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The Jester Interview: Lennon Parham

Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre performer Lennon Parham has been performing her own solo character showcase, “She Tried To Be Normal” at the theater recently (see review), and has at least two more performances scheduled, 8 p.m. Thursdays, May 22 and 29. Parham first was affiliated with Second City's New York company after arriving in the city in 2000, and since taking classes at UCB has become a veteran of that theater, performing in improv teams Dillinger, The Shoves (see profile), and Kill Your Darlings. Parham currently performs with UCB’s Reuben Williams team and is a regular in its “all-star” Assscat shows on Sunday nights. She starred in the theater's parody of “Showgirls” in 2005 and 2006) (see review), and will also be appearing in a production of “Showgirls” at the UCB’s L.A. theater later this year. Jester spoke with Parham about the development of her solo show and her experiences with UCB.

Jester: Is this the first time you’ve done a solo show like this?
LP: I’ve done pieces of it. I’ve done Sandy Michaelson, the Solid Gold dancer character in ‘The Real Real World,’ so I’ve done pieces of it but not the entire thing for 35 minutes like this.

J: So what were the challenges of that?
LP: Knowing whether or not I could do it, and get through it. Just the sheer fact that it’s just me for 35 minutes, whether that was a possibility.

J: Where did all the characters come from for this?
LP: Most of them live in my brain. A couple of them are people that I’ve met, reformatted. The Solid Gold character was the first one that I did. She came off a comment a friend made to me once when I was dancing around … she said, ‘You look like a Solid Gold dance reject.’ So I got taken with that idea and then I developed her in a character class I took with Seth Morris several years ago.

Forsythia is based on Delilah, a syndicated radio advice show host that I was obsessed with. People who grew up in areas where she was on the radio are really well aware of her, and love her because she's so crazy. She does all these great dedications, gives advice and reads letters, and has a crazy website. It's great.

The ’50s housewife piece I had originally done for a show that Daisy Rosario put together for Women's History Month. I got the idea to do a ’50s housewife who loses her cool. 

Then … Susan Edgar is the woman who has an affair with her professor. I was shooting a Maytag commercial. It's a very short commercial but it took a whole day to shoot. So I spent the whole day staring lovingly at the Maytag man. I found that really interesting -- a woman who’s completely in love with someone who doesn't know anything about it. So that's how that came about. I also wanted to do something with real Victorian text, like a recitation of a romantic novel. I wanted to play a woman who's studying that and is wrapped up in that world and therefore is projecting it on her own life.

The country singer character, Kitty O’Sullivan, I developed for a two-woman show I wrote and performed with Melle Powers called The Adventures of Lock & Kay. It was about the rise of a pop superstar duo. Kitty O’Sullivan was only on video so I didn't perform her live. I've been rewriting Kitty and tightening her up for this show, figuring that out. But I'm really comfortable as her. I fit well in her; it’s easy for me to be her. I did do her in a show a couple times at UCB called “Sweet Tea and Sorrow,” which was like a variety show that she hosted with her three sisters, which were my friends in drag -- Jeff Hiller, Eric Bernat and John Flynn. That was a lot of fun because I wrote some of the songs and we did different segments.

Rafael is a guy that hit on me in a bar that I was working in at the time. I was sitting at the bar when it was really slow and he wouldn't leave me alone. I literally went home and wrote down verbatim what he said to me.

J: So a lot of the characters have their genesis in something you experienced. Do any of them ever come out of thin air?
LP: The E.T. and Freddie Krueger monologues. It’s just stuff I get interested in, where I think, ‘Wouldn't it be funny if?’ and I wouldn't mind spending a lot of time thinking about the idea. It’s things I thought were funny and wanted to do all my life -- like in fourth grade, I did a ribbon dance to this exact song, “Someone in the Dark,” and in the show, I dance on stage to it. People don't need to know that necessarily, but that song to me is hilarious, and I wanted to find a way to insert it somehow. The Freddie Krueger monologue is a verbatim monologue from “Nightmare On Elm Street,” but it’s cut down a little bit though. Usually it’s just a phrase or idea that I get enamored with and just go from there.

J: The Kitty O’Sullivan character is one way you show your experience playing and performing music. How did you bring your musical interest into that character and the show?
LP: I’m pretty good in Mac’s Garage Band. Most of what I’ve done I’ve created on that program. The country music songs I wrote, overlaying different musical instruments like cellos, thunder and vocal harmonies. I’ve always been into music. I played percussion in high school and middle school. I studied voice in college and love musical theater. (small cut)

J: How long did it take to write this whole show?
LP: If we’re talking about individual characters, it would be from the beginning of when I started writing Sandy Michaelson, which was probably four years ago. I put together all the ideas and characters for this show about a year to 18 months ago, and met with Anthony King [artistic director of UCB] and ran through some of those with him, then glued it all together with the Forsythia pieces between the rest. Anthony helped me put the whole thing together and envision it as a whole, which was invaluable. Then, Jason Mantzoukas took over direction of the show. Jason is so great. He's really good at helping me with the structure of it and the writing, punching it up and really knocking it out of the park. He was instrumental in helping me cook with it, and pushing me to ask for show dates and getting a deadline -- not just working on it forever, but actually doing it.

J: Let’s go back a bit. What was your performing background or comedy background? When did you come to UCB and start taking classes?
LP: I did theater all through high school. I did programs at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. I grew up in Atlanta and performed in various ways in high school. In my senior year, the drama department entered a “Comedy Sports” competition with other neighboring high schools. We had never done anything like that before. I had only watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” which I was obsessed with. We competed with seven other high schools and we won, and it was pretty great. It was the first time I had been able to do just pure comedy. I knew I was funny but I had never felt the power of that. I remember doing a couple scenes in the “Comedy Sports” competition that really hit, and I thought, ‘Ah, this is cool.’

I went to the University of Evansville in Indiana, and I was trained in straight-up classical and contemporary theatre. I didn’t really do a lot of improv. I was just immersed in theater for four years. I happened to be lucky enough to be a freshman there when Jack McBrayer was a senior. He moved to Chicago when he graduated and we kept in touch. And later, between my junior and senior years, I lived in Chicago for the summer. Every week I would go see Jack on Harold night at Improv Olympic. It was the first time I’d ever seen long-form improv and it was incredible, it blew my mind. I got excited about that.

After graduating college, and two years in the “Teach For America” program teaching high school French in the Mississippi Delta, I moved to New York in June 2000. I still hadn't quite figured out what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to be an actor. I took classes in the Second City’s New York training center program and then performed in their first ever New York revue showcase, “We Built This City on Rent Control.” Kevin Scott directed it. Leslie Meisel, Molly Prather, Will Nunziata, Kimmy Gatewood -- all really cool people -- were in it. Molly and Leslie were both on Harold teams at UCB at the time. They told me if I wanted to perform comedy in New York, I had to go to UCB. So I did. I took levels 1 and 2, and then took a little break, then took 3 and 3B, after which I auditioned and got on Dillinger. Dillinger for a year and a half, then the Shoves for a year and a half, then Kill Your Darlings, also the touring company. Now Reuben Williams. That was the trajectory.

Continued 

   

     

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