In these final days of 2015, we pause to look back at 15 who influenced Little Rock’s cultural scene who left us in 2015.
So, let’s pretend we’re sitting in the back of Vino’s, where so many actors, musicians and rats have sort of tried to be tolerant of one another through the years, where so many beers have been slung and guitar picks (and sometimes prosthetic body parts) flung. It’s here where Red Octopus Theatre Company first found its home and fan base, and it’s here where founder Christy Ward and former member/performer Jennifer Pierce Mathus thought it best to base our virtual tribute to the late Sandy Baskin, longtime Red Octopus director and Little Rock actress.
JPM: Hi, Christy Ward. Smells like home in here.
CW: Ah, yes! Stale beer and gutter punks! The scent of the season!
JPM: It should be a seasonal candle. You know, I can never call you by just your first name. That’s because of Sandy. And it’s like one word, really, especially when you speak at Sandy Baskin speed. You know what? Let’s just pretend Sandy is running late and talk about her…..so, how did you meet Sandy?
CW: I met her one night at the “Honky Hut”, which is what we called the house Brooks Caruthers, Greg Hinspeter and various other lived in. I’d moved back from San Francisco, a year or two before. Brad Mooy, Amy Gross-Mason (both of whom where interns at The Rep) and I had just started Red Octopus and had put up a few one-acts–I had wanted to do something a little different from the work I’d done with Reponde Capite, and Brad and Amy wanted to have a little creative freedom aside from their day jobs. I knew Amy in college. We wanted a different kind of audience than the other theatres. We loved theatre and we wanted to get a younger audience who might not otherwise go see a play. So, we got a couple of nights at Vino’s, which had just opened. Allan Vennis, Henry Lee and, oh, that other guy, all owned it. So we formed Red Octopus. I wanted it to be called Little Miss Priss’ Theatre of Impertinence. But for brevity’s sake, we named it after Brad’s super cute kitchen table! We’d put on two shows, and they had played fantastically. I was really energized by the whole thing, and was planning my next show, an original piece, with music called “The Big, Big, City.” It was the first script I ever wrote. Sandy sat down next to me on the couch, and introduced herself to me. She said our mutual friend told her she should meet me, since I was doing shows at music venues, she was a theatre person, and we were both cool and funny. The friend said that, not me…
JPM: But you were….
CW: …and by the end of the night, Sandy was assistant director and firmly entrenched in RO. I saw her pretty much every day for about ten years after that. (laughs)
So, Jennifer! I understand you’ve also done a bit of acting! Can you give me a brief idea of why you are qualified to talk about Sandy Baskin and her contributions to theatre in Arkansas?
JPM: Am I qualified to talk about Sandy? I guess, after 13-ish years spent either on stage with her or in collaboration with Red Octopus, I can say that Sandy Baskin kept the independent spirit alive in theater in Arkansas. And she particularly demanded that audiences have respect for comedy in all forms. Like, she almost had a “live free or die” approach to her art. The whole “f*** ‘em if they can’t take a joke” thing. Her life’s work informed so many aspiring actors and comedy writers; she inspired artists to think and try and grow. At least, that’s what she did for me. And I have, as you know, appeared in a J.G. Wentworth commercial, so clearly I have developed a highly-refined approach to our craft. *throws pretend scarf over shoulder*
CW: I see! You seem pretty qualified. Sandy was not a founding member of Red Octopus, but she joined the company very early on and remained the driving force behind it until she passed away this year. So, what do you think Sandy brought to the table, what was it about her that drew people to the company, that kept them excited and willing to bust their asses for no monetary reward?
JPM: What I saw through the years, as newer company members would come into the group, the newbies wanted to make her laugh. They saw her as the leader of the “cool kids” theater gang, and they wanted that stamp of approval, as actors and writers. If they could crack her up, especially if they could make her break in scene, then they kinda felt like they’d graduated. It was the same with me when I started–it’s one of the reasons I baaaaarely wrote, because I thought much of what I wrote wasn’t funny enough for your or Sandy’s or Jason Gregory’s standards. It had to be good; it had to kill. Because nearly all of her sketches killed. So many of the sketches she wrote back then are still being performed today.
And after all the “old heads” left, why do you think she cared so much about keeping RO going?
CW: I think she just really loved comedy and her family. I don’t think she could’ve moved and left her family behind. But I don’t think she was capable of not doing shows either. I can’t imagine her doing anything else. If there had never been a Red Octopus, she would’ve wound up starting up something else like it. She found her thing. It worked perfectly with her life. She was very lucky, and I’m sure she would agree. And I feel, as an actress, she was outstanding working in the genre of sketch comedy.
JPM: Totally. As an actor, she was completely built for comedy. Warp-speed speech pattern, big volume, fantastic expressions, great tits. And I can say that because I’m a guy. (laughs) Sandy was a dynamo onstage and had impeccable comedic timing. Plus, she had this vintage Hollywood “look” and a kind of Lucille Ball approach. She should’ve had her own variety show.
CW: She was an encyclopedia of pop culture, from the 1920’s on. And I am not. She loved changing lyrics to songs and putting music in where ever humanly possible. And me, not so much. How did Sandy influence you as an artist?
JPM: I can’t even begin to explain. Red Octopus was my MFA program in acting, with an emphasis in comedy. Sandy’s direction and collaboration shaped everything for me. What do you remember most when you think of her?
CW: Laughing. And a million other things that usually ended in laughing.
JPM: Working with her onstage was like working with someone who should’ve been on Saturday Night Live. And it was the scariest and yet safest place to be, being on stage with her.
Favorite performance of Sandy’s, go.
CW: Vivace. Hands down the best thing she ever did. She was so fun to watch in comedy, I can’t pick one. But Vivace was a drama. It was a big stretch for her. I wanted it to be very realistic. It was very Method. I think we all went a little crazy maybe, but she was great. Really great.
Who do you think were Sandy’s major influences?
JPM: Oh, God! Offhand? Tom Waits, Broadway, 1960s TV commercials, film noir, Laugh-In, Shakespeare, Valley of the Dolls, Burns and Allen, West Side Story, you, Jason Gregory.
Your favorite performance together, go.
CW: We Have No Shame. Two woman show. So much fun. As we say today, we gave zero f*cks.
JPM: And here’s something: Sandy was always well aware of her femininity but still maintained a punk sort of feminist position when it came to characters and sketch themes and ideas. How do you think she found that balance?
CW: She and I were total 3rd Wave Feminists. Sexuality and sex were fun things that were ours. She did what she wanted. Just because she was pretty, didn’t mean she was demure or stupid, and she enjoyed making that point. And she enjoyed flirting.
What was your favorite thing she wrote?
JPM: This has been killing me since we lost her, because my favorite thing she wrote, I can’t remember the show title! It actually wasn’t a comedy, though I loved all of her comedic writing. No, this was a two-man dramedy she wrote, starring me and Jason Gregory, a Burns-and-Allen riff that told the story of Sandy’s dear friend who developed a degenerative brain disorder and died. Gregory played the lead role, and I was basically playing the role of Sandy. It was a beautiful, heartbreaking tribute to love and loss. We rehearsed it for weeks, really intensive actor-y type work to find the characters and deliver beautifully nuanced performances. Sandy directed, and she was brilliant. And no one actually saw the show. Well, Kathy Strause saw it and maybe two other people. Because RO had at that point been doing sketch comedy full stop, throwing a heavier theatrical piece at our audience didn’t really work. I think we closed the show after two days of empty seats. And now, I’m the only one left who remembers it. God, this is a terribly depressing answer! She would actually make fun of this answer. *dries eyes, blows nose in pretend scarf*
JPM: How did she enrich the cultural life of this state? What is Sandy’s legacy? And are we really asking these questions? Because this all still seems a bit unreal, to me.
CW: I want Little Rock and the world to know, but mostly Little Rock, that Sandy Baskin was a major force in creating the underground culture of the city since the 90’s. This city loves live comedy, because of her. Little Rock had a sort of cultural Golden Age in the 90’s, and it was more shiny, and fun, because of her presence both on and off stage. She was a true talent who could have worked in any writer’s room in the country, and we were lucky to have had her. That’s all I have to say about that.
CW: Any final thoughts you want to share?
JPM: I loved that Dumb Whore. And it’s too bad if you don’t get the joke. I secretly hope Scott gets letters of protest for the use of that language. Because that would thrill Sandy.