Actors perform in “Variety Show The Musical Play.” After being showcased on a national stage, this show will come to Baltimore this weekend, running Saturday and Sunday at the Mobtown Ballroom. Photo courtesy of Theresa Columbus.

Theresa Columbus is a community-minded tour de force who has worn an assortment of hats in Baltimore’s art scene and abroad since having made her way here from Milwaukee via New Orleans in 2006. After showcasing her latest work, “Variety Show The Musical Play,” on a national stage, she now looks to bring it home this Saturday and Sunday at the Mobtown Ballroom.

“Variety Show The Musical Play,” like much of Columbus’ work, offers brilliant existential self-reflection through disarmingly absurd vignettes that resonate with the universal insecurities we all endure as messy human beings in a rapidly morphing dimension of anxiety. I was lucky enough to catch up with her between rehearsals to chat about the rapid-fire kaleidoscope of meditations that is “Variety Show The Musical Play.”

Baltimore Fishbowl: You go real meta with your work but it is playful and engaging in a way that warms to the crowd. Did this take honing or have you always been one to craftily break third walls?

Theresa Columbus: Ever since I was a child I was often amazed by the act of doing the thing I was doing, including defining myself as a separate person and enacting who that person was (is). I believe everyone does that as a child, because it is part of being a child, and what I mean by that is that kids–even though they’re not as self-conscious as adults– cannot help but discover self-consciousness as a new thing! Becoming aware of the act of thinking is such a big deal!

To me being aware of the act of writing is at times an exciting part of writing. As a performance artist who is also a playwright I think writing is a performative act that lends itself to being aware of that future moment when a performance occurs on a stage, and it is fun to play with that awareness. It’s been popping into my writing for a long time.

When I invited people to do this show they agreed to meet for 3 generative sessions in the fall before rehearsals started, and to individually create rough scripts or performance scores during/after the sessions. This was an exhilarating process to me which I’ll talk about again. There was some meta in the air in these early meetings!

BFB: You have a keen sense of when to “bring in the clowns.” Have you ever made a piece where you wish you had brought them in sooner? In a word, has your worldly relatability been hard won? (I know mine has).

TC: It’s funny that you should reference that song, “send in the clowns,” although maybe you’re not? Is “bring in the clowns” a reference to “send in the clowns”? Because if it is it’s very apt for the question, because that is such a sad song about clowns and my sister used to sing it as a solo so passionately in our school choir. Barbra Streisand has a very emotional version!

BFB: (I was not referencing the song.)

TC: I really think my stuff has always been pretty funny and pretty sad. Sometimes I feel like I was even funnier when I started out writing plays, but sometimes I think I can be funny in new ways. In conversation, sometimes I veer away from talking about funniness because it feels like the secret magic thing that you really can’t define. But then I end up writing and talking about it a lot because, well, the self-conscious thing.

BFB: In this play you’re offering us quite a lush fruitcake. You traverse identity politics, Lorraine O’Grady, philosophy, class, never-ending telethons hosted by insects, cascades of glitter, and the delightfully bawdy. How much coffee do you go through in cubic tons to maintain this velocity of awesomeness? It goes without saying that I myself love coffee too so no shame!

TC: I can’t really drink coffee because it makes me feel like I am jumping out of my skin. But every now and again, usually when I have not slept, I sense it is the right time and coffee is exciting! Many of the things you just listed were contributed by the other writers in the play, and I know coffee is drunk enthusiastically by most of them!

BFB: At one point in the play you talk about that cool thing that happens when you’re a kid and you think the lyrics of a song mean something completely different than what they actually do. Without giving away any of the plot I will say that one of your examples involves a bee which is nuts ’cause when I was a kid I thought Ricky Nelson’s ’61 hit “Traveling Man” was about a guy who goes on a romantic walk with a lover inside the dead carcass of a “wacky bee.” Turns out he was saying Waikiki. Can you give us perhaps one or two of your favorite iterations of this delightful occurrence in your own life?

TC: Ahhh we both had these mysterious bees in the lands of our youth! Yes I love the stories of what people think different lyrics are and how solid the images of these lyrics sometimes get planted in our mind. I also talk about this in the play. My parents often played an album with a man singing the song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” which is a song about a person that left San Jose to make it big in LA, but misses his home and friends and sings, “I have lots of friends in San Jose.” I always thought he said I WILL have lots of friends in San Jose, that all he ever knew was this land of highways and competition and overdevelopment, but he wanted to go to a place where he knew he could make a lot of friends and spend time with them. I treasured this image of a person traveling with a suitcase trying to find an almost unfathomably beautiful place where friendship reigns.

Actors playing the Paisley Woman and Plant perform between acts of “Variety Show The Musical Play.” Photo courtesy of Theresa Columbus.

BFB: There’s an exuberance to your work, but a tortured sadness which blends in a very evocative way like a roundhouse kick from one of Picasso’s blue muses. Does one need to get dumped to write a hit single?

TC: For me I think it was set off by being a wildly happy child and then being faced with lots of family sadness along with the wild happiness. I think in general people feel so many things and hold on to sad things a lot, getting dumped or being disappointed in yourself or in humanity for horrible things that happen.

I think me and the other writers in the cast of “Variety Show The Musical Play” are drawn to writing about sadness as part of a joy in life. From the beginning of our process there was such a feeling in the room of people being excited about each other and about bringing their work to the table. Everyone encouraging and building up each other’s ideas was part of the exuberance from the get-go. People gave each other so much feedback on the proto-pieces they created that there was hardly time for anything else in our initial meetings. There was a mix of performers; some had worked together before and others were meeting for the first time, and everyone was open and curious. We had discussions about what performance art and variety theater and poetry was, and where they crossed over, which we found hilarious and evocative! I think everyone was jazzed about putting a show together in a new way: I had never worked where everyone had agency within their own piece and everyone could contribute to other people’s pieces. People had various levels of experience with devising processes and were all excited to share.

We didn’t necessarily intentionally stir sadness in, though many pieces have a sad undertow. The few pieces I had written and presented to the group at the beginning were pretty sad. Also, we did an exercise where everyone wrote on some personal topics, then we cut the pieces up and searched for new poetic phrases that exuded mysterious meaning. The phrase everyone voted on to include in their pieces was “All the doesn’t, how is it else?” which could have some negative connotations, and unified the pieces in its repetition! Individual pieces confront computer malfunctions, people’s expectations that you will juggle, bug mortality, racism, and self-doubt, amid the sparky song-n-dance numbers!

BFB: Ok why all the bugs? There are so many bugs in this play!

The first bug came from that little bee song, which inspired me to make all the performers bees during the piece about suitcases and baskets. When we were on tour with parts of the play this summer, a bunch of us got really excited about touring the country doing something called bug theater where we dressed as different bugs and educated children about them and made poetic plays with them and also did this for adults by night. Allison Clendaniel joined our group on tour and Francisco Benavides, though he had already been in the cast, had had more of a supporting role and hadn’t developed his own piece because of other commitments at the time we were creating it. When we got back and wanted to do a show in Baltimore, we invited Allison and Francisco to create one or two new pieces, and they thought it was a great time to collaborate on what will hopefully grow into more bug theater!

BFB: You dig Lorraine O’Grady like Frasier digs Freud. She is highly present in the fabric of your piece here and is of course more relevant now than ever. If you could have lunch with her, what would you ask?

TC: How are you? Can you tell me what your art practice looks like lately?

BFB: What would Frasier say to Freud and what would they eat?

TC: Oh no I didn’t watch Seinfeld or was it Friends! But I’ve seen Frasier’s image and I think he looks very surprised, so maybe they would eat something spicy.

BFB: You seem like someone who loves to get in the metaphorical mosh pit of humanity. How’d you get through these past few years when I am sure like many you experienced times of deep isolation away from people?

TC: I actually was in a mosh pit of humanity! I lived in an artists space (at the H&H building) with seven people where a baby was born the night before the shelter-in-place mandate was announced in March 2020. I also started a theater grad program that fall, so I was navigating the strangeness of that through lots of Zooming and in-person discoveries. The lack of being with more bodies in person definitely hurt though! Oh, and I had more time to read which helped a lot.

BFB: When you are in the throes of creating a new piece what do you like to snack on? I believe this says a lot about an artist.

TC: Peanut butter spread on things. Even though it is meal-like, I still feel like I am not really stopping when I eat peanut butter. When we were in the process of creating individual pieces at rehearsal there was snacking on candy and fruit snacks and chips and hummus!

BFB: Spoiler alert, there’s a talking plant in this play! At one point a “Woman and Plant are attaching sequins to a tree.” They discuss art. What is it about this type of juxtaposition which draws you in versus say Michael Caine standing at the center of a Greek Amphitheatre dissecting the meaning of “The Miller’s Tale”?

TC: Paisley Woman and Plant come out in between every act to give the variety show a feeling of having MCs without their announcing anything. In their first dialogue, they embody a woman in a paisley skirt and a plant, and then remain this woman and plant in every other front-of-curtain piece. The Plant and Woman idea was our brilliant costume designer’s, Nikki Lefaye. That they always meet in front of the curtain where Earth Woman and Sky Woman touch hands was the idea of our brilliant set designer Mika Nakano.

The woman and plant are attaching sequins to a tree and discussing art, which is romanticizing collaborating on and talking about art. Friends, collaborators, lovers talking passionately about art is something I want to celebrate all day long!

They are discussing Lorraine O’Grady right before Cliff Doby’s scene. Cliff enters in a dress covered in gloves which reflects the story about Lorraine O’Grady performing in a dress made of 100s of white gloves. None of the other in-betweens directly reference the next piece, so that’s a little sneaky.

You can see “Variety Show The Musical Play” at the Mobtown Ballroom
Saturday, Jan. 7, and Sunday, Jan. 8. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., showtime is 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$25 or pay-what-you-can

Reserve tickets here. Masks encouraged. Please stay home if you are feeling sick

Snow dates are Friday, Jan. 13, and Saturday, Jan. 14. Location TBA (check event for updates).

One reply on “Insect Soup for the Soul: Q&A with Theresa Columbus, one of the creators of ‘Variety Show The Musical Play’”

  1. Theresa “1492” Columbus is one of my most most favorite people in Baltimore. I’m an old woman now, hardly go anywhere, but really wish I could see this amazing play/performance of Theresa’s. I bet there are more than 1,492 ideas and great moments. I’m just too old to go. (PS> the 1492 was a way I could remember her last name if/when I forgot it.). She’s the only other person I know who has a closet full of costumes. My costume closet is bigger than my other’n.

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