Image taken by Beth Allen
Paolo Sambrano is my kind of dude. He also performs and writes about bipolar disorder -- and after seeing a chunk of his performance a few months ago, I'll voice for his sassy smarts, wonderful wit, and amazing ability to move around on a stage while conveying the deepest, darkest aspects of mental illness.
In this interview, Paolo and I chatted about performance, creativity, and why Playstation controllers are funny in that "ha ha but oh no" way that I love so much. And at the end of this post, two lucky winners will get a chance to win a pair of tickets to a performance of Bi-Poseur this weekend!
Q: So I saw your performance awhile back, and was quite struck by all of it — the narrative technique, the use of physical space, etc. How did you fall into performance, and what sort of training do you have, if any?
Paolo: Ah, first off, thank you very much! I really appreciate you coming through, and double thanks for the note a couple of weeks back. Let's see, I did some acting in high school, nothing too much though, some community theater and drama as an elective. And I mean, I always was interested in solo performance - my first exposure to it was as a kid watching John Leguizamo one-man shows on HBO, Freak and Sexaholix. I've personally been doing solo performance since July 2008, and I fell into it by accident, really.
Q: I truly hope this is going to turn into a story where you are walking into your bathroom and there's an audience in the shower.
Paolo: Almost! I checked out W. Kamau Bell's own solo show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve in SF that summer, and saw that in the program he teaches a workshop on solo performing, Doing a one-person show was always something that I wanted to do, but one of those things that I didn't know how to get started on (much like how to wrestle bears and fly in a hot air balloon around the world).
Q: Right! So it sounds like a workshop was perfect for you. Did you have a sense of what you would want to perform, back then?
Paolo: Absolutely! I always knew that I wanted to talk my suicide attempts in high school, 'cause I've been telling people those stories for years now, and I always thought what happened to me was always absurd (even while it was happening to me!). And as a medium, I really clicked with solo performing, I bummed around from filmmaking to slam poetry in high school, and doing solo was the first thing I didn't bail on after a sustained amount of time doing it.
Q: That really strikes me — that you wanted to use performance as a vehicle for talking about suicide. I especially noticed that your show — the part of it I saw — had a lot of humor in it. What's one particularly absurd thing or moment you're fond of performing?
Paolo: Oh man, I think for me, I really like doing this scene where I try to hang myself with a Playstation controller. My dad walked in on me and ended up wrestling me to the ground, but neither of us knew how to wrestle, so it turned into this awkward, shirtless sweaty mess with him just exhausted on top of me, so I couldn't move... then my brother and grandma walks in (my grandma asked if I wanted a cup of Sprite) and my dad tells my brother to call the cops. The cop comes, and I basically yell at him that LIFE SUCKS. He ends up putting me in cuffs and puts in me the back of the squad car while the EMTs come.
Q: I can just imagine the reaction you get when you tell this story one-on-one versus in performance. Or maybe they're the same!
Paolo: Ha! Totally! I mean now that you mention it, when I [narrate it in my head], it sounds way darker than how I play it on stage. That was definitely a low point in my life, but I was always able to realize how absurd this all was. Even the EMT was like, why would I waste a perfectly good Playstation controller.
Q: How old were you?
Paolo: I was fourteen years old when it went down. It happened Fall 2000. But it's always fun to play on stage. And the Playstation as noose kind of became the unofficial symbol of the show.
Q: That's brilliant. I want to ask you about your creative process... how did Bi-Poseur get put together?
Paolo: Bi-Poseur was formed with W. Kamau Bell and the Solo Performance Workshop (the workshop he co-founded with Bruce Pachtman in 2005). The way the classes work is that you put together a 20 minute self-contained scene over an eight week period with other people. So you'd get up on stage each week and present what you got in front of the others in the class. At the end of the eight weeks there'd be a class show where you'd perform your scene in front of friends and family, [and] I did most of the heavy lifting with Bi-Poseur in these classes, I'd sign up for sessions and write these 20 minute scenes (although I didn't have an immediate end game of forming them into a full length show at the time). It wasn't until about Fall 2009 that Kamau (and others) pushed me in the direction of having a full length show cause I had enough material. So I stitched together the existing scenes I had, wrote some connective tissue around it, and there was the show. Although I like to admit I have such an inefficient creative process.
Q: I'm curious about the actual Moments of Creation, though, having never written for performance. How did those 20 minute scenes get written? I'm picturing you sitting at some desk, pulling at your hair with a flask next to you. And then getting up and saying dialogue to yourself.
Paolo: Yeah my actual creative process is terribly inefficient. What usually occurs is that I just freewrite, or try to construct scenes, or at the very least scene concepts that I would like to do at my computer, on the word processor. And then I'd print out that document, and then I'd carry that around with me wherever I go, and then use whatever inspiration that pops into my head at the time, and immediately write it down on the script somewhere. Eventually, I just reconcile the notes I made on the script into the document, print out the new version of the document and repeat the process. I'm not much for just sitting at my desk and making myself write, I find that it's easier for me to let the mind wander. Makes the stakes in my head easier, I reckon
Q: Ah, that's really interesting. So when people ask you what Bi-Poseur is about, what do you tell them?
Paolo: Ahhhhhhhh, yes. I half joke that I need a new tagline or 30 second pitch about Bi-Poseur, but it usually sounds like this: "Okay, whatever I'm about to tell you, I want you to know that this is a comedy, okay? Okay. Bi-Poseur is about suicide, mental illness, and the death of my mother. Remember! It's a comedy! It's hilarious!" And then I spend a minute or two talking about how the way I approach the topic isn't exploitative, and how the gravity of the situation isn't there, and the stuff with my mother is treated a bit heavier.
Q: Do people laugh nervously at that point and give you a dollar?
Paolo: I've been getting the the nod and smile lately. Wish there was dollars involved though. Maybe a THAT'S INTERESTING here and there.
Q: That's interesting. Why do you emphasize that the death of your mother is treated with more gravity than suicide and mental illness?
Paolo: Ah, good question .I think in my head, when I say that the mental illness/suicide stuff isn't exploitative, I'm afraid they think that It'll be like a Me, Myself, and Irene situation, where it's I'm using these topics just to be 'edgy' or what the fuck ever, and that the jokes that I'll be constructing just use the edginess as the punchline without any real craft attached to it. One of the things that I'm proud about Bi-Poseur is that the comedy is completely straight, I'm not being ironic at all, but it's juxtaposed with the stakes of me actually trying to kill myselff/deal with mental illness. And then I say the stuff about my mom, because, the stuff about my mom is more somber, I don't want them to think that I'm using my mom's death for laughs.
Q: I wonder sometimes if I'm always going to use mental illness as a characteristic of my work — it's in my fiction, it's in my nonfiction, blog, etc. — and just now, it occurred to me to ask the same of you.
Paolo: Oooh. When you say characteristic, forgive me if I'm stating the obvious, but do you mean it as like an adjective when you describe your own work? Or do you mean like, this is the stuff that I write about (mental illness).
Q: I meant, I suppose, the way that Flannery O'Connor is associated with the South, or Dave Chapelle is associated with racial issues.
Paolo: I mean, here's the thing that always astounds me about Bi-Poseur - the fact that people can relate to it. When I was writing the show, I remember panicking to my director saying how nobody is going to like the show, how they'll say it's all self-absorbed and narcissistic and not about BIG ISSUES (like the Middle East or racism). I learned that most solo shows are all narcissistic to a degree anyway, but when I started doing the show and people would come up after and be like THAT REALLY HAPPENED TO ME or I HAVE A SON WHO IS BI-POLAR AND ITS LIKE THAT. That's really flattering to me. So I mean, I feel like the show can be used as advocacy for mental health/suicide issues, and I'm more than happy to take on that mantle in that regard, if it is asked of me... not to get all big headed there, or whatever, heh. And I mean, I think the mental illness stuff will always be a flavor or be an influence on my future work, I don't think I wanna be like... the one thing I'm known for. I'm writing a show right now about losing weight, and I have this idea in my head for a show about manliness
Q: So let's talk about future work. What's cooking for you, presently? We'll wrap up with that.
Paolo: Yeah, I'm currently deep in the throes of writing my second show, currently titled I Get Wet. That show is about my ups and downs with weight loss (I used to be a lot fatter in the past). I'll performing the first twenty minutes of that May 20 in Baltimore as apart of Fitbloggin', which is a conference for weight loss and fitness bloggers (perfect fit for the show). I'll be performing Bi-Poseur one more time this Saturday, May 7 in San Francisco at Stage Werx Theatre (533 Sutter @ Powell) at 2pm. It'll be the last time I perform it for a while. [And] I recently just quit my job, so I'm really just trying to open myself up to possibility, as new agey/hippie as that sounds. I've been [training in] Boxing and Muay Thai for a spell... bly good fodder for future work. I just wanna do all sorts of things, really. Competitive BBQer, solo performer, amateur fighter? Able to perform marriage ceremonies? Anything, everything.
Final performance of Bi-Poseur this Saturday, May 7 at Stage Werx Theatre (533 Sutter) at 2 PM.
So you totally want to see this amazing dude perform, right?
Brown Paper Tickets link for ticket purchases - https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/171589. Get five bucks off tickets with discount code FRUAD (not a typo).
Well, you can (if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area). The first two people to reply to this post with a comment will win a pair of tickets to Bi-Poseur for this Saturday, each.
In an email after our conversation, Paolo would like to append:
...I thought a little bit more about [your mental illness question], and I think what I was trying to say (however not obvious and long-winded it was) is that 'mental-illness' is something that I will most def claim in my creative work and writing, but I think I am a little unease with being the 'mental-illness' solo performer, or to be looked at as some advocate prime, kind of like how you mentioned Dave Chappelle is to-go for racial issues.
Thank you so much to Paolo for doing this interview, and I hope you SF'ers rush out and see the show; I'll be there!