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SuperHappyMelancholy- expialidocious

21 Mar

One of the highlights of last year’s Fringe Festival was not a show itself, but standing in line, waiting for a show and making friends with Seth Lepore. What started as a joke about a lighter turned into a gonzo plan for making it through the end of the world in the space of about 10 sentences, fueled my Lepore’s antic imagination and willingness to say inspired and silly things out loud. It’s that same hilarious and insightful quality that he brings to his barbed one-man shows, dissecting self-help groups, religious dogma, New-Age wisdom, our quest for happiness and the industrial complex built around all that. Based in Massachusetts and always on the road, Lepore is in town this weekend to perform his new show, SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. CakeIn15 caught up with Lepore via e-mail to talk about being a magnet for crazy people, falling on his head as a child, working the touring hustle and started it off with a challenge – Can he say “SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious” ten times fast?

CakeIn15: Your shows are packed with these wild, hilarious characterizations – what kind of training and skill does it take to keep them all separate and distinct in a show? Barring training and skill, what was the essential trauma in your childhood that split your psyche into all these characters?

Seth Lepore: Yeah I’ve been doing this shit since I was a kid, constantly dressing up, pretending to be different people. In high school I started to do theater seriously. I went to Naropa University in Boulder and studied performance studies with this contemplative bent which basically means I can stand in place for a long time and stare into space and people are like “Wow, that’s heavy.”

I’m incredibly interested in how people move through space, gestures and facial expressions are especially fascinating to me. I notice that if I raise my brow ever so much or smile crookedly it completely changes the accent of the character, of how they hold their arms closer or further away from their sides. It all feeds into itself.

I’ve also lived in a lot of places where pretty crazy people end up. I once had a guy who was on the other end of a bus yell to me “Hey you know Sai Baba?” “Sure, I know who Sai Baba is. The guru with the afro who levitates and shit.” “No man you know Sai Baba.” I used to be a magnet for those types. Now I know how to become slightly more invisible in public but being an extrovert doesn’t help me much.

As far as childhood trauma I fell on my head a lot. I wasn’t even a big risk-taker like my friends were. It just happened constantly. This explains a lot. Now I hate you.

C15: When you are in a group of people, do you watch them talk and interact and think to yourself, “I could do that?” Should we all be worried in your presence?

SL: Yes I think that quite often especially of people I’m not too fond of. Part of my understanding others and finding empathy for them is by trying to figure out why they always look up to the left every three seconds or chew gum with their mouth hanging open.

My tendency is to jam three or four people into a character so it dilutes my impersonating them directly. There is one guy, however, in the new show based on a pastor who is so perfect as he is that I do my best to be as like him as possible.

C15: SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious is about the happiness industry and the “farcical ideology of the positive thinking movement” and your previous show, Losing My Religion: Confessions of a New Age Refugee, well, attacked religion. Why do you feel motivated to tear these social systems down? Why is theater the way you choose to do that?

SL: Well, Losing My Religion was very much focused on dissecting the New Age from my observations and mirroring that back to the audience. I don’t really want to attack religion per se but rather show the shadow of it. Growing up Catholic, becoming Buddhist and abandoning that and then finding myself drawn to a plethora of new age/self-help traditions has led to years of ridiculousness under my belt. Now I’m as agnostic as you an get.

The inherent problem for me is taking a personal, internal belief and urge to experience community and making it into commodified dogma. I don’t think that all spiritual and wisdom traditions are manipulative by any means, but I find that the power and ego-trips that come from many of the higher-ups or supposed gurus and “experts” are incredibly dangerous. You’re messing with people’s emotional state of well-being.

We don’t allow critical thinking to be a part of our desire to understand the mystery of why we exist. Either that or we flip it and become eggheads about our origins. I think we need a balance. For me the Secular Humanism movement is the closest thing to organized sanity I’ve come across in the past two decades but again nothing is perfect, that’s for sure.

C15: Do you ever get into confrontations with believers? How do you deal with that?

SL: Occasionally. I was worried about that initially but most of the time the self-helpers have had a good sense of humor about themselves. I have gotten into some interesting conversations with some people on the street who are wondering what my show is about when I’m flyering.

I got into a really weird back and forth with some people who took the Bible literally to the point of not having their own identity. That scares me. The Bible is a sacred text to a broad range of people and I don’t’ mind having a dialogue with someone who is able to have an intellectual debate but when it’s someone who thinks whatever the Pope says goes, then I wonder if I’m just wasting my time.

I have no interest in making any kind of extremist change their views. That’s me just proselytizing to them. It’s the same thing that drives me crazy about them. All I know is that someone like Santorum scares me beyond all measure as far as someone who is in any kind of political position.

C15: You tour a lot with your shows, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in doing that? What are some of the benefits or unexpected bonuses of touring?

SL: Challenges include doing everything and working 12 hour days marketing, networking, fundraising and doing outreach to get press and attention so that people are aware of the show’s existence. I wear way too many hats and I work at home so I spend a lot of time alone which can be great sometimes and shitty other times. Also the cash flow fluctuates more than I’d like.

Last year at the Capital Fringe I marketed all day for 10 hours face to face with audience members running around to venues across the city and then performed at 10:30 at night. That’s kinda nuts.

Benefits: I get to meet people like you. Seriously, we met waiting in line to get into a show and totally hit it off just laughing and developing this immediate schtick with each other. I meet so many amazing people that I absolutely love while I’m touring. So the friendships and networking with other amazing theater artists and audience members I meet is completely worth it.

MPLS has become one of my favorite places in the States and last summer is the first time I ever even went there. It’s just such a supportive, engaged and excited community of theater lovers. Now I just want to keep building my audiences in the places I love to go to and slowly spread out from there.

C15: What is something that you would love to see happen for the arts in this country?

SL: The grants-as-sustainability has to go out the window. Artists and art orgs shouldn’t be competing with each other for money. We need to find more creative ways to bridge the gap between creating art and finding worthwhile sources of funding.

I think these Give to the Max days that are happening in MN and other states is a brilliant seed idea. So how do we expand that vision so that it is a continual stream of income that isn’t reliant on ticket sales, fundraising (whether crowdfunding or traditional) or other forms of creative begging.

I think it’s true that artists need to be responsible for how they put themselves out there and raise awareness but it’s really exhausting to to be an artist entrepreneur. We need more people who are creative advocates for the arts both in public policy, the nonprofit sector and the for-profit sector. It doesn’t need to be complicated either. Other cool things like FEASTS that happen for micro-funding are again great examples of communities coming together to fund amazing projects but how do we do this on a major level and trust that the art created is going to be one of the most beneficial parts of our economy.

People don’t think about the fact that if musicians stopped making music, filmmakers became accountants out of fear of job security, visual artists put their tools down and theater folks took a 10 year vow of silence that our creative economy would not only die but the economy that everyone’s been talking about for the last three years so intensely would become a stale, inhuman silence. Who wants that?

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