Seth Lepore on his one-man show, the happiness movement and infomercials
Naropa grad Seth Lepore will bring his newest one-man show, SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious, to Boulder this weekend. The new show targets the happiness movement, humorously critiquing everything from Oprah Winfrey to those Texas megachurches that all insist we need to be constantly chipper.
We recently spoke with Lepore about the happiness movement, his preparation for the show at Wesley Chapel on Friday and Saturday night, and his obsession with infomercials.
Westword: What inspired this show?
Seth Lepore: Well, I've been developing this trilogy. When I was originally touring Losing My Religion: Confessions of A New Age Refugee in 2010, I realized I had all of this material. But also, I was reading this book called Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. She had gotten cancer and was on all these cancer forums talking about how angry she was about getting cancer, and a lot of the people on the forums were saying "Oh, honey, you've gotta turn that around. You've gotta think positively." So she started noticing this happening a lot. And I had been studying the positive-thinking movement as well, but the way she dissected it was brilliant.
And also just seeing how it started to infiltrate the mega-churches and the corporate sector just across the board, how it started to really take hold of the whole country. Oprah Winfrey is just a huge proponent and cheerleader for all of this stuff, from The Secret and Law of Attraction, and just thinking positively and all of that. So I just kind of thought, that's the next target [laughs], that's what I'm gonna dismantle next. So even though I'm dealing a lot with the self-help movement and the new-age movement within the context of the happiness industry, one of the characters I play runs a mega-church in Texas with 40,000 people. I'm really kind of opening it up to how the positive-thinking movement is much broader in its base and in its reach than just kind of the alternative spiritual movements that are out there. So that's what the inkling of it was, and then I started thinking about the third monologue, which I'll be doing hopefully next year, which is all about success and failure and kind of our drive to be successful and what that means and our fear of failing.
How do you dismantle the happiness movement in your show?
Basically, I do it in a way where I'm lampooning it; I'm not directly making fun of it. What I do is, from all the observations that I have and research that I do, I create these characters that are sometimes based on a particular person, and sometimes it's a combination of three or four people smashed into one. So I take elements of different people and then kind of create these characters that just mirror back to the audience what I'm seeing out there. And usually the feedback that I get is that it's fairly accurate, which is good. I'm basically just trying to bring up the questions of why are we approaching happiness in this way. Why is happiness becoming another commodified product like anything else? What is the drive for us to find happiness through these particular modalities, whether it be through spiritual practice or through financial gain? So I'm really bringing that out through all of the characters, and I also have my own story line within it. So the melancholy part of SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious is kind of dealing with my own struggle with depression on and off for a number of years, and talking about my own experiences throughout the piece as the through-line so that it's not just a bunch of characters. There's something that people can attach themselves to as well.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for the show?
I read as many books as I could on the positive-thinking movement, everything that had to do with positive psychology as well as depression, just anything that had that in the title. There was this big one called The Happiness Project that was pretty big a couple of years ago. And then just reading more pop psychology and taking it all in, watching tons of YouTube videos. I love infomercials; I am obsessed with infomercials. So I tried to watch as much of that stuff as I possibly could. And I'm just blown away sometimes by the meter and timing that these people have. It's like they've gone to the best acting schools in the country, except they're just motivational speakers. And they're brilliant; they're just captivating. So I was trying to figure out what it is about their body, their sentence structure, just kind of dissecting all that and looking at it and figuring out what would work best for these characters and for myself to play them. And then just looking at a lot of reports on happiness. There was a study four or five years ago that estimated that about 87 percent of Americans considered themselves happy or extremely happy. And I was kind of like, really? I don't believe that. So I was going to investigate that more and came up with two characters, one that's kind of talking about how that factor is inaccurate and another who's doing a report on it and asking people on the street what they think about that statistic. So in some scenes, I'm playing up to six or seven characters, because I'm playing a reporter interviewing a bunch of people. So it gets a little crazy.
How do you define the happiness movement?
The way that I see it, it's kind of a manufactured version of an emotion, and like anything else that's out there for a while and people grasp onto, there's kind of a dogma around it. And it's not necessarily about happiness and someone's own personal happiness and their beliefs, it's about a particular product or structure that's gonna bring that to you. And that if you don't have it, it's your fault. There's a lot of blame and shame tied in underneath all of this, and I find that to be incredibly manipulative. It's not really about happiness; it's about trying to sell somebody a version of what it is, and then if that version doesn't work, coming up with a better one. It's this kind of constant battle within oneself and trying to find it through external means even though there's this rhetoric saying it's all internal, there's all these external products of how to get internal. It's this really strange loop.
What do you hope that people get out of seeing your performance? Well, similar to my first show, I want them to laugh, but I also want them to come away wondering, "Why do I believe what I believe? Why do I think that this might cause happiness for me? What have people told me about what depression might be?" And just kind of looking at the basics surrounding these things that we're trying to achieve. The tagline of my show is "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of something that feels better than this," because it seems like we're constantly dissatisfied with where we're at, whether it be a relationship that we're in, the car we've got, the house we live in. There's always something that's bothering us. Which is fine. I think that that's actually a good thing. It keeps us in our critical thinking skills. People need to be able to critically think about their emotions and what happiness means to them.
It's going to be completely different for me than it is for you. It's not my job or place to tell you what is going to bring you happiness. I want people walking away wondering what it is that is happiness for them, and what kind of happiness they even want in their lives. Do we need to be happy all the time? Those people scare me. You know, people who are constantly bright and shiny and they're like "Oh, hi! Everything's great!" And it's like, really? All the time? I really feel that theater is a way of bringing social change into people's lives in a way that can also be entertaining. That's what I'm trying to do on a small level is bring some questioning of our reality and who we are and what we believe and what we think into the fold in a way that's really fun and hysterical and can make people really enjoy themselves while they're watching.
Is there anything else you want people to know about the show?
They should come [laughs]. People really enjoy the shows and it's a great night out and people should support theater. People don't get enough theater in their lives. You can watch your Netflix the next night [laughs]. That's all I have to say.
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