BWW Interview: Annoying Actor Friend 'Werks' 54 Below with '#SoBlessed Live!' this Saturday
Despite being a ratings disaster, there were a number of positive things that came out of SMASH's run on NBC; Megan Hilty's star turn, endless internet memes, and Annoying Actor Friend. The internet phenomenon @Actor_Friend "werked" its way to the forefront of the theatre community's consciousness with its biting, but honest critiques of the musical melodrama's two-year TV run.
Since then, the individual behind the anonymous Twitter account has continued writing, including a book entitled "#SoBlessed: The Annoying Actor Friend's Guide to Werking in Show Business," which was subsequently turned into a star-studded audiobook. He/she has also championed a number of worthy causes, written numerous blogs and columns, and on Saturday, February 7th, will host the return engagement of "#SoBlessed: Live!" at 54 Below.
This one-of-a-kind cabaret concert is a can't miss event for any and all theatre fans. If you can stomach a bit of sarcasm and irony with your showtunes, make sure you get tickets NOW! I recently had a chance to interview Annoying Actor Friend via email (in order to maintain his/her anonymity) about the show. What I love about the AF persona is that while it has always delivered laughs, it is clear that there is an exceptionally intelligent individual behind the meta humor.
BWW: This is your second "#SoBlessed Live" concert at 54 Below; how is this installment going to differ from the version last fall?
AAF: The first concert was called "@Actor_Friend @54Below" and was originally designed as a launch for the audiobook of "#SOBLESSED" that featured Alan Cumming, Brian Dennehy, Megan Hilty, Krysta Rodriguez, Will Swenson, Julia Murney, Lesli Margherita, Keala Settle, Tituss Burgess, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. We didn't anticipate it making a return, so we focused on the audiobook and tried to make the evening feel like "Annoying Actor Friend's concert." There were jokes and references made about the account, and we tried to put my personality at the forefront of a lot of the evening.
This time around, Nikka Graff Lanzarone; my co-producer, co-director, co-saving-my-life; and I have retooled it to make the evening not about me, but about the journey you take within the book "#SOBLESSED" through the peaks and valleys of show business. We've streamlined it, and while it will feel the same in format, it's more focused.
Knowing your online persona, I would assume that this isn't going to be your run-of-the-mill cabaret that people can see anywhere in New York. Is that a fair assumption?
Yep! We've tried to make this a cabaret starring actors that other actors would actually want to watch. It gives a fairly honest representation of what the business is like, but approaches it in a freeing manner that allows the performers to tell stories to an audience that they may only tell friends at a bar or their therapist. It's a side theatre lovers don't get to see, and one actors will relate to.
It's decidedly late-night, complete with an interactive drinking game where the audience fills out spots on bingo cards that say things like, "Someone trips," or "Keala does something crazy," or "Scrotum."
Last time, Jessica Grové told stories about touring as a sixteen year-old Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ opposite Mickey Rooney, and how one time he talked about his scrotum being swollen to the size of a grapefruit. Then, she sang a poignant "Over the Rainbow" in memory of him... Mickey Rooney's scrotum... "Over the Rainbow." That's the kind of show we're doing here.
Tony-nominee and Broadway heartthrob Jeremy Jordan was supposed to be a part of the show, but he pulled out. Creative differences? Better offer? Who is going to replace him?
I'm so bummed about Jeremy because we had planned out something for him to do as our finale and he was so game! THE LAST FIVE YEARS opens the week after our show, and his scheduling got swamped. I wish I could say he left because I made an off-color Laura Osnes joke and he flipped a table. Nothing like that happened. He's really cool. We want to make it work next time.
In my experiences, Jeremy has always had a really good sense of humor about himself. He used to read my SMASH recaps. For "#SOBLESSED: Live!" we were going to have him read some hate-tweets from when he was on the show, and then sing a song from it. That's a side of Jeremy I was excited for people to see. I love people who can make fun of themselves.
Julia Murney graciously stepped in last minute to play Jeremy. I don't mean replace him. Julia is literally going to play Jeremy. We are billing it as, "And Introducing: Julia Murney as Jeremy Jordan."
She's going to do an extended version of what we worked on for him, and she'll play it straight as Jeremy. She's like the Daniel Day-Lewis of cabaret.
What other wonderful guests do you have lined up to perform this time around?
The show is built with sections devoted to College, Auditioning, Out of town/Touring, Broadway, Unemployment, and Social Media. This makes it easy to switch up the cast and plug new people into any section, as well as bring people back to reprise performances or do new things.
How do you determine which performer will do which part in the show? Broadway Hunger Games? A "Belt-Your-Face-Off" Off? I would imagine watching Lesli Margherita and Ellyn Marie Marsh battle it out could be fun.
Ha! Not that serious. Sometimes I know what I want them to do. Like with Kyle Dean Massey. He had tweeted a while back about not getting into any colleges with his audition song, and it was "Corner of the Sky" from PIPPIN. I said, "I need you in the college section with that story."
He came from a two-show day as Pippin, and in the middle of the song said, "This is the third time I've sung this song today. F*ck 'em!"
If it isn't as clear what I want them to do, we talk it out. I ask, "What is a random as hell story you have?" and we find a way to put it into a certain section. Other times, if a section isn't filled, I'll ask someone directly what they have that would work for it.
Since it is safe to assume that you won't be performing at the show (or will you?), is the entire evening going to be songs and stories about how fantastic you are and about how annoying other actors can be?
Not about me at all! Every person has their own five-minute show where they get to riff on themselves, the business, or whatever. It's all unique to them, but I've found so many of the stories relatable, even if I haven't lived them.
Part of official description of the show is a "celebration of self-deprecation." First off, how do you do that? Will there be balloons at this celebration? And, secondly, what is it about the life of an actor, or the psychology it takes for someone to choose to be an actor, that makes a celebration of self-deprecation necessary?
I think so many actors tend to take themselves too seriously. Take the work seriously, sure. Not yourself. It's musical theatre. There's so much talk about "art" and "craft," but not as much about, "One day I was on Broadway, and the next I was working at a sample sales company folding sweaters next to a Tony-nominee."
Whether in the live show or the audiobook of "#SOBLESSED," you have assembled some pretty big Broadway names to help you tell this story. How did you recruit so many stars to participate? Blackmail? Bribery?
All of the above! But, really, anything I've done beyond the confines of my computer screen has been to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
When it comes to reaching people, the anonymity thing makes it tricky. I've tried so many different avenues. Often I go through friends who know my identity, so they can vouch that I'm not entirely crazy. I've also DMed followers. I got Alan Cumming interested by delivering a package to his stage door. When BC/EFA is the focal point of a venture, people always want to find a way to support. I've loved being able to work with them this past year.
While most people know you from your recapping of SMASH and your sardonic social media presence, you have used your anonymous fame in order to lobby for some different causes; from the sweet (#Dim4Joan) to the serious (campaigning for better treatment of touring actors). How have these types of efforts changed the goals and focus of Annoying Actor Friend?
My plan with Annoying Actor Friend is to focus on what I think matters or deserves attention. Be it obnoxious social media behavior, or unfair touring contracts; both should be changed. I try to use satire to evoke that change, but sometimes I just want to tell a joke about INTO THE WOODS. Being silly about FROZEN hopefully makes my serious stuff mean more.
Right now, I'm working on a series of features to highlight the lack of women in power positions within theatre. I think that's something that should be focused on more, and I can already feel the temperature on that topic beginning to rise.
Ultimately, I like to see what kind of chances I can take just to see what works. In the end, if something fails, I know I'll always get a retweet from a SMASH reference.
As a fan and Twitter follower from the early Ellis days, I know that while a lot of what you do is wrapped in jokes and sarcasm, it all has a message behind it. If there was one thing that you wish people could take away from your Twitter, blogs, book, columns, concert, etc., what would it be?
The Ellis days! Thank you for sticking with me so long! Remember Anne Hathaway? (Author's note: How could I forget?)
This entire experience has taught me to be more fearless. That's what I hope to remember going forward, and what others will take from it. This was a joke born out of boredom, and of all the creative things I've tried to start, it stuck. Before this, I was someone who had a lot of ideas and never put any of them down because I thought nothing would come of them. I think we all have the power to get great shit done if we just stopped thinking so hard about why it can't happen. That's a lot of Annoying Actor Friend hyperbole, but in the end it's true. Stop giving shit.
Bonus Question: Is there anything else that people need to know about "#SOBLESSED Live"? Good gossip? Behind the scenes stories? Any dirt on Jen Tepper?
I think Andy Mientus hates me.
Don't forget to get your tickets to Annoying Actor Friend's re-imagined "#SoBlessed Live!" at 54 Below, this Saturday night, February 7th, at 11:30pm. Also, if you aren't already following @Actor_Friend on Twitter, what are you doing with your life? You can also get more of his/her show business insights at AnnoyingActorFriend.com.
Are you going to see this fabulous group of theatre pros "werk" it on Saturday night? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Vaughan