O Solo Me-O
By J.C. Shakespeare
DECEMBER 1, 1997: The set of Freshman Year Sucks is dark and sparse; a bare black floor furnished only with a straight-backed chair and a small, rather monastic bed. There isn't much to look at before Rob Nash takes the stage. When he steps out, however, the room is suddenly alive, full of voices and characters. In a fluid, seamless performance, Nash weaves a lush tapestry around the lives of three best friends as they enter the hostile and alien territory of Holy Cross High. He then breathes life into a host of peers, parents, and teachers which gives this show, Freshman Year Sucks, the rich, well-rounded feeling of having a much larger cast. Nash distinguishes his characters by giving them unique physical gestures and finely honed voices and speech patterns, and his range is impressive. Any moment he might go from a grumpy father with a cane to a Puerto Rican maid to a country club wife with a headache. His transitions between characters are relaxed and effortless, allowing the narrative to blossom as the central focus of the show.
When asked about his technique, Nash replies, "It really does help to anchor a body and a voice together. When you put the gestures and a voice together, then it becomes natural -- this person sits with her knees together, this person leans back in the chair, this person is forever folding his arms a certain way -- so when you do the gesture, you just feel that person's voice coming out."
Nash is becoming quite adept at the form of the solo show. Freshman Year Sucks is the fourth such stage piece that Nash has done, the first three being his now popular Dysfunctional trilogy: 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional You, 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Christmas, and 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Family, Part III.
Nash came to this singular theatrical form through an interesting progression. He was active in high school theatre, majored in English at UT, then began to eke out a living as a stand-up comic. In the late Eighties, he worked comedy clubs in Austin and on the road, as well as performing locally with Esther's Follies and the Laff Staff improv troupe. He even supplemented his income by teaching defensive driving.
"I've got to tell you," Nash says of that job, "you had to be funny for eight hours back then. Without being naughty. It was great training. I really learned a lot from doing stand-up, though. Joke writing, storytelling, word economy. Because in stand-up you learn to get right to the punch without wasting any time."
Life on the road was rough, so Nash took a good hard look at his career. "Back in the early Nineties, all the comedy clubs started closing -- and they're still closing," he notes. "I mean, it's not over. This is the longest market correction in the history of any industry. Wages are still going down, clubs are still closing, and people come out carrying cell phones and stuff, and they act like they're at home in front of a VCR. They don't pay attention. You know, don't get me started!
"But the big thing then was Rick Reynolds did his [one-man] show, Only the Truth Is Funny, and Rob Becker had his caveman thing [Defending the Caveman, another one-man show by a stand-up comic], so I thought to myself, 'I'm never going to make headliner, I'll just jump to a one-man show.' See, the original idea for Dysfunctional You was just a series of editorial monologues, a few characters I developed in the last act...."
"Were you planning just to work them into your stand-up act?" I ask.
"Well, it was going to be a hybrid, you know, a little stand-up, a little character work, a little whatever," he replies. "Basically, I had a theatre booked six weeks in the future and no show. So I wrote the show and got off book like the Tuesday before we opened on Friday. I had to improv a lot of it. I knew what line would get the phone to ring or a knock on the door, but I was really making up a lot of stuff in between the cues. So it was kind of a cosmic accident that it came together, but you can't live your life by those."
Nash's days of flying by the seat of his pants are gone. Clearly months of preparation have gone into this show. "You can really see the growth in how I've learned to work with the form," he declares. "The first show was just monologue, blackout, monologue, blackout.... The second one had a few duets, and I'd done it for five years, so I worked in some ensemble scenes, but by the time I got to Dysfunctional Family, I had all six characters onstage at the same time. But there were many offstage conversations and one-sided phone conversations. In this show, there are no one-sided conversations; you hear the other side. And there are 26 different characters in the show."
Helping Nash continue to refine his solo art is his new director/dramaturg, Gregory Gunter, whom Nash credits with bringing an objective focus and a critical eye to the process: "Greg and I work in the same sloppy, crazy way I work with anything else. Writing, then the sparks fly, we get on a roll, it gets out of control, and suddenly everything he wants to do, I don't want to do. And I force myself to try it, and 95 percent of the time he's right. It's ridiculous how often he's right. He's brilliant with storyline, with cutting the stuff that's not working, getting rid of the verbiage. He'll say, 'Nothing's happening between here and here, and we need these two things to happen between here and here. Make something happen.' And I'll fight him. I'll say, 'Yeah, but this is what really happened!' And he'll say, 'Fine, Rob. It doesn't work onstage.'"
Of course, a lot is working for Nash onstage. He has been performing his Dysfunctional trilogy all across the country for several years now to great acclaim, and though it's been finished for just a few months, Freshman Year Sucks is already booked in New York, San Diego, Palm Springs, and Houston, with dates in Atlanta and Los Angeles in the works. The days of earning his keep in comedy clubs are behind Nash now (although he still makes the occasional club appearance; in fact, he has one scheduled at the Capitol City Comedy Club on December 8).
I wondered if Rob found a discernible difference in working for a theatre crowd as opposed to a comedy club crowd.
"Yes! God, yes! Because a theatre crowd doesn't bring their cell phones in, they don't have table conversations going on, and they are there to see a story that they know is going to take an hour or two to tell. They're not waiting for the dick jokes or to hear you go off on the difference between men and women, so it's a very different thing.
"In the theatre, you can get away with a lot more drama because you're not required to get the laughs. But the stand-up training really helped me because if the crowd hasn't been laughing before the drama arrives, I can't stand the way that feels. I work real hard to make sure there are laughs before the drama."
"Does the audience respond in the right places?" I ask.
"You never know. I'd say I'm getting better, and I'm also building relationships in the cities that I go to. I'm building an audience, so I get better and they get more in tune with what I'm trying to do. That helps me get more consistent responses. But I played Palm Springs, oh my God! They all gushed afterward, but I'm like, well, next time could you laugh?"
Nash rarely has that problem here; the younger, hipper audience members of his former hometown are truly Rob's people.
While Nash loved living in Austin, like so many young stars on the rise, he's
made the big move to Los Angeles. His life there is a whirlwind of meetings, promotional
leg work, auditions,
"It's really hard for me because I'm lazy and I'm a slacker and I really, really have to kick my own ass to get up and do everything that needs to be done. I go to the gym because I live in L.A. and I'm gay and I'm 30 and I'm blond, so I have to go to the gym; that's what we do. Jewish people move to Florida when they're 65, gay men go to the gym when they're 30.
"And I have to write, which is very hard for me to do. It's very hard for me to budget the time and make myself do it. I'm basically working from the moment I wake up until I go to bed at night."
Because Nash based the show on his own high school history, he's become keenly aware of the problems inherent in turning autobiography into art. "You have to be really careful," he says, "to avoid falling into that sort of performance art 'theatre as therapy' kind of thing. I think 'theatre as therapy' is great as far as therapy is concerned, but it usually makes for really bad theatre. You have to realize that your story may not be that interesting. I mean, I don't think my story was all that interesting, so I decided I had to 'up the stakes.' I made [the character of] Ben much more of a victim than I was, I made him more effeminate, more of an outcast than I was, and I made up the gun scene. All kinds of things need to happen to make this the most important hour and a half in these characters' lives. You have to heighten the drama, raise the stakes. Make it worth someone else's time to read it or to see it. There's so much of this performance art out there; I look at it and think, 'Hey, that should be between you and your therapist.'"
I know that Nash has called Freshman Year Sucks the first of a proposed "quadrilogy" of plays covering the four years of high school for his teen heroes Ben, Johnny, and George, and am curious about his future plans. "So, you have the next three shows blocked out somewhat in your mind, and Sophomore Slump is set to open in Austin in August. Are these shows partially written or...?"
"Uh, no! I have some ideas as to what I want to see happen. In the second one, I was thinking that Ben, about to come out, maybe gets sucked into this fundamentalist movement. Johnny's really depressed, which parallels the Kurt Cobain thing. We wonder if we're going to lose Johnny. Touch on teen suicide issues. George will finally get pubes. And he may or may not start an affair with his tutor, Julie Rose, who slept with his father in FYS. Fred (the boys' most popular teacher) finds out he's positive. This is before protease-inhibitors, 1982, so his T-cell count may fall below what's the magic number so that he may officially, actually have AIDS."
"Are you sure you want people to know this much?" I ask.
"Sure. I think that's a great trailer. Besides, I said all this stuff may or may not happen. People do want to be surprised, but they also like to know a little about the story as well."
"Just out of curiosity," I ask, "how long does it take you to write an hour-and-10-minute show?"
"An hour and 10 minutes. Actually, because I'm so damn lazy, I have to actually book a date in a theatre before I write it or I'll never write it."
The theatre is booked and the show is written. All you have to do is show up and
enjoy Rob's work and think back to how much Freshman Year Sucks.
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