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Interview: Marga Gomez of NOT GETTING ANY YOUNGER at MarshStream Explores the Humor in Life's Uncomfortable Truths

The celebrated performer and writer reprises her award-winning solo show December 5th & 6th

Interview: Marga Gomez of NOT GETTING ANY YOUNGER at MarshStream Explores the Humor in Life's Uncomfortable Truths
Actor/writer/comedian Marga Gomez
(Photo by Anne Whitman)

It may be hard to believe, but the ever-youthful, trailblazing actor/writer/comedian Marga Gomez is now well into the fourth decade of her remarkable career. Known for her funny and touching solo theater pieces as well as her uproarious standup comedy, Gomez recently revived her hit play Not Getting Any Younger for the MarshStream International Solo Fest where it won the award for Best Solo Show. In the play, Gomez weaves commentary through hilarious surreal life vignettes like little Marga visiting the worst amusement park ever with her showgirl mom in tow, and adult Marga trying to get a senior discount at Forever 21. In a swift 55 minutes, Gomez looks back on how even an outspoken lesbian can find herself in the closet for women of a certain age. Luckily for viewers everywhere, Gomez is now reprising the show for two more livestreamed performances on December 5th and 6th. Additional details can be found on the MarshStream website.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting by phone with Gomez from her home in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco. Our conversation delved into how she adapted Not Getting Any Younger for virtual performance, her experience as one of the first successful, out lesbian comedians, and her colorful family history in the Latino variety show world. Offstage, she is much as you would expect - naturally warm, funny and down-to-earth - but also surprisingly nerdy about the careful technique that goes into making a successful virtual performance. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

The title of your piece is something that anyone can easily relate to. What was your impetus for creating Not Getting Any Younger?

The show was created in 2011, and I guess it was just following me. It [the issue of aging] was just starting to become present even back then. I think I was more sensitive to it because I was in a relationship with someone like 30 years younger than me, so I was very aware of my age. Because I consider myself a Peter Pan type, and I still feel like that. The show is a lot about my childhood and then my anxiety and denial of not being that kid anymore. So I guess it was just bubbling up for me, and I was starting to deal with it, accept it. I've been lying about my age forever because my parents were entertainers and they lied about their age and then they lied about my age to keep them younger [laughs] - and also to ride the subway for cheaper. So yeah, it was just a tipping point, I think.

I had remounted Not Getting Any Younger [in early 2020] because Brian Copeland was doing this solo theater festival that he brought to Marin and San Leandro, and he asked me to do a show. And Not Getting Any Younger turns out to be about the only cheerful show, cheerful and clean. A lot of them are cheerful, but they're not clean. This is a show where you can have a 12-year-old watching; I'm not gonna say anything naughty. So I thought OK I'll do this show and so I had to go find the script, I didn't know what file it was in, and I thought, "Oh, this isn't gonna work. This show is ten years old." And it killed at the Marin Center Showcase Theater. It was like a 300-seat room, it was full and it was a big success so when Stephanie asked me to apply for Solo Fest, I thought "I'm gonna do this show."

Anyone who's been watching online performances these past several months will attest that Zoom can be a tricky medium for a performer. How did you go about adapting the piece for a virtual format?

Well, I love the challenge of it. This weekend I binge-watched Zoom theater productions of people that I knew, and I was very optimistic after it because people are just really committing and taking chances. I teach virtual performance for solo performers and I emphasize that of course the most important thing is your piece, but then you have these options.

Since the pandemic started, I started collecting gear to livestream. My first livestream was March 31st and it was a show that had been cancelled, or postponed we said back then, for the pandemic. So I bought a camera, my theater friends gave me lighting, and I got the kind of microphone that will take your voice from three feet away and not the loud refrigerator. And then I learned software programs, a person like me who was someone who couldn't program a VCR, (and that's an old-people reference, apparently!) [laughs].

So I got all this gear, and I watched tutorials on Youtube on how to livestream. A lot of the people teaching it are either like dude-gamers - World of Warcraft and they're on Twitch - and church people. I think the church people were the most useful because church is kind of a performance and kind of a show. So I wound up on these nerdy Facebook groups and I started learning. By March 31st I had all the equipment I needed to make the show, and that first performance went really well. I'm lucky enough to have a room that I can create into this little public-access studio. Some people stream to Youtube or other platforms, but I like Zoom because after the performance you can see the audience, if you choose to. You can almost hear them.

And then I started getting into the possibilities of what a person can do streaming with the tech that's available, so I was able to illustrate a lot of points in the show, because in Zoom you can make virtual backgrounds, right? People do that and they do it terrible, but you're supposed to light it properly so you can actually make it look like you're playing at a really big theater that has rear projection. So I just started jazzing it up. It's a light, comical piece, so it's real easy to put visual jokes in there.

Also I bought a more professional camera, like I don't talk into the computer. I encourage people that I tutor, if they can possibly get a better sound device [to do that]. Because first of all that's the most important thing, that people know exactly every word you're saying. That camera is going to be your partner in the show, because that camera is their eyes, right? So I have the camera set up and I choreograph it, where I am, if I'm slightly out of frame, if I'm in frame. I tend to move around and have a whole bunch of light cues. Here the playing area is not very wide, but you can play back, you can do a sudden closeup. One of the nicest things I've read in a review, was Lily Janiak from the SF Chronicle said that sometimes it's like I'm dancing with you, the way I use the camera. I have it set up on a microphone stand at my height so I can get very close to it. It's my wife! [laughs]

I talked to The Marsh's Artistic/Executive Director Stephanie Weisman recently about what goes into a successful solo performance, and she said that standup comedians like you often make the best solo performers because you have such a deep understanding of "audience," of how to connect to people.

Direct address, yeah.

Interview: Marga Gomez of NOT GETTING ANY YOUNGER at MarshStream Explores the Humor in Life's Uncomfortable Truths
Marga Gomez in the 2011 production of
Not Getting Any Younger
(Photo by David Wilson)

But doesn't that skill kind of go out the window when you're performing on Zoom? How do you adjust for not having the audience in the room with you?

When I was doing my first virtual stream, I was working with a director, and one of the most important takeaways I got from him was that everyone knows you're not onstage. You're in your living room and you are talking into the lens to one person. You're not talking to, you know, 90 people squeezed into the theater. You're just talking to one person and so you really have to drop all the hammy tendencies, all the artifice.

Not Getting Any Younger is a mix of direct address and scenes where I have to create the illusion that [for instance] I'm at a kids' birthday party and I'm the mean dad chaperone. But in those interstitials, there's just one lovely person and I'm feeling you on the other side of the camera so I really have to be present and aware. It's more demanding than [in-person] theater because I had a little bag of tricks I brought with me, but here there is no hiding, there is no faking anything, when you're actually talking to an audience of one.

And I keep watching virtual theater, like this weekend I watched Bill Irwin, his show On Beckett / In Screen. When he talked [directly] to the camera, it was gentle, you know there was just a softness to it. And then he would get into his bits and it was like full-on as if he was performing for 500 people. So that's the big difference, really, in solo performance. When someone gets out of a scene, when they break the fourth wall, who are they talking to and why? What's the relationship here with the audience? You've got to be very grounded in the relationship with your partner in this, with the audience.

And the other thing is we have this advantage, those of us who are streaming now. We have to rehearse as much as we've ever rehearsed, even more, and then we have to record it and look at it, and we have to be kind to ourselves. A lot of performers are terrified to watch the film of themselves, but it's worth a million bucks. I mean you do it and you think you got it, and then you play it back and you find a moment that's false. You have to root out every false moment.

I never thought about how this medium gives you the ability to actually watch and critique your own performance. Normally as a live performer, you may have an idea of how a performance went, but you never get to see what the audience sees.

No, you never do. You know occasionally at the end of a run you'll hire a videographer and then you'll see what it looked like all this time. But you do have the audience to sort of give you [feedback]. Even if it's a drama, there's an energy you have in the room, and that sometimes informs what you're doing. And of course if there's comical parts, the laugh is gonna tell you a lot, and if they're not laughing that tells you a lot.

It's all a risk, though, because its live. Just because I rehearsed three times in the week and I played 'em all back - the next time I do it you know I might have like a splinter in my shoe and I've got to perform and I don't know what that's going to feel like. So you don't know what's going to happen, but at least you do your homework.

Thinking back to the early days of your career, the first time I ever saw you perform was New Year's Eve 1988, when you opened for kd lang at the Fillmore.

Omigod, that was such an amazing gig! There were so many comedians who wanted that and they were all mad at me! [laughs]

I still remember your Janis Joplin joke from that night - something like "It's such an honor to play the Fillmore. I feel like Janis Joplin is actually inside me right now... and it feels really good!"

Well, you know I used to live for about 30 years in the building that Janis lived in. I mean she had a couple of addresses in San Francisco, but I lived in the apartment building that was one of her main residences. There's a picture of her in a book by David Dalton [Piece of My Heart] and it says "her Noe Street residence." And then I also stayed at the hotel that she died in.

I just have to say that as a gay person I really appreciated both how truly funny you were and how truly out you were. And that was decades ago now! Did it ever occur to you to not be out?

Yeah, absolutely. I first went into entertainment because my parents were entertainers and I just loved it and I loved comedians on TV. I'm not quite sure if it was nature or nurture, but it was the only thing I really, really loved. But, I just - and I hate to say it because this is a crude word - I liked ladies a lot. I just lived for the attention, and I guess the validation, of having a girlfriend and maybe having many, many girlfriends. I wanted to be a player. I mean, I learned this from my parents, you know? It's nothing I'm proud of, I mean I basically had some strange information. Lesbians are not known for playing the field or for being like really aggressive, and that was me. I wanted every woman in the world, and so when I became a comedian, I was probably most likely to come out in my school of comedians because how else am I gonna get the attention of these ladies? [laughs]

But when I started out, there was no gay comedy scene. The first time I went onstage was at a place called the Other Café in San Francisco at Carl & Cole. I think it's a crepe place now. That's where Ellen Degeneres started and Robin [Williams] used to perform, and he was already famous. It was this little like Lenny Bruce-style café/coffeeshop, and it was hot-hot-hot.

So I went on there and what I knew is that you're not supposed to say you're gay. This was like 1983(?) and nobody was out. I went up there, but my whole life was around the gay community already, you know? I mean there were people who were gay and were in the closet and it was no big deal for them because they weren't part of the activist community, they weren't part of protests or anything like that. They were just gay; it was not a political act for them. But for me, I would leave my very lesbian-lesbian-lesbian rainbow world and then go try to be a comedian. I tried to you figure out like what I was gonna talk about, but my only interests were women. You would see people go up there and talk about their dating life, and that's what I wanted to talk about, but I couldn't. And they never let me get much stage time.

At the same time, a club called Valencia Rose opened in the Mission and advertised by putting flyers on telephone poles, so that's how I saw it. I saw "gay comedy" and I was like, "Oh, let me check that out." And it was like a night and day difference. They loved me. I started talking about who I really am. I think I had some jokes about the Catholic church and I had Reagan jokes, everything was anti the patriarchy. And this was just at the onset of AIDS. I was already performing at a gay comedy club before we even knew what this illness was that people were getting, but we did know homophobia and so for this audience to go to a comedy club and not be the butt of a joke was much appreciated.

And so this little club was packed every night and I started finding my voice. When I had to go to a place where I had to de-gay myself, and you know that was my own idea, I had no voice, I was talking nonsense. I don't blame them for not putting me on. Maybe if I had been [openly] gay, I would have had a better shot, you know? So it took me finding this place, and feeling how much better that was, to be honest, and then I just started being gay all the time.

Now, of course, these young comedians start out being gay. I have a line in Not Getting Any Younger about how I'm described in Wikipedia as being one of the first out lesbians in comedy and I say, "Before Ellen, there was me." And then I say, "And now there's lots of gay/lesbian/queer comedians. So many. Too many! [laughs] And they look at me as a pioneer, like I got to my gigs in a covered wagon." So that's my little homage to them.

But, yeah, it took a couple of years, and then I was solidly into it and making a living because there was a network, especially for lesbians. A lot of gay men who were comedians stayed in the closet, but a lot of women, because of, you know how aggravating it is to be a woman and a woman in the 80's you're dealing with sexism and homophobia. So a lot of women were just out, you know? We had this audience of lesbians who really were turning out, even nationally. Gay men, for comedians, liked straight women because everybody could talk about men. But lesbians didn't want to hear about men, they wanted to hear about lesbian things like cats. So there was this big network that these producers ran. You were able to go to Denver and play the Bluebird Theater, which was like a beautiful theater. I was there at the right time in the right place, finally with the right mental state.

The stories you tell about your childhood in your shows are so colorful and fascinating they make me feel like my life was pretty dull by comparison. When you were growing up, did it occur to you that your life wasn't exactly the norm?

Oh, I definitely thought I was special because my parents were kind of big deals in the Latino community as entertainers. My mom, I was too tomboyish for her liking, but my father I was kind of the apple of his eye, the chip off the old block. I adored him and he pumped me full of delusions, like he was gonna write a television show about children detectives. And then sometimes they had these variety shows and they'd put me in a sketch. We lived in a 3-story house in the barrio in Washington Heights so that people looked at my parents either as stars, or the rumor was that my parents were vampires because they were only seen leaving the house at night. And I was in like a little short film that they played before the Spanish movies.

My parents at that time, when I was little, were famous and we had rehearsals in the house so there were all these celebrities in the Spanish variety show world. So I had an over-inflated sense of self, until my parents split up. My father's fortunes started going down cause the whole scene changed for live performance and the theaters closed down and the magic was pretty much gone. Then my mother had custody of me and I wound up moving to a white neighborhood, and I felt like my life was not so interesting. The most interesting about my life in the suburbs was how boring it was. That was sort of a time of suspended animation.

Finally, I became of age to run away to San Francisco, after my parents found out I was gay. I was 19 when I got to San Francisco and then I looked back and thought my parents were pretty amazing. I always wanted to write about them because I realized that we were famous in sort of a small, little part of the world, and I wanted to preserve what they did. And in a way it was political because they were part of the culture in New York for the emerging Latino community.

I started doing standup, but that was just cause I was in San Francisco. I mean how could you not do standup in the 80's with how hot it was, with how many clubs there were? But I had a deeper calling to write these one-person shows, and it was because of my parents. And then from there I've written 13 one-person shows. I met Stephanie Weisman from The Marsh and that was a very important connection for me, and I began work on several shows there and at Josie's [Cabaret and Juice Joint].

Covid has pretty been challenging for all of us, but now with the promise of an effective vaccine on the horizon, maybe we can at least start to dream a little about a post-Covid world. Once the world is reasonably safe again, what are you looking forward to the most?

Probably going to New York or getting an out-of-town gig. That would be really fun. I miss going to new places and being in a new venue. I always like to travel for a gig. I mean, I'm still that kid who is just getting started, failing at the straight comedy club and wondering how can I get a life like my parents? They traveled all over the world. This is really silly, but I used to get to the point where I traveled just enough to stay at hotels enough and I would collect as many bars of soap as I could. You know, I wouldn't go stealing, but I would just keep the soap [from my room]. I made sure that I had enough gigs that I could keep myself in little bars of soap. There were years where I never had to buy soap, cause I had all those little boxes. That was kind of like my pride and joy, my little soap collection. [laughs] So yeah - I want to go to another place and perform for a different audience. But - I'm gonna take that back actually. Before I do that, I would like to go back to Brava, where I'm an Artist in Residence, and do my shows there. The shows that I've been streaming, I would love to do live.

And having said that, being able to create digitally is something that I'm not going to stop doing. Especially as I get into my sixties, I understand that there are people who, it is really hard for them to get out. Or people who have any kind of condition - asthma, whatever - I don't know that they're really gonna feel that they want to sit right next to a stranger. This particular medium might have been at least a silver lining when we get back to normal life because it's an option for people. I'm not going ever to be the kind of person who, you know, makes the deal with Netflix, but we have leveled the playing field now. There's technology that makes us look pretty good from home and I'm just gonna keep it up. I won a grant this year to create a radio play and that's gonna be the next thing I do. I'm gonna keep that in my offerings of what I do as an artist.


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