"It's one of the funniest things I've ever read. It's joyous, a little outrageous." Edith Weiss is talking about 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, the play she's directing that will open Friday January 23 at the Avenue Theater -- and she knows all about funny: She made her living as a standup comic for years.
Her career began in the late '80s at George McKelvey's Comedy Club, where she was part of an improv group. "George wanted us to open the show, which means you also do standup, so I got a lot of stage time," Weiss remembers. "That's really important for a comic. I ended up going on Star Search; I did military tours to the Balkans, Japan and Korea in the '90s. Standup is the scariest thing I've ever done, really terrifying. You wrote it. You performed it. When you work for the military you're not supposed to do religion, sex or politics, which doesn't really leave much." See also: Best Director 2012 -- Edith Weiss
During her stint with the military, Weiss performed for audiences as large as a thousand people and as small as fifteen. There were a few disconcerting moments, she recalls: "I made an ad lib that would mean nothing here. They were drinking and I said something to a guy about swallowing. He took it wrong, like maybe it was a gay thing. He stood up, another guy stood up, they started to fight, and the colonel who was in the back of the room stopped the performance."
In the wake of the horrific murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Weiss recognizes the hazards of free speech -- and the importance of being able to speak freely. "I'm completely against censorship," she says. "I think that humor is a language as universal as music. Some societies shun music because it opens something up in you. Some of Charlie Hebdo's comics were nasty, but you have to be able to take a joke, and I don't understand people who don't." Even so, she recognizes that the United States is not immune to violent fanaticism. "You can get killed in this country if you're gay," she adds. "I always think of the Voltaire quote: 'God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.'"
In her standup, Weiss's jokes were more empathetic. Her material came from her life, her kids, her feminism: "I had rules, like no fat jokes, no self-deprecation, no 'I'm a silly woman' jokes. Sometimes it's easy to make fun of people, say, that ride the bus. A lot of comics take an easy mark. I don't do that." Nor does 5 Lesbians, which laughs at people's fears but doesn't take cheap shots. "At the center, it's a really sweet love story," Weiss says. "And the funniest show of the year. I actually think that's true. People who think women can't be funny? Well, they should come and take a look at this."
5 Lesbians takes place in 1956, during the height of the Cold War. "Everybody is in the closet, and this is a meeting of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein," Weiss explains. "Everyone in the audience is at the meeting; it's quite interactive. This is their annual quiche breakfast: They almost worship, shall we say, the egg. Everybody has submitted a quiche, and they're going to pick the best one. The play has some huge surprises."
There are some surprises at the 26-year-old theater that is putting on 5 Lesbians, too. "We made some changes and got things working smoother," says onetime Rattlebrain director Dave Shirley, who's been the Avenue's acting executive director for around a year. "Now we're searching for a new director ready to take the Avenue forward."
The industry is changing, he points out, and there's more competition in Denver: "I think it's more important than ever for a company to have a true identity. This should be one of the top small theaters in Denver, the place you go for comedy and fun."
"One of the reasons I've always loved the Avenue is I knew I would have an intimate experience," Weiss adds. "There's a difference between laughing from the fourth row and the 52nd row." And since there's a shortage of performance space in Denver, the Avenue is more important than ever. "Prices go up, real estate goes up, more people move here, making land even more valuable. That's not tenable," she says. "The Laundry's gone, the Victorian is gone. Every time you turn around, you see another wine bar-ish place."
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