“Did you eat my napkin?” asks Lauren Weedman when I return from dousing myself with cold water in the bathroom.
No, but it’s a fair question seeing as how I have eaten all of our bread, plus the calamari-in-marinara-sauce appetizer, my chicken ravioli, some of the better bits of her scraggly chicken marsala, coughed up two gumball-size pieces of garlic, and nearly passed out.
We find the napkin on the floor.
“How come you don’t eat those?” I ask, pointing at her plate.
“What do you mean?”
“Because I secretly know you want them. I think I may have a piece of chicken in my teeth you can have.”
Damn. Who is this girl? I haven’t felt this awkward since I took Sue Cistello to the Steak and Ale when I got my driver’s license.
You may not know about Lauren Weedman. She’s not a big star. She may be someday, or she may not, but when she’s onstage I’d advise that you duck — painful truths go whizzing by like bullets, send-ups rain down like bombs, an uncensored id explodes like shrapnel out of some internal minefield. It kills me like art. Killer art. I’m not sure we’ve seen anyone like Lauren Weedman before.
In her latest one-woman journey to the center of her psyche, Bust, which ran for three mostly sold-out dates in March at REDCAT, Weedman details the descent of a naive, self-absorbed creature/victim of Hollywood into the bowels of the prison system, where she has volunteered as a kind of inmate pal in a program called Behind Bars. Along the way, Weedman, acting about 15 different roles, mercilessly, lovingly and hilariously skewers her vapid network of friends and colleagues (unforgettable is her pillorying of a women’s mag editor and a dog-rescuing friend), the inane prison bureaucracy, the self-defeating prisoners, the earnest volunteers and mostly herself. And while I’m watching it, I’m shitting my pants at how funny and poignant, ferocious and precise the whole thing is, and all I can think is: Who is she? Why isn’t she a huge star? And I’ve got to meet this woman.
Seriously, you want to meet her. You want to know her. You want to be friends with her in that way you always dreamed of being friends with, well, Lou Reed is the other one. I know being starstruck isn’t very professional, but there it is. And on the way out of the show, I realize I’ve had this feeling before, of wanting to meet her. It was the time years ago when my wife dragged me to some fringe theater festival in which Weedman had a cameo monologue in one of choreographer Hassan Christopher’s dance and performance-art pieces. Time stopped then just as it did during Bust. You got the sense you were seeing something rare and great and that surely she’d be everywhere soon. And she may be.
Or she may not. Who knows? I’m not sure we know what to do with her, or that she knows what to do with us. But she’s here now. And the fact that I’m getting my chance to meet her just a few days after her Bust run must be making me nervous. I’m fidgety, distracted and can’t think straight. Weedman, on the other hand, despite coming straight from volunteering at a women’s prison in Torrance is, rather incongruous to her stage persona, completely together. She’s dressed casually cool, with slightly curly blond locks doing a nice cascade around her pretty face. She’s friendly and gracious and funny without even saying anything as she sits across from me at a small table in what’s described online as a local’s-favorite Italian joint in a nondescript (what else?) strip mall on Venice Boulevard. The only thing missing is the locals. We’re practically alone, which might have something to do with why I’m sweating profusely, though I blame it on the nuclear-powered candle on our table. Weedman moves the candle over to her side and says, “If one more weird thing happens in here, I’m fucking leaving. There’s a lot going on.”
Lauren Weedman grew up in a loving, buttoned-down Midwestern family from Indianapolis. Her dad was a businessman and her mom was kind of a socialite. She was adopted. She didn’t escape the attendant issues. Like when she was 9 and her friend, who was a foster child, was returned to sender. “I thought we were the same thing,” she says.
Being funny started early. “It’s the adopted thing — you don’t want to be sent back.”
I ask her how her mom came to adopt her. “She did a lot of volunteering and I’m sure she was like [in a stuffy English accent], I’ll take one. She had an English accent . . . No, she didn’t.”
Weedman wasn’t as buttoned-down as the rest of her family. Not to get too psychobabble about it, but she struggled, and still seems to struggle if you want to read into her work (and you do) to find a comfortable sense of self.
“I know, it sounds so dumb, but I was in trouble a lot. I got in trouble for stealing, for drinking, for that kind of stuff. It was a pretty strict family.”
And there were always boy issues, it seems. “I was, uh, fat, about 50 or 60 pounds heavier, all through high school,” she says. “And when you grow up fat, you definitely do not see the best side of boys.”
“Did you badly want approval from boys?” I ask.
“I’m not a lesbian,” Weedman jokes. The gay thing is a running gag with her — she is constantly being pegged as the jolly dyke by Hollywood casting.
“What I’m getting at is, were you a slut?”
“Yeah, um, not good boundaries. Growing up, I wasn’t very smart, so flattered if anybody liked me. My mom would be like, You don’t have to kiss the guy at 7-Eleven. And I’d be like, But he asked me.”
“How old were you when you had your first gangbang?”
“Seven. But that’s different, that’s like family stuff. That’s more reunions and that kind of thing. It wasn’t anything, you know, painful.”
Truly painful is what probably amounts to the first major turning point in her life, when she was in her first year of college at DePaul University in Chicago. After a rough night during which she’d been ditched by everyone at a party, she went back to her dorm room feeling lost and lonely and called her ex-boyfriend, who, it turns out, was gay, and told him a little lie: that she’d been raped. It worked. Suddenly she was the center of attention. Unfortunately, her roommate overheard the conversation and by the time Weedman woke up the next morning, she was in the proverbial system, as a rape victim.
The fallout from that incident provides much of the impetus for Wreckage, perhaps her best-known show locally, one that played at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica in 2004 and at REDCAT in 2005. Watching Wreckage, and watching Weedman get entangled in her own web of deceit, and, more to the point, the traps sprung from her need for attention and approval of any kind, is like watching a self-immolation, only it’s hilarious. Though, Weedman cautions, “I wouldn’t recommend it to the youth.”
Not surprisingly, she left school. Almost as not surprising is that she took up with a 32-year-old “waiter–spiritual seeker–meditation guy” who drove them out to Colorado on his motorcycle to live in the Rockies. She was 19.
“Then he found Jesus and asked me to sleep on the couch until he could figure out if sex was ‘right’ or not,” says Weedman. “We broke up.”
Eventually, she went back to school, this time at Indiana University, where she met a 6-foot-7-inch Dutch guy who was getting his master’s in film directing. She moved to Amsterdam with him in 1991, when she was 21.
“I wanted to get Indiana out of my system. I wanted to have a break from who they thought I was when I left. I did not want to be that person anymore,” she tells me. “It was kind of heavy, but for one, I was known as a rape victim and I wasn’t raped.”
Weedman and her Dutchman broke up soon after they got to Amsterdam.
“Dutch people in Indiana are very exciting,” she says, “but among their own people? Not as thrilling.”
“Are they still tall?”
“Super tall, still holding on to that. Still blond and very stoic,” she says.
Weedman spent the next four years having what she describes as a very fine ex-pat experience. “I was just sort of . . . a heroin prostitute,” she says, gamely sawing away at her too-gamey chicken. “I was more fit then, it was different.”
She didn’t really sell herself on the streets, but she did start studying experimental theater. I ask if that meant miming, because experimental theater in Europe must mean miming. “No,” she says. “I was always like, well, one of the roles I had was ‘Crazy Lady Under the Bridge.’ I was always in sort of odd roles where it was, like, ‘Okay, you’re a piece of paper, you’re representing a piece of paper in this play, but you’re torn . . . You know, it was always this weird kind of stuff. But I also did straight American plays.”
There are a couple of themes that run through Weedman’s life and, by extension, her work. There is her transparent ambition, something she has a love-hate relationship with and is able to observe as acutely and cuttingly as an outsider might, and there is her constant desire to start over and find a place that feels like home. These impulses are often in conflict with each other. In 1995, she chose to start over in Seattle, a place that seemed like it might accommodate both. “I wanted a liberal, coastal, culturally vibrant city,” she says. “And I wanted it to be a place with a vibrant gay culture, even though [in a deep voice] I am not gay.”
Also, a small theater there responded the most enthusiastically to the raft of letters she sent out seeking internships, which may have had something to do with the inclinations of the company’s director. She tells a story of the time she was housesitting for the married director and noticed a desk drawer bound shut with electrical tape. After some deliberation, she said, “Fuck it,” and took off the tape. “The entire drawer was filled with threesome pornos,” she tells me. “Everything was like You, Me and Her, or She, She and Me, and this big bag of Cheetos.”
“Was that bag open?”
“Yeah, and just covered with cum. I ate the whole bag.”
From that inauspicious beginning, Weedman’s career as a solo performer and comedic anthropologist of her own life was born. It’s a career we’re playing catch-up to in Los Angeles. By contrast, they been knowing about her, as the kids say, up in Seattle for a long time. George Lugg, who is the associate director at REDCAT, and who was instrumental in bringing Bust there, held a similar position back in those days at On the Boards, a contemporary performance center in Seattle. He remembers the first time he saw Weedman.
“She auditioned for On the Boards and did a 12-minute piece that was in the vein of these very funny, fairly autobiographical, but clearly ramped-up versions of her experience,” says Lugg. “It was just completely memorable and there was this sense that, ah, here’s someone who’s going to take this work to a really interesting place.”
The vignette Weedman auditioned evolved into a full-length show called Homecoming, which chronicled her search for her biological parents. The show toured for a year with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and eventually made it to off-Broadway. (The New York Times compared her performance in Homecoming to “Bob Newhart in his early stand-up routines.”)
Weedman has since debuted most of her major theatrical works, including Amsterdam (about her time in Amsterdam); the twisted holiday fable If Ornaments Had Lips; Rash (about, among other things, her ill-fated experiences as a correspondent on The Daily Show); and her divorce-reckoning show, Wreckage, in Seattle.
In Seattle, she is loved. Reviewing Rash, a writer for The Stranger penned a letter to God thanking him or her or it for Weedman. The letter begins, “Dear Lord, I know bombs are about to drop” and goes on to thank the almighty for “the richness of the human creatures Weedman manifests,” and most of all “that there is a reason to be alive, Lord, and that is to see the brilliance of Lauren Weedman, the funniest woman alive.”
Keep in mind this writer seemed to be in the grips of some, as history has clearly shown, completely uncalled for despair regarding the pending war in Iraq, but still, I understand. Weedman does things to you that only true artists can, among them making you feel life is worth living. Another follower of Weedman’s career, former Seattle Weekly and current Seattle Metropolitan magazine arts editor Steve Wiecking, was equally taken aback.
“The solo-show thing seems so tired until you see her and you realize this must be how people felt when they saw Lily Tomlin for the first time,” Wiecking told me. “She’s just one of those [performers] who people would take someone to go see and you’d be talking about the stuff for the rest of the week. Some stuff hits you as funny at the time and some stuff you remember a week later on the bus and you’re like, ‘Oh, my god.’ It’s the little things that get you as much as the big things.”
Of course, the little things are often the personal things, and in Weedman’s hands the personal things, like a self-defeating desire for reassurance, and a self-fulfilling prophecy of unworthiness, often have a horrifying resonance.
For example, in Seattle Weedman landed what everyone seems to acknowledge was a prize catch — a rugged, sexy, sensitive boyfriend. She got married, and the tumult of that relationship, lots of which she’ll ascribe to her own insecurities, forms another of Wreckage’s narrative themes. There’s a scene in the play — and I think it is unjust to call her solo shows anything but plays — in which Weedman stops by the bar where her husband is bartending and stares in through the window to observe him in action. On the other side of the window, she sees a man, confident, smiling, surrounded by adoring women — younger? hotter? — hanging on his every word. He’s king in this court and she doesn’t recognize him as her own. She ventures insecurely inside, and a change comes over him. He seems less alive than he did just a minute ago. But, yes, he’s so glad she came by. Only there’s that devil inside her that refuses to believe it. She sits down and has a few too many drinks and sets upon him with a form of verbal Chinese water torture that’s excruciating for him, her and the audience. She doesn’t let up until she forces him to confess that he would indeed prefer it if she, who is by now killing everybody’s buzz, left. The scene is funny, painful and all too familiar — who among us hasn’t engaged in this sort of dark-hearted self-betrayal?
“She re-created that moment so perfectly; you can take from it what you want. She gives you a full moment, where you can see everything,” says Wiecking. “She can’t help herself.”
He’s right, she can’t. And it’s not just re-creating moments, which she does so well, both because she understands the often hideous nature of those moments and because she’s such a good actor, a true actor who inhabits every moment, but because she isn’t afraid to cop to them in the very realest sense. We see ourselves in those moments, and as hideous as they are, she lets us laugh. It’s kind of healing, in a way. “She has an ability to get down to the base nature of each person, each character that she tackles,” says Jeff Weatherford, who was an actor in the Seattle theater scene back in those days and who would later direct Weedman in Wreckage and serve as dramaturge for Bust. “And there’s an equality to her characters, and that comes down to the humanness of them all.”
Weedman soon branched out beyond the local stages in Seattle, landing a stint as a writer/performer on the highly popular local show Almost Live, a sometimes topical sketch comedy and news program (think Saturday Night Live meets The Daily Show) that had, among its many charms, a bit where Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil yelled “Lame!” at whatever topics the announcer brought up. It all sounds so great: a hottie hubbie who can mix a drink, a supportive artistic community, cool TV gig. Not to mention, I hear you can get great tech support for your PC up there and you pay in whole-bean French roast. What more could anyone ask for?
Oh, yeah, there’s that ambition thing she does, and after five years in Seattle, Weedman got hot feet. “She was seeking to be amongst people where she wasn’t always the most talented person in the room,” says Weatherford. “She really is probably the most talented person I’ve ever worked with.” Maybe he should be taken with a grain of salt, since he currently cohabitates with Weedman and that’s just good politics, but then again maybe not, since he told me not to take what he says with a grain of salt because he’s worked with Juilliard people and all sorts of fancy theater folks and he means what he says about her talent.
So, at the turn of the century — what better time? — she packed up her bartending hubby, her latest show, Homecoming, and tried New York. It almost worked. Weedman remembers one morning dawning particularly brightly. It was the morning after Homecoming opened at The Duplex to a great audience response and reviews; it was the morning that marked her first month as a Daily Show correspondent. It was another sort of morning too.
“That morning, I was riding my bike up Sixth Avenue to go to this, like, Wrigley gum commercial, and I’m riding my bike up Sixth Avenue and it was one of the most self-absorbed mornings of my life,” she recalls, “because I was like [in Valley-girl voice], I can’t believe it, I’m on The Daily Show, I’m off-Broadway, and it looks like everybody’s looking at me in some weird way, because they’re all looking that way [toward downtown] and I’m like, This is so bizarre— it does sort of look like everybody’s noticing me today —There’s something about me . . . And I mean . . . obviously they’re watching the Twin Towers, and it was like the, I’d say the most self-absorbed day of my life. And I was very humbled afterward because it turns out there was a terrorist attack . . . I don’t know if you heard about that.”
As it turns out things didn’t go great on The Daily Show either, an experience Weedman used for fodder in Rash, her fourth full-length theater piece. Well, maybe it wasn’t The Daily Show exactly, just something that looked a lot like The Daily Show. Anyway, apparently a nervous Weedman forgot to shake Jon Stewart’s hand after one of her first bits and apparently Stewart isn’t Gandhi, and well, they never quite clicked. Or maybe it wasn’t Stewart, just someone who could be mistaken for him.
“I didn’t feel like I had enough to do. I wanted to do more of my own thing. I had one character and I had to wait to be told when my thing was coming up. There was a lot of waiting around,” says Weedman of her time with Jon and company. “Everyone was just like, Shut up and don’t say anything, he’s glad you’re here. Just shut up, here he comes.
“I’m still on freelance contract. I might still have to go back.”
Before long, her marriage also started disintegrating. “Once we stopped drinking together, once I was like, I have to go to work, he was like [slurring], it’s not working,” says Weedman. “That’s not true, actually, it was deeper than that. It was more fucked up.” In the end, she admits, both 9/11 and The Daily Show proved too much for the couple to handle. “Our marriage survived neither, and I wanted to keep on striving ‘upward and onward’ and he told me he could no longer be married to ‘Lauren Weedman,’?” she says. “He used the first and last name.”
Time to start over again.
Soon, Weedman found herself back in the comforting embrace of her gay ex-boyfriend from Indiana, who was living in Laurel Canyon with his partner. “I spent most of my early depression there, after the divorce, and then moved out so I could Internet date more freely without their judgment.”
She moved into a place on Franklin and Argyle. “I hated it,” she tells me. “Yeah, I know [doing caricature of vapid Angeleno], It’s a great strip — Birds! My friend John was like, Lauren, that’s your area, it’s so arty, like you. You’re gonna love it there. There’s a place there, the Bourgeois Pig, it’s your place. And you go in there and I’ve never seen so many people write like this — type, type [stretches out], Oh, gosh. Type, type, Oooh, it’s sooo hard.”
In L.A., where all the clichés hold true, but where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, she may have found her muse. If Bust, which is both a valentine and a scathing indictment, is any indication, Los Angeles and its legion of strivers (foremost among them Weedman herself) will provide a bottomless well of material.
“When I first moved here, people were like, let me tell you something, Lauren, You and I are sooo alike. You read the newspaper, I read the newspaper.”
Then, there’s auditioning. “When I’m just an actor, sitting out with the actors, and, literally, it’s like [self-important voice], Who took the pen from the sign-up sheet? Can I have that back, please? Thank you, pay attention. Even that little thing, I’m like, oh boy, I’m not 37 years old sitting here. I’m like, This is not my adult life. This is not where I’m supposed to be.”
But still, she can’t help herself. “I feel sometimes the fact that I’m even in L.A., I’ll feel as if I have some crack addiction, like I’m even trying to do this, something’s up with me. It’s like, what am I doing here?” she says. “I’m like auditioning for Fat Al, where it’s like, We don’t know if he’ll be a man, or fat, but just read the part.”
Sure, there’s that. But Los Angeles has provided other things she may not have expected. Like a home. She’s in a great relationship with Weatherford, a friend who became a lover and a collaborator. He’s a widower who has a nearly grown son. Of course, that too is a great source of material, stuff that hasn’t found its way onstage yet, but has been the subject of several hilarious short stories — one of which, “I’m Hugging You With My Voice,” appeared in the literary journal Swivel and recounts the difficulty of making love while staring at a picture of the man’s ex.
“For the first time in my life, I could see how being blindfolded was hot,” Weedman writes. “But pictures of Hannah were all over the house, which wrecked me. Obsessively staring at her photos, and attempting to show how okay I was with the whole situation, I would chirp, ‘This is a nice one. Oh, and this one too! Look at her here! I see she’s wearing a sweater so I take it it was wintertime?”
One of the things that is apparent from Weedman’s stage shows, aside from her obvious acting and comedy chops, is how well they’re written. Each has a fully realized narrative arc, which makes them so much more engaging than a lot of solo shows in which people just get up there and puke out their drama. So it’s not surprising that she’s developing a bit of a side career in the literary world. Her story “Diary of a Journal Reader,” which also first appeared in Swivel, made the Dave Eggers–edited Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2005, and the collection A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body: Stories From a Life of Cringe comes out from Sasquatch Books in the fall. She’s also recently received a fellowship to the prestigious MacDowell Colony (“Or, as my friends call it, fuck-fest 2007 . . . not my good friends,” jokes Weedman), where writers like Mary Gaitskill and Arthur Bradford (author of the quirky collection Dogwalker) and genius composers and playwrights and architects and visual artists go to plan world domination.
So the question remains, who is this girl? Is she the woman blowing minds onstage, where her precious, nuanced, scathing, brave, hilarious pieces have the room they need to breathe and grow and get under your skin? Is she a budding humorist, like an Amy Sedaris, only funny? Or is she the woman who keeps trying to find fame, fortune and a place on the screen, currently toiling away in stuff like Reno 911, and VH1’s Best Week Ever and other forums that just seem too small to capture the thing that is Lauren Weedman? The question hangs in the air as the restaurant empties of its other four patrons (local’s-favorite?). It’s a question that demands a cigarette, and we repair outside to smoke.
I ask her if she feels like she needs to be a star in some traditional way.
“No, I don’t think so,” she says. “I like how it’s going. For instance . . . I’ll get some hardcore compliments that are the best kind of compliments that are like — the one that I get that I love is, I hate every fucking thing and I fucking loved that. That’s perfect.”
Maybe the answer is the thing she keeps coming back to, despite the TV auditions and the striving. Maybe it’s up on the stage where it’s always been, where that intangible thing she does/she is makes all the sense in the world.
“I love being at REDCAT. REDCAT was perfect,” says Weedman. “I felt so inspired after this weekend. I had this burst of integrity and confidence that it’s okay to turn down things that don’t feel right.”
I light up another cigarette before she’s halfway through hers. It’s a good thing I never met Lou Reed. I’m not sure I’d have survived.
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“Would you just keep doing what you’re doing, even if you don’t make a lot of money?” I ask, and I really hope the answer is yes.
“Well, I have,” she says. “I’m 38. I’d love to have health insurance regularly, you know, just in case I have a 150-pound cyst on my ovary or something. That would be nice.”
“Hopefully you’d notice by the time it’s 50 pounds.”
“I think I have a five-pounder in there now. Or else I really have to go to the bathroom.”