I am very pleased to present Part 2 of my conversation about performance with actress/comedienne/writer/director JULIA SWEENEY.
I’m sure you can get into situations where things just become transcendent.
Julia Sweeney: Oh, yeah!
People talk about the zone, and I’m sure you get into that. How do you experience the zone? What kinds of conditions contribute to that for you?
JS: First of all, really, I realized that improvisation is so much a young person’s game. I swear, I’m not just making excuses for me not being so good at it! But knowing what I’m going to do, knowing how the story goes and which parts to tell, and being on top of it, is really important. Although I think there are definitely times when I get onstage and I’ll start talking about something that literally just happened to me in the dressing room and it will work great. It feels very high and fantastic and the audience is laughing and responding, and they’ll often say, “Oh, that moment was so great.” But it’s hard for me to even know if that’s the zone or not, or if that’s just this one great accident that happened. I don’t even know about that. I can’t articulate that in my mind.
But I know when I think of my favorite moments performing, I basically think of two of the monologues I did, “God Said Ha!” and “Letting Go of God”, when the run had been going for long enough that people were trying to get in – I was selling out, so that always feels good – and I really knew the show, but I hadn’t been doing it so long that I was now so sick of the show. And I’d have moments where I felt like I was completely engaged with everything I said and I just had the audience in the palm of my hand, and I could control the silences. To me, that’s a sign of the zone, not so much controlling the laughs but controlling the silences. That’s another way to control the audience. And it felt like, oh my god, it’s the greatest feeling you could ever have. Even though I am now saying, “And I’ve had it! I’ve had that feeling. Now let’s have some other feelings.” [laughs]
Do you feel like you have mastery over your craft in terms of what you’ve been doing so far?
JS: [laughs] No! I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I kind of haphazardly put it together, and sometimes it’s great, and mostly it’s good. And sometimes it’s horrible, and that it feels very herky-jerky in my mind. Like I feel like I’m not [actress] Anna Deavere Smith. Like I’m like, [awkwardly] “And now, I take a step to the right…” Her control is incredible. I don’t feel that way. I feel like, [shakily] “I’ve got a paintbrush, and I’ve got some paint, and I kinda know what the colors are, I kinda know what I’m painting…” [laughs]
I would assume that you’ve changed as a performer over the years in terms of your confidence in your skill set and knowing what works?
JS: Well, I think just being calm. I think, actually, from the audience’s point of view, the audience really can sense when somebody’s nervous onstage. And so I think just doing it a lot makes me really comfortable getting onstage, and so that really makes a big difference. I mean, I definitely think you can get to that – you can get confident by just doing it a lot. And also feeling like you know what you’re going to do. You’re going to give them a show. They’ve paid, and now you’re giving them a show. And that calmness, I definitely learned. At the beginning, I wasn’t calm, not for many years, and then I learned how to be calm onstage.
Yeah, I definitely see that. There’s a centeredness, a groundedness.
JS: Yeah, and you can feel an audience knows if people are too nervous. And then they get nervous, and that’s just a killer for laughs. So then you’re only getting nervous laughs, or sympathy laughs. You want people to feel like they’re in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing.
Yeah, I talk to the people I work with about that all the time. It’s like, you’ve got to take the audience by the hand and say, “This is where we’re going, and I’m going to take care of you , and it’s going to be ok.”
How do you experience the audience? And has that changed over the years, how you experience the energy coming from the audience?
JS: Well, I don’t know if this is related, but this has just occurred to me that I have been waiting to tell someone this, so I’ll tell you. [laughs]
JS: It’s about experiencing the audience, really in an individual way. Ok, so the lights are on and you see the audience, you can see a few faces in the front two or three rows, and you can’t see anyone after that because of the lights. And I like that. In fact, to me, I wish I couldn’t see anyone, because then I’d just imagine everyone loving me. [laughs] If you can see people and they’ve got a scowl on their face, it’s sometimes hard – and sometimes it’s not even a scowl, it’s only just their resting face is not a pleasant look. And it can be just, you know, disquieting.
Anyway, this is really neither here nor there, but it’s just talking about experiencing the audience. Sometimes I’ll see someone in the audience that reminds me of someone that I loved. And so I saw this guy in the audience, an older guy, that looked like my dad, and my dad’s been dead ten years. And he didn’t even look exactly like my dad, but he just had a way about him that was like my dad. Like he was sort of balding, and he had these kind of cool glasses, you could tell that he was smart, but he was kind of slight, and he had this smile. And it wasn’t like it was as creepy as I pretended that was my dad, but I guess my thought was, “Oh yeah, if my dad didn’t know me, and he had come to this show, he would have liked me in this show.” I guess that’s what I was kind of thinking. And that was really a dance in my head at that particular performance, you know – like he was there.
And this happens, I think – it’s not just a dad thing, but there’s other, like, aunts, or friends. I can see people’s faces and I imagine their personalities, and then I want to please them, I’m glad to please them with my stories. Like, they really get me, or they really get this, what I’m saying, and I don’t even have to explain it very much to this person, because they get it already.
Anyway, so this guy – I was just, like, “Oh, I’m just a revelation to him!” You know, whatever compliment I’m giving myself to keep myself in this positive state while I’m doing the show. [laughs] And then at the end, the guy came up with a friend, because they were buying something, and the guy not only didn’t even speak any English, but there was something wrong with him. He obviously didn’t get anything about my show. There was nothing that I had fantasized about with his look that was true in any way. It was so, like, “Oh my god, oh my god! We just had a relationship, and you were not in it!” [laughs]
Well, whatever works for you!
JS: It’s true! But anyway, whatever!
When you’re in an audience, what excites you or inspires you when you see a good performance? What are the characteristics of it?
JS: Well, I like things to be smart. I like things to be witty and insightful. And I really like a combination of irony and compassion. There’s a way certain people – and I hope I’m like this, because I really do feel this way, but I can really see it especially amongst comedians, people who have it or don’t – where you can describe other people, because a lot of times in comedy you’re really making fun of other people, but you’re laughing, I wouldn’t say it as simply as “with them rather than at them”, but they’re funny but you have compassion for them. They’re not being ridiculed, there’s like a more ironic compassion. And I like that – I like that quality. And immediately, if people have that, I like whatever they’re doing more. And I think it’s one of the things that I liked about Jill. I responded to her lyrics so strongly because I felt that was in there. They were funny, but they weren’t superior.
I mean, I definitely can rant about things I hate in politics and stuff like that. It’s not like I’m so approving of everyone – believe me, I’m not! But, in general, I would say I try to have compassion. There’s just so much funny stuff that you can laugh at but also have compassion for. I think that some people are too derisive, even though I think there’s room for that, too, and there’s some people that do that who I like. It’s not taking the edge off, either, and plus I think it can even be more poignant, and pointed, when you have compassion for them. But it isn’t just making fun of other people, which is a simple way to say it, I guess.
Well, it sort of helps bring everyone into the universal truths of the human condition.
JS: Yeah, I think so! And even, sometimes, we do political stuff of people that I really think are doing harm to our country. So that’s hard. But I still try to keep an edge to it. I’m like, [compassionately] “Oh, they don’t know. They don’t know that global warming is not a hoax. [laughs] And I’m going to try really hard not to think of how they’re in charge of laws that can affect other people…” Or something like that. And to me there’s something funny about trying to have compassion for people like that. There’s comedy there, too.
I think that’s what’s so moving about your show Letting Go of God, because you are earnestly on this journey of discovery, you’re not just writing everything off on a whim. You go to enormous effort…
…you travel the world, and read all these thinkers, not just the Bible, and you’re really, truly, sincerely wrestling with this issue. And you’re not saying that people who believe this stuff are fools, either.
And I think what resonates is that it really is based in this loving place.
JS: Well, I do like to feel that mostly that’s eighty percent true – there’s twenty percent of me that hates everyone. [laughs] And I like that in other people, too. So that’s my particular thing – I like that.
Did you ever worry about the repercussions of “coming out” as an atheist?
JS: You know, it’s so funny, because everyone asks me that, and I always think, oh, well, first of all, if anything, people in L.A. were more horrified that I was religious at one time. That was the part that was like, “Really? You really…? No way!” [laughs] So if I was endangering anything in L.A. when I first opened that show, it was that I let people know that at one time I was religious. And that probably cost me some work. [laughs]
But now that it’s been years, it’s interesting – I like to say that when I was doing that show, that was before the “atheist craze”. [laughs] And now I feel like in some ways I’ve been dismissed as “one of those people” – not by conservatives, who would always dismiss those people, and I don’t even care about them – but by what they consider to be an “open-minded, post-modern, modern thinker”, of being too rigidly dismissing religion. And I really totally am not dismissing religion. And I still have a lot of compassion for it, and I really understand why people like it. And I feel I do get grouped with that and kind of put in a category with that. And I feel that’s unfair, but the only way people would know that is if they watched my whole show, and most people don’t. Most people are just going to know one or two things about you that is the headlines – they’re not going to read the things. So I definitely get put into that category, and, I don’t know, I can’t do anything about it.
And I’ve been, on and off, writing a more expanded version of that as a book, and on some days I really think I’m going to finish it, and other days I’m just so tired of the topic. But I don’t know if that will be rectified. I mean, sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I should be out there more as the face of atheism because I’m not like those other people” – even though I’m still an atheist. But, some part of me thinks, “I think all people will see is “Julia Sweeney, Atheist” [laughs] – and then they have their own preconceived notions of what that means.
Or “Julia Sweeney, Pat-slash-Atheist”.
JS: You know, I had a friend who used to tease me and say, “First you were Pat, then you were Cancer Girl, then you were Atheist Lady!” And I’d go, “That completely sums up my entire professional life.” [laughs] I don’t know, I’m still coming to terms with what I think, but I think especially in this culture and the way the media is right now – and maybe it’s always been this way and I’ve gotten older, or maybe it’s just newly this way because of media outlets being so numerous and new – but it seems like people can’t know anything about you but one headline thing. And I am just done with that. Hence, the way that I will manifest that is by writing fiction. [laughs]
I do have certain things that I talk about, like cancer, or religion, but I can’t seem to be big enough with it. And frankly, I don’t even know if I want to, because I know what that would take, that people would understand the nuances of it in the popular culture. I’m not talking about people who’ve actually taken the time to watch those shows. I’m just talking about the zeitgeist of the popular culture – insofar as anyone even knows who I am anymore, by the way. Which is fine, it’s just that they only know this one thing – “Oh, you’re an atheist.” And they’re not going to take the time to know more, and I’m not even saying they should. It’s just, you’re going to enter the popular culture, and you’re only going to get two words to say that are ever going to be attached to your name. [laughs] What are those two words? And make sure you want those two words to be the right two words. And if you don’t like it, don’t even go there!
It is too bad, because you’ve done so many different things.
JS: Well, I’m not trying to seem complaining. You know, actually, I just worked on this new website, and doing it was really therapeutic for me because I was, like, oh, this is what I’ve done. Ok, so this is what I’ve done! Wow, it’s so clear! And, I’m satisfied with it. I’m happy with what I did, and I’m happy that it still exists, that we live times when the media and the technology can make it still there. But I also feel, like, in a transition phase, either transitioning to doing nothing [laughs] – I’m not sure yet – or transitioning to writing something different.
Clearly this is good timing for this interview about performance…
JS: Yes, I know, I know! But I do have a lot of experience performing. Yeah, well, what are you gonna do? [laughs]
[To be continued...]