BWW Interview: Will Nolan And Leola of LADYLAND! at The Green Room 42
Leola is a one-named wonder, residing at The Green Room 42 and presiding over a series of sermons in which she is saving the world, one cabaret audience at a time. The creation of writer/performer Will Nolan, Leola brings to the stage a unique experience based in comedy but loaded with pathos, filling theaters with laugher and hearts with love. Leola is a septuagenarian, recently out of the closet, redneck lesbian who manages the deli counter at the local Piggly Wiggly alongside her best friend, ex-husband Gus, who is in charge of aisle clean up. Leola is a Jesus-loving disciple of Sister Kelly Clarkson who has been entertaining audiences for years, in theaters, nightclubs and living rooms across this country, twice winning top honors at the Long Island City Flying Solo Festival.
Discovered during Nolan's sketch comedy days, Leola was in development for years and, upon making her debut in Manhattan workshops and fringe festivals, her popularity became clear to the stand-up comic, and a series of shows (or, as Leola calls them "Sermons") were created - always topical, always on the pulse and always hilarious. With an enormous fan base, Leola was offered a chance to deliver her sermons on 42nd Street for a year, sharing the stories of her coming out, her first dates with women, her life in the double-wide trailer she shares with Gus and her passion for all things LGBTQ+ and Kelly Clarkson, and every story she shares is rooted in love - love for her family, love for her savior and love for her fellow man. It's an evening of theater that never fails to entertain and which has been called "Dame Edna's hillbilly cousin giving a TED Talk."
With three more sermons in this calendar year, I phoned Will and Leola to ask what their experience in New York has been like this year.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Will, every time I have seen Leola perform, I have noticed that she is playing to enthusiastic houses. To what would you attribute her ability to attract audiences?
Now more than ever I think people want to have a good time and escape. It's a scary world out there. Leola doesn't provide a complete escapist experience for audiences - or as she likes to say, her congregants since she describes her shows as sermons with jazz hands - but she does provide a safe haven, celebrating every person who shows up and hopefully translating reality in a way that helps folks smile at some of the absurdity we are living through.
Are you finding that there are certain demographics that relate to Leola more than others?
Well, Leola offers a little bit of something for everyone! I think I cornered the market on middle-aged gay dudes playing senior citizen redneck lesbians who have just come out of the closet...but I could be wrong? I thought (and hoped!) the queer community would enjoy Leola. What I didn't expect was how she resonates with straight audiences, especially older straight audiences. I think she's the crazy aunt who is kind of an embarrassing train wreck that we all have in our family. Maybe that's the appeal. She's also an equal opportunity offender while simultaneously celebrating the congregants at each show. So maybe that's appealing? I'm just overwhelmed by the response I have gotten for her regardless of sexual orientation, political views, geography, or age! Leola even has a fan base of kids that come to her shows. God bless those parents on the ride home.
You have a tweenage son, MP, who I always see in the audience of Leola's sermons. Does he offer you and Leola feedback afterward, or participate in the creative process beforehand? Perhaps some design advice?
Oh yes. My last show I got feedback as I was walking off stage. He has many opinions and likes to share them. But I gotta say, if he says something drags or takes too long, he's usually right. He's also got a flair for fashion and makeup, so he helps with costumes and has been known to be backstage with a makeup brush spilling the tea. It's actually all quite amazing. I never imagined I would be playing a character like this with my tween-age son such an active part of the process!
Leola's sermons are extremely topical, sometimes discussing socio-political matters that are right up to the minute. How fast have you and she had to be to keep the sermons in breaking news mode?
It's virtually impossible to keep up with the news cycle these days. I never want the shows to feel overly political and ripped from the headlines. But if there is something that everyone is talking about and I can slip it in, it's a blast because it makes the experience for the audience feel that much more unique and special I think. With some shows though, I've had to just freeze it because otherwise, you'd be rewriting as you walk out on stage!
Leola always speaks from a place of love, but also always with no filter. How do you gauge how far she can go, how far she can push that envelope, how hard she can push the button?
I feel like that answer is constantly changing. When Leola was first created, there was a lot less sensitivity. She's always been wonderfully (or horribly, depending on your point of view!) un-PC, but now there are topics that I worry about making fun of or picking apart because I never want one of my shows to hurt someone. I recently saw The Book of Mormon, finally, and I think what works in that show is they are making some of the wrongest jokes you can possibly make, but there is heart to the whole piece. It's oozing with heart and actually a very strong sense of spirituality. That's what I try to do with Leola. She's not ever coming from a place of hate. She just sometimes gets things incorrect. Real, real incorrect.
If you were talking to a person who had no experience of Leola and they expressed an interest in knowing about her and about her sermons, what would you tell them to paint an authentic picture of what to expect when they arrive at Green Room 42 to see Leola?
I think a Leola show, a Leola sermon, is like an out of control TED Talk that is going to take a topic, turn it upside down, and leave you feeling happy, loved, and hopefully sore from giggling. Plus, you can eat French fries while you watch - you can't do that at a Broadway show. At least not yet!
Will.... May I please speak with Leola?
She's hitchhiking her way back to NYC for the September show and may not have a great signal, but let's see what we can do.
Hello, Leola, thank you for speaking with me, and May I congratulate you on your successful residency at the Green Room 42.
Ain't you the sweetest little peanut - thank you! I'm just tickled that fancy Yankee theater folks are comin' to the church of Leola and listenin' to this 72-year-old redneck!
How are you enjoying getting to know our New York audiences? Are they easy to convert?
You know Rabbi Mosher - sorry I just assumed that if you're writin' about the theater in New York City you're probably a little Jewish or a little gay? Maybe a little from column a and a splash of column b? Anyway, I love New York like that ol' gangster Frank Sinatra used to wail. I come from a little town in South Georgia - the American Georgia, not the Russian one that's makin' us all fight on MyFace and Twatter. I come from a little town called Waycross where I manage the deli at the local Piggly Wiggly. Once I got the callin' to heal the people of this country one audience at a time, well it didn't take me long to touch everyone in Waycross. I touched them good, smearing my positive senior citizen lesbian energy all over the place.
And then, you know what sweet pea? I realized I needed more people to touch. So why not heal the life-size port-a-pot that is New York City! So I came to the historical and hysterical Green Room 42 with my mouth open, ready to take a bite of the Big Apple - knowing fully well that I would probably end up with a mouthful of cold sores. Or head lice. I gotta say, it's the best decision I ever made. Next to marrying my now ex-husband, best friend Gus.
Leola, when you give one of your sermons, you are certainly filled with the spirit, which I imagine must be exhausting: when the sermons are over and you are back in your private place, how do you unwind?
I appreciate the question but I hope you'll understand if I don't feel comfortable talking about my 'private place.' However, I will share with your readers this...I have a post-sermon ritual of drinking iced cold Tab and eating cold tater tots while I binge watch old episodes of Sanford & Son and work on my latch hook rugs. It's similar to how a lot of the stars unwind I imagine.
Leola, when you travel to different places to sermonize, are you traveling alone, or do you have someone to keep you company when you are in strange towns?
I'm never alone sweet pea! Every stranger is a best friend you just ain't spooned with yet! Plus I ain't the best driver, so most of my travelin' is done via hitch hikin' with truckers. I find truckers to be the true prophets of this country. Sages really. I guess my entourage is the open road. And an old squirrel tale I keep in my pocketbook named Reba.
Leola, the world is filled with frightening things these days, what do you think people can do to make a change?
I know your sweet readers eat, drink, and breathe everything to do with the theater. I also know that your beautiful readers are beaten down on a daily basis by public transportation, past due bills, rats, and the social mediums - so don't hate me if this sentiment sounds cheesier than melted Velveeta in a crockpot. But I think the key is kindness. It's findin' the space in your heart to let the ugly roll off ya. It's reinterpretin' the hate your haters may spew and takin' a moment to understand that it's a reflection of their heart, their light, not yours. It's talkin' to each other face to face, not on text or the Snatch Chat or the Twatter, and exisitin' in that conversation. Listen. Like the great Beyonce said in that movie that was about The Supremes but not about The Supremes, "Listen." We have so many ways to connect to each other these days and we've never been more disconnected. Unplug and reconnect with each other. Folks are special. They really are. Take a moment, pause, be kind, listen.
Leola, how many times have you seen Sister Kelly Clarkson perform, and do you have a favorite show of hers?
I have never had an audience with Jesus's kid sister, our Second Comin', the great Kelly Clarkson. Can you believe it? I've been preaching the Gospel According to Kelly Clarkson for a whole buncha years and I have never met her. Well, that's not entirely true. I got some sort of legal paper about havin' to keep a certain distance from her at all times that had her signature on it - so that's a sort of contact, right? But the impact she has had on my life and I think really all our lives is monumental.
I love her whole canon of work and am countin' down the days until her talk show premieres this fall. I love all the albums, I love her on The Voice, and every first day of summer I do a frame by frame re-enactment of her hit film From Justin to Kelly at my trailer park. But I think the moment that forever changed my life was when she won the first American Idol. That was her nativity as far as I'm concerned. That was God sayin' "Here world, here's my baby girl. Treat her better than you did my boy and buy her records."
Leola, thank you for speaking with me and for spreading yourself around.
Ain't you the sweetest! I am, I'm like herpes or a Kardashian. Except instead of bacteria, I'm spreadin' love and I hope it's contagious. Cause I'm gonna be wipin' it all over The Green Room 42 and I hope your beautiful readers will come catch what I'm spreadin'!
Photos of Leola by Ron Glow
Leola plays The Green Room 42 three more times in 2019.
September 12 at 7 pm: Hooray for Lady Land! (Gay History for Straight People!)
October 24 at 7 pm: Make Lady Land Great Again! (A Town Hall Event with Leola!)
December 5 at 7 pm: Christmas in Lady Land!
The Green Room 42 Tickets for Leola's Lady Land!
Leola can be followed on Instagram and Twitter @leolasladyland and at her Website Leola's Lady Land Website