Woody Shticks will be the first person to tell you that he, as a performer, producer, and craftsman making a living out of the arts, has to wear many hats. Shticks, who can be seen performing across Seattle as a solo performer, with his troupe the Libertinis, and as an actor, comedian, stripper, and comedian-stripper, is always working. With only a few weeks away from the April 25th revival of Who Cares!, his solo show at 18th and Union, Shticks and I sat down to talk about the revival, the importance of dismantling traditional theater, and the many, many projects Shticks gives his time to.
[The following is edited and abbreviated]
Cameron Fairchild: Who Cares! Was part of your Tender Loving Queers Festival in February. That festival got partially snowed out, and now you’re bringing Who Cares! back on the 25th of April to the 18th and Union. What goes into restaging this show? What’s new?
Woody Shticks: As a solo artist, I’m a draftsperson. Every time I perform a show there’s new content, and even in my more highly scripted shows I’m introducing new content, trying new jokes, tweaking the structure. [Who Cares!] really suits itself to things being swapped in and out all the time. There are a couple of things I know for sure that will remain; one is the structure of the show, everybody’s getting a tomato [Author’s note: Who Cares! invites audience participation, where each member has the opportunity to throw a tomato at the comedian and “fast-forward” through scenes of the show]. In conceptualizing the show it was truly an experiment in “I don’t know how people are going to react to this.” I’m not hyper-reactive to an audience in terms of changing the content to suit them, because that’s not the point of the show. The point is to make the content that I really want to make and see how people react to it. A really exciting part of the show, as a draftsperson, is to ask “where are the leaks?”, and then you can zoom back in and see what needs to be fixed. And not even fixed because it isn’t working but fixed for me, what do I want to fix, what kind of pacing do I want to lean in to?
A lot of the stuff is going to change around. Really what I’m thinking about now is the arc of the show as opposed to each building block. I’m thinking a lot about the ending of the show, shaping the final image. The secret of the show is that it’s digging down into the question “why care at all?,” which is a really emotionally volatile feeling, but also really key, because I think as a marginalized artist, it’s really easy for my work to be held up in some regard, and it’s hard to say if that’s because of the work itself or my identity as a marginalized artist. In what ways am I unintentionally bullying an audience into liking something by saying “well, I’m gay, so you have to like this.” [With Who Cares!] I’m getting really honest that you don’t have to like it just because I’m loud, just because I’m queer, and just because I’m funny. Sometimes all of those things are smokescreens to the work itself.
Fairchild: Given the structure of the show, where the audience could hypothetically interact with it to the point where there is no content at all, does that give you the freedom to explore as far as you need to, and to say whatever it is you want to?
Shticks: Yeah! Honestly it is. Because of the disparate nature of the structure of the show, I can kind of say whatever I want to. It’s an opportunity to use content that I’ve had for maybe 10 years… the show really becomes a kind of container for all of that. Like, in the show, I list off a very long list of porn parody titles to Broadway musicals that I truly wrote 12-15 years ago. It’s fun to be like “I can make a grilled cheese sandwich,” “I can talk about my dad,” I can do really whatever I want. Knowing that the content is super important to me… family drama, family trauma, that’s a big part of my content, and so poking fun at that I get to bring myself out of the shadows a little bit more.
Fairchild: There is a sort of intimacy to the form of the solo show. You have a lot of experience both with comedy and solo performance, so what do you think is the difference between a strict comedy set and solo work?
Shticks: I think secretly they’re the same. I think that we all too often kind of separate them, like there’s capital-T theater, and then solo performance, and then there’s comedy, and you can see specific variations between these things, but honestly I think it’s all the same thing. On the one hand it’s a one-sided conversation but its also anticipating a dialogue with the audience without scripting anything for them. I will be the first one to tell anyone that I don’t consider myself a playwright because I’m terrible at writing dialogue, but what I’m really good at is implied dialogue with an audience. That’s one of the things that turns me on the most about comedy is that I am creating a dialogue, its just that largely its non-verbal, it’s laughter, its cheers, its boos, its reaction. I have experience writing dialogue with the Libertinis and with other projects, what’s always present in our work as an ensemble and my work as a solo artist is the reliance on the audience as a scene partner, and that’s what’s always appealed to me about solo work. It’s a really gratifying challenge to learn how to psychologically hold an audience in a space while still being really reactive. The solo artists and comedians that I respond to most are really keyed into that arc and that interaction with the audience, rather than building one joke at a time. I’d rather write a 45-minute set and then work on the pieces of it, and figure out “what’s the big idea?” and “what am I driving at?”
Fairchild: How exactly do you work with the Libertinis as a collective when you’re working on solo pieces? What specific projects do you all work on, and how did you come to be?
Shticks: We are an inter-arts gang, basically an interdisciplinary performance ensemble, but colloquially we are theater kids trained as strippers trained as clowns. We started in 2011 and our first show was in 2012 as a kind of larger collective of people from a variety of different arts, accessing sexuality in some regard. A large portion of the original members were brought together through Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque, so they all had a common uniting point under burlesque, and then we produced a show in 2012 and have been producing ever since. Three of us have coalesced as the Libertinis in a formal sense, so it’s myself and Hattie HellKat and Tootsie Spangles. We have a lot of people we collaborate with regularly, but the three of us have found a style of working and a common language that enables us to build a brand. We’re really interested in dealing a low blow to high art- we bring a diversity of experience but we’re all interested in dismantling what capital-T theater is and what it can be. We often say that it’s hard for us to get a seat the table, which is fine, because we’d much rather bring our own beanbag chair or make another table. If people want to come over and join us, that’s fine.
We are now 8 years old so we’ve gone through a lot of different stages of trying to fight for legitimacy, and to really wonder- we’ve been nominated for Gregory awards, we’ve been produced by local theaters, with big casts and by ourselves- we don’t need to fight for people to think of us as theater, we just need to keep creating work that we really love, and they have. We’ve really dismantled our learned metrics for success, and that’s one of the many things that I’m really thankful for in working with the Libertinis. We don’t need a Gregory to be successful- personally, I’m less interested in that. As a troupe, we are very thankful for that nomination, but it’s not affecting our work. After we were nominated for Outstanding New Play for our show Night School at Annex Theater in 2017, we went right into producing our all-smut variety show Smut the Bottle, and a big joke in that show was “Oh my God, do we have to be serious now because we were nominated?” We very gladly lost, and that was fine. We bring an intersection of a lot of different ideas- we are writers, we are strippers, we are burlesque dancers, and we are art-makers. There should be so much that can live inside of that.
Fairchild: Clearly you wear a lot of hats, and your troupe wears a lot of hats. How necessary is that in Seattle, just to survive as an artist?
Shticks: Ugh. It’s very necessary. In this city especially you have to diversify your portfolio. Not only is it a necessity but it’s also a great asset. I’m a marketing consultant for non-profits, I’m a graphic designer, I can sow, I can do all this shit, and I wouldn’t necessarily be able to access the same kind of content as if I was just like “I write funny things and I say them on stage!” There is a priority placed on producing in this town, and I’m definitely a part of that as a solo performer. But something my roommate Strawberry [Shartcake] and I talk a lot about- she’s a drag queen, and comedian- it’s easy to feel like unless you’re doing 16 regular shows a week and stretching yourself to your absolute breaking point that you’re not making anything worthwhile. That’s something the Libertinis have really figured out- at what point does the production schedule become more important than the content? How do you balance that? It’s a hard balance.
Fairchild: When we coordinated this interview you mentioned that you were bouncing between gigs. What are all of the irons that you have in the fire right now, in addition to Who Cares!
Schticks: I’m a freelance consultant for all kinds of arts nonprofits. I help with strategic communications, I write marketing plans, risk management, that kind of stuff. I’m also the lead house manager at several arts venues in town, one of them at UW and one of them at Cornish Playhouse, which is where I just was. I also work at the Cornish Playhouse for Intiman Theatre, I coordinate corporate training for Intiman. I’m frequently up at UW at the large, 1,300 seat symphony space. We have our own internal programming and are a rental venue, so we have an event going on there like five times a week. So between all of these venues, I am greatly privileged to say all of my work revolves around the arts but it is a full-time hustle. It’s like 60-70 hours a week, is my typical- pretty much all nights and weekends. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Fairchild: Yeah, that’s no small feat, to be able to live off the arts? Oof.
Shticks: Right, right, and as you were saying, to wear many hats, the only reason I’m able to do that is because I can go from house managing to designing to performing pretty quickly. That’s just a function of how my brain works but also the kinds of skill sets I’ve acquired.
Fairchild: One thing that you mentioned was “dealing a low blow to high art,” incorporating aspects of performance that are generally marginalized. In your work that I’ve seen, there is a strong element foregrounding sexuality, and you brand yourself as a comedy-stripper. For you, what is the relationship between the very personal solo medium and sexuality?
Shticks: Great question, I think about it a lot. First and foremost it is the most fun thing for me to talk about. It brings me genuine joy to talk about weird sex stuff and to make that my leading edge. More importantly, I think it’s an instant recipe for true vulnerability and deep access to points of power and privilege, and confronting those points. It is the most fun way to access some really unfun stuff.
In my show Schlong Song, which will in May be traveling to the International Dublin Gay Theater Festival, its all sex stuff. I strip in the show, and in that experience I get to hook people by saying “we’re going to talk about weird sex!” And that illuminates some of the ways in which we unintentionally oppress people and are unintentionally oppressed by our sexuality and sexual programming. As a politically queer person and sexually queer person, it feels really important to me to dismantle the respectability politics around being a mainstream gay artist. I’m really dissatisfied with this idea that I can only gain legitimacy by wearing khakis and a gingham shirt and getting married and having kids in West Seattle. I’m personally not interested in that idea. I would never stand in anyone else’s way if that’s what they want, but I will continually question why they want that in the first place. I’m very sensitive to the idea of accidental programming for respectability in front of straight people and dominant culture. From my experience, a lot of queer people imitate dominant culture, and that to me is much further reaching than just wanting to get married. I’m more interested in a world where those things matter less.
I’m interested in making work that illustrates there are other ways around that, more ways to confront that. In Schlong Song, there’s a really pointed moment where I boil down this fun and silly sexual experience I had with this straight guy who was really shitty to me after we had sex. Then as a one-two punch I really quickly balloon that into a massive political issue. I think people really don’t expect that this specific example of someone being dumb to me is actually indicative of a huge problem that this stupid straight boy is a part of. I think that really catches people off guard and is one of the most engaging parts of the show. One of the most fun parts for me is to be like “come here I’m going to talk about my butthole” and then once they’re really close be like “it’s actually part of this larger thing!” Leading with sex to me is fun, it’s important, and it also is a really great way for me to destabilize assumptions about what should be given priority. I want to make space always for asexual people, and I don’t want to assume everyone relates to the sex drive in the same way, but everyone relates to sex as a baseline human experience.
Fairchild: You work 50-60 hours a week, I’m not going to keep you for too much longer, so- last question. What do you draw inspiration from, in a broad sense?
Shticks: I mention in Who Cares! that when I was five my favorite word was “suddenly.” Which is still true! It’s still one of my favorite words, one of my favorite ideas, is this true surprise, and that wide eyed anticipation of something you did not see coming. That is really what drives me, is to continually create environments that offer surprise, and not just contrived theater surprise. In creating a show like Who Cares!, one night I got hit by a tomato during a super emotionally vulnerable moment and it surprised me, it was a suddenly moment. I did not know what to do, I didn’t know what we were doing, and it truly surprised me. It took my brain a solid 2.5 seconds to remember what we were doing, and be like “oh no no no that’s okay that’s okay… that’s the point,” and then move on. That was such a gift to me, and I guess I’m chasing forever that idea, that inspiration of “what is a surprise?” because in those moments of surprise it can really force you- consensually- into vulnerability and into analysis and into a turnabout, a pivot point. I think often when we’re surprised we pivot, because we’re like “ooh! That thing’s coming at me!” and you turn to face it. In doing so, maybe you’re facing something you’ve never had to before.
For more information on Woody Shticks and his vast catalogue of work, visit https://www.woodyshticks.com/. For tickets and information on “Who Cares!”, visit https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10388856.