met in the show and got married, moved to NYC and started the first Too Much Light show there back in the mid 90's. I never solidified a question but Slickman took what I gave her and expounded.]

DS: It’s interesting about them because they’re very different kinds of writers? Annie’s got a lot of output—so does Greg—but Ayun just sorta puts it all out there, and Greg is a little more judicious about what he puts out there. Not that Ayun’s things aren’t crafted well or written well, but they’re a little more effusive, maybe? And Greg’s a little more reserved? And I think they’re a little like that personally. Greg is a much more contained and she’s just all out there. So they’re kind of an odd couple in that way? But they work together. I don’t know if they collaborate at all. I don’t know if any of the stuff that they’ve been working on in New York is collaborative or not, besides Greg writing and Annie performing in. But at the time they seemed…they were a well-matched, odd couple. And the first Neo-Futurist couple that stayed together and worked together.


JP: Well now that you look back, in retrospect, What in your career as a performer did that show nurture for you? And what do you think you brought to the show?

DS: It turned me into a writer. I never wanted to be a writer, I never set out to be a writer, I never studied to be a writer, I never thought of myself—still sometimes don’t—think of myself as a writer. But I had to. I had to write every week. I loved the idea of the economy of it. I liked that…I thought I could write things that were short because I’d done that before. I liked the constraints of Neo-Futurism, I liked being able to work within those confines. And already performing as a stand-up or as someone who had read things that I had written, I was comfortable with the idea of being myself onstage, it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t going to play a character. What did I bring? I don’t know. I don’t know what they saw in me, frankly.

[I sometimes feel Diana is hard on herself purely for the comical, I hope she doesn't really question her talent in Too Much Light. Sometimes when you hear a good singer, you feel that shiver up your spine, when Diana speaks her text I am immediately in a vortex of tears, happy, sad, joyful. I quite frankly don't completely understand her power, it seems so natural yet meticulous and shocking.]

JP: Did you ever feel like you battled the aesthetic?

DS: It took me awhile to figure out some of the parameters of it. I understood it intellectually but would lapse, if you will. I’m not good at creating characters, I’m not good at making up plots, I’m not good at making things up, necessarily. But I’m good at telling you…at looking at things from a different angle and I’m good at showing you what I’m seeing. And so the aesthetic worked for me in that way, because I could show you what I was seeing. Because that’s all that was required. To present a point of view or tell a story without any artifice.


JP: I think of you and Heather in the same way I think about…Chrissie Hynde in The Pretenders. The way I saw her in music is the same way I saw you in theater. You didn’t even have to talk about feminist issues. It was so prevalent that you were past the point of having to fight and were just being a human being onstage. I imagine you had to go through a process to get as confident as you appear. Do you feel that you went through a struggle to be a strong "performer."

DS: All that time I spent with the Feminist Theater Collective, we talked about this stuff very concretely. And we were up in arms about it. Even now, I think it still exists. I think that theater in Chicago, in particular, is still a boys game in a lot of ways, although that’s changing and has changed a lot since I first moved here. But yeah, I mean it was very explicitly my agenda, to move women forward in the arts in Chicago. Because, again, it was…Steppenwolf was…and Sam Shepard and David Mamet—it was all guys stuff. Not that it was bad guy’s stuff it was just…there was no place for us, for women who weren’t objects or ingénues or grandmothers. There were no adult women in theater, it seemed like. And if there were they were in service of these very male plays. And so I really did, that was a very conscious thing that I went through. And I still think that in the show I brought some of those issues up without…without being sledgehammer-y about it.

JP: It’s difficult and I think that’s why I admire you, too, because when I came in I don’t think I ever really heard plays that were about that specifically. I think you just probably grew to the point where you realized I have to face issues and not just complain about the situation.

DS: Well, yeah, because complaining gets you—to some extent—nowhere. You bring the issue up and you throw the penalty flag and you explain the penalty and you go on. You know, the game goes on. And whether people continue to commit that penalty or not is up to them, but you keep throwing a flag at it. I think that by the time I got to the show, by the time I got to Too Much Light, I was kinda through that. I was kinda like, well, I’m just gonna be a strong woman in the world. I’m just gonna be what I am. Or try to live up to that ideal for myself and people will either accept that or they won’t but they’ll see the example, you know. I will live those ideals rather than talk about those ideals. And that was the nice thing about the show, too, in that context, was that seeing it, clearly women’s contributions were valued. There were at least as many women in the show as there were men. Or close to it. They got equal time, there weren’t censored, they weren’t subjugated to…you know, we weren’t all in men’s plays. It was ideal for me in that way. I don’t even know if I thought about it consciously, but it was a good fit.