Playwright/comedian Ann Randolph has worked at a variety of (literally) odd jobs throughout her life. In order to support her work as an artist, she’s worked the “slime line” in an Alaskan fishing cannery, was part of the Exxon Valdez clean-up crew, and spent years working with the mentally ill both at a mental hospital in her home state of Ohio and then manning the graveyard shift at a homeless shelter in Los Angeles for 10 years.
Not exactly what one would think of as the stuff of great comedy. But Ms. Randolph has managed to mine her varied life experiences to create a series of critically acclaimed one-woman shows that have been produced all over the country and in Europe. A former “Saturday Night Live” hopeful, Ms. Randolph counts Mel Brooks among her fans, and she has earned praise from reviewers from The New York Times, Variety, NPR, and Entertainment Weekly.
This Sunday, Ms. Randolph will present her latest show, “Loveland,” at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. She will also lead a two-day writer’s workshop over the weekend.
The solo show, like all of her previous works, features a number of disparate characters and uses humor to explore the human condition — including the darker side of life. She can be outrageous and crude at times, touching at others. Of Ms. Randolph’s work, The San Francisco Bay Times has said, “Ann Randolph is a comedic genius. Irreverent, hilarious, and deeply human.” And of her latest show, the same paper wrote, “‘Loveland’ is brilliantly funny.”
Along with her more unusual jobs, Ms. Randolph also has a very impressive resume as a performer and writer. She has variously taught playwriting and acting, and served as an artist-in-residence in Cambridge and New York City. As a member of the Groundlings (a well-known Los Angeles-based training ground for “Saturday Night Live” actors) Ms. Randolph performed alongside Will Farrell, Cheri Oteri, and Chris Kattan. She earned a reputation as an outstanding sketch artist, physical comedian, and monologuist— she has been compared to the late Gilda Radner. But she decided that sketch work didn’t give her the opportunity to explore her characters and situations in depth, so she dedicated herself to creating one-woman shows.
Ms. Randolph wrote her award winning show “Squeezebox” while working at the homeless shelter for mentally ill women in Los Angeles. She was able to live there for free and work on her script during the day. She also used her writing and performing skills to engage the women.
“During those 10 years working with mentally ill women, I would lead creative groups in the evening,” Ms. Randolph said in a recent interview. “Helping people write their stories is helping them understand their lives and heal.”
Mel Brooks attended a performance of “Squeezebox” and was impressed enough to buy the option to turn it into a film. However, Brooks’s wife, Ann Bancroft, who was slated to appear in the movie, died in 2005 and the movie plans were shelved indefinitely. But not before Mr. Brooks had spent a good deal of time helping Ms. Randolph shape the stage show.
“I felt so grateful to have had that experience with him,” Ms. Randolph said. “Mel always said ‘It’s not about the joke. It’s about humanity.’ I really appreciated that advice.”
“Squeezebox,” produced by Mr. Brooks and Ms. Bancroft, was an off-Broadway hit. Named best solo show of 2002 by LA Weekly, it toured around the country for many years. But, while she was on the road with that show, Ms. Randolph found that she missed the work she had done with the homeless women. “The dream was happening, but I really missed the interaction of leading people to write stories,” she said.
During the tour, she started offering writing workshops and they have proven very popular, aspiring writers and people simply seeking a creative outlet to explore their lives on another level. “I use a lot of improvisation,” she explains. “The main thing people tend to do is tell a story that they think will work.” Ms. Randolph, however, encourages people to tap other source material. “They’re really surprised at what comes out. They build confidence that their story matters.”
During the time that Ms. Randolph was touring with “Squeezebox” and teaching workshops across the country, she learned that her father was dying and her mother had started drinking for the first time in her life.
She was inspired to write her latest show, “Loveland,” while returning to her hometown of Loveland, Ohio. “I found myself flying back as a caregiver,” she said. “It was very challenging to deal with the sadness of that.”
As someone accustomed to turning tragedy on its head, Ms. Randolph used this experience to create a multi-character comedy set on an airplane. “I’ve created an alter ego,” she said, “a character that would say and do everything not politically correct.” Using this device, Ms. Randolph has been able to explore, with both humor and pathos, things like death and putting a parent into a nursing home.
As a coping mechanism, her character creates sexual fantasies. “She’s acting out sexually,” Ms. Randoph says. “The character doesn’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing, but the audience sees that it’s the only way she’s getting through what she’s dealing with. Even though this is an outrageous comedy, there are deep things in it.”
After a run of two straight years in San Francisco, “Loveland” and is now on the road. This past July, Catherine DeGrandpre, a math teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, completed a week-long workshop with Ms. Randolph at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Ms. DeGrandpre decided to work on bringing the show to the Vineyard, and she has helped with the arrangements and promotion. “I thought it would be something that the Island would really love,” she said. “That it would be a real treat for people here to see Ann perform.”
Ms. DeGrandpre enthuses about the workshop experience as well. “It opens you up and gets you out of your head,” she said. “There’s improv and it’s working towards doing a monologue.”
Although she confesses to being naturally shy, Ms. DeGrandpre says, “I think it’s great for anyone who enjoys the creative process.”
“Loveland,” 7:30 pm, Sunday, Oct. 28, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $20. For more information, visit annrandolph.com.
Workshop with Ann Randolph: Write Your Life, Oct. 27-28, YMCA of M.V., Oak Bluffs. $200. To register, call 800-838-3006 or visit brownpapertickets.com/event/278129.