Blake Behind Bars
To write a parody of prison movies, Naughty Austin's Blake Yelavich sentenced himself to 27 movies in the big house
The things artists do for their art. Spend untold hours locked away in rehearsals. Dig deep inside for that most vulnerable part of themselves and expose it on stage. Watch 27 prison movies.
OK, the last one may be just Blake Yelavich.
Earlier this year, the general manager of the Arts on Real theatre and artistic director of the Naughty Austin theatre company sentenced himself – is there any phrase more apt? – to watching as many prison movies as he could. His offense, to follow this crime-and-punishment theme, was announcing a particular show as part of his season without re-reading it first.
See, every 18 months or so, Naughty Austin makes good on its name by mounting a show with a little more sass, a little more skin, a little more, shall we say, cockiness than its usual fare, and as he was making space for such a show on the theatre schedule, Yelavich recalled an old camp fest about guys in the slammer that seemed to fit the bill. He hadn't actually seen The Boys of Cellblock Q since the production at Capitol City Playhouse in 1991, but Yelavich thought he recalled John C. Wall's send-up of men-in-prison movies as having enough, um, meat to be workable for his purposes. "I thought, 'Let's revisit that script,'" he says. "Let me see if I can do anything with it."
Then he got another look at the thing.
"The memory in my head was better than the script on paper," he says. "When I got the script, I thought, 'Oh my God! Austin is not going to accept this.' It was just bad."
Then he compounded the mistake by watching a 1992 movie of the play. It was, he says, "one of the most painful things I've ever watched. I was like, 'Why did I put this on the calendar? We cannot do this.'"
So what do you do when you've put a parody of prison movies on your schedule, and you're appalled by the one you said you'd do? You write your own. And how do you learn what there is in prison movies to parody? You watch them. A whole bunch of them. Movies of men in prison. Of women in prison. Of women in prison in space. Of foreign prisons, of prisoner-of-war camps, of chain gangs. Yelavich watched them all, sending himself to the big house a full 27 times to make sure that CellbloQ, as his parody would be titled, would tap – and mock – every cliché of the genre.
To ensure that his survey of the genre had depth, Yelavich enlisted the help of the clerks at I Luv Video, who typed "prison movie" into the shop database, and out came an exhaustive list of titles from the past eight decades of cinema. Maybe a bit too exhaustive. Not everything the clerks pulled up was in the classic "hard time in stir" vein that suited Yelavich's needs – 48 Hrs.? Really? Aliens III?? – but it still left the Naughty Austin director with plenty to watch. And like the best sadistic guards in a Tinseltown cooler, the store staff made sure he served his sentence. He would show up at the store, and they would consult the list: "Okay, you've seen this one. You haven't seen this one. Here are your three for the weekend."
Yelavich insists that the whole project wasn't as bad as 10 to 12 in Sing Sing – "I looked forward to watching real movies like The Shawshank Redemption again and to the campy movies" – but some days he felt like a lifer in solitary: "They pulled up some things that you just couldn't watch – a 70-minute movie that took you a week and a half to get through because it was just unbearable. I've seen prison movies where the cells don't even have bars on them. They're just open. One was a prison on a spaceship. They didn't worry about doors. Something magical kept them in their cells."
In some cases, the material just turned him off. "Honestly, I did not look forward to the older ones. The early ones were meant to be slightly erotic, which was kind of icky. You can only watch so many women-behind-bars movies, because they're just bad. Unless it catches your attention in the first 15 or 20 minutes, you really want to turn it off, because what is it offering you except showers and de-licing and bras and panties and ridiculous dialogue and the same characters?" (For more on Yelavich's favorite and least favorite prison movies, see "Okey-Pokey" and "Jailhouse Rank.")
It didn't take many movies for Yelavich to see the same elements popping up in prison after prison, no matter whether the clink was in the Deep South, the Far East, or a galaxy far, far away: the brutal guards, the slimy warden, the escape attempt, the sweatbox where they stick you when the escape attempt fails ("You're already in prison, but there's one more place that's worse you can go"), and, of course, all the people who don't really belong in the joint. Until he watched so many prison films back-to-back, Yelavich hadn't realized how many characters in them are played as heroes: "You watch any prison movie, and except for the one bad inmate and all of the guards, the rest of the people should be released. What kind of mentality is that, that we go into a movie wanting these people who are locked up to escape?"
Yelavich didn't find an answer to that intriguing question, but he did find a penitentiary full of material to spoof. "There were a whole lot of things that I would laugh at, thinking of the fun I could have making fun of them," he says. "Like prison shower scenes. They're not funny until you look at them a certain way. Originally, I think they were intended to be sexually frightening, but now, with our audiences and a play with two porn stars in it ... ." You can hear where he's headed. Yelavich has worked with stars of adult films in previous productions, and his plan had been to cast two of them, Matthew Rush and Parker Williams, in the prison parody. "I knew we were going to use the two porn stars, so you have to give the audience what they expect to see out of them. You know what the things are that you want the stars to do, you know what the things are that call for parody, and you just kind of put them in an order that makes a script. We have the hero. We have the second, who is loyal to a fault to the alpha dog. We have the inmates with hearts of gold. Parodying those things, layering in the naughty elements, and the show almost comes together by itself."
CellbloQ forced Yelavich to get back in the writing game after a long hiatus. In Naughty Austin's early days, when it staged cabaret revues lampooning personalities and productions on the local theatre scene, Yelavich regularly penned song parodies and sketches. But once he took on the responsibility of running his own theatre, that stopped. Coming back to writing after four years has been fun, he says, and he sees changes in his work. "I am more mature. I am clearer in my format. I'm clearer in what the contents of each scene need to be for an audience's sake. My stage directions are a lot clearer and more practical. Taking the break [from writing] but working in the theatre 365 has made that kind of voice clearer, the technical voice. I'm not so much about flowering it up as about how it's presented.
"I used to fill my scripts with pop-culture references, which would work, and people would always laugh, but it dates very easily. We have made an entire show [about going to prison], and there's not one Paris Hilton joke. I want the show to be broader than that. It's pop culture, but it's not 'now' culture."
Yelavich wanted to create a show that could be produced again, in Austin or anywhere in the country. And while the title might still suggest a debt to John C. Wall's play, Yelavich insists that CellbloQ no longer owes anything to The Boys of Cellblock Q. "It's a brand-new script, completely Blake. There's not a line, not a character, not a reference in it."
For a show conceived in desperation and born after a marathon labor of watching prison movies, Yelavich is unapologetically proud of his new baby. He draws a comparison with another fella with a gift for parody. "Mel Brooks, he put out however many, 12 movies. You can tell that with some of them, he was like, 'Ah, let's just put this show up.' And other ones became classics like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. This is, if I can boast, one of my Blazing Saddles or Young Frankensteins."
Not that he claims all the credit. He's quick to throw bouquets to his cast, a mix of Naughty Austin regulars like Doug LeBelle, local stage vets like Betsy McCann and Douglas Taylor, and hunky video stars Rush and Williams. "It's the cast feeling good about themselves and feeling good about each other," says Yelavich. "It's few and far between that I have a cast that's this fun and that bonds without an adversary in the group. It feels like we laugh all the time. We go home at 11, and it's like we've been at a cocktail party, not a rehearsal."
That doesn't mean, however, that Yelavich hasn't had to remind the actors that they're doing a parody, not a real prison movie. "Because it's not punch-line-driven – it's over-the-top character – they're having a hard time lightening up. You have to be committed to your part to play camp, but you can't make the audience sit through this like you're taking it seriously. I have to keep reminding them: Mexican soap opera. I keep telling them, 'Trust me, it's funny.'"
CellbloQ runs through Oct. 27, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Arts on Real, 2826 Real. For more information, call 472-2787 or visit www.artsonreal.com.