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After Stand-Up, Before the Drugs Kick In

Maria DeCotis and Mike Lemme. (Photo by Arin Sang-urai)

In Before The Drugs Kick In, a 62-year-old institutionalized woman closes her eyes and becomes a 28-year-old stand-up. Maria DeCotis stars as comedian Lynn T. Walsh in a show written, produced, and directed by Mike Lemme, onstage April 18-21 at the Broadwater in Hollywood.

Before The Drugs Kick In made a much-lauded world premiere at the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. According to Lemme, it’s dedicated to anyone, especially young mothers of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, who society wrote off as crazy instead of giving them an opportunity to live.

We spoke to Lemme and DeCotis about the process of putting together the show.

Mike Lemme:

Mike, tell us a little about your background, and how it led up to Before the Drugs Kick In, both creatively and wearing your producer hat.

I started performing stand-up comedy when I was 14 years old and eventually moved to New York City in my early 20’s. Before The Drugs Kick In started out as a few stand-up bits that never quite reached where I wanted them to go. Instead of giving up on them, I took those jokes and built the character of Lynn and this play. Maria’s performance has taken what I originally wanted to say well beyond anything I could do on my own. It has been such a cool, cathartic and fulfilling experience.

After years and years of trying to get into comedy clubs in New York City the traditional way, I started producing my own shows. That’s allowed me to perform stand-up all over the place and create these cool theatrical experiences faster than if I was still only trying to get into clubs by reworking my 5-10 minute set over and over again.

I understand the show is based in part on personal experience. Can you expand on that? 

Yes, something happened when I was a kid that eventually led me to performing stand-up. To me, the play could be sort of an origin story on a couple different levels, good and bad.

I’m intrigued that your dramaturg is also your director, Mandy Gordon. How would you describe her role in this project?

Mandy has been a tremendous help when it comes to Maria’s movement and finding intention. She will go through the script and exhume so much power and emotion from lines that I didn’t even know contained that kind of strength and I wrote the show!

Mandy also provides a great deal of wisdom with what it is like to be a parent and a mother’s love for their children. It has been a very rewarding collaboration.

The show refers to young mothers of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s who were identified as crazy instead of giving them an opportunity to live. Was this a big problem back then?

It was in my world, for sure, but one of the great things about our show is having people from all walks of life coming up to us afterwards and saying how relatable they found everything. For the longest time, I thought this was a very specific and personal story. When it turns out it is very relatable. Not being able to live the life you want to be living is still a major problem today for people around the world, not just young mothers.

Self-preservation is an important skill, and one at the core of Before the Drugs Kick In. How does the character, Lynn T. Walsh, develop and employ that skill (without giving away too much!)?

I wrote this show with the hero’s journey in mind. How do you get the thing you want the most when everyone around you is telling you it is impossible. What do you do the hour or two before you have to go to a job you hate or deal with something you don’t want to deal with? How do you find the peace to keep going on that journey even if that peace only exists in your mind? Lynn finally found a way to close her eyes and turn into who she could have been. That power gives her the strength and serenity to go back to living her actual reality until she has the opportunity to close her eyes and come back here.

It seems like the concept of time gets a bit of a shakeup in Before the Drugs Kick In. How did you make the decision to approach the material that way, and what challenges did that lead to?

That’s something I really love about stand-up and theater. You can take a bad memory and turn it into a joke or a play and now you have control over that memory and time doesn’t really exist again until the show is over.

Sometimes someone will come to see the show without reading the description first and that can be a little challenging. The show is designed to be both a comedy and a drama! It deals with some heavy subjects but there are some great punchlines too!

From what I’ve seen, most Fringe shows are one-offs, fading away after the festival ends. You have taken this show from the Edinburgh Fringe to three productions in New York, and now to LA. What has the process been like? What’s next?

The goal is Broadway! This process has reminded me that anything is possible if you keep going. I’ve appreciated every part of this experience even if my bank account has not.

Maria DeCotis in Before the Drugs Kick In. Photo by Elaine Torres.

Maria DeCotis:

Tell us about your past, especially your standup experience and opening for Mike Birbiglia.

I got my BFA in Acting from Boston University. During my time there, I was frequently cast as a comedic character in a Surreal or Absurd play. I also began doing improv my sophomore year. I auditioned for the School of Theatre improv team on a whim without any prior improv experience and I got in! That’s when I started studying comedy more specifically.

I studied Commedia dell’Arte in Italy for a semester as a part of a study abroad program. After graduating, I moved to New York and continued my studies at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre where I joined an all women improv team. A few of them were doing stand-up and encouraged me to go to an open mic and try it with them. Once I did that first open mic, there was no turning back. I cherish that memory. It was a beautiful beginning.

Mike Birbiglia did an “understudy” contest for his Broadway show, The New One, so I submitted a tape. I performed the piece in Italian (to reconnect Birbiglia with his Italian roots) and Ira Glass translated for me live. It was a transcendent experience. You can see it here.

I perform stand-up regularly around the city. You can see my stand-up show, Emotionally Unreasonable at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica on April 25 (tickets here). I took that show to the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where I was featured in Playbill .

In Before the Drugs Kick In, you play a woman at two very different ages. What is your process for making the transitions? How did you prepare to play the older character?

I was always a very physical actor and often find character through gesture, movement, and spine. As I get older, I notice how and where I carry the weight of my experiences in my body. A character who is older than me is carrying around memories, traumatic events they’ve lived through, losses they’ve endured, childbirth! There is so much the body holds on to and is unable to let go of.

I may also start with a feeling. What does it feel like to be trapped? How does that affect my body? What sensations arise from being physically or mentally confined? What consequences does the body bear from being separated from your child? But also, what course of action does the body take to endure, to survive this isolation and abuse? Mike, Mandy, and I talk a lot about the character’s fight to get what she wants. Where does the body muster the strength to rise each day and continue to seek freedom?

What aspect of the show do you most relate to? Which is most challenging?

The character finds her voice and freedom of expression through stand-up, which I can clearly relate to. Stand-up saved me in many ways while I was enduring my own experience of isolation, entrapment, and being silenced. The entire show is very challenging. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope the entire time. I am transitioning between all these different genres of performance: stand-up, storytelling, theatre, and I have to keep the audience with me the whole time.

The piece is experimental; not a traditional, straight-forward play. The audience really has to commit to coming along on a journey with me. They have to be willing to meet the piece and engage with me throughout. There are many times I directly address the audience, which many theatre goers don’t experience in a traditional play setting. I’m addressing deeply troubling issues, oh and I’m time traveling. You have to keep up! The play moves with the swiftness of a woman in survival mode. Her thoughts appear and disappear as quickly as your own. Don’t blink.

As the writer, Mike has asked the audience to show up as much as I do as the performer. In a time where you can check out: watch things on your phone in the bathroom, play mindless games on your commute, many people don’t really know how to be an audience member. You are not a passive observer in this space. You’re an active participant in the room. You shape the experience as much as I do.

The more we are able to cater our consumption through algorithms and targeted ads and our little comfortable social bubbles, the less likely we are to engage with someone else’s experience that challenges what we think we believe. What are you willing to see, to endure, to witness for the betterment of us all? And not just for our betterment, but for our collective freedom. This is a strange reference to bring up, but I often think of the line “witness me” from Mad Max. We are watching everyone through our phones but are we actually seeing one another? Are we taking each other in? Mike really demands that from the audience with this piece. And while it’s challenging, I do believe it’s an absolutely imperative aspect of this play.

What has it been like to perform this role in multiple cities and venues? What, if anything, changes?

The play has changed significantly from its early iterations in London and Edinburgh. It grows, changes, and adapts with each new venue. Each space is different so we’re always finding ways to make the story fill or activate the demands of the space. We will change lines, blocking, and dramatic stage elements, but I would say the biggest changes happen between the audience and myself. That relationship is the most important and the one we focus the most energy on when we move theaters.

I’ve never done a play for this long; it is incredibly rewarding. I feel like I discover something new each time I perform it. I try to merge that connection between Lynn and I in the hopes that one day it will become imperceptible. I am honored to get to sit with the text for such an ample amount of time, because it never stops giving. And I am especially grateful to get to play a woman as complex as we all really are. It’s rare to come across a role such as this and I feel so thankful that I get to explore this funny, intense, rich reckoning night after night.

It’s also exciting to see that across an ocean these themes are relatable. Art really is the universal language. Not war. And I wish it could reach farther and be a tool for conflict resolution. We’ve had so many intense and vulnerable reactions to the piece. It’s clear that it touches people during a time of so much separation.

Maria DeCotis in Before the Drugs Kick In. Photo by Arin Sang-urai.

Before The Drugs Kick In will be performed Thursday through Saturday, April 18-20, at 7:00pm and Sunday, April 20 at 4:00pm at The Broadwater – Main Stage, 1076 Lillian Way. Tickets are $10-20 and can be purchased here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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