Sex, Lies, and Katie Folger

The Austin artist on her new show, Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man

Katie Folger in her new one-woman show, Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man (Photo by Patrick Rusk)

In the grand history of dating and hookups, there's going to be a two year blank spot that just says "pandemic." For some, it was the ultimate dry spell. For others, a bizarre series of encounters made more awkward than usual. But for Katie Folger, it was a source of creative inspiration.

The two years of masks, lockdowns, and bubbles are all part of her new one-woman show, Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man, running through May 13 at the Crashbox @ Bolm Studios (read our review here). Part carnal celebration, part shoulder-shrugging almost-autobiographical confessional, it's Folger exploring what it means to be in control of your own sexual destiny – and if that's really even possible at a time when protection meant condoms and N95 respirators.

Austin Chronicle: So, how was your pandemic?

Katie Folger: Oh boy! Well, Richard, how was yours? ;) I think, like for most, my pandemic was disorienting, anxiety-inducing, challenging, and was a major shuffle up of life as I knew it. I’m quite the social creature who gets a lot of fulfillment from being out and about in the community and collaborating with others, so being stuck at home wasn’t exactly the best.

On a personal level, I had been living in New York for the duration of 2019, and at the beginning of 2020, I had just signed with a big manager, Untitled, and moved to Los Angeles for a dream job as a satirical news anchor and writer for Phil DiFranco’s new offshoot channel. I felt like all the stars were aligning — as one friend said, I’d gotten my “Willy Wonka Golden Ticket.”

It was a big deal for me, because I’d been largely operating in the indie world and had yet to pierce through the glass ceiling of more commercial work. Naturally, all those jobs evaporated with the onset of COVID and I found myself having a major, major existential crisis — did I really want to do this anymore? Ever the dangled carrot. Even right before COVID, I was dealing with a rather specific cocktail of challenges — a break up, sexual harassment at work, and some health issues in the aftermath. So, when COVID broke out, I sorta threw my hands up and darkly laughed about the whole shebang.

Folger on set to record the Kickstarter video for her one-woman show, Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man (Photo by Patrick Rusk)
As all work came to a halt, I, in my head, decided I was done with the film industry and started getting a Masters in Mental Health Counseling during the pandemic. Was watching the world go up in flames and felt like I wanted to do something that was a little more hands-on than my highfalutin artsy gal ways. Yes, got the pandemic dog, the pandemic Masters, the pandemic boyfriend (which you’ll hear about in the show)… hahaha. A full on stereotype over here. But— right before I started my Masters program, in Fall 2021, I was approached by a dear producer friend of mine, David Hartstein, in the lobby of AFS Cinema — it was a kismet run-in, we hadn’t seen each other in, well, a year and a half. And he said, "hey, so like… are you actually done making movies?" And I was like, um, I guess it depends on the script and project. Why? And then he basically told me a director from San Francisco that he knew was really interested in me for a feature comedy… bada bing bada boom. I mean, come on, I was a grad student, was I really gonna say no to a job? ;)

And that’s how the universe called my bluff. I found myself simultaneously in my first semester of school (hadn’t been a student in almost a decade) and also doing a lead in a feature at the same time. It was chaos — beautiful chaos. And I just kept getting asked to do projects again and that’s sort of how I got back into the mix.

But, the pause, even if cerebral, on being involved in the entertainment biz allowed me to really consider what I wanted to do as an artist — and perhaps to give less f*cks in the process. I began to hone in on wanting to get my written work out into the world, to do things a little on my own terms and in my own way.

ACM: GBPM has you playing the part of Katie, a single woman trying to work out her sex life in the middle of lockdown. The big question is always going to be, how autobiographical is this?

KG: Ooo, everybody’s favorite question. That I will never, ever answer. Nice try, Richard.

Okay, okay… I won’t be oppressively stubborn and I’ll say this: To me, every writer is always going to pull on their truths in order to create good and honest work. And this piece is very true thematically to my experiences sexually and romantically as a woman in this world.

Sex and romance in 2023 just isn’t a walk in the park — you can go shopping for new partners on dating apps, you can throw a rock and find a “situationship” but it’s a never-ending quest to find a partner that is really ready for a deep committed relationship. Beyond this, the show very much pokes the bear of various archetypes that female-identifying individuals are expected to play in sexual and romantic relationships, the archetypal energies that can keep us playing small. And I, as an individual, have had to confront a lot of those expectations of what it is to be a woman — “to acquiesce, to agree, to follow, to submit” — in my own life in order to grow and evolve into a more honest, authentic version of myself.

So, yes, the journey of the character is very true to my experiences as a woman. But the beat to beat action and circumstance and all the characters this “Katie” meets? Let’s just call it memoir-style fiction. Some of it’s true, some it’s not true, and I am absolutely going to let you wonder about that as you watch the show without answering the question. Makes it a little more fun that way ;)

AC: Conversely – and this is a topic that's always important in sex – what boundaries did you set on bringing your own life in?

KG: Great question! So, actually, this is a really fun anecdote. Austin is such a small and magical town after you’ve been here for a minute (I’ve been here off and on for thirteen years), and three or so months ago, I was having drinks with some friends at Techo and when we were leaving we ran into my good pal Mike Tully, another longtime Austin filmmaker and collaborator, and one of his oldest friends. They, too, were having drinks. It just so turns out that this old friend was Jami Attenberg, a lauded best-selling memoir style fictional novelist known for her bite and comedic flair. She was in town for a comedic memoir style fiction panel for the Texas Book Festival and it was happening the next day — naturally, she encouraged that I attend.

Duh. I was there. I went up to the open mic at the panel and I asked this very question, essentially — as memoir style fiction writers, how do you protect loved ones in your work? If you bring so much truth to the work, how do you include (or not include) the individuals you discuss in your work? They gave me strong encouragement to bring my work to anyone who may recognize themselves in it, because ultimately, is it really worth hurting someone you love for your art? They all had varying opinions about this and the degree to which you should be sensitive, but the general consensus was that, yes, you should show your work to your peeps and allow them to give the green light.

So I did just that — I brought the work to some friends as well as my parents, hahaha, just to adequately prepare them and include them in the process.

Ultimately, this process brought us all closer. Honesty is a witchy little thing. But I think my favorite takeaway from the panel was this: “Make sure that you’re the biggest asshole in your own work. Then people can’t get mad at you.” Hahahah. And I do think that’s true for this character — she’s the classic trope of the Fool, so to speak, who thinks that she’s navigating sexual and romantic situations with power and grace and she just falls short time and time again. But, like in life, at least for me — that’s how you learn. By falling flat at your face. And that is this character.

“Sex and romance in 2023 just isn’t a walk in the park — you can go shopping for new partners on dating apps, you can throw a rock and find a ‘situationship’ but it’s a never-ending quest to find a partner that is really ready for a deep committed relationship.”
AC: When did you have the idea to not only do the show, but to do it as a one-woman show - the ultimate metaphorical version of being naked on stage?

KG: I love this! Naked onstage indeed… Well, I’ve had a loose idea of wanting to do a one woman show ever since I saw my very first one while getting my undergrad in theater at UT Austin; it seemed scary and brave and challenging and enticing in all the right ways. Generally if something scares the shit out of me I know it may be worth my attention — ha! Anyways, I’ve also been writing prose for years behind the scenes: I’m a long time writer and lover of the written word, so much so that when I was in high school I used to stay home from school in order to finish assigned papers, not out of procrastination but borderline obsession.

As I entered womanhood and grew up, my work got increasingly personal, and, oddly, I found myself writing a lot about sex. Because sex is something I had a lot of questions about — the show deals a lot with those questions. So, especially in my early and mid-20s, I was a bit too timid to share my work. But in the Fall 2021, I was cast in this lead in a feature called Tooth Shop Fiasco produced by George Rush and Mike Tully (that same movie David Hartstein asked me about at AFS), and the character was this very unabashed, mischievous, somewhat sexually deviant individual and the whole experience of tapping into and channeling that energy was very exciting and fun and empowering for me. Gave me some confidence to, perhaps, tap into this energy in my own work and share my work.

Meanwhile, around the same time, I showed a short story I had written recently called, you guessed it, Getting in Bed with the Pizza Man, to my best friend and fellow actress Olivia Applegate, and she said to me, “Hey, Katie, I think this could be a really great one woman show. I know you’ve been wanting to do one for awhile…” and from there, a lightbulb turned on!

The story was written in the first person narrative: At the time, I was reading Elif Batuman’s fabulous book The Idiot and simultaneously was falling in love with memoir-style fiction and her incredible grasp of observational humor. I may not have ever seen it as a show without Olivia’s keen eye.

From there, I decided to invite a group of 25 collaborators, friends, artists, people I knew and admired and also sort of intimidated me — Tom Pelphrey, Elizabeth Carroll, Clay Liford in the audience, to name a few — to my backyard for a reading of the short story. Turned it into a theater for the evening, and just read it from the page. At the time, I had no idea it was a comedy — I had just written something true to me. And people laughed the entire time! Elizabeth, a filmmaker that I really looked up to and didn’t know super well at the time, was one of those major laughers in the audience and, after seeing it, pleaded with me to do something with this (and eventually became a huge cheerleader and creative producer of the project — and a bestie).

Everybody said I had to do something with it. You can tell when people are faking their interest, and I could tell from the reception that the script had landed on people in a special way. And it just kind of sparked and snowballed and gathered momentum from there.

Carol Burnett, one of the influences on Katie Folger's Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man. "Carol was a pioneer for women in comedy: She had a distinct vision of who she was an artist and she brought her show to life." (Image Courtesy of Turner Classic Movies)

AC: One-person shows used to be a theatrical mainstay, but they faded in the 20th century. When you were starting developing the show, who did you look to for inspiration?

So, like I mentioned before, I’ve become increasingly curious about the form over the last decade. I saw an actress perform one during undergrad and that’s when my eyebrow raised.

Then, I started hearing about Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me through the grapevine in 2017 or 2018 and I got very intrigued. I was living in Brooklyn in 2019 and I got to go see the show on Broadway for my birthday, and it really changed my life. I believe, and I could be making this up, that it was the first time a one woman show had been on Broadway in quite the long while — especially a show that was so topical and gut punching regarding how the Constitution is interpreted in a way that is frequently oppressive of racial, sexual, gender minorities and women. Anyways. Heidi’s work floored me, and it became a sort of bucket list offshoot idea for me — like, I wanna do this someday.

And then, in October 2022, as my own project began to pick up steam, I went to go see Kate Berlant’s show Kate directed by Bo Burnham, which has had an incredibly successful sold out and extended run in NYC, for some research and inspiration. I wanted to see what was making a successful solo show in the eyes of commercial audiences, and I was really loving the theatricality and absurdism in her show. I also got to see her friend Jacqueline Novak’s Get On Your Knees at the Stateside Theater in Austin a few months ago — again, a research mission, especially because Novak’s show is also very sexual and a PhD level dissertation of a blow job.

“Make sure that you’re the biggest asshole in your own work. Then people can’t get mad at you.”
Loved her show as well, also still collecting data, but her show is done in a very different style than mine is done. I would say that my show sort of exists along a spectrum of Kate’s and Jacqueline’s but leans a little more closer to Kate’s in its theatricality and staging and Jacqueline’s in the actual content.

Last but not least… you knew it was coming… how could I leave out Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag? I became a major lover of Fleabag first as a series, and later discovered that she had developed it from a one woman show that she traveled and developed and mounted several times, including at the Edinburgh Fringe (which could be in the near future for my show).

For me, as mostly a film actress for the last thirteen years, seeing the progression of her highly successful show to screen was deeply inspiring to me. While the future of my own show is not yet written, a dream of mine is to translate this voice to screen in the near future, and I have some exciting projects up my sleeve.

Someone very important that I want to sneak in as a “P.S.” is the unparalleled (fellow Texan) Carol Burnett — who I actually got to meet in passing while working during college at the Four Seasons Spa as a receptionist. Carol was a pioneer for women in comedy: She had a distinct vision of who she was an artist and she brought her show to life. I think my show differs from more modern work in that it harkens back to the aesthetic glamor and color and visual language of TV sets in the 60s, 70s — the beauty, the theatrics of shows like Laugh In (Goldie Hawn, definitely an influence), The Sonny & Cher Show, Soul Train. To me, the set design in those decades were just so much more compelling, and so we’re nodding to them with our own unique and modern twist. Carol Burnett obviously knew how to spin up a show that was engaging in terms of content and design and wardrobe. So this show, perhaps unexpectedly, has some tricks up its sleeve in terms of beauty and showmanship and glamor, which I think is really fun for audiences of many generations. It also speaks to my desire and sensibility as an artist to offer a femme glam energy and perspective to the Austin arts and comedy scene, which has often leaned to grungier, slacker-esque, male-driven work.

"The win is in the truth in comedy — and I think that’s the approach to my show." Katie Folger in Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man. (Photo by Patrick Rusk)

AC: Just before the pandemic hit, you were up in New York as part of the Perfect Storm troupe at the Magnet, and training at UCB. How was that experience, and how much did it affect the show?

I sure was! I actually sort of snuck in the backdoor, in a way, to audition at the Magnet (I didn’t actually meet the requirements and hadn’t taken the classes to be allowed to do it, but to say I’m tenacious is maybe an understatement), and I was really surprised that I was actually cast. Something I’ve found as an artist, though, is that there’s no way to know unless you try.

And some of the craziest and best things in my life have happened because I decided to take a wild chance on a whim (including having Robert Redford as a mentor for many years, but that’s a tale for another day). It was my first audition in New York City, period, so it meant a lot to me and my confidence. It was overall a really interesting and also trying experience. I was an actor on the team, so every week we’d meet up as a team of writers and actors and the writers would pitch ideas, we’d come with character pitches, and the best pitches would win. I felt like a bit of an outsider a lot of the time, major imposter syndrome, but I think it was the stuff of dreams to actually get to have that experience and perform on a stage in one of the top three comedy theaters in NYC for six months. Overall, I think I realized that I could really do this. It was tangible and within reach. If you put your head down and get specific about your approach to your work, you can make stuff happen — and on your own terms. I also learned how competitive the NYC comedy scene is. I planned on sticking it out in New York for a decade, and then obviously the pandemic really changed plans (along with booking the job in LA, etc etc).

“I got to take a four hour workshop from Amy Poehler while living in NYC, too, which was a total dream because she’s one of my career heroes. And her whole thing was — don’t try to make people laugh. Just be you. Do you.”
I would say, though, more than the sketch team, my training in improv and sketch writing at UCB affected the show. Improv ultimately makes you a bit more flexible, open to uncertainty, and looser as a performer, and UCB really stresses grounding your comedic performances in the real. I got to take a four hour workshop from Amy Poehler while living in NYC, too, which was a total dream because she’s one of my career heroes. And her whole thing was — don’t try to make people laugh. Just be you. Do you. Be natural, and if they don’t laugh and you’re still being natural, win. If an improv scene unintentionally becomes a drama, so be it. The win is in the truth in comedy — and I think that’s the approach to my show. Again, I didn’t write it as a comedy, thinking that people would laugh. I wrote it as something that felt true to me. And often, people laugh at the truth because the truth is uncomfortable.

We laugh to dispel the discomfort, to relate. And I think that’s a major reason people laugh during my show. I’m not, like, a joke writer. I just try to tell the truth. And in this case, we are talking about truths about sex, which can be uncomfortable to talk about. That’s the whole point. Regarding the show, my show is definitely in a very different style than sketch comedy.

It’s very physical, absurdist, and observational. But, actually my sketch run in NYC was the last time I did anything live onstage, so in that sense, it’s wild to think it’s been three years. Also, my director Matrex Kilgore has really extracted a really genuine yet sizable and demanding and energetic performance out of me – ike, he’s really pushed my skillset into realms that I forgot that I had or didn’t realize that I still had access to: No doubt doing this show has stretched me in massive ways and is making me a better, more specific, laser sharp performer. I’ve gotten so used to doing things in such a subtle, minimal way for camera work, so getting back in the swing of doing things for a full theater has been an adjustment that initially intimidated me but I realize I am totally capable of.

AC You're sneaking in a couple of late shows in this run: any temptation to change things up for the late night crowd?

KG: We sure are! In the brilliant words of our production assistant, Mia — they’re our booty call shows ;) I think by nature of the late night times, the booty call show may feel a little more live wire, wild, and loose than even our 7:30pm shows — and that’s saying something. A little more scandalous. And, ya know, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have a drink between show one and show two just to loosen me up before I hit the stage, hehe. Reset, because the show is physical and exhausting! We’re definitely gonna have a lot of fun in those late night shows — Saturday the 13th at 10pm is our closer, and I’m sure it’s gonna be a romp. Also, my producer, Hannah Schon, has said the show functions kinda like an aphrodisiac… we’ve had a lot of people say that they feel, um, in the mood after the show… HAHA! I’ve had friends take girls on first dates to the show and they’ve scored major points for bringing them to a show that’s basically a feminist sexual manifesto. Ha! It’s for the girls, it’s for the gays, it’s even for the guys (you guys, well, need to hear this, too). Who woulda thought that honesty and sexual empowerment could be so… hot?

Getting in Bed With the Pizza Man

Crashbox @ Bolm Studios, 5305 Bolm #12
Through May 13
Running time: 65 mins.

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Getting in Bed With The Pizza Man, Katie Folger

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