Solo Fest Q&A: Lesley Tsina

The LA-based comedienne, actress, and solo performer tells the true story of her tumultuous last months working at a large corporation through the frame of William Golding’s classic novel of (nearly) the same name in Lord of the Files.

published Thursday, June 11, 2015

Photo: Lesley Tsina
Lesley Tsina

TheaterJones: Tell us about your play.

Lesley Tsina: My show is Lord of the Files, and it’s a true story about how I was laid off from a company that made cellphone ringtones in a really spectacular manner. We did it in the Geffen Playhouse [in L.A.] through a satellite broadcast, and it’s throughout the nine months after that, while our office was being downsized and everything sort of fell into chaos and savagery.


How did you get the idea to turn this scenario into a solo performance?

I’ve always watched a lot of solo performance and read a lot of solo performance. I had a theater background before I was in comedy. I did stand-up, so some of the stuff as it’s happening I was writing stand-up about it, but it wasn’t very funny stand-up. It just felt like the story was bigger than I could do with that, and I kind of wanted to write something for myself. A couple of years after it was over when I actually felt like writing about it, I thought I’d just give it a shot.


How did you come to be at the company you were at?

In the story it is Databox. It was actually a temp job. I was just doing the temp job I had, then I worked there for about two and a half years.


And how did you hear about the Dallas Solo Fest?

Grant Knutson and I met at the Minnesota Fringe Festival two years ago, and when he put out a call to a bunch of solo people that he knew [that] the solo fest had had a really good first year, and we should think about applying.


The topic of your play is pretty serious and devastating at first glance. Was the comedy the way you dealt with the situation, during and/or after the layoffs?

Yeah. It was weird, because it was not funny at the time and yet I was trying to be a comedian at the time, which made it very difficult. There were those periods where you just kind of put one foot in front of the other and write jokes that aren’t that funny, or…you kind of have to write about it or else, I don’t know, I feel like if I’m not writing it in some way that I show it to somebody, that I’m not doing my job. I was writing scenes for very small audiences, and they were very much like “what’s going on with me,” and that ended up being a lot of the source material.

It took a long time before I was ready to write this show. I just wanted to go do something else with my time. The job was over so I had to go do something else anyway, but it took a while before I was in an established theater where I knew I could put the show up, try it out. I wanted to get to a place where I could write something very different than what I had written before. I was doing improv and I was doing sketch, which are totally different [from solo performance]. It took a really long time to write, too. I took two different solo performance classes from two very different solo performers, and had about a year in between where I kind of let it sit. It took a lot of thinking in terms of how to write a show like that, and what kind of show I wanted to do with my story.


Describe the two solo performance classes. What were the different approaches they had?

They were both great performers. The first one I took a class with was Lauren Weedman. [Carla Cackowski and I] were in that class together. She’s great, and she does very, very honest solo performance based on things that have happened to her. She does a lot more character-y stuff, and she’s very, very good at that. That’s not really my strength. We did a lot of exercises about filling out the character, filling out the world and what it is you’re trying to do. She had us bring in a lot of source material and if you had anything that you were using as inspiration [you brought that in, too]. I remember that was the class where I kind of ended up having an outline, like a big shape of what had happened in that two-year period. It took a while, because I just didn’t know where the show was.

She was really good at pointing out stuff that I didn’t want to write about, [she would say] “I think you’re missing something here, so let’s try this-or-that.” That was super useful, but I know I didn’t get to a draft in that and I was just like, “Well, I have all this stuff, and now I don’t know what to do with it.”

Then I worked with Brian Finkelstein. He taught at UCB, but we were both performers from there. The show I’ve seen [Weedman] do is called Wreckage, which is a great show, and he had a show called First Day Off in a Long Time. This play is partly about the death of Spalding Gray. He is more narrative, [and comes from] a narrative, storytelling solo tradition. That’s closer to what I wanted to do by the end of the class. When I got the draft done it helped me figure out the time of the show, that those [last] nine months were the most important. He cracked that on the first day, and I said, “Oh, now I can break this show.”


That’s great that you could incorporate enough from both of them to build your show.

Yeah, I got really lucky. The good thing about it is that there are just a lot of really good solo performers in LA who teach, so both of them were great. But then also directors as well. I had two very good directors. The first one that I worked with was Julie Brister, who also is at UCB and has a show called Fatparts. She hadn’t done it for a while, but she started doing it again. I didn’t realize how much writing it was going to be from what I considered a very finished draft to my show, but we worked on that for about two months. The first couple versions of the show I worked on with her. Then when I started touring it, I rewrote it and worked with my friend Kevin Pedersen, an old friend from sketch who is very smart. We’ve known each other a long time. He had a different take on it, which I also liked. If I hadn’t worked with both of them, I would not be as happy with this show.

Photo: Lesley Tsina
Lesley Tsina in Lord of the Files


Where did your directors bring out aspects of your story?

Sometimes it’s just asking for a specific where you forgot to put one in. I’ll say something about a specific character, and they’ll say, “It’s interesting that you say they were that way, can you give an example? Give me another example. How many examples can you give me until we hit one that sounds good?” And they ask the hard questions sometimes. Both of my directors asked me a question that you often ask solo people, and that’s “Where are you in the story right now? The story is happening, but what’s going on in your head?” I hate answering that question all the time. It’s usually something I don’t want to talk about. But it opens up the show, and in that case, it did. The show is very much about temping, having a job, working in an office, there’s all this stuff going on with my personal life as well that I didn’t want to talk about, but she [Weedman] said, “Well, if you don’t do that, then it’s a show about temping, you’re not in the show, and the show isn’t about anything.” I don’t know how people don’t work with directors, but I know people just do it themselves, but I really need a second set of eyes.


And how did Lord of the Flies end up being a frame for the story?

That was the title that made me laugh. As I was writing about it, there just were things about it that fit. I think it was [originally] called Temp to Hire. I think [the Lord of the Files title] came out of a class where we were talking about things that this was like and Lord of the Flies came up. Then there’s a whole thing about an airplane, and how they feel like they’re on an airplane that’s going down. It was something that I wrote in one of the source materials that I wrote at the time. When something came to mind [based on the book] and if it made sense, I brought it in. The one thing that’s funny is it doesn’t really matter how I spell it, it still gets called Lord of the Flies all the time. I have a Google alert for it and everyone misspells Lord of the Files.


Have you taken inspiration from other classic works before, or was this something new?

Back in college, I did a play that was based on Flannery O’Connor’s [1955 novel] Good Country People, but nothing really since then. This is one of the longer pieces I’ve done since college. Most of what I’ve written is stand-up.

Well, I just remembered something. When I was in high school, I did a horrible, 10-minute, one-person version of Lord of the Flies for a speech competition until I realized I should really stop doing that. It was terrible, I was 14. I did not go very far.

I love the book. It’s a great book. It is weird, I don’t even think I made that connection until much, much later.


You’ve blended writing, comedy and performance a number of times. How was it different for this project?

I got into stand-up because I liked writing. I hadn’t been performing for a while when I got into stand-up again. I’ve always thought it was a writer’s medium. You end up being a heightened version of yourself. I didn’t really think of myself as much of an actor, I really started getting into doing sketch and a lot of improv people end up in commercials, so you kind of back your way into it. I had a theater background, but then I didn’t do anything with it for six years. I really wanted to write something for myself, and solo performance is great for that because you can actually write something that you can be particularly good at. It’s a great medium for that, in the way that stand-up is, but there’s just a lot more puff. I don’t think I’d write a very great serious play, that’s not how anything I write ever comes out. One of the things I like about solo performance is you can make it all of the things that you like and all the things that you’re good at. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s actually a great approach to it.


You didn’t do anything theater-related for six years. What was the reason? Was the corporation part of a reason?

It’s kind of a weird story. I started as an actor much later than a lot of people do. I did it as a kid, in high school, and I majored in that in college. Then I came out to San Francisco near my parents, and I worked in a theater out there, but I wasn’t performing at all, I was stage-managing, [did] dramaturgy, writing, wardrobe, anything I could get, and just watching a lot of theater. I just didn’t want to perform suddenly after I graduated. Then I got tired of working in theaters. I actually went back to school for animation. I went to community college for a couple years doing that, and that was a big right turn and I ended up working in the film industry, doing production, PA-ing, stuff like that. That’s actually what got me to LA, not performing.

I knew I was interested in stand-up and writing, and I knew that I was a stronger writer than an artist or an animator. I wanted to try the thing I was actually good at, rather than something I thought I should really be good at. There were a couple years there where I was mostly working theater and then going to school and then working in film. I started temping because I was doing so much stand-up that I didn’t want to work production anymore. The hours don’t work. A couple years into that is when I got the job. I had only been doing stand-up for three years when the beginning of all of this started. I didn’t really start professionally acting until the events after the show. I was out of that job and I was starting to get work in commercials, improv. I’ve only been working professionally as an actor for the last six or seven years. I’m glad I did it that way. I don’t know how I would have handled it if I were 22.


That sounds like a wealth of experience. Did it give you a newfound appreciation for theater?

Yeah, I think a couple things. Coming in a little older, you have more to write about. I certainly wrote in my 20s, but I just never finished anything. I just didn’t really have a strong focus, it was more scenes and things like that. As a performer, you know what you’re good at and interested in, and you don’t have as much pressure to be a certain type of thing. You’re already not 22, so you don’t have to try to be that. I feel like I’m lucky because I’m a character type anyway, you don’t have to be super young to do that.


You’ve performed this a few times. What are you most looking forward to in performing it in Dallas and this festival?

I’ve heard great things about the festival. It’s cool to be just in the first couple years of it. It sounds like a small festival. I’ve been doing fringes, and you can never see all of what you want to see. I still can’t see all the shows I want to see because I’m not there both weeks. I’m definitely going to see the shows playing while I’m there. It’s cool to be in a selective festival. And I love Carla, she does great work. It’s just cool being part of solo performance after seeing so many shows.


» Lesley Tsina's Lord of the Files is performed at the following times:

  • Thursday, June 11 @ 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 12 @ 9:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 13 @ 10:30 p.m.

The 2015 Dallas Solo Fest features eight solo performances spread over two weekends. To see complete DSF schedule, go here. There will also be several workshops, which you can read more about here.

And you can follow our coverage of the 2015 Dallas Solo Fest in our special section, hereThanks For Reading

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Solo Fest Q&A: Lesley Tsina
The LA-based comedienne, actress, and solo performer tells the true story of her tumultuous last months working at a large corporation through the frame of William Golding’s classic novel of (nearly) the same name in Lord of the Files.
by Linda Smith

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