She has lived in a state mental institution, gutted fish in Alaska, helped mop up the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and worked the graveyard shift in a homeless women’s shelter. In other words, Ann Randolph has stories to tell. As a writer and actor, Randolph has spent decades spinning real-life experiences into outrageously funny original shows.
Thursday, September 15, Randolph will perform her latest one-woman production, Loveland, at Center Stage Theater. Loveland tells the story of Frannie Potts, an oversexed, boundary-lacking social misfit destabilized by grief at the loss of her elderly mother. It’s not strictly autobiographical, but Randolph created Loveland out of her overwhelming fear of losing her parents.
Aging, dementia, and death might not sound like the stuff of laugh-out-loud comedy, but Randolph has an unusual gift for finding the humor and the humanity in even the darkest subjects. It’s a skill and a coping mechanism she traces back to her college years, when she paid her way through college by working at the Athens State Hospital mental institution in exchange for room and board. “The people there were chronically mentally ill and had been institutionalized their whole lives,” Randolph explained in a phone interview last week. “What I witnessed was both hilarious and incredibly depressing. I was 18. The only way I knew to make sense of it was to take composites of all these characters, take my fears, and then create monologues that I’d perform at the college.”
With her wildly elastic facial expressions, her flair for evoking quirky characters through voice and body language, and her exuberant irreverence, Randolph had a following from the start. Yet though her talent was never in question — she eventually landed a spot with the legendary L.A. improv group The Groundlings, where she was a contemporary of Will Ferrell — Randolph has spent the majority of her career struggling to survive as a performer. The challenge of staying afloat financially and maintaining faith in her work as an artist became the subject of Squeeze Box, the solo show that eventually caught the attention of director/producer Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft. Under their guidance, Randolph spent a year shaping and editing Squeeze Box, a story inspired by Randolph’s experiences working at a homeless shelter. “Mel would often say, ‘It’s not about the joke; it’s about humanity,’” Randolph recalled. “He’d often edit out the joke first. It was really hard for me to let go of the laughs, but it made me feel I could have real emotional highs and lows.”
With Loveland, Randolph has continued down that path, combining slapstick humor with deep emotional impact. The show has enjoyed nearly two years of continuously sold-out shows at The Marsh in San Francisco, and now Randolph’s taking it on the road. In addition to performing two nights here in Santa Barbara, she’ll also teach a workshop for anyone interested in the process of writing and performing their personal stories.
“So really,” I asked her, “why do you think death is so funny?”
“I think it’s everything leading up to and around death that’s funny,” she said, “like the lady showing you the Eco-Friendly Urn for $99.99. Death itself is tragic; what’s funny is how people talk to you about death, like, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’” — here she slipped into the nasal, slightly hysterical voice of Frannie Potts — “You don’t lose your mother! You lose your car keys but not your mother!”
Ann Randolph will perform Loveland at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo) on Thursday, September 15, and Thursday, September 22, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org; for a discount on the September 15 show only, mention code word “friend.” Randolph’s workshop will take place on Saturday, September 24, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at BodyKind Pilates (621 Chapala St., Ste. D). For reservations, call (310) 428-2784 or email email@example.com.