Talking the Tightrope: A Q&A with Adrienne Truscott About Dangerous Stand-Up | Comedy | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram

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Talking the Tightrope: A Q&A with Adrienne Truscott About Dangerous Stand-Up

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PHOTO BY SARA BROWN
  • Photo by Sara Brown

I spoke with performance artist and comedian Adrienne Truscott at her property in Tivoli in early August, a week after attending her one-woman show, “Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!” at Bard Spiegeltent. Scroll down for a trailer for the show.

—Brian K. Mahoney

I was at one of the Wau Wau Shows, I think it was the first one at the Spiegeltent, and I got dragged up on the stage by you guys.

I thought you looked kind of familiar!



Me and some other big, bearded dude got suited all up and you took a Polaroid of us, which I stole off the stage at the end of the show—and I ran it in the magazine with my column that month.

Well done.

You guys were doing serious physical exertion. You guys picked both of us up as I recall and were spinning us around! That was a real physical show.

Yeah.

Do you guys still do that?

You know, it's a little bit harder to do all that these days. But yeah, we still do, our thing was always—we're a two girl circus and we'll do whatever. Whether we could do it well or not—that was always the balance of that show.

“Asking For It,” as you've said in other contexts, is a stand up comedy—a feminist rant disguised as a stand up comedy show. But there was always a strong feminist bent to the Wau Wau Sisters.

Yeah. It wasn't as on our sleeve, usually because we were never wearing anything to put on our sleeve. It was funny, people would always ask us, "Is the Wau Wau Sisters a feminist show?" We were kind of like, "Yeah, because we're feminists." It's not a feminist show like we've named it "Come See Our Feminist Circus." By the virtue that Tanya [Gagne] and I are feminists, it is. There's a good chance that the lens through which we see the world is also the lens through which we make the art. But then there's something like "Asking For It," which is more overtly taking a feminist stance and announcing itself as such. Whereas I feel like the Wau Waus were more playful, more like...just come, have fun! We're gonna drink, we're gonna strip, but we're also gonna be running around with such an unhinged sense of freedom that there's a feminism in that.

Right. What was the initial impetus or the idea for "Asking For It"?

It's a squiggly one. I can genuinely say that a part of it was simply that I had always wanted to try stand up. And was really scared of it. And those were the jokes that were coming to me as more explicitly stand up. Then I just started going, "Oh my God, what if you could do a whole hour stand up that was all about rape culture and rape jokes, and it's a trick. It's a trick that it's stand up! But really it's also a feminist rant." The artist in me loves any idea that could fail spectacularly.

Why?

When I get an idea that feels like that, like I'm really attracted to it and it kind of won't leave me alone, but I also know that it might be a terrible idea—that's often how ideas come to me. Like [loud gasp] oh that's...nope, you shouldn't do that. And then I think it's the rigor. There's something about that place that feels magical and important and worthwhile when an idea feels dangerous like that. And because of that danger, you have to apply the rigor or it will be terrible. And it's that tension that makes the show. For me, in my process, I could be super, super rigorous about something that doesn't really have any high stakes at all, and then it might just be a well-crafted thing that I don't really care about. And if I have a really bad, dangerous idea, which I feel like in the current climate plays out as, like, when sloppy comics are doing "edgy" material, and you're like, no, it's racist. And their, like, "No, it's edgy," and you're like, "No, it's racist shit because you weren't rigorous enough about it." Doesn't mean a white person couldn't do comedy that touches on race, but if you drop the rigor because you think you're just doing the danger, it might be shit.

So you like to walk the tightrope.

I like to walk the tightrope a little bit.

Because that requires rigor.

Yeah! And I'm a circus girl, right? And I also realize that the discourse that I was hearing in the world about sexual violence was really lacking some truth in the way that people would still question a woman's behavior.

So what year did this thing debut?

In 2012, I was thinking about it and doing the what-ifs in my brain. ["Asking For It" premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013.] What if you could pull this off? And I was unwittingly doing that embarrassing thing of trying material out on your friends when you're just hanging out. And then eventually my friend Simone was like, "What's your next project?" And I was like, "I don't know what my next project is." She was like, "Yes you do. You're making a comedy about rape. You've been trying material out on me all afternoon." I was like, "Oh my God. It's so embarrassing!"

I hope she was having a good time.

Yeah! So then I thought, "Okay, I think I am." So funnily, I was doing it outside of that sort of whole thing that blew up into this international conversation. And as I was working on it, and I'm pretty shitty without a deadline, the Daniel Tosh story out in LA broke, which just blew up on the internet, and it was this big conversation. And so then I thought, oh I have to make this show right now. This is a hot moment. I'm going to finish it and do it in Edinburgh. And I probably had 15 or 20 minutes of material when I signed up for Edinburgh [Fringe Festival], like, I'm doing it, I'll work it out by the time I get there. So that was, I suppose, auspicious and lucky for me that Daniel Tosh made that divisive joke on stage.

And you're still doing the show.

Yeah. That's the hilarious part to me. I was so worried about making the material work, and I thought, if I do it right, it'll touch a nerve and maybe I'll just do it for like six months to a year if people will book it. And I made it—it fits in a suitcase. I can do it in a bookstore, I can do it in a big theater. And at this point, I've done it everywhere from a bookstore with a light switch on the wall to comedy clubs and comedy festivals to like, 500-seaters. It never occurred to me that it would not become irrelevant. That was the irony. As a comic, it's a fucking goldmine.

It's evergreen material.

It just doesn't stop. And then as a woman, you're like [sobs] I want this show to mean nothing.


Right. Have it be some kind of relic of a distant past, you can do it in perfumed wigs.

Exactly. Once I had already done it for a year and I had started to go like, oh okay, I have to do it again in three weeks, I should look over it, see what I can spiff up and get up to date. And then inevitably, I was in Philadelphia on a three-week run, Hannibal Burress did that Cosby joke. Then it was Brock Turner from Stanford. And then, lo and behold, president of the United States. It's just like, you know, this is getting absurd. So yeah, I'm still doing it.

When I was in high school in the '80s in Queens, guys I went to school with were going into the city to go gay bashing. That was still happening and an accepted form of behavior. That's the whole thing about a generation of people needing to pass on.

It just feels like it's gains and losses every day. I'm 100 percent certain that in general the conversation is moving insistently forward. And then there's these like backward steps that you're like, oh God, for Christ's sakes. And that's reactionary as much as it is embedded. Women have been just dealing with it, and just sublimating it, and even accepting it as a part of life, swatting a fly away, where you're like, "I just wish I could do the dishes and not have to worry about fly. I just wish I could draft this architectural drawing without that fucking fly bothering me." And I think we have internalized it so much that it's harder to believe the volume of what we have not mentioned along the way.

Right. But of course prior to this, I've known forever that all my female friends have stories to tell, from mild harassment to sexual assault. That's just what being a woman is like, and I think loads of dudes never had any inkling about that.

Well, when I was making “Asking For It,” that was a part of it, the kernel of the show actually dates back to college for me. And I was in a seminar, there were about 13 or 14 people, it was like a race, class, gender liberal arts college class. Male professor. And he was trying to get us a bit more riled up, I suppose, in our privileged undergraduate apathy. And he was giving us statistics about pay inequality, all these different things, and then he said, two out of five women are raped. That was the statistics. And this was back in '93, I suppose. And then he was like, "Well, I mean, statistically speaking, that means there are 10 women and three guys. So statistically speaking, four women in this room have been raped." And that was pretty confronting to say to some 20-year-olds in a room together. I suppose in hindsight, I might have been, myself, triggered in that moment, and just felt frozen, like what did he just say? We're sitting with that discomfort in the room right now. And he was really like, "how does that make you feel, guys?" I think I remember feeling like he was a bit chuffed with his provocative lob. And I was like, "I'll tell you how it makes me feel. I want to know which one of you guys raped us. Because statistically speaking, we're talking about a closed group, that's how statistics work. I'm not great at math but I'm pretty sure that's how you do it, with a control group. So in this room there's three guys and you. So if four of us have been raped, did each one of you have a go? Or was it you because you're in a position of power?" That is the interesting part of how this conversation makes me feel. The part where we just talk about and assume and accept that four women were raped does none of those raped women any fucking good. So let's figure out who raped them, deal with that, and let's move on and read the rest of the fucking book.


Whoa.

The fact that such a smart lefty radical English professor at Wesleyan University was still stuck in that paradigm was a real key in the lock to me. I realized we're talking about this so fucking backwards, which is why that's one of the first things I say in my show—"Anyone here been raped? Anyone here raped anyone?"


It's funny that you say the show has its root in that class at Wesleyan because obviously what you do in that performance is you flip the script and you make people uncomfortable right off the bat. Opening up with like, "Okay, so then there are rapists here in the room. That's just what the statistics tell us." What have been some of the reactions that you've gotten to your show from people that have surprised you? And what are the ones that maybe haven't surprised you?

To that end, when I was making it, I made a very clear choice. I think in order for me to pull off this material that's heavy, I have to make everything else about the show as light as possible. Even if it's a trick, I have to be as likeable and approachable as possible. Partly to play out the crux of the show, which is like, a miniskirt, not even, no pants, drinking, room full of strangers. That's the script you guys have given me. Given that script, every time I do the show, it could end badly for me. I don't ever think that's going to happen, but in theory, not impossible. I feel like having done the show for five years now and in years before I was sort of playing at stand up, now I think I just know how to do it, I'm not a pro at it but I know how to do it. So I'm much more confident with the show's dynamics, and so, I think I can play with being less likeable in moments now. I get a little...tougher now than I did in 2013.

And there's also, there's elasticity to your performance like in stand up, because you're reacting to the audience. It's not just script script script script script, I watched you react and obviously you have different reactions for different things.

I think one of the things that surprised me overall was when I first started doing it, I was like, okay, my worst nightmare for this show is getting heckled by a really smart, really funny guy who's a jerk. And I feel like I owe it more to myself and to the audience to be in control so that they feel safe with this material. So like I wrote things I would say, I imagined comebacks in case I didn't have a comeback in the moment. And one of the most surprising and best things was that when I did have that first moment of getting heckled by a dude, everything about his body language was like, "I'm here to try to throw this bitch off." I said something just like, “I'm sorry sir, is this your show or my show?” And then he was just said something like, “No, I'm just trying to be funny.” And I was like, “That's a great idea. How about you try to be quiet, and I'll try to be funny?” And then he said one more thing, and I was like “Okay, I'm just going to point this out, I've asked you to stop twice, and you keep going. That's pretty fucking awkward at a show about rape, don't you think?" I was like, "So you got one more chance, but I think everyone's starting to think I have a little bit of an insight on you.” I can shut you down as that guy pretty quickly.


One of the bad surprises is getting drunk heckled by a sister who's so in support of you that she steps on every fucking punchline. She's like, "You go girl!" I'm like, "No, you go girl." I think to myself, I love that you're here and supportive and I also like to have four vodka tonics sometimes, but shut the fuck up. It's been very lovely to have young comics come up and comment on the writing. Especially male comics and I'm like, that's funny.

“I can punch that up for you.”

I definitely get the punch up, and then my response is always like, "Sounds like you wanna write comedy, you should get up on stage!" And they say, "Nah, I just like to write for other people." And you're like, "Sweetheart, I wish you knew how much women joke about this moment." I've had young women come up and say "Thank you, I have not had a way out of how I feel about what happened to me, and this just gave me a door I didn't know was there." Which is of course like [sobs]. I've had some young men come up and say that they realized something may have happened to them that they never thought about because of their gender. I've had men come up and say you just gave me a lot to think about, about how I behave.


Yeah! I definitely feel that a lot for any man coming out of that show. So you've been doing this show for a while now, but what was it like, how vulnerable did you feel when you first doing the show? Because you basically do almost all of the show without pants on.

Because you've seen the Wau Wau Sisters, you would know I have a history with running around naked on stage. And I have a history of doing that my whole life for laughs as a little kid. I don't come from a family of nudists or "free to be you and me" in that particular department. So I think that, you know, I made this show at a time that was appropriate in my brain and my art, or my craft, to make it, which is a point in my life where I could be in control of it. I think if I'd been younger trying to do that, it could have been a real disaster, but it didn't occur to me to do it when I was younger. I don't think I personally would have been like, look, it's going to be fucking hard for me but I'm going to do it with no pants on. I was just like, that's going to be hilarious. It's going to be poignant because it's the most asking-for-it outfit, taken to a level of absurdity, it's clownishly in your face about how stupid the logic of that is. And it's just stupid, it's a funny costume, and it will sell tickets. It's the whole package. And I never would have done it without a jacket or without shoes, it was very clear it wasn't a nude show, it was just pants-less. Because it's more, sort of gross and brazen and stupid. I would just notice the minute I took stage that the whole audience, and maybe particularly men, they were anticipating feeling the male gaze, anticipating feeling like "Usually women's bodies are put on display for my consumption, I know how to consume this, I'm going to sit back." And it turns out the minute there's a real live vagina in the room, terror strikes. It was right away. And it was of course obvious to me that I have the power, I have my voice, literally it's amplified. I have the mic, I'm on stage, I've made the choice to be naked, I'm deploying my nudity in ways that feel powerful to me. And they, the audience, don't know any of that. They don't actually have any of that information quite, until I'm in the room.

So if anything, I feel like it gives me more power and not more vulnerability. You know, I've had moments where guys have taken photos and stuff, and again, I just go take their phone and like, you guys. You're at the show. You're not allowed to have this without my fucking permission. And like, one guy, I could see him coming, I had said during the show, you and I are going to talk before you get out of here but I don't want to take up everyone else's time.

So he did it, and I saw him coming out of his row and I just went to the row so he couldn't leave and then he had his phone out, and I just took it. And I was like, I'm just going to make sure we get rid of these photos. And I went in and delete, delete, and I was like, wow, you took a lot! Delete, delete. And as I was doing it, he was getting angrier. And this like, these really butch women started lining up behind me who had also been in the audience, and then I got to the end of my photos, and then there were photos of other women.


Oh. Gross.

Yeah. And I was like, “Wow, you take a lot of photos, sir.” And he was like “Give me my phone back! That's mine.” And I said, “Incorrect! Those were fucking mine. You came to this show, I did what I said I was going to do, I was like, you had a chance not to be a cunt and you were a cunt. So don't you forget that, I'm certainly not going to.” And all these women were behind me and, yeah, he was angry, I don't know how the rest of his night went. I think that was the most volatile I ever got with someone.

One last big question: On your site you've written, "Live performance is the most radical way to reengage people's attention." As someone who works in media, it's a very crowded space. And people's attention is so fractured and we're constantly checking our phones, we have a thousand ways to be distracted by various things. Social media, etc etc. Why do you think that performance is that way?

My goofy answer, and I'll try to make it short. My main teacher just sort of taught us if you're going to be on stage you have to be as present as possible. You can't try to get people's attention. You just have to be deeply attentive to yourself and that will bring people's attention to you. So there's some hippie part of me that feels like, if you practice being really honest and present in a room with people, they will be there with you. And that makes me feel...less self-indulgent about being a supporter, because I feel like, you have to stay honest and then everyone's getting an honest thing, and you're not just doing your show so that you get to do this thing you finished. It's not finished until people are in the room. And I think that the people in the room makes the art honest, and if the art is being performed honestly it makes the people in the room honest. I'm using honest loosely.

And so you've written essays and so that, it's interesting, as a writer, I write stuff that, I sit alone, I write the thing, it gets published, I may never have any interaction with the reader other than that. And so, I can see that I can be dishonest there. I can present myself in a way that's inauthentic and never be called on it. Obviously you can be called on it, but like, not in a way that a performer...

In the moment. And for different reasons, I also really love the written word and feel like that's a whole other contract of taking space alone to read a letter or a book. It also, feels harder and harder and more rare, a luxury for me to find in the world. I'm getting better at putting my phone down, but it's a hard one.

What are you developing in Philadelphia?

There's a company there called Bearded Ladies Cabaret. They are doing this big deep dive into queer cabaret history and it's really, so there's artists from like Mexico City, Poland, Paris, Germany, New York, Philadelphia, it feels like an incredible extravagance to be in someone else's project. There's dramaturgy, like I'm actually learning, getting information in before I put something out instead of just like, make make make. It feels great, the people involved in it are stunning. I've learned that I'm not cabaret, I'm cabaret-adjacent, which is new language, right? Slightly more Millennial, which is great, because I was like, you guys have heard me sing, I don't know if anyone's going to book me as cabaret, But it's absolutely wonderful and I'm really excited about the project we're making. It's going to be this immersive cabaret, which is kind of antithetical because cabaret is really like, "there's going to be a table, cocktails, and a show!" Which is part of what I love about it, and it's part of the Philadelphia fringe, and it's called "Poison Cookie," which is a really great term in an essay they gave us by Friedrich Hollaender about how cabaret should be a poison cookie. That you're like, mm, this is delicious. I feel like “Asking For It” is a poison cookie.

What a treat!

Yeah, yeah. And then something that might be a little harder to swallow.


Have there been the different receptions in different countries or venues?

Not really. It's funny, I've been asked this question before and I think my answer is it's not a big difference by country to me so far. I would love to do it in India or, you know, then I feel like I could answer. The differences I tend to notice are more about venue context. The bar the Spiegeltent is different than a comedy club, is different than a feminist theater weekend. Those audiences have very different expectation and sort of curated behavior. One of the things I feel like often at a comedy club, people laugh more readily and then think about it on the way home. And at more sort of theatre venues, I feel like...I'm going to think about if I feel okay laughing about this on the way home.

And so, do you prefer playing one venue over another?

The harder the venue, the more I'm interested in it, for that show. Like, with that show I meant to make trouble. Doing that show, it feels like more an act of inclusion and generosity if it's an audience where I can anticipate maybe the audience tipping female and queer and possibly more experience with sexual violence, the show feels more like that door that that woman mentioned. Whereas if I do it at a comedy club that's more mixed, there's a different tension in the room.


If you really want to get a tough crowd, do the men's empowerment, like the Sterling Institute convention.

My God, if you could help me set that up, I would fucking die to do that...as a person wanting things to change in the world and as a provocateur and as a brat. When I was first doing it and like, you know, I would get this sort of, like well it's easy to make your stuff work to your audience. I was like, well, who's my audience, what do you know about my audience? I did this show pants-less and for free on purpose, so that people would be like, I'll go in for 10 minutes. And then when I first started doing it, that was very much my intention.

Yo
u know, if comedy wanted to be as edgy as it claims to be, in a meta way, on the whole, not act by act, fucking book me with Daniel Tosh. I think that would be a great, terrifying night.

Terrifying night that would be.

So yeah. I wish I could do something like that. But one of my next gigs is in, for “Asking For It,” is in Germany. I got one of the best invites I've ever gotten, this woman just wrote, 'Dear Adrienne, I hate comedy and I hate rape, would you like to present your show with us?' And I was like, that's so brief and poetic, yes please.

Speaking of Adrienne Truscott, bard Spiegeltent

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