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Interview with Varla Jean Merman

September 12th, 2011

It was delightful to catch up with performer Jeff Roberson over a cup of tea about his life as Varla Jean Merman.

''In the last couple of years, Iíve realized that if youíre having a good time, the audience is too.''

Laura: How did you discover Provincetown?

Jeff: In 1996, I was hired to open for Lypsinka at Town Hall. At the time, Dewarís Scotch was doing a lot of gay promotion and asked me to open for her show in front of the curtain. There were a lot of people who thought I was a real woman which I found surprising in a town like this.

Then, Phyllis Schlossberg of the Post Office Cafe heard about me through Josieís Juice Joint in San Francisco. I was working there with Musty Chiffon, who was pretty big in Provincetown at the time. He was like ďCome to Provincetown for the winter.Ē So, I was able to live at Snug Harbor in that house on Bradford with the Statue of Liberty and that big garden and gorgeous view. It was so beautiful when it snowed.

Anyway, Phyllis heard about me and asked me to do a show with her in 1998. It was a great place to perform.

Laura: Right now, you are at the ArtHouse with THE BOOK OF MERMAN through the 17th. Too funny!

Jeff: Iíve done a new show every year so Iím up to ten or eleven! People didnít always do that but now you have a lot more ďladiesĒ on Commercial Street. I think weíve all made each other step up our game.

Working in Provincetown, you learn whatís funny. I perform to a great cross section of people from all over the country, all over the world, really, and if youíre going to tour a show you want it to work everywhere.

I have big news: June 7th-17th, 2012, Mark Cortale, my extraordinary producer, and I are bringing Gian Carlo Menottiís opera THE MEDIUM with soprano Marisol Montalvo (Classical Varla) directed by Donna Drake (Snail Road) to the ArtHouse. I play the fortune teller who is actually doing a con using her daughter and a mute boy. Then she really starts hearing voices. It goes from comedic to tragic when the opera really takes a turn. Canít wait!

Laura: Me either! You turned last yearís VARLA JEAN AND THE MUSHROOMHEADS into a movie. How do you feel about it?

Jeff: I love it but really realized that everything costs so much! The movie came out great and is in the festival circuit now.

Laura: Where are you off to next?

Jeff: Iíll be in Boston performing in THE DIVINE SISTER, a Charles Busch play with SpeakEasy Stage directed by Larry Cohen (also director of Ryan Landryís The PHANTOM OF THE OPRAH for which Varla received the Elliot Norton Award for Best Musical Performance).

Laura: Do you always say yes to roles?

Jeff: I always say yes because you never know when that telephone will stop ringing. Iíve been very lucky. People call me for work.

Laura: What advice would you have for aspiring performers?

Jeff: In the last couple of years, Iíve realized that if youíre having a good time, the audience is too. Iíve been so worried about making things work that Iíve killed my own jokes. Itís so much lighter than that. When you write you own stuff, you worry about that too. The audience doesnít care who wrote it. They want to enjoy the performance in front of them.


Columnist [Notes from Landís End] Laura Shabott loves to write about the people that she admires in her beloved Provincetown. She attended the Fine Arts Work Center this past summer on a residentís scholarship.

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