Meet Irene Marquette

Irene Marquette is a bad ass. Sketchpad’s Logan Short recently had the honor of interviewing her to learn what she’s up to and what fuels the type of comedy that the Huffington Post called “Profound and uproariously funny.”

Q: I’m having a tough time knowing where to start this interview because you’ve done so much. You’re a performer, award-winning director, writer, teacher, theater manager, and now assistant to Kay Cannon, writer of the “Pitch Perfect” franchise, who will serve as showrunner and executive producer alongside Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, and Sophia Amoruso for the new Netflix series based off Amoruso’s autobiography, #Girlboss. What can you tell us about this project?

A: Ha! First off thank you. I would also like to add that Kay is the creator of the series.  I can tell you that this project is funny, with complex human characters and a story that matters – a young woman who envisioned her life being better so she carved out a space for herself in the world. Everything I have tried to do or align myself with during the decade I spent in Chicago was in favor of good, funny work that was women-centric or featured voices that aren’t always heard. Working with and for Kay, who obviously does this on a very large scale is a personal, artistic and political dream come true.

Here’s an Uber commercial Irene directed in Oct:

Q: You’re not new to working with true stories in comedy. You directed a play called 40 Whacks about the infamous Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted for the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother. To do these well, I’d imagine a lot of research goes into these projects. How would you say extensive research on subjects improves the comedy of the material you write?

A: Oh yes, I love to research and I love history, always have. With 40 Whacks my creative partner at the time Aggie Hewitt was reading a biography about Lizzie Borden and told me that before the murders it’s thought that Lizzie poisoned her family’s mutton stew. Even though everyone but Lizzie got very ill they were all too stubborn to interrupt their daily routine or toss the stew despite the fact they were projectile vomiting. That detail made us both laugh so hard and when we learned that Andrew Borden (the patriarch) designed a home without hallways to save space we knew there was a darkly comedic show in there. Those details let us really imagine those characters and how frustrating it would be to live in that house.

No privacy and two “spinster” sisters in their 30s, for a person with bigger dreams that environment would start feeling like a pressure cooker. Those historical details let our imaginations run in terms of creating characters and scenes. On the research hero front, Lisa McQueen, our amazing music director/composer, got a book of newspaper articles in chronological order from the trial and combined them into an epic song.12063418_10153703861371108_1493277298087503200_n

Like anything, research is as good as what you do with it – what’s the story you’re reading between the lines of facts? Regardless of what you’re writing you’re always asking questions about why – why does this character end up here or do this and what are the consequences?

Q: With all of your projects, I imagine you have deadlines. How much time do you and whoever else you’re working with spend ruminating over material before putting it up to workshop? Why?

A: I do a lot of work in my brain before I start writing. I miss Chicago because i would go on a really long walk or ride the train, listen to music and would just think away on a project. Sometimes I’ll jot down some notes if I think of details I don’t want to forget. Once I write something I’ll usually through 2-3 revisions before I’ll test it out and then I’ll take a bunch of notes and rewrite it again right afterward. If it’s a performance piece I’ll put it away until a few days before the next time I perform it. The plays I’ve done are different because I’m collaborating with other people and I like to tailor my rehearsal process to the project and the group I’m working with. But shows like 40 Whacks or The Raven & The Messenger, I spent hours and hours and hours thinking about them outside of rehearsal.

Q: How does acting and improvising inform or shape the way you write, if at all? Vice versa?

A: Being an actor shapes the way I direct for sure. I have worked with directors who have processes I really responded to and was inspired by and some that I found extremely challenging. There’s value in all of it and I pick and choose the things that work for me and the people I’m collaborating with.

10373076_10153767552547605_906470028758703734_oImprov majorly shapes the way I approach things. Saying yes to your own ideas is a great lesson and so valuable when you’re writing. What if you have the characters make the positive choice and follow the fun of them saying yes to each other? Why remove judgement from a first draft and give myself the gift of discovery? What if I choose to commit and recommit to this solo piece I’m performing?

Something I really love about Susan Messing’s level 2 curriculum at iO is that while it trains you to be an excellent ensemble member it also asks you to listen to yourself. Say yes to your own ideas, recommit to your choices and your characters. That balance of losing yourself within a group (or existing in a system) while maintaining your identity is so important!

And of course improv techniques like listening, saying yes, embracing and contributing to people’s ideas are all so valuable in being a functioning human being.

Q: I feel like it’s a dream for an improviser to have a life and career as fully immersed in it all as you have. Did you ever have to make a choice between some traditional career path and diving into this world, or did it just kind of evolve through osmosis?

A: Big question Logan!

I have had a couple of adult, non-creative related jobs in my life and I spent my lunch breaks and slow times writing scripts and scenes and designing posters for shows. They afforded me really nice snacks when I had rehearsals at my house. I was laid off from both of them and got the hint. At this moment I really am living my dream but it took a long time and l’m hesitant for anyone to idealize it. I am 34 years old and I own jack shit. I don’t have a college degree and have been uninsured for the majority of my adult life. I’ve got a hard ass stubborn head that serves me and screws me. It’s a fucked up thing to be so driven to something where the odds are so stacked against you. It is especially hard for women who, along with every other obstacle have a ticking time bomb inside their own bodies that lets them measure themselves against “traditional career paths.”

But I love it. I love it SO MUCH!

Q: In your Life’s a Funny Scene interview from several years back, you say this, “All this stuff, especially acting and auditioning is really an endurance sport. Sticking around at all is an accomplishment. It’s hard to remember that sometimes. Also moving here, making the plan with Griffen [Irene’s husband] to get out of Las Vegas and do what we love, that is massive.”  What advice do you have for people who want a career in comedy?11221519_10102651634689699_821189575668598457_n

A: Comedy is about empathy and the things that connect us. Learn about the world around you and get an infusion of different points of view. Create safe spaces for yourselves and your teammates and listen to them when they tell you how they feel. Be allies. If something makes you uncomfortable don’t do it. Know that if you’re a sexist, racist, ageist or sizeist you are a dinosaur and your days are numbered. This isn’t your world anymore.

Be on time. Do what you say you’re going to do. Be nice. Step outside your comfort zone regularly. Take notes but no shit, give shits but no fucks.

Q: Who/What have been some of the greatest influences on your comedy career?

A: I really love people who do their own thing. Pee Wee Herman, AbFab and Bette Midler were huge early comedic influences for me. I’ve loved Tina Fey from the second I first saw her on TV. My husband introduced me to the tremendous achievement in Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. I really like dancers and found Martha Graham’s memoir Blood Memory really inspirational in terms of her creative freedom and willingness to collaborate, also Gene Kelly’s ability to express and share his perspective, Bob Fosse’s way of turning the ugliest emotions into spectacular set pieces. Sharpling and Wurster have also been a huge inspiration – I really think those guys are the funniest. If you aren’t listening – change that!

Q: You recently moved to LA, what should we check out if we pay a visit?

A: Hike Fryman! It’s beautiful! Go to Watts tower and take the tour.

Q: Any other shows or projects of yours coming up?

A: I’m really focusing on my job at the moment and while I’m writing all the time, I’m only performing sporadically. I’ll be looking to get the Curio Show going out here in the next few months.

Q: When can we expect to see #Girlboss?

A: 2017!

For more Sketchpad Comedy interviews check out Meet Jo Firestone, Andel Sudik and Julia Weiss

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