Courtesy of Theater Wit
Mythology is a tricky business, a place where the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred. So it is in Mythical Proportions, Nora Dunn’s one-woman show running through October 20 at Theater Wit.
Some of the vignettes the famed Saturday Night Live alum relays in the piece are autobiographical, some quasi-autobiographical and some wholly made up. But all are personally relevant to Dunn and laden with insight, biting humor, and eccentric personality. Here’s the Chicago native and Ukrainian Village resident on her work in television, film, and stage—and why she can’t make chitchat.
You talk a lot in the show about being really awful at parties and politicking—about how basically you suck at sucking up and how that’s a major liability in show business. Has your inability to make chitchat impacted your career?
Definitely. It drives my manager crazy. He’s someone who has the right hair, the right clothes, and the right parties. I dread those parties. He had this big Oscar thing one year— every nominee was there. I was talking to a good friend of mine and she literally walked away in the middle of my sentence to go talk to somebody else. She apologized later; we both understood that’s what those parties are about. You aren’t there to enjoy yourself. You’re to make connections with people who can help your career. I was with one actor one who actually stopped point blank and asked me, ‘Should I be talking to you?’
I’ve always been reserved. I grew up in a neighborhood that wasn’t good. We had to be careful when we went outside. My mother was reserved—you didn’t talk to people you didn’t know. Some actors— they know how to own their own souls and still befriend the people they need to befriend. Me, I have big trouble with that. I’m the person who’ll be like, ‘Oh, I hated that movie,’ and then I find out the guy I’m talking to produced it. On stage I have to work at not being guarded. You can’t be guarded on stage.
Yet you succeeded nonetheless—
I think the couple of the big parts I’ve gotten I’ve gotten from my audition. For my Three Kings role, there were three major actresses the studio wanted to give the part to. The director really fought for me. And every scene I did was in that movie—nothing was cut.
The space you’re performing Mythical Proportions in is really intimate—does it bother you that the people in the first row are so close that they could practically reach out and touch you?
Yeah, having people so close is challenging. The last week of rehearsals I was freaking out. I was like, please can’t we just build a little proscenium so I’m not just standing further away? But now I like this size a lot. I’ve performed in bigger spaces, and that’s wonderful but this size is perfect. The energy you get from the audience is palpable.
So what’s the difference between doing a live one-person show and doing live comedy on network TV?
I loved the challenge of Saturday Night Live. You find out you’re going to be doing Imelda Marcos, and you have one day to put it together. It just kind of has to happen. With this show, I worked on it for two years, writing.
The final piece, [about a retiring, soft-spoken English woman whose L. A. vacation takes a surreally violent turn toward self-discovery] came about after I saw the motel I describe in the story —this big neon palm tree. I was driving around and I just started talking to myself in an English accent. In L. A., you drive a lot and I do talk to myself while I’m driving. The idea of this person who turned into a whole different person when they were away, I loved that idea. And I worked on it for weeks.
What’s the story with the large, abstract painting that’s the focal point of your set?
It’s by Arica Hilton. I did a benefit at her gallery one night, and when I saw that painting, I thought it was absolutely beautiful. I also thought it was a poem. That’s how I experienced it. It’s called Universe 2. I think Arica and I were having coffee when she said ‘you know, that painting would be perfect for your set. But she’d already sold it.’ So I’m borrowing it for the duration of my show. It’s going back to the owner when the show closes. The idea of the set is that it’s supposed to evoke an artists’ studio—the art emerges from paint spatters and chaos.
Do you miss flying on private jets?
Yes. Also flying first class. But really, I don’t ever see any reason to pay for a bigger seat. I like Southwest. They let me bring my dog with me. He fits right under the seat.
Nora Dunn’s Mythical Proportions runs through October 20 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont. For tickets, go to theatrewit.org