This month I had the opportunity to chat with Ann Randolph, an award-winning solo performer, about her approach to helping writers explore their personal stories by getting out of the head and into the body. She will be performing her show Loveland in Washington, DC starting March 18th for a five-week run, so spread the word to your friends and family who are out that way. Also, if you're interested in working with Ann, she has a couple upcoming workshops at Esalen and in Kauai!
Ann Randolph is an award-winning writer, performer, and educator. Her Off-Broadway hit, Squeezebox, was produced by Mel Brooks, and her current show, Loveland, received Best Solo Show awards in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Her personal essays have aired on NPR, BBC, and the Moth. She teaches and tours at Esalen, Kripalu and theaters throughout the country.
Karin: Tell me about your writing workshops. What is your approach to working with writers and to developing their personal stories?
Ann: Well, they're different than normal writing workshops, I can tell you that! Because we're moving for a little bit of time every day. We're on our feet and we're improvising. And most of the people who come to my workshops are not performers or actors. It's not intended for that. They're writers who are in their head, and I want them in their body. Because when they drop into their body, then these stories kind of come at them by surprise. Or something that's very deep doesn't have time to hide out when you're improvising. It's incredible to watch.
How do you connect the 'physical movement' with the actual 'writing on the page'?
We'll do some improvs, and then I'll give a writing prompt. But a lot of times I'll ask, “What was triggered in the improv? Was there a line that was triggered in the improv?” Stuff moves the minute you move your body, and when they go to write, they've already been out of their head. Not that that inner critic doesn't come up when you're improvising, even in a group, but there's a lot more freedom, so there's a loosening. And when they go to write, they usually share that it was effortless, it just wrote itself.
To me it's about finding the emotional charge in the body. Where do you feel turned up or great passion or great loss? Or there's a lump in the throat. For me, it's like crying, where's your sadness? And then writing about that even though I'm writing comedy. I mean, there's a lot of pathos in there, it's a lot of sadness. So just allowing, giving permission for all those feelings. And setting that early on in the class, permission to speak about anything, or say anything, or have any feeling, and holding space for that.
What is the goal in your workshops? Is there a specific place you're looking to land, or a particular take-away, by the end?
In the workshop we are not going towards a goal, but discoveries. I've worked with too many students that try to push a structure before it's ready, and it just collapses. So what I think they walk away with is, “Okay, here are ways that I can drive the narrative.” They can walk away with, “How can I use my body to tap into story, how can I use my body to write on my feet?” Creating dialogue on your feet is much better than being in front of a computer. If I'm going to do my mother, I'm going to walk around as my mother and be her. And the dialogue will come much more easily. Just ways to create spontaneously without this huge mind saying to you “arrrgghh.”
I know you're on your way to Washington, DC to perform Loveland, your fifth solo show. Can you describe what it's about?
Just imagine sitting next to an oddball, misfit on an airplane who is totally inappropriate, with no impulse control, acting out, and you have to go the whole duration of the ride with her. Loveland is about this character, Frannie Potts, who is unable to deal with her mother's death, and she's going back on this plane to go to the funeral, and she comes undone in the middle of the flight. And as we're going cross-country, there are several flashback scenes so you understand the relationship between her and her mother.
Can you share a bit about the creative process of bringing Loveland to life?
Well, this is what was really interesting. It came out rather quickly, and then I shelved it. I mean, the idea came out, and then I thought, “No this is a short story... no this is a novel... no this is a screenplay.” And because it wasn't coming out any way that I was used to - I'd written five solo shows - I thought, “Okay, I'm going to put this away, because I don't know how to do it. It's not telling me what it is.” And now I've learned, it doesn't matter... let it come out in all forms. I always tell my students, “Let it come out in every form in the first draft.” Maybe one page is a song, and then it switches over to a novel, to whatever.
Finally, in a writing workshop at Esalen, I was taking a poetry workshop with Ellen Bass. Something possessed me to take it out again and do it. It was in her writing workshop that said, “Okay Ann, you cannot not do this.” And I went back to it. And I got up to 30 minutes of it, and it was kicking ass. So I performed it around town at 30 minutes. I did not know what my ending was at all, but I knew the first 30 minutes was working. And then finally the ending made its way to me.
What was the biggest challenge along the way?
It was going from writer to performer. When I was in previews in San Francisco, I had students and others not even be able to look at me after the show. I had one student who had no impulse control say, “It was so cool to see my teacher fail. I learned from watching my teacher fail.” So night after night in previews I sucked, because I was still in writer mode. I couldn't switch, I was still not living it. I mean - that's why you have previews. So the shame was tremendous. And thank God for the director. The director said, “The writing is there, you just haven't landed it in your body.” I'm stealing a line from Heather Woodbury, who says, “My suck level gets less and less.” And each night, my suck level got less and less. And then Tavis Smiley has a book out called “Fail Up.” Another thing, I literally failed up, every night, until by the time the show opened, I was kicking ass. But I wanted to go back to re-writing the whole thing until after the first few nights of previews. And that's why it's so important to have an editor or a director or somebody who can say, “No, it is there, you just haven't landed yet.” It's horrible to bomb in front of people, and know you're going to do it, because you don't have the chops yet. I didn't have the chops yet.
You mentioned that you're going to do a writing workshop with the audience after each performance in DC, and that this component has evolved with the show. How did that come about?
What happened was, when I was doing the show in San Francisco people would wait in the lobby to tell me their own stories - something about the character Frannie Potts, which is the lead character, is so outrageous and over the top and so “tell-it-like-it-is” regarding grief and loss. The way she deals with loss is inappropriate, like acting out anger toward other passengers, but also sees sexual fantasies and masturbates and what-not while she's trying to meditate, all sorts of things. And something about that raw honesty brings people to wait in the lobby and then tell me their own stories. They often say, “I've never shared this with anybody,” I've gotten that over and over, “I've never told anybody this, I've never talked about it.” And I thought, well, why not just do a writing workshop right there in the theater afterward with audience members around loss. And it's been amazing. So I just have them do a little visualization or think about what happened in the show - like a line that triggered them or an experience in their own life - and then we write for ten minutes. And then they oftentimes will share their writing. It's been quite beautiful to watch what happens.