① Laura Hedli: From repacking fish to finding solo performance just a few years ago, how did you end up here?
Phil Surkis: I did a very classic East Coast move when I turned 21. I packed up my Volkswagen with all of my belongings and moved west. Seemed like the thing to do. My sister was living in San Francisco and I wasn’t up to much in Bloomfield, CT. I stopped going to school when I was 13 and somehow got away with it. I played bass in bands instead of going to the prom. That worked for a while, and then band life stopped. I made the cross country trek and landed jobs in San Francisco, like repackaging fish that came from Japan. It’s one of the many temp jobs I had. I’d be on a Muni train and everyone else was smushed into the opposite end of the car because I smelled like I’d been handling fish all day.
Jumping ahead many years, I moved to Oakland, married a chef and opened a restaurant called Brown Sugar Kitchen. I helped run it for 8 years, until divorce ended that chapter. My absolute favorite part of the restaurant was everyone who came through the doors that I got to meet, including a talented solo performer named Sonya Lewis. She invited me to see her solo performance class show. Not knowing what solo performance was, I thought: Oh, I’ll do a nice thing, but I'm prepared to not like this because it sounds kind of weird.
But, I was taken aback. I was really impressed with what I saw in this black box theater in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. I approached class instructor/director, Lisa Marie Rollins, after being floored by the performances. I asked her if there was a class like that but for men. I wrongly assumed her class was just for women. It turned out that guys were welcome in Lisa Marie’s class.
② LH: So then you decided to make the leap into the co-ed sport of solo performance and take a class yourself?
PS: Yes, and what prepped me for that was a couple of things. One is that ever since I was a teenager, people would ask me if I was a comedian. I would just say “no,” and that was the end of it. I never considered performance ever. Never ever ever. Then I took a career course back in 2006 or 2007 at a placed called “Life’s Work Center.” It was a 12-week workshop, based on the What Color Is Your Parachute? book. My five classmates and the teacher all told me in my final class what they thought my “life’s work” should be. They all insisted that I should be a comedian. I thought I wanted to produce music. I’m still not sure why they all said comedian. I don’t tell jokes. I went another 8 years before I honored that idea that I might be… you know, funny.
LH: Wow, that’s a great story.
PS: I’ve been told it’s not necessarily the things I say, but it’s the way I say things. Also, telling stories is big in my family. My mom, who passed away 8 years ago, seemed to light up when a story was being told. I had a difficult upbringing, as I sometimes bring up in my pieces. I think I told stories and focused on being silly or funny as a way to survive in my household. You know, replacing the yelling with laughter.
While I didn’t pay attention to my career workshop classmates at the time, I can say today that I feel most comfortable describing myself as a writer/comedic storyteller/producer than anything else. I played music since I was a teenager, but I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a musician. I worked in the workers’ compensation industry for 20 years, and I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a claims adjuster. I’ve mostly blocked out the workers’ comp years. Although, I recently ran into an attorney that I used to work with from that world. I hadn’t seen her in years. She said, “Oh my God, Phil. I can’t believe it. You got out!” Like it was prison. And I’m like: “Yeah, I’m producing comedy now.” She said, “Well, I do energy healing for horses.” And I just thought right then: The workers’ comp industry was so grey and so bleak that it catapulted this person to become an energy healer for horses.
So, back in 2013, after seeing Lisa Marie’s class show, I thought: Oh wow, I think I might like to try writing and performing. Solo seems like absolutely the safest possible environment to test out something. Even if you want to test out being funny, it’s so much more nurturing and cradling than a comedy club. In solo you can write anything and it doesn't necessarily have to be funny. But you have that option if you want to go there. You might not know where to mine for comedy material, but if you start writing something about your life in solo, that can inform where humor can come from and vice versa. You might make some quick jokes that you think are funny in the comedy world and realize that there’s just a huge well under these lighter comments that you really need to write about. I remember feeling absolutely exhilarated while writing for Lisa Marie’s solo performance class. That was an a-ha moment for me.
③ LH: I felt similarly when I first discovered solo, and I think most everyone I’ve met in this community realizes how special it is. On the other side of it, as a producer, what’s your pitch to the good people of the Bay Area as to “why solo performance”? How do you get audiences; how do you sell this to people?
PS: This is going to sound crazy California, touchy-feely, and I am from the East Coast, so I couldn’t say this back there, but I really feel like it’s an energy thing. If you’re putting out a genuine excitement, and you’re sharing that genuine excitement, even if it’s through social media, your choice of words will sound genuine. When I’m talking to people, I can get really excited. I love sharing about the “art of solo” because I’m thrilled to learn about people through the stories that they’re unfolding right in front of me.
Learning about people though Facebook sometimes makes me a little ill. It's kind of taken the mystery and wonder out of many people-I'm not sure why people post certain things. Conversely, there's a lot of intention that goes into a solo performance. People have really honed their craft and have worked hard to present a story to you. It's a beautiful energy to witness. I just wish we had bigger theaters. My friend Jill Vice just created a fictional noir solo show called A Fatal Step. I was just thinking that even though her show isn't autobiographical, it's still Jill through and through and a great way to get to know who she is. Also, I dare anyone not to be floored by how funny, engaging and technically dazzling her show is.
How do I sell solo? I had a venue in Oakland called the Barn that staged Echo Brown’s incredible show, Black Virgins are Not For Hipsters. I had a community through the restaurant I owned, and it gave me the opportunity to tell a lot of people about it. I’d see people everyday and say, “Oh, you got to check this out.” Most people who went to those Barn shows were seeing solo for the first time, and everyone was blown away by Echo’s performance. I’ve seen some of those people subsequently at Stage Werx. I think 9.99 times out of 10, someone who walks into a solo show will be really pleasantly surprised and come back.
④ LH: There’s a question I ask everybody, and by everybody I mean Kenny Yun and Thao Nguyen, my previous “4 for” interviewees (thus far). I should have started with this. So here goes: What do you think about 10 seconds before going onstage?
PS: I feel like I almost black out before I go on stage. I know once I’m out there, I’ll get my senses back. The feelings and words will come back to me and the show will happen. And I only know that through my early terrifying, terrifying experiences.
I have much less nervousness when I step out onto the stage now. If I do a certain amount of work up to a point, then I just have faith. It’s weird. Because the first time I performed I had the most insane nerves: Why the fuck am I here? And then it became: Why am I here? And then become: I’m here. And now I’m like: Here here! (laughs)
I’m resigned to whatever happens, happens. I know some people can go out there with very little prep and do amazing things, like my good friend Abas Idris. I rehearse a fair amount before a show. If you do have the luxury and privilege of giving more time to your piece, it’s so good to have a foundation where you can then play with it. Where you can say, you know, 15 percent of it is going to be whatever happens. I feel like a lot of the good moments are not in your script. I think the most fun thing to do onstage is play with timing. It's like you’re playing with the energy.
For more information on Phil’s performances, please visit his website.