Solo shows can be a blessing and a curse; they can be some of the most amazing theater you’ve ever seen… or an overindulgent trainwreck. Comedian Kate Berlant has somehow managed to capture the ineffable magic of both experiences with her one-woman show “Kate,” directed by Bo Burnham and now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse after heralded runs in New York and London
Even before the show, Berlant sets the mood so that the audience feels like it’s attending an industry showcase of sorts. There are dramatic black-and-white photos of her in various poses lining the theater and her branding has taken over the entire space — just check out the “TICKATES” booth.
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The show finds Berlant playing “Herself” in a one-woman show — an actor and comic telling the story of how she came to be a performer. In the show within the show, she also appears as various character types that will be recognizable to any theater goer, and frequently breaks to return to “Herself” addressing the audience. As in any solo show, Berlant details her triumphs and struggles — in this case, her inability to emote on camera and a shameful personal secret she’s kept hidden from everyone.
It might sound more “Inception” than a laugh-out-loud comedy, but it all makes sense to audience members, whether they’re familiar with Berlant or not. An actor with roles in films like “Don’t Worry Darling” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” she recently landed an Emmy nomination for her A24/Peacock comedy special “Would It Kill You To Laugh?” starring Berlant and her frequent collaborator John Early.
In that show, and in her stand-up, Berlant has toyed with the idea of persona and left many to wonder how much of her true self she’s putting on stage. “A standup is ostensibly directly from the soul of a person — I’m onstage telling it like it is,” Berlant notes. “But it’s also a play, it’s a performance. Even the most beloved standups who are speaking from their experience are still animating a character.”
Berlant notes this discourse is “fraught territory for questions of identity and truth.” It’s also an ongoing challenge for Berlant, who says the closest she gets to being autobiographical is likely on her podcast, “Poog With Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak.” The idea, she notes, “it to explore one’s authentic self though a persona — while also being funny and interesting.”
You’ve probably sat through your share of one-person shows that weren’t great. How much did that inform your writing?
I honestly haven’t seen too many. But I have seen a lot of theater that is just sort of unilaterally embarrassing. I mean, theater can be so transcendent and important but also can be just unbearable. And deeply, deeply painful. So I was definitely thinking about that.
You probably know some people who have done their own solo shows; do they ever take offense?
Luckily, I haven’t had that experience. Probably because the material is so specific to myself or this version of me I’m playing. I’ve had some good friends of mine say in a fun and loving way, “Wow, this kind of hurts.” But at the end of the day, I really do want it to be a love letter to theater.
You’ve played this sort of meta version of yourself before; do you have to differentiate between “Real Kate” or “Show Kate”?
It was confusing. When I was writing it, even I would get lost. “Where am I? Where is she? Which Kate is this?” But I think that ultimately helps, as there’s something a little blurry about the show. I would definitely get dizzy writing it. I would have to say, “OK, this is Kate. This is Kate acting in the show within the show. This is Kate outside the show.” But then it kind of all folds in on itself anyway.
When you’re doing stand-up, how much do you consider it a persona or an acting performance? Or is it really its own complete separate thing?
I think it was Molly Shannon, who I couldn’t admire more, who described herself as a “dramatic comedian.” And I loved that. It used to bother me when people called my stand-up a character because I consider myself to be no less a character than anyone else doing stand-up. This is me. But, well, it also isn’t me.
While the show claims you’re playing “yourself,” this is a tough performance for any actor. It hits so many emotions, is highly physical and requires a lot of you — it really is a marathon.
Thank you — it really is a challenge and one I’m grateful for every night. Because you can’t coast. Coming into this, I was excited bout the idea of writing something down and not just hoping the magic will come out of thin air. And though the show is written, it still depends on these live elements that can go wrong. And that’s what keeps me engaged — and hopefully the audience engaged. It really is unfolding in real time, and I’ve put myself on the spot.
What do you do on two-show days?
Try not to die. Those are tough, I gotta be honest. There have been times between a matinee and evening performance where I think it’s too much and I can’t do it again. But then I get up there and I love it.
There’s audience interaction in the show and as a standup, you obviously have some experience with that. How do you handle hecklers or when the interaction goes off the rails?
To be honest, it doesn’t really happen that much. I feel like live hecklers sort of died off; now people can break things down later on Tik Tok or social media. In person, there are people you have to shut down from time to time — but it’s really few and far between.
Though the show is satirizing the business, there are a lot of things in it performers can really relate to, including some of these strange audition experiences. Have you made peace with the audition process?
No, I’ve not made peace with it. (Laughs) It remains a very bizarre thing. I guess like anything, it gets easier the more you do it. But in my experience, I’ve never gotten a job from an audition. The only job I can actually point to coming from an audition is “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” And because it was a dream come true, auditioning for a Quentin Tarantino movie, I thought, “Of course I’m not going to get it.” And then I did.
Maybe a strange question, but the script for “Kate” is so good — would you ever be up for somebody playing you? I could see this show touring the country with different Kates.
That is amazing. I have not ever considered that. But I would love to see someone else do it. That would be such a trip.
“Kate” is now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse through Feb. 11. For tickets and information, visit www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
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