Monday, June 1, 2015

Q-and-A with Lesley Tsina

Lesley Tsina
Lesley Tsina is Los Angeles-based writer and comedian. She has appeared on NBC’s Community, ABC’s Black-ish, HBO's Funny or Die Presents and NPR's Marketplace. She has performed in sketch, improv and solo shows at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, the Comedy Central Stage, the CBS Diversity Showcase, SF Sketchfest, and the Minnesota and Vancouver Fringe Festivals. Lesley can be seen in various national commercials, most notably the Geico ad where the camel walks around the office saying "Hump Day.” Favorite shows include “Slave Leia Improv,” “Extreme Tambourine,” and “Tournament of Nerds.” When not performing, Lesley is a Contributing Editor for the comedy magazine The Devastator. 

She will be performing her solo show "Lord of the Files" at the 2015 Dallas Solo Fest. TSP got her to answer a few questions.

Here we go...

Q: Please give us a brief bio, where you are from and how you started in theatre/performance?

A: I grew up in Palo Alto, CA. I did theater in school and went to college for it but pretty much right after college I stopped wanting to be an actor, so I did stage management, dramaturgy, playwriting, wardrobe, pretty much anything but performing. I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area and worked for a bunch of theater companies. It took me a long time to figure out what I was good at and what I wanted to do. I took a left turn and studied animation for a couple of years, but I found out that that’s something I’m better off appreciating that doing. I moved to LA to work in film production and I started doing standup at night. And standup clicked for me, both as a performer and as a writer. And then to improve as a standup, I started taking improv and then from improv I got into sketch and then back into acting from that. So, my background is pretty all over the place but I like where I ended up.

Q: What event or desire brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?

A: I was exposed to a lot of solo performance before I started doing it. In college, I interned at Actors Theater of Louisville and watched tapes for the Flying Solo Festival, which introduced me to Lisa Kron, Tim Miller and Danny Hoch. I watched a lot of shows at the Marsh and San Francisco Fringe. Years later, when I was doing comedy, I started writing short monologues for myself to do at sketch or variety shows. I wanted to do a solo show, but I didn't have an idea for one until my day job blew up and then suddenly I realized I was in the middle of a story with a beginning, middle and end that I really wanted to tell. Eventually I wrote that show.

Q: Could you tell us about some of your recent solo work?

A: I’m performing the latest version of my show "Lord of the Files." It’s a true story about being laid off from a place that made cell phone ringtones in a truly spectacular manner and about the office slowly devolving into chaos. It has parallels to "Lord of the Flies" that pop up here and there.

Lesley Tsina

Q: How would you describe your particular kind of solo performance?

A: As a performer, I tend more toward storytelling than character work. My current show is an autobiographical narrative but I’m not sure if that’s what I will always be doing. I am a comedian, so my shows tend to be at least slightly comedic. I've noticed that I’ve been writing a lot about work, anxiety and loss. That makes me sound hilarious.

Q: What is your favorite thing about doing this work?

A: That it can be whatever I want it to be. Also, a solo show has a life of its own; you can travel with it and revisit it. It’s a little less tied to your current situation than standup. If your life moves on, the show still exists as a piece. I think writing a solo show is one of the best ways to stretch as a writer and a performer. And I like that writing a show makes you look at your day-to-day life and think about the stories you walk in and out of.

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?

A: I’ve been working on the same show for several years, so every time I do it I try to build on what I learned in the last production, both logistically and performance-wise. With every new iteration I try to fill in the world of the show just a little bit more. I actually find it really hard to work on this show, because it’s so personal. I try to remember that it’s good for me to push myself. And when I’m writing I remind myself that everything I write gets done two pages at a time. But it gets done.

Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting together
a new project? Do you create a lot on stage, improvising? More on paper?
Tape or video record? Hold readings? Head up to a mountain top?

A: When I was first developing "Lord of the Files," I took two different solo performance classes, with Lauren Weedman and then Brian Finkelstein. In the first one I was mostly generating material. I audiotaped the sections I worked on in class and ended up with a large and unfocused outline. And then I put it aside for about a year. I got back into class with the goal of finishing my script and on the first day we cracked the timeline and I was able to start writing the first draft. Then it was mostly sitting at home and writing and bringing sections in for feedback. I got a performance date at UCB [Upright Citizens Brigagde Theatre] and started working with my director Julie Brister and we produced the first version of the show. Later on, I worked with director Kevin Pedersen on an expanded version that would be easier to travel with. Both of them are great directors and it was very helpful to get two different takes on the material. While I was working on that version I was in a writing group, so I brought in stuff to read. I'd do previews in my living room, where my most patient friends would sit on my couch, watch the show and eat chips. This is also a great way to force yourself to learn a 50-minute monologue. For me, it’s the only way.

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire/embolden you?

A: Josh Kornbluth is a big influence. I read "Red Diaper Baby" and "Haiku Tunnel" during a bad year of temping and really connected with both of those shows. Also Spaulding Grey, Lily Tomlin and Brian Finkelstein. Lauren Weedman’s "Wreckage." There are a lot of shows I’ve read that have stayed with me, even though I’ve never seen them live, like Alec Mapa’s
show "I Remember Mapa" or Claudia Shear’s "Blown Sideways Through Life."

Q: How do you bridge the gap between the creative and the business side of theatre?

A: A lot of it is about trying to work within my capabilities as a producer. I try to set reasonable goals for every production. I think if I aim for marginally better every time, I get a lot farther than if I say I’m going to do a lot. I am very organized and very careful with my budget. Having a background in stage management helps a lot. On days when I’m performing, I have to give myself at least an hour before the show where I don’t flyer or deal with logistics, which is easy to forget when you’re doing the Fringe.

Q: Any advice for some aspiring artist just starting out in solo performance?

A: Watch and read solo shows. If something important or crazy or otherwise compelling happens to you, document it, even if you don’t know how you feel about it yet. Write about it in any genre or format. Keep objects and documents and photos. Go tell stories or do standup or character monologues onstage, anywhere. Follow whatever subject matter obsession you have right now. Be okay with the fact that shows can take a long time to
develop but when you decide to get started, find ways to give yourself deadlines. Study with people you admire. Don’t abandon your show after one production. Try to see what else you have to bring to it down the line. It’s an iterative process. Just perform a lot and read a lot and be aware of what’s happening to you. And keep writing it down.

Q: Share with us something funny that has happened to you recently.

A: A friend sent me an email asking me to join a “30 Day Abs Challenge.” I wanted to reply with just “NO.” I have enough things that are challenging without having to work on my abs.

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you
personally as an artist?

A: I can’t speak to the future of solo performance. For me, I just want to get the next show written.

Q: Links and such?

A: and

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