I am very pleased to present Part 1 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.
When did you feel you first wanted to be a performer? What precipitated that for you?
Julia Sweeney: It’s funny, because I have been thinking lately – I don’t know if I’m articulating this right – about the difference between an actor and a performer.
I didn’t think of a profession as a performer – that wasn’t in the list of professions that seemed possible when I was growing up. You kind of were a lawyer or a teacher. I guess a teacher would be the closest to being a performer. But my dad was a trial attorney, so there was kind of a performance aspect to his work. And so I wanted to be a lawyer.
I was always funny. Like I was voted funniest girl, second grade through eighth grade at my school. [laughs] I didn’t think of that as performance, I just thought of that as being funny. But I obviously loved getting the laughs, and I learned how to get better laughs. So I think I just unconsciously gravitated to that because of the high that you get when people laugh at what you say. It never occurred to me to be a stand-up, even though we did like certain stand-ups in our family – it just didn’t occur to me. And then when I was in college I thought maybe I’d want to be an actress, and then I auditioned for the Goodman Theatre in my sophomore year and didn’t get in, and just gave that up.
Then I decided to be an accountant. I guess it was lurking there, in the back, but I decided to be an accountant, in show business. That’s what I wanted to be, a specific type of accountant – an accountant in show business. So I moved to L.A. and got a job as an accountant at Columbia Pictures, where I worked for five years, and during that time I realized that I wanted to be onstage. But not as myself – I wanted to be an actress. So I started taking improv classes, and I guess that is a performer. I guess let’s just say an actress is a performer. [laughs]
But, you know, in some ways it really is different. Like, I know people who are actors who never get onstage. They only act before a camera where it’s really alone, and it seems qualitatively different than getting on a stage in front of people – being a person who impersonates somebody in front of a camera where not necessarily an audience is nearby. So that is a very different thing. And I guess I didn’t know that much about show business then, so I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do. But I did like the idea of playing characters. I didn’t really think of being myself onstage until even after Saturday Night Live. So it was a gradual thing for me to be myself as a performer onstage.
So what did you learn about yourself when you started with The Groundlings and then when you got onto Saturday Night Live? What did you find out about yourself when you got in front of an audience?
JS: I did learn a lot at The Groundlings. Literally, you learn techniques – improv techniques. But I learned that I had a humorous point of view that I could convey – that was the biggest thing. And I could convey it sometimes as a character, and sometimes as myself. But that was this thing that I had – I was funny, I guess.
How did you discover that?
JS: I don’t even know when that started. I’m just learning about it myself, actually. [laughs] I don’t really know when it started. I know that I made people laugh, always. But I learned to kind of control that galloping horse by going to classes at The Groundlings Theatre. So you might have these comedic instincts – like you might have a natural ability to shoot baskets, but if you don’t learn how to make the baskets and drill yourself in it, you’re never going to be good.
So I really feel like it was The Groundlings, and then I guess Saturday Night Live, that kind of showed me how to funnel that natural comedy into something that could be useable as a character or something. And then it wasn’t really until after I was on Saturday Night Live that my friend Kathy Griffin kept encouraging me to get onstage and tell stories, that I started to tell stories onstage. But I still never thought of myself as a stand-up – I just thought of myself as a person who told stories.
Then I started doing these monologues, so then I wasn’t really considered a stand-up, but I felt like my monologues were funny. And sometimes I would feel almost self-righteous about it, like, “My monologues are as funny as anybody’s stand-up, but I’m talking about a serious subject, and I’ve gone to the trouble of making up a story that has acts in it, and it goes somewhere.” But I think a lot of stand-ups wouldn’t think that was true, like I was more of a dramatic monologist than I was a comedienne. And I don’t really know what’s right or true.
Anyway, then I met Jill [Sobule], and I literally would sit onstage and think of something, while she sang a song, that related to my life, and I would tell that.
So you weren’t preparing that material? You didn’t know what you were going to be talking about?
JS: Not at first – it was really, just, “Oh, that song reminded me of this…” But then, as we started doing shows more and more together, of course, we started to notice which songs went better with what stories, and we kind of tried to have a little bit of an arc, we tried to have little themes. Like we had kind of this boyfriend theme that paid off when I told the story of how I met my husband. And it kind of gravitated, very loosely, towards a structure.
Do you think musically?
JS: No, but I’ve always loved musicians. And I did this before with Jonathan Richman, another musician. We met when I was on Saturday Night Live and I interviewed him for SPIN Magazine, and then we became friends. And I started doing that with him, where I would go out to his concerts – we never made it “The Jonathan and Julia Show”, it was Jonathan’s show that I would get up for a period of time during his show and tell stories that somewhat related to his songs. So I guess I always kind of liked that.
See, I just am always so jealous of musicians, because, first of all, it’s not all relying on the story – they get the music. So they have the lyrics, and they have the music. And then their lyrics don’t even have to make sense! [laughs] I mean, they have to make sense and be resonant, if they’re good, but they don’t have to conform to normal storytelling rules. And I just feel constantly frustrated by having to, one, tell the truth – which I’m just sick to death of – and, secondly, having to make it build to a payoff. I really am tired of doing that, and I’m trying to stop, frankly. I’m so sick of it! [laughs]
That’s so interesting, because that’s been your trajectory for quite some time, and you’ve found so much success with it!
JS: I know it, except that I’m telling you – I feel like this is another topic – like I have these shows with Jill but then we’re stopping, and even though I love Jill and I’ve loved doing it – we’ve done it for seven years – but I just have had it with the storytelling about my life. I’m just done. I can’t do it anymore. I mean, obviously I can do it 16 more times, which is the number of shows we have left [laughs] but this is going to be the end of it.
I really love it, but I have hit the edge of what I can do anymore. I don’t have a turbulent love life; my daughter [Mulan] is becoming a person who you can’t just constantly tell stories about onstage without truly violating her privacy; [laughs] and it’s too hard, the travel and stuff. And actually being on the stage is an emotional roller coaster for me that I just have to take a break from. Or maybe a break for the rest of my life. [laughs] “I’m taking a break from performing…for the rest of my life.”
Well, I actually wanted to ask you about that. Because you present this intimate material, and I wonder how you protect yourself, yet leave yourself accessible to the experience and also let the audience in. Do you feel like you’re doing a version of yourself, or a character that’s based on yourself, or is it truly directly wired to yourself?
JS: No, it is myself! That’s just it. People come up and say this to me all the time: “I feel like I really know you from your monologues and books, but I know that you’re really more than that.” And I say, “No, I’m not. That is me, and in fact you do know me.” [laughs]
So when you’re doing this, do you ever get anxious, or stage fright, in terms of, “Here I am about to unzip my protective coating again…”
JS: No, that’s the interesting thing. I don’t have that fear, and I even have that desire, but it has costs, but not until later.
JS: Because in the moment, I want to be a performer, and the people have paid, and the machine is going, and the car’s in gear, and you gotta goooo! [laughs] And then, you know, most of the time I do get laughs, and that’s totally the payment for it – I get really high from that. Then it isn’t until two months later where I’m going, “Oh my god, why did I say that? That’s a terrible thing to say!” And then I’m up in the middle of the night thinking, it’s really a horrendous roller coaster that I’ve been on, really since I was about 33 – and I’m 53, by the way. Twenty years! [laughs]
So now I feel like, can we just do fiction again? Like, when I was on SNL, I wasn’t myself, I played characters! So now, after this year ends, after we do all of our shows through November, I’m going to stop. Because I’m writing fiction now, and I’m really enjoying it, and I just feel like I want to write fiction. That’s all I can say – that’s what I want to do. I feel just over-naked with the telling personal stories. And I love it in other people. And I think I’ve done well. I think I’ve been honest, and I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I’m also completely embarrassed by it. [laughs]
And maybe Mulan is a little bit, too…
JS: Yes, it’s true! And I just, I don’t know, I talk of entering the convent. [laughs] I’m in The Trouble With Angels, and I’m saying, “Ok, and now I’m done, I’m entering the convent.”
Do you have a pre-show ritual, or a way of getting yourself psyched up so you can go out there and do what you need to do? Do you and Jill do something?
JS: Well, we make our show order, which changes all the time. It’s just the weirdest thing with stories, you know? Like say I’ll have ten stories that I know work. Then I’ll do a new story. “Oh my god, here’s another one to go in the pantheon! This will work every time!” Then I do it two more times, and then all of a sudden that story’s dead. I can’t find my way back into how that story was funny, and no one’s laughing! So our show order’s always changing, mostly because of me thinking, “Ok, that story didn’t work.” And then we change that up.
And, you know, Jill – see, this is the thing about singers, they do their vocal exercises, so Jill is always walking around going, [singing] “Doo doo doo doo DOOOO doo doo doo doo…” and all this stuff. And I don’t have anything like that. [laughs] I’m just sitting there going, “Wow. You sure do a lot of vocal exercises.”
Also, for whatever way I’m wired, for whatever reason, my blood pressure goes down when I get onstage. I just don’t get nervous. As soon as I walk onstage, I feel calm and focused. I don’t know why that is. I mean, part of it is definitely just doing it a lot. Because always people say, “How do you become a performer?” I go, “You get onstage every time you can for about ten years. [laughs] And make it, like, three times a week at the least. And then you’ll start to think, ‘Oh, I know what this feels like.’ You’ll have had enough terrible things happen that you’ll have a general idea of what to do when things go wrong.” [laughs]
Do you ever feel like you’re on autopilot and you’re kind of sightseeing when you’re up there? Or do you pretty much always feel fully engaged?
JS: Well, I don’t know if I’d say autopilot. Definitely not with Jill, because one of the great things about doing things with Jill is it’s interactive. When I have done monologues, it definitely could slip into that. Because even though I felt like I was giving a really good performance – and people said I was giving a good performance, so I think I was – different times when I would start a show and then half an hour would go by and it was like you drove to work and you don’t remember anything about getting there. I wouldn’t really have any sense of having done thirty minutes of a show. Like I’d go, “Oh my god, where am I? Did the show just start? Am I finishing the show?” [laughs]
And there was actually some really scary moments, some of the scariest moments of my whole life. You know, like being on Broadway, and coughing, and looking up and not knowing if the show was starting or ending. You know, terrifying! Like you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and your toes are hanging off the edge – that sort of sensation? [laughs]
But with Jill I don’t feel like that, because we’re so with each other. I definitely feel more engaged in some shows than others, but it’s more like the sensation of really being super-engaged is what I remember than not being engaged. Or maybe that’s just denial about when I’m not engaged! [laughs]
For example, Jill and I just did eight shows in the Northeast in July. And it was so funny, because there was this one show where we didn’t know why our booker booked us in to it. I think he just booked us there because it was in between two other dates. And we were only getting a percentage of the door, and they had, like, twenty people.
JS: So considering that we were driving and staying in a hotel and we had our producer along with us, basically we were paying to do the show. But the people were so nice at this theater! Everyone there was a volunteer, and they really let us know that, [laughs] and they were so sweet. And also, they didn’t have air conditioning and it was, like, a hundred degrees and it was in the attic of something – it was terrible! It was terrible in so many ways that it started to be great. Because it was just so terrible – this is, like, as bad as it gets. It’s a hundred degrees in the theater, there’s only twenty people, and there’s two hundred chairs. [laughs] It was so terrible! And, actually, that was my best show of all the shows. Because I was up there, like, “Oh my god, this is such a special situation! I am gonna give the best show I can!” [laughs]
See, now, that’s a real professional!
JS: Well, I don’t know, because maybe sometimes when there’s lot’s of people I kind of start disengaging, but whatever! Anyway, that was just a funny thing. And so, one of the things I remember about this trip was that moment – feeling like, man, I’m just going for it. [laughs]
[To be continued…]