Actor Lee Eddy is back onstage in Austin after five years away, and boy, is she happy
Austin got a lot less funny when Lee Eddy left town.
How could it not, after she gave so many inspired comic performances on our local stages? Adorably crotchety Norma in The Cry Pitch Carrolls, moxie-fueled Molly in The Intergalactic Nemesis, nitwitty Bianca in Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (an Austin Critics Table Award-winning turn that Chronicle reviewer Wayne Alan Brenner described as being "like this irresistible combination of Lucille Ball and Don Knotts"). She proved how snarkily she could fill Crumpet's pointy shoes playing the Macy's Elf in The Santaland Diaries one Christmas, and even mined hilarity from a haunted Lovborg in Hedda (two more performances honored by the Critics Table). And let's not forget the improv and sketch work she did in comedy groups Fatbuckle, Think Tank, and the Knuckleball Now, or her autobiographical alter ego, Ladee Leroy, which she brought from blog to stage in a riotous solo show. Even in her salad days at St. Edward's University in the late Nineties, Eddy was cracking up crowds majorly in shows such as Laughter on the 23rd Floor and The Kathy & Mo Show: Parallel Lives. By the time she packed her bags for New York City, she'd been dubbed by Chronicle critic Barry Pineo "the queen, the empress, the supreme ruler of broad [comedy]," while this writer had called her "as gifted a comic actress as we have in Austin today."
With that kind of talent and skill, even Eddy's biggest fans couldn't begrudge her leaving to take that inevitable shot at the big time. But, alas, the Big Apple wasn't as quick to recognize her comedic gifts (or dramatic ones, which Eddy also possesses in abundance) as Austin. She found herself spending less and less time onstage and more and more time taking on roles in life: nonprofit professional (at the Brooklyn arts center BRIC), spouse (to film actor-producer Macon Blair of Blue Ruin), and, as of Feb. 20, 2013, mother (to Buck). And that eventually led Eddy and Blair to decide they'd had enough time in NYC and should head back to the ATX.
And the return to Austin has also meant a return to the stage for Eddy. She's already rejoined the Knuckleball Now for several shows, and this week she opens her first show with Physical Plant Theater since Not Clown, playing a mail-order bride dealing with a pair of knuckleheaded servants (played by Jeffery Mills and Michael Joplin) in Everything Is Established, a new play by Rude Mech Hannah Kenah. That gave the Chronicle a happy excuse to learn more about Eddy's time away and how she feels being back, in Austin and onstage. The following interview was conducted by email.
Austin Chronicle: You stayed in Austin almost a decade after you graduated from St. Edward's and did a lot of performing. What were you feeling about the local theatre scene when you decided to leave? And what did you expect from the move?
Lee Eddy: I was hopelessly in love with the local theatre scene when I left in 2008. It was my family. Not only did it fulfill my artistic needs, but it was my support base on a personal and emotional level. I learned from it: about the craft of theatre and also how to forge meaningful, deeply personal friendships. Goodness gracious, I'm tearing up just thinking about how much the theatre scene in Austin meant to me. This may be super granola, but it raised me into the adult I am today in a lot of ways.
But a couple of years prior to the move, I had a nagging "what if ..." in the back of my head. "What if you moved to another city? What if you really put your head down and focused on supporting yourself purely through acting? What if there're opportunities outside of Austin that you are missing out on?" I had to follow that "what if" because I knew it wouldn't stop otherwise and I would feel disappointed in myself for not following that urge.
Hindsight being 20/20, that nagging voice was my Ego. I felt I was in a bit of a rut – a wonderful rut, of course – I mean, I was performing and working constantly, but I felt stuck. And I think that Ego was all, "Psst. Hey. Let's see what else is out there, eh?" Ego has a way of being very persuasive ... and very loud.
Meeting Macon was the extra push toward seeing what was on the other side of "what if." Of course, I didn't move to New York for a boy, because what levelheaded lady would do such a thing? I moved there because I wanted to see what was out there. And Macon was a delightful, handsome perk that was the extra nudge to set a date, put things in boxes, and take a chance.
AC: What did you end up getting out of your time away? (Besides a husband and a son – not that those aren't important.)
LE: Well, yeah. I got Macon, and later, Buck. Score!
But I also got a real smack upside the head: I had it great in Austin.
NYC is a tough place. It's expensive, humanity is bursting out of its seams, there is no such thing as quiet, the day-to-day navigation of the place can be exhausting ... and I didn't have an artistic community to work with and lean on. I would have to build it from scratch. And I tried, I did some plays, I was a company member with Story Pirates and Peoples Improv Theater for a couple of years. I went to auditions, but I wasn't making the types of connections I wanted. Nothing measured up to Austin.
On top of that, I had to get a for-real day job so I could afford Brooklyn and – lo and behold! – I was really good at it. It felt good to make money, to pay off debts, and it was nice to confirm that I was capable of doing a desk job and doing it well. But I felt like a double-agent: Once a colleague was talking about another colleague and said, "Well, so-and-so is really an actor, so so-and-so doesn't really know about [whatever the project was]," and I had to stop Ego from jumping up all akimbo-like, ripping off an imaginary mask, and shouting, "I AM AN ACTOR, TOO! MUAHAHA!" Because, was I really an actor anymore? I mean, by that point, it had been the longest streak in my life of not doing a play. I wasn't doing what I had moved up there to do ... so what was the point of being there again?
Then Buck was born, and it was a no-brainer: We had to get to Austin. Priorities had shifted; we wanted a house, a retirement fund, and to be able to send our kid to a preschool that didn't cost $30K. And, oh yes, Austin was my artistic home. Boom.
AC: You've been back here five months. What's changed in terms of how you see the city and its arts scene? Do you feel that you fit in here the way you did 10, 15 years ago?
LE: In Brooklyn, it was apparent that Austin is a major contender on the national arts radar. My ears would perk up when Brooklynites would mention the Rude Mechs or Fusebox Festival, filmmakers PJ Raval or Kat Candler, in casual conversation. I would audibly sigh when someone would say they were going to SXSW or OOB [Out of Bounds Comedy Festival]. Being away and hearing my Austin spoken about in such glowing ways, it drove home what I rediscovered after I moved to NYC: Austin is an awesome place.
Coming back, I feel like a person who left a coat on a chair in a packed restaurant with a long line outside. There's a feeling newcomers aren't welcome, that they're fucking up everything, so I have this defensive reaction to point at my coat on the chair and say, "No! No! It's okay. I was here before. There's my spot! See?! I left my coat there, I'm just going back to my saved seat is all." Then sneaking in Macon and Buck behind me.
That's not the case with the arts scene here. It's been incredibly welcoming. Even before we announced our decision to move back, I was constantly asked when I was coming back by friends and colleagues.
Where my "place" is in it is something I'm figuring out, but I couldn't tell you what my "place" was in it 10, 15 years ago.
What's different is I have a husband and a toddler now, so I'm not able to do the late-night bull sessions or spend evenings seeing plays or improv – places and situations that breed creation and projects. Even responding to emails and texts takes some effort. But I don't have a feeling that I have to point at a coat and claim a seat. My seat was saved and kept warm, to follow this very bad metaphor.
(Oh, and it's harder to get an improv slot. In '08, there were maybe a dozen troupes in all. Now there's at least a couple hundred. Improv 'sploded while I was away.)
AC: You've really dived back into the stage scene quickly. You've already been performing with your old comedy group, and now you're working on a play with some of your old friends and colleagues. What have you felt getting back onstage with those folks?
LE: FUCKING. GREAT. Getting back in with the Knuckleball Now guys has been tremendous. Doing improv with these guys is such a huge heart warmer – they're so freaking positive and fun and talented as heck. And then getting to work with Joplin and Mills on this play?! I mean, these guys are my brothers. I love them so much, unconditionally. They've seen me at my worst, they've been players in some of the best moments in my life ... and now my first play back in a city I love is with two of my closest and best of friends? Hot damn. I should've moved back sooner.
AC: In this new play, what are you enjoying most about the role you play, and what are the biggest challenges? Is this a role you could have seen yourself in five years ago?
LE: Hannah Kenah is one of the most positive directors I've worked with. She laughs at everything, and every note starts with, "You're doing this great, how about you try this now to see what happens?" It's incredibly comforting because, to be honest, I'm really scared. My confidence is shaken: It's been five years since I've done an honest-to-goodness play, and I've somehow created this pressure for myself to prove that I still got "it." (I don't know what "it" is, but I gotta show that it is there still.) So I think that's my biggest challenge.
Packed on top of that, I'm the straight character in this absurd world Kenah's created. Straight man isn't in my wheelhouse. And playing straight to Joplin and Mills' characters is hard. I'm constantly breaking character, snotting myself with laughter, trying to keep control of the berserk situations and the trajectory of my character – goodness gracious, it's hard work.
Could I have seen myself doing this role five years ago? 2008 Lee Eddy Ego says, "Heck yeah. No sweat. I got this." 2010 Lee Eddy Ego is too busy thinking about how to escape Brooklyn. 2015 Lee Eddy Ego says, "Oh god, I hope I don't suck."
AC: You've started teaching theatre to young people. What are some of the important things you've gotten out of doing theatre in Austin that you want them to learn?
LE: Surround yourself with people that you love and who love you back. Take risks. Fail hard. Try again. If you've followed these steps right, you're gonna be OK.
Everything Is Established runs Feb. 6-21, Thu.-Sat., 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, visit www.physicalplant.org.