True Tall Tales: LA’s “Public School”

on Tuesday, Feb. 8th

UPDATE: Public School is back in session tonight at the M-Bar in Hollywood. At 9PM tonight PS vets like Todd Levin (Conan) and James Urbaniak (The Venture Brothers)- both of whom can be seen in the slideshow that accompanies this story- will be joined on stage by five other storytellers to share their “fish out of water” tales. Also on stage tonight, Public School co-producer Natasha Vargas-Cooper, the subject of the original interview below.

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We spoke recently with Natasha Vargas-Cooper– the author of “Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp through 1960s America”a writer for The Awl about the monthly storytelling series she curates in Los Angeles known as Public School, where the name comes from, and being a high school drama hero.

Noah Nelson: For those who haven’t heard about Public School, give us a little breakdown of what it is.

Natasha Vargas Cooper: About seven storytellers get up and tell a story with no notes based on a theme. The idea is that it should feel spontaneous and it should be spontaneous and that watching people do narrative, true narrative, is art. So we encourage folks to do stories that are self-revelatory, that are not anecdotes, that are about themselves. So there’s always themes of redemption and guilt and things like that.

We try to do a mix of folks who are working writers, and then people that we just know. Like a dear friend of mine is a teacher. She has no reason to ever get up on stage and tell anybody about her personal life, but she has all these remarkable stories. So I invited her and she’s one of our favorites.

That’s the breakdown. And we tell folks the theme about a week beforehand. So the idea is that this is a quick moving process.

NN: In an age where everything seems to be about bigger and better and whose got the most hits on their blog and how big of an audience can I reach… this event happens in a particular place at a particular time. The M-Bar isn’t huge. What’s the need there for something that’s that much more intimate between storyteller and audience?

NVC: I think that one of the things that’s been great about the Internet and about this technological revolution we’ve gone through is that it opened us up to a number of more voices and experiences. Just through the Internet you can Google anything and there’s twenty blogs on it or whatever, right? There’s a support group or a niche website for whatever it is that you’re into. But I think that there is a lack of intimacy with that. It’s done through a screen, it’s done through this passive way. And so I think what’s unique and why people have caught on to this– and why we did this as an experiment seven months ago and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger– is what I’m talking about. There is a sense of intimacy there.

There’s no greater feeling. It’s a touchdown, it’s everything.

I think it’s also what’s attractive about a campfire. One of the things that we do there is make sure that it’s very dark. We purposefully make sure that the show is late at night– nine o’clock on a weekday– and we say “unless you’re a plumber, a doctor, you don’t need to be tweeting  this.”

NN: Why “Public School”? Why that name?

NVC: We had had a couple of other names of our first shows before, but I chose Public School because I think it’s evocative. One of the things that made me who I am is that I’m a child of the California public school system for all that is… and isn’t. So from kindergarten to college– I went to UCLA– and what public school to me is, well, it’s a public good, right? In the same way that utilities are. And I do believe that narrative is a public good. This is something that should be kept in the elite, that it shouldn’t be reserved for artists. It shouldn’t be reserved for writers. It is something by its very nature provides some kind of service, and it should be made accessible like public school.

And public school on it’s own is boisterous and sloppy and loud and, um, risky and all of those things. So I’ve always, when I meet people: “What do your parents do dadada… did you go to public school?” Cuz there is something that sets public school kids apart. I mean you had to fight from the beginning for your resources here. So I chose it for that reason. Also I feel there’s a feeling of where you wanna do good and you’re nervous, and things like that. So rather than have some kind of ironic, wink wink name, or some completely flip name that has nothing to do… which is very common among comedy groups, right? “Our improv group isnamed Datsun.” I actually wanted it to be evocative and have some kind of meaning.

NN: Datsun has evocative meanings for me.

NVC: [Laughs]

NN: I just flashed back to my childhood the second you said that term. One thing I noticed as I was preparing for our chat today is you wrote a pretty passionate take down of Hollywood actresses invading the Tony awards this year for Salon. Is this instinct to do a storytelling event coming out of that theatrical gene that you have?


NVC: Oh, absolutely.

Look. I mean, it’s also self interested in that I’m a drama kid. In the same way that you’d have the football high school heroes, I was a drama high school hero. The drama program was my life and I ended up getting into writing after doing union politics, so I need to be on stage. I want to be on stage but–

NN: If you could see Natasha right now she is… her arms are vibrating. At a high frequency–

NVC [crosstalk] Like a soda can shaked (sic) up. So beyond that, I love movies. LOVE movies. But the thing about film is that it’s one performance in perpetuity, right? The performance that you are seeing in Avatar is the same performance that thousands of people at that moment are seeing no matter what and while that is it’s own communal force I don’t think that it’s that difficult to achieve.

Whereas what I think is great about theatre– and it takes a particular type of actor, and a type of vessel– is that like I said that third entity. That other connection with the audience that is created where people say I witnessed this and the only other people who did that night were in that theatre. So for one person to be able to do that, that person is not Scarlet Johannsen. And that’s not because she’s a bad actress– which she is– but that like, it takes so much to be a theatre actress. You have to get up in front of this audience and you have to create the spontaneity and the electricity of something that you’ve done every single night, right?

And you don’t have a trailer, you’re in a bad, crappy backstage room. Most of these women are not on Broadway. You may get one break but that’s it, right? And so what hurt me about that situation– and it does come out of the same impulse– is like: There’s some girl, there’s some woman who’s like, doing Queen Margaret from Richard the III to four people and is pouring her heart out and all of a sudden Scarlet Johannsen wants to do “Study Abroad on Broadway” and she gets the part.

And I just felt like “Come on, if there’s anybody to reward this very specific kind of art it’s the Tonys.”

NN: I actually tuned in this year and I just smelled the cynicism coming off the people who run the Tony’s. Because it’s not even like the Academy Awards where it’s a few thousand people who vote, it’s like two hundred, maybe three hundred people who are the producers on Broadway, and just everyone who won was a Hollywood star and I was like “Wow, they sat there and said…”

NVC: Right.

NN: “Whats gonna get asses in the seats?”

NVC: Yeah.

NN: “What’s gonna get people to watch this broadcast? Let’s get famous people because we’re not famous.”

NVC: And not only that, even the presenters. It’s like isn’t this the one sacred place right? It’s like sure, I get it. I get Scarlet Johnassen’s appeal. Like fine. I understand why you want to put Ashley Simpson in Chicago. But if there was ever a sacred moment to give back to those…. these people are not good looking- have you seen theatre people?

They’ve all been worn down to nubs by this horrendous force of theatre. And then their own community sells them out.

NN: [laughs]

NVC: If you watched the Tony’s it was like amazing to be like- there all in gowns and they all have their hair done. But they’re all pasty and craggy. They’ve all been worn down to nubs by this horrendous force of theatre. And then their own community sells them out.

It is part of the reason why I am reluctant to let actors and well-known stand ups be a part of [Public School], because they’ve already achieved that, right? So this is a smaller thing. This is a smaller venue. I’d much rather reward people who have  the braveness to do something they don’t do very often.

And when I say reward, it’s meager, it’s, you know, it’s 90 people in a room, applauding. Which you know, for somebody who does that a lot it doesn’t have the same kind of impact. Whereas if your newer to this, or you don’t often tell stories… I can tell you the best feeling is being on stage and you come to the turn in your story and you hear like [gasp] from the the audience and it’s like “OH HO HO!” There’s no greater feeling. It’s a touchdown, it’s everything.

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