By Laura A. Shamas
In 2013, writer/performer Chris Farah’s show Fancy: The Southern Gothic Camp Parable debuted in the Hollywood Fringe Festival, winning a “Virgin” Award and “Best of Fringe Extension.” The good news is that Farah’s latest iteration of Fancy is back this year, opening in the 2014 Hollywood Fringe on June 8th at 3 Clubs as Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir. Since meeting Farah last year, I’ve seen her on television a lot, and as a fan, wanted to ask her some questions about her process, how she writes/performs comedy, and what it means to be a Fringe Femme. Luckily for me, she had time to respond. By the way, Farah is guest-tweeting for LA FPI starting the week of June 8, 2014.
Q: What is your background and how did you become interested in comedy?
A: How do I even begin this question? Haha, I was born in the valley and raised in Orange County. I always liked to sing and grew up being obsessed with musical theatre, everything from Guys and Dolls, to Godspell, to Cabaret to Rent (especially in high school). We moved around a lot, so I started to cultivate being funny or embracing my innate ridiculousness to be popular in new environments.
In high school, I started taking theatre classes at South Coast Repertory and found a teacher there, Laurie Woolery, who was such a strong, inspirational female mentor to me that when I got into college I had the audacity to major in Theatre (I had promised my dad I was going to go into Journalism and Communications). I went to Loyola Marymount University, and got cast as a freshman in the play Portia Coughlan by Marina Carr (directed by Diane Benedict, another strong female mentor and my favorite teacher in college) as the retired prostitute aunt, Maggie May, who smoked like a chimney and limped around the stage due to her varicose veins. Still to this day, my favorite role and production of my life. The play is haunting, and dark, and beautiful, and cemented in me the reality that theatre was my life. I dreamed of graduation and going to get my MFA at NYU but alas, my dad, albeit supportive, wasn’t into paying thousands for more theatre education and when I quite easily got a commercial agent I decided to stay in LA.
I took improv classes at the Groundlings and then started taking long form improv and sketch classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theatre right when it opened in LA (I had wandered into the now defunct Tamarind theatre space and into the UCB opening party where I was seduced with all the people dancing, drinking and generally being full of debauchery inside a theatre, it felt VERY Dionysian). Long form improv felt like true stripped down, bare bones theatre, no director, no writer, just theater artists jumping from the backwall to create a full and succinct piece. I started doing shows there, lots of “dirty” or blue comedy, sketch shows, character bits in shows, and genre-based improv like musical theatre or Tennessee Williams, and then writing my own short musicals for a show at UCB called Quick & Funny Musicals. Through writing I really got to hone in on my comedic voice which, of course, ultimately helped me as a performer, and that voice was camp comedy. I had done a musical improv show at the Celebration Theater where I met Kurt Koehler and Efrain Schunior. Kurt would later facilitate me doing shows at the Cavern Club at the basement of Casita del Campo, the best camp and drag theatre in the town! Efrain would go on to write and let me star in his improv telenovela saga Stallions de Amor. When I started writing my one lady show Fancy, Kurt ended up being my director and Efrain my producer. And that’s where we are now!
FANCY at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival
Q: How did you develop your show Fancy and how is it different this year than last?
A: I took a class on writing a one person show at the Writer’s Pad that was taught by Julie Brister, another UCB improviser whose own one lady show Fat Parts I had seen and respected. I knew I wanted to create a piece of theatre but I didn’t want it to be a SNL audition (big characters, haphazardly strewn together), nor did I want to talk about my personal life or family, and I had seen Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel and didn’t think I was capable of that kind of character work, Godbless, so I literally had no idea what I was gonna do. Julie had asked to email her show ideas if we didn’t already have one and I, only in passing at the end of the email, mentioned Fancy. Fancy, an idea based on the fact that my mother used to sing me the song while playing the guitar and as I got older it had become my karaoke anthem. There was something about the storytelling in that song, Fancy’s strength, the melodrama and southern spirit, the fact my paternal grandmother was from a small Louisiana town, and finally the last verse where she gives it to the “hypocrites” that I connected with, and with Julie’s support wrote some monologues that would end up being in Fancy’s first show – Fancy! A Southern Gothic Camp Parable. Fancy first premiered at the Cavern Club and the next summer I brought it to the Hollywood Fringe ’13. I love performing her and was completely overwhelmed by the response people gave her. I can’t even express the delight and appreciation I have when people say they connect with her or love her. I want for her to have the accessibility of cult icons like Elvira or Dame Edna.
For this next show, Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir, I want to connect with the audience in a brand new interactive cabaret show which picks up with the Fancy we left you with at the end of the last show, strong, independent, fearless and free. She is going to share the things she has learned along the way but of course in her warm, sassy, and “innocent for a prostitute” way. Fancy is going to talk directly to the audience, answer questions, integrate social media, teach/preach, sing songs, maybe even improv a song, who knows. 🙂
Q: Where/when/how do you write? What are your inspirations? Who are your mentors? Do you mentor someone?
A: I write on my couch which is where I eat, watch TV, hang with friends, take afternoon naps, and do pretty much every other important thing in life on. I write only when necessary, so I have to “book myself” things to ultimately get me to write. I am naturally HORRIBLY LAZY, and have nightmarish self-discipline skills. I don’t have a mentor but my best friend Amy Rhodes is a writer (she has done a couple of one person shows and published plays and currently writes on Ellen) and she reads everything I write. I don’t mentor anyone for writing, but I have acted in the Young Storytellers Foundation’s Big Shows and would love to mentor school-aged kids soon. I pull inspiration from so many sources! Mae West, Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Jennifer Saunders, Jill Davis, Tina Fey, Rebel Wilson, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Casey Wilson, June Diane Raphael, Lennon Parham, Morgan Murphy, Jackie Beat, RuPaul, & Elvira. I get inspired every time I see Angelyne riding around LA in that pink corvette, she’s like a living nomadic performance artist (though maybe I wish she did something besides sell t-shirts for 20 bucks out of her trunk, I own at least 3 shirts by the way).
Q: What do you think are the challenges and perks of being a woman in comedy in Los Angeles?
A: The challenge is if you don’t know about comic books, sports, video games or other things comedy guys like, it can be super frustrating to be in male-dominated scenarios. That frustration can weigh on your own self-esteem as a writer and performer, and if you aren’t able to take yourself out of the situation and know your intrinsic value, it can ultimately be super depressing. Surround yourself with people that understand and appreciate you and that also WORK. Cultivating a group of ambitious and hilarious females and homosexual males that have driven me to work has been the biggest blessing in my career. The perks are once you get to a level where you know what you do and you trust you do it well, there are unforetold opportunities to share your voice. Sometimes you have to make those opportunities but so many successful females are writing and producing their own work (again: Casey Wilson & June Diane Raphael, Jessica St. Claire & Lennon Parham, obs Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham). I believe as female comedy writers, we all own a lil’ piece of each other successes (SPOILER ALERT: one of Fancy’s secrets), because it says there IS a market for female-centered comedies written by females who truly understand the feminine narrative in the modern world.
Q: What are some of your theories on comedy? (Its value, why we need it, how to do it, etc.)
A: Godbless, I think truth is always present in successful comedy. Maybe that’s why I enjoy camp, I can always wink at the audience with the “You know I’m wearing fake eyelashes and a drag wig, right? This is a show.” I also think that’s why comedy and heart plays so well together; it’s another way of showing the truth of characters or relationships being portrayed. I guess I subscribe to all the other rules of comedy: “yes and,” ” don’t ask questions,” “comedy in reversals,” “the unexpected,” “rules of three,” “funny is in the details,” and “using plosives,” but they don’t define my work. I don’t know HOW to do it per se; I think what I write is funny and I know it’s not for everyone but that at least SOME other people will think it’s funny too.
Q: Why do you like to perform in the Hollywood Fringe? And what does it feel like to be a part of it? What are your thoughts on being a Fringe Femme?
A: I love performing at HFF for so many reasons but here’s just a few:
a) because it’s my hometown and as a theatre artist, I’m gonna rep LA for life
b) it’s easy as I live here, and obs cheaper for that reason too
c) it gives me a place and sense of community
d) I love meeting new people and seeing new work
e) it has taught me to be a producer and for that alone I am eternally grateful
f) it helps give validation to Fancy whom I care so deeply for, and the insight on how to give her legs beyond her first show last year
g) forcing me to continue her shows (literally because I won the Virgin award, I couldn’t just not come back the next year) and wanting to make this next show better than the first.
It feels completely different this year than last! I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and this year people already know Fancy’s name! It feels like what i always thought going to a dream performing arts high school would feel like! Except I can stay out late. 🙂
Being a Fringe Femme is everything. The support I was granted by the LA FPI last year was immeasurable and helped shine a light on Fancy when no one knew her. For me, it validated me as a writer. I always knew when writing Fancy that I was going to give myself the subtle platform to express my views on feminism (as well as LGBTQ rights) and being a Fringe Femme and honestly reading Jennie Webb’s blog filled me with the pride that I had infused this crazy, ridiculous character with those values. We are women, and we do have to fight tooth and nail to bring ourselves from one stage in life to where we ultimately want to be. It’s hard, and there’s going to be adversaries and antagonists along the way, but if you know yourself and your power, no one can take it away from you.
Q: Any other upcoming projects to discuss?
A: I mean, what else do you want from me? Haha, joking. I have been blessed to get into talking head work on pop culture shows. I live for pop culture, reading gossip blogs are another favorite pastime to do on my couch. I am doing a lot of standup shows and am trying to get a monthly variety show happening in LA. Besides that, I’m producing a podcast and writing a pilot because, as I said, I rep LA. 🙂
Q: Are there links to any of your performances already online (TV, etc.) that we can include?
A: I just shot Fancy promos and I don’t have the last show online (these will hopefully all be coming in the next few weeks) BUT:
Here’s me doing standup: http://vimeo.com/88089714
Here’s some jokes I did on Chelsea Lately: http://vimeo.com/81453775