06 February 2008

A Conversation with Kelly Williams

This week at Bittersweet, I talk with Chicago’s own Kelly Williams, who took on both Mary Kay Letourneau AND Amy Fisher and was only a little worried about getting her ass kicked for it.

Your show, C. U. Next Tuesday: The Amy Fisher Story, A Karaoke Musical, based (loosely) on her teenaged affair with Joey Buttafuoco, opens this week. The most obvious question, I think, is: why make a musical about Amy Fischer?

The most obvious answer is: Because It's There. No, I'm being glib. J For me stories like this – like Mary Kay Letourneau, like Amy Fisher – are appealing because they are a mix of the tabloid gossip mill (which I fully admit to being interested in, sorry literary gods) and the absurd. The individuals who live these stories, they become a part of our psyche because we learn so much about them. It's almost like being friends – that's the appeal of celebrity gossip in my opinion. You get to feel like you are participating in their lives. It's similar with people like Mary Kay and Amy Fisher. And it's doubly fascinating because there are elements in their stories which push it over the edge into absurdity. I like that mix – the popular and the crazy.

I am particularly interested in this 1990s time period because it seems like a) there are a lot of interesting stories from this time and b) the stories are mainly finished. I wouldn't want to do one of these about someone like Brittany Spears because she's in the middle of her story. We don't know the conclusion. Actually, now that I think about it, I'm not certain I'd want to do one of these about someone who's already a celebrity. There's something more intriguing about becoming a celebrity due to one's actions, vs. being a celebrity first (due to career, like Spears).

Oh yeah, and the musical aspect is just the genre: it pushes the entire production – like the story – into the absurd.

What's the target audience for this show? Who should see it – and who should stay far, far away?

I think the target audience for this is fairly wide and varied. We've got it "Rated R" so I'll support whatever the film commission people say for that. :) It's a funny, surprisingly good humoured show, actually. Who should stay away? Hmm... that's a tough question since it's a matter of personal taste and humour. There's no set age range or demographic.

Confession: I actually caught one of the numbers in your run-though last night, and I was giggling to myself in the back of the theater. I’m excited for the opening tomorrow. And speaking of the opening, did you really invite Amy Fisher and her husband to it?

Yes. I emailed Red Light District (the company which is distributing Amy Fisher's sex tape) and basically asked them 'what would it take to get Ms. Fisher to the show?' They referred me to Lou Bellara – her husband, who sold Red Light District his and Amy's "personal" sex tapes when he was estranged from her this past fall. I'm sort of skeptical. Yes, I've watched the porno and that camera seems pretty damn good. Not home video quality. I'm inclined to believe that they had a deal with Red Light District – ie here's a camera, film yourselves and we'll give you bunches of money for it. Anyway. Lou Bellara emailed me back saying (and I quote) "I think my wife and I will pass on this one, but thanks for the invite." I must say I'm sort of relieved. I was a little worried – what happens IF she shows up… what on earth will her reaction be? Will she beat me up? Amy Fisher could totally kick my ass.

I'm assuming that your show doesn't really put them in the best light. With subjects who are real people and who are still out there, still living their lives, do you ever worry about crossing the line? Or once people like Amy Fisher become sort of tabloid public domain, do they lose their rights to privacy?

No, this show doesn't really put anyone in a good light, although there is sympathy for various characters - namely Amy and Mary Jo. I'm not concerned about privacy because we are parodying events which are historical in nature. And also, we never claim to be completely faithful to the true life events. We make suppositions on the characters' personalities which are based in truth, but all characters, relationships, confrontations, etc, are mainly fictionalized.

That said, I do think you become public domain when you enter into pop culture to this extent. Monica Lewinsky will, for example, always be THAT girl and the events of that time will follow her around forever, despite anything which she might do after that. Or, if not forEVER, for a very very long time.

Is Monica on the list of potential tabloid musical subjects? And if so, what genre of music would tell her story?

Monica lewinsky is on the list, definately. I'm not certain what sort of music would go with her. Perhaps 80s? I'm open to suggestions... :)

I remember joking about it after Mary Kay, and suggesting Broadway hits. Something about Monica Lewinsky singing "I Cain't Say No" makes me laugh. But then again, I think you'd have to incorporate Bill's mad sax skillz. So the eighties would be a good choice, what with the abundance of songs featuring sax interludes. A little Hall and Oates, a little Glenn Frey, maybe some Billy Joel.... the entire Top Gun soundtrack....

Nice. Bill and his mean sax, totally.

Next year, maybe. Back to Amy Fisher: What was the process for developing this show?

The show is developed from improvisation. The process is the same as for Mary Kay – I do a lot of initial research. I get a rough idea of timeline, events, and potential characters for us to play with. I share my research with the people who will be improvising – usually in the form of handouts and a video or two. Because these are sensationalized events, there has – for the last two at any rate – been some sort of relatively objective program made about the story that gives an overview (ie A&E Biography, E! True Hollywood Story, A&E American Justice). That provides our foundation. Then we start improvising. At first we do whatever. We play. Then I start to narrow the focus of the improvisations more – let's focus on scenes where one person is coming onto another, or let's see scenes with a character who is really frustrated with their scene partner, stuff like that. I also focus us down in terms of characters – let's play around with a grandma with an Italian accent. A kid with a squeaky voice. All of this I record and after each rehearsal transcribe what I like into a notebook for later. If someone creates an interesting character we'll riff on a bunch of scenes with that character – put them in different situations, etc., even if I can't immediately see how they might fit in. Usually about three weeks into the improvisations I have enough that I can start to string stuff together. I have an idea of what sort of characters we might see – how to adapt what we've done to the story that I want to tell – and an idea of what each performer can do and so I start to tailor a script with that in mind. Then I get more specific with the improvisations to fill in the sections of the script that I want – I need a scene of confrontation, where one person is telling the other person to leave. Or, I need a scene where people are trying to commit suicide. Very seldom are the final scenes word for word from the improvisations. I do a lot of editing, reworking, and rewriting. There might be sequences that follow close the improvisations, but then I need to add a section to make it apply to the story, or change something to adapt it to a specific character. This goes back and forth for another few weeks. Sometimes I have a good start of a scene from improv, but no finish, so I'll make something up so that it works with the overall story. I write anything else that we're missing (although I try to get a base from the improvisations first), and then I write the transitions. Oh yeah – throughout all of this I ask people to rewrite song lyrics to songs within a specific genre of music. For Mary Kay it was 50s music; for Amy Fisher it's been Mob Hits/Dean Martin type songs. If I feel like a character needs a song, I'll ask people to write one. If I don't get exactly what I need I'll write it myself or usually there's something that can be adapted to work. Then I integrate those songs into the script. We do a read through of the first draft. I rewrite based on that and then we start rehearsing. Edits and changes happen throughout the rehearsal process, but overall the script has its shape by this point. We're just elaborating on jokes.

The title's a bit of a shocker. What's the power of the C-word? Why did you decide to tag your show with what is commonly considered to be one of the most offensive words in the English language?

We were throwing around titles for the show. Devin (Antonelli, who plays Joey Buttafuoco) used the "C. U. Next Tuesday" thing during a rehearsal and we just sort of all picked it up (i.e. "she called me a… 'C. U. Next Tuesday'"). I initially didn't understand. When he first said it, it took me a few seconds, and then it was like – HA! Oh, that's clever. "C. U…." Ah, I get it! Then we all just started using it. It became sort of a representation of the entire show – the other potential titles just sort of floated away. Amy Fisher is a bit of a "C. U…" for shooting Mary Jo in the face, and then the phrase is also interwoven throughout the script because she is a call girl and has her weekly appointments…Get it? Get it? "See you next Tuesday?" Get it?

The C-word doesn't bug me personally, but I'll admit that I decided not to post the poster for your show on this blog, knowing that some of my former students occasionally read this. They already know enough naughty words; I don't want to be the person who taught them a new one. Did you grapple with any issues of self-censorship in this show, or did you give yourself carte blanche to go blue?

Your students don't know the C-word?!?!!? :) No, there were no issues of self-censorship on this one. Actually, with the exception of the title, this show is tamer than Mary Kay.

Nice segue! So for those who don’t know, last year you directed Mary Kay Letourneau, A Karaoke Musical at Gorilla Tango Chicago, which was the second run of that show (after its debut in Albuquerque in 2006). What was that project about, for you, and how has Amy Fisher been different?

That project was more of an experiment for me. I didn't quite know what was going to happen. I initially thought I'd try to write a script standard-style (ie NOT through improvisation), but what I was writing just wasn't very interesting. So I decided to get together the group. This was in Jan 2006, actually – before moving to Chicago, as well you know. I had no idea how to write this thing, how to put it together. It's been a huge learning process. In the first incarnation, in Albuquerque, I played Mary Kay Letourneau. I learned from that that I cannot write, direct and perform in one show; it's just too difficult to concentrate on any one thing. Then, from the second incarnation (the remount in Jan 2007 in Chicago), I learned more about the use of the songs in the course of the script – what didn't work so well, why did we have this song here, that sort of thing. Now, on this round I've been continuing the song question, as well as playing around with how to really move the action forward. I'm sure there are other things I've been learning, but they won't become apparent until after the run. So to actually answer your question, the big difference between the two is that now I have a roadmap and a little bit more confidence.

According to your press kit, C. U. Next Tuesday is "the latest in the Tabloid Musical series." Do you see yourself doing another Tabloid Musical in the future? If so, is there anyone who interests you particularly?

Did I send you a press kit? Damn, I'm thorough. J Yes, definitely. It's a genre I have fun with and there's an audience appeal as it deals with stories and personalities that are familiar. There are many stories that interest me – Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding come to mind immediately. Loreena and John Wayne Bobbitt. I like to choose strong females because we have a lot of strong female performers and I'm all about writing for them.

I'm also interested in the whole JonBenet Ramsey story. I was actually living in Denver while that happened, but that one… I just don't know. The other stories seem more lighthearted, for lack of a better word, because no one died. Of course with Amy Fisher, Mary Jo Buttafuoco did get severely injured, and that's horrible, but it's balanced out by her own ridiculous actions: she went on record time and time again vehemently defending her husband's character ('Joey would never never never cheat on me – Amy Fisher is a lying whore'), and of course she turned out to be completely wrong. So the sympathy factor goes down there. JonBenet Ramsey was totally a victim. You can't really make fun of that, so I'm not sure I'd ever do that one, not in this style at any rate. Although I remain fascinated by that whole story.

You earned your master's degree from the University of Hawaii. How did that experience influence your later work? Would you recommend a master's program for people looking to go into theater?

The neat thing about UHM (University of Hawaii at Mānoa) is that, because it is so steeped in Asian Theatre traditions, you see so many different ways that theatre can be done. It rather frees you of the "theatre ought to be such and such" way of thinking. That's very similar to improvisation, too. There are other ways of going from scene to scene, of editing, of creating an environment, of portraying character. It just opens up your brain to possibility, which is a wonderful, valuable, useful thing. Do you need to go to school and pay lots of money for that? No, not at all. It helped me, but then again I learned just as much from the work I did within the community while I was in school and then upon graduating. And I do think that academia is sheltered and unrealistic in many ways. They do not teach you how to go out and do things on your own in the "outside." Or at least, the programs I am familiar with did not teach that. They teach you very well how to function inside academia, but nowhere else. So that question's up for grabs. It was useful to me and provided me with many valuable experiences, but I never bought into it entirely.

You've been involved in theater and improv for a long time. What influence has improv had on your life as a whole? Any major life lessons there?

Hmm. Life lessons, eh? Probably the biggest life lesson has been to "say yes." I don't mean to say yes to every little thing. Sometimes you just gotta say no for your own sanity. But I do mean that it's taught me to just assume that even if I don't know how I'll do something, I need to just trust that I will do it. Trusting myself and my abilities, even if I can't see what the outcome will be.

That's a pretty good life lesson. I'm still learning that one, though.

Because I always ask: Do you remember how we met?

Yes, you were in the Improv Level 1 class that I taught at Gorilla Tango in Albuquerque. I remember saying to Dan – we have to transfer Molly into a different level 'cause we don't want to lose her and I don't think she'll stick around with this crew. I'm trying to remember the first few times we hung out, though, and I can't. I know we ate Thai food at your house and I brought along a bottle of Gewürztraminer. And the rest is history.

Mmmmm. Gewürztraminer. We were actually doing dinners every week? month? there for a while, culminating in the night at Gruet when we dropped like eighty bucks on dinner for just the two of us. Oh, to be young and gainfully employed again….

I think it was supposed to be every two weeks, but I don't think we kept ourselves to that strict of a regimen.

What's the best advice you've ever been given, and who gave it?

I've been given lots of good advice, but since my mind is on theatre, I'll pass along the best piece of advice I've ever been given in that realm. Harry Wong III, Artistic Director of Kumu Kahua Theatre in Honolulu, Hawaii once said to me:

Never give general notes. The person who it's meant for won't get that it's for them, and the people who don't need that note will take it to heart and it will fuck up their performance. Always give specific notes.

That's some damn good advice.

Awesome. Thanks, Kel!

See how Kelly takes this advice to heart in "C. U. Next Tuesday: The Amy Fisher Story, A Karaoke Musical", Thursdays at 9:30pm, February 7 – March 13, 2008, at Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL 60647. or 773-598-4549 for tickets and info.

Tickets are a ridiculously affordable $12, and, yes, it's Rated R. Special Valentine's Day promotion: 2 for 1 tickets if you come to the show with your ex-girlfriend or boyfriend! You must tell the story of your breakup to box office personnel in order to receive this promotion (only good for the 2/14/08 performance).

Aaannnd…. Red Light District – the company that brought you Paris Hilton's sex tape – has generously offered us six free copies of Amy Fisher's sex tape, "Amy Fisher Caught on Tape", which she is currently promoting. One DVD will be given out at each performance as a door prize; all audience members are automatically entered to win. Free porn!

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