Having been completely charmed by Deborah Berenson's performance in Sex, Lies and Earl Grey at the New York International Fringe Festival, I was literally bouncing in my shoes when I heard that she'd been chosen for the Fringe Encore performances. Imagine my delight when I was offered the opportunity to interview her and learn all about the origins of her beloved onstage persona, Georgina, a sharp-witted proper British lady. Despite a harrowing schedule and a day job, Deborah managed to squeeze me into her schedule somewhere between rehearsal and washing Georgina's unmentionables.
What inspired Sex, Lies and Earl Grey?
When I was in university in England our drama department had a unit called “Final Projects” that all 3rd year students had to complete and you have to create an original 20 minute monologue piece. I had had this idea to do a monologue with a voice I’d been hearing in my head for a while -- in a non-scary way! (laughs)
There’s a British comedienne from the 70s called Joyce Grenfell and she did a lot of BBC radio and skits. She was this British woman who was successful at a time when women weren’t really successful at comedy and we had tapes of her that we would listen to her on journeys. My parents would play her for me and I just have this vivid memory of one of her sketches that’s commonly known as the nursery school sketch. She’s basically describing this entire nursery school to a visitor because it’s a radio show and you can’t see anything, so she’s giving you a full picture of what it looks like and there’s this one moment when she says “George don’t do that!” That’s most often what the sketch is known as. You never know what George is doing but you know it’s something not great. I had that in my head since childhood and I decided to use the voice and build on it and then the name Georgina came from that.
In the original short, Georgina is going through steps on planting a rosebush in her garden and I built a whole set to look like a garden with a picket fence. It had sunken soil and I had a real rosebush. While she’s doing this on stage, she’s chatting with a gnome, whom she later reveals is Nigel, and she’s chatting with the audience. Over the course of her chatting with them you start to realize that her life isn’t this happy pretty picket fence that it looks like when the lights come up. She keeps leaving the stage to get things and in the end she comes back with a dead body, which she dumps into the hole and covers with the rosebush, and all the while she’s chatting happily.
So that was in 2008 and the big note I got from professors was “why didn’t you put any songs in the monologue?” because I’m a singer. So that’s been sticking with me ever since. I eventually want to make the show all original music, or making use of existing songs in the way we make it original.
I had the idea of a teatime cabaret for like 3 years and I just couldn’t piece it together. I decided to submit to the Fringe as a way to kick myself up the bum. I wrote a sample just for them and I was so sure I wasn’t going to get it but I got the email saying I’d been selected and it was like “now I have to write it!” So I wrote it.
Were there other influences behind the character of Georgina?
Vocally she’s influenced by Joyce Grenfell and the voice just kind of evolved on its own after that. There’s another British comedienne called Victoria Wood. She does a lot of solo stand up shows. It’s just her and her piano. She sings original songs and chats in between. I grew up watching her. Another comic British comic character was Hyacinth Bucket [from Keeping Up Appearances] and we see the stereotypical nosy neighbor who is very posh and seems morally upstanding. I like the idea of how British temperament is not what it seems. Everyone seems to be so polite when really we could be boiling with rage inside.
How did you make the decision to make the play interactive?
That came from experience in cabaret really. When I first decided to apply to the Fringe, my first cover letter was really aggressive. My boyfriend read it and he was like “mmm, you need to make it a little nicer” because I was like “I want to prove that cabaret is really worthwhile because everyone pushes it aside and thinks it’s just someone standing around singing a revue of Sondheim.”
What I’ve loved when I’ve gone to see cabaret shows is how they completely rip apart the fourth wall. I think that’s what makes it such a fun medium because you can do a completely removed performance or you can go sit on someone’s lap and talk to them in the middle of the show and it doesn’t spoil anything because it’s all about the audience’s interaction with the character. The actual word “cabaret” means an “intimate space” and it refers to a type of theater where there is interaction.
The thing that I’ve noticed is that during rehearsal is that when I haven’t got people to play off, the energy of the show is at fifty percent but as soon as you bring me audience members that I can bounce back and forth with, the energy skyrockets. It makes the show more memorable for people and make it more entertaining. You can go see a show in a theater of 500 people and really be moved by the performance but it’s rare that’s it’s something that has a direct connection to you. It pulls the audience in and makes them complicit in it.
If you had to estimate, how much of each performance is ad-libbed?
Pretty much the whole show is scripted but there are specific moments where I speak to audience members and anything that happens there is ad-libbed. There was one show when the person I picked was an elderly gentleman and as I was walking back to stage I was like “oh this is a huge mistake, this is going to be the worst thing ever!” He was lovely but he was so chatty and I had to keep shutting him up. He was very good about it though.
Anything where I speak to the audience is completely ad-libbed. There are moments where I’m in the middle of the scripted dialogue and a joke comes in to my head and I just have to say it because I sensed it was the right time with it. It can go bad but I’ve learned to trust my instincts.
What are your plans for the future? Will we be seeing Georgina again?
So right now I am completely tunnel-visioned with the encores. The difficulty with me is that I don’t really have a theater network yet. I’ve been here about a year properly since I moved to New York and this is the first thing I’ve really done. Fringe was a way of catapulting myself into it and having people see me. I’m hoping that there will be some people coming to see this one and that it will generate interest.
My vision for the show is a full sit-down, teatime experience. The whole principle of it is that everyone is actually taking tea with her and while they think they are attending a teatime class with her and all the songs and madness descend on them. I want people to be able to eat and drink. It was all written into the show but then I had to sign contracts and I can’t feed them, they can’t drink anything, I can’t boil water on the stage. I was like, “I can’t boil water and I have to make tea!” so I changed some things. I changed the boiling water the day before.
The venue I’m always thinking of is Joe’s Pub. I want an artist at Joe’s Pub to be like “hey, we want her!” I want it to be in an intimate space, at least in this incarnation. I see Georgina in an intimate space because I feel like the interaction is what makes it more memorable. I feel like she’s transferable and I can do more with her but this is the only bubble I have her in right now.
My sister suggested doing a weekly video on YouTube. I just want to go around saying things to people and have an etiquette vlog with Georgina where she’s teaching people about Britishness and that can feed into future productions. I just need to get a decent camera and someone to film me!
Whether you're looking for a bellyful of laughs or to find yourself with a lapful of British dame, you should definitely check out Deborah's Encore performances of Sex, Lies and Earl Grey! Don't miss the final performance at the Baruch Performing Arts Center on September 28 at 7:30.
Don't miss "Sex, Lies and Earl Grey" on September 28 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.