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Sara Benincasa Brings AGORAFABULOUS! To Chicago

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 18, 2009 7:00PM

Agorafabulous-chicago-hires.jpg Remember those vitriolic, frightening days of fall 2008, when Sarah Palin was a contender for the #2 office in the executive branch and everybody (except your crazy, racist uncle, who was crushin' hard) made funny YouTubes and Photoshops about her? One of the most popular spoof jobs was the vlog series done by New York City comedienne Sara Benincasa, who captured the former Alaska governor's essence like no one else on the Internetovision. Since the election, Benincasa has been hard at work writing a book, doing a Cosmopolitan Radio show, and performing her one-woman show, AGORAFABULOUS! — the one-woman show she'll perform on Saturday, Sept. 19 (i.e., tomorrow) at Chicago's Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted; get tickets here. Recently we talked to Benincasa about her career, panic, and her show.

Chicagoist: Tell us about AGORAFABULOUS!.

Sara Benincasa: It's a hilarious one-woman show about panic attacks and other fun things — a story about having a nervous breakdown. It's definitely a one-woman theatrical experience, to say it in the most pretentious way possible. It's funny, fun, sad, and very relate-able to people who have experienced anxiety or depression. But it's also pretty fucking funny, and I think people leave feeling happy. It's about celebrating the parts of us that are fucked-up, and how we all get depressed and down sometimes, but that it's OK to seek help. It's really fun and rewarding to get to travel with the show.

C: What are some theatrical or comedic inspirations for the show?

SB: I was inspired by Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me, which ran in NYC for months; it was about his struggle with a sleep disorder that makes him act out his dreams in his sleep. He fell through a two-story window because of a dream he could fly. Going to the show was great, because it showed you can talk about a very strange disorder that other people might not necessarily have, and therefore isn't relate-able. So that, and Margaret Cho's first two shows, and John Leguizamo's Freak. My show is closer to what Mike and Margaret do because John Leguizamo is more of a straight-up actor, but I derive inspiration from all of those places.

C: What were the triggers for your panic attacks?

SB: I started getting them when I was about 10 years old. They increased in strength and frequency through adolescence, and at 21 I became agoraphobic — I was frightened to leave my apartment, wasn't eating much, was alone, and even started peeing in cereal bowls because I was afraid of my bathroom. I became afraid of very odd things — like coming out of the shower with a wet head, and food shopping. Specific, odd things. That happens when someone isn't treated properly for panic attacks — it builds until they start to associate places with the panic attacks. So if you have a panic attack in a grocery store, you might stop shopping in them. It builds and builds until you're afraid of everything, and are confined to your house by your own fear. AGORAFABULOUS! tells the story of how I got to that point, and is also a little bit about getting better.

C: How did you go from having fear to being able to live normally again?

SB: I got good treatment because I had parents who had enough money to access good treatment. A lot of my recovery had to do with health care. My parents both work, and my dad works in the health care industry, so they could afford the best care possible for me. They'd also dealt with a history of frequent mental illness; I have what some psychiatrists call "genetic loading" for mental illness. So, my parents didn't have that stigma surrounding me getting treatment. They were educated because of the things they had experienced in their own lives. If I had had a family with less money, or had been born in a different time period — who knows.

I've been on Prozac since I was 21. It's been very helpful — as has talk therapy, certain lifestyle changes, and learning to challenge my obsessive thoughts and fears.

C: With a life history like yours, how have you gained the courage to perform a whole show about it?

SB: It's really nice when people say, "you're so courageous," but it's my life. I've been talking about it and writing about it in little ways for the past several years, so getting to do the show is really great. But it's nothing I wouldn't tell any friend. In a way, panic disorder has become such a part of my identity — it used to be the thing I thought about every day, while I was trying to keep my head above water. Nowadays, I talk about my sex life on the radio — It's my job on Cosmopolitan Radio, on Sirius XM — and being a stand-up you tend to expose things about yourself that you ordinarily wouldn't. I don't have enough power to build a center for panic disorder, but in sharing my stories it can make people feel less alone. When I go through bouts of fear the thing that really helps is reading or listening to people who have gotten through it, because it gives me hope.

C: Do you have any books to recommend to readers who might be experiencing similar issues?

SB: Well, there's Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn — he designed [the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society] at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I took the part of the eight-week course in stress reduction in Boston; you learn yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy, and relaxation techniques. It helped me very much. There are satellite programs in every major city in the country.

I don't meditate or do yoga — I don't find time for it these days. But I do certain breathing techniques, and have a prescription for Klonopin. Over the years I've been able to balance out and manage, but Klonopin continues to be incredibly helpful for crisis moments. I really believe in complementary medicine where you're dealing with both conventional medicine and more holistic or hippie methods.

C: How do you do such a confessional piece without slipping into self-absorption?

SB: We have a culture of confessing and sharing, and that can be a good thing. But simply confessing about your issues isn't enough. It's the best start, but the key is then to find a way to get help and to act on the stuff you've confessed about. Confession is good for the soul, and very important, but how do I take this info and use it? I hope people will come and laugh and have a good time regardless, but will also gain insight into themselves or help a friend in the future. I think the ultimate calling for a comedian is to create a situation in which the audience is able to laugh, but also able to feel something very deeply, so my aim is to disarm people and also get a deeper message across.

C: Have you been able to help any of your colleagues in the comedy scene?

SB: I've gotten positive feedback from other comics. Then again, comics tend to only say mean things behind your back, so who knows? I think there are some people who cling to their particular pathology, neurosis, or addiction as a totem of pride. What I'm trying to do with the show is not to identify myself as the comedian who gets panic attacks, but to tell a story about suffering and recovery that I think people can relate to on a variety of levels.

C: The election really seemed to help your career — tell us about that.

SB: The campaign was great for my career. I was a reporter for the MTV News "Choose or Lose" street team in NYC, and got to do a lot of weekly web blog posts and videos about issues that young people would be interested in — so when Sarah Palin was announced as McCain's running mate, I was already in very political frame of mind. Being a comedian, my instinct was to go with a ridiculous parody of what she might be like. I started doing the videos the night of the day that McCain announced her -- we (Benincasa and Diana Saez, who played "Palin"'s assistant) were just fucking around with the video, being goofy, and over the course of several hours we would create some kind of bullshit ridiculous thing to say. And then she would say something exactly like it -- so we started to think we were psychic. But we weren't — she was just crazy. That got press, and we was hired by the HuffPo to create about 20 videos with Palin and Dina, her alleged assistant.

The MTV and the Palin videos put me in front of more people -- on TV, radio, the Internet. In addition, during that time I started doing work on Cosmopolitan Radio.

C: What do you think about Meg Stapleton, Palin's press secretary?

SB: She's a Nutty McGoo — she's amazing.

C: Did you predict that Palin would end up "acting out," so to speak — for example, by quitting her job as governor?

SB: No, I think she's such a determined little bulldog and I don't think she's down for the count by any means. She loves the spotlight so very much that she'll do whatever she can to remain in it. I have no doubt she'll stay in the public eye. I think the McCain campaign thought they could use her as a puppet and as a mouthpiece, but she went rogue because her ultimate aim is to attain celebrity. It's been a very complicated and fascinating thing to watch. She's very smart about how she manipulates the media and her constituents.

C: A lot of the YouTube commenters on your videos, being YouTube commenters, had some nasty things to say about you, and about your appearance. How did you deal with that?

SB: YouTube commenters are generally the lowest common denominator. It's a free-for-all, so anyone can make any comment he or she wishes to. Any time I put something on YouTube, I get "you're ugly," "you're so hot I wanna fuck you," or "show us your tits" comments. People there go to be the perverse selves that they can't be in their everyday lives, and to act out their aggression.

Anytime a woman is in a position of power — because she's been elected, or gotten some sort of position that gives her even a tiny bit of media exposure — people will be fascinated by her looks. At least in our society, and in others, a woman's value comes from how young, fertile, pretty she is. I was not surprised that people made comments saying which Sara/h was prettier.

C: What's in your future?

SB: I'm working on a book with a literary agent, and I am taking my show to Boston, Chicago, D.C. and L.A. After that, I don't know. A friend and I are talking about doing a stand-up tour about race, and I'm looking forward to doing more stand-up. Comedy is a way to travel and see the world: I went to Berlin to talk about political humor, and am hoping next year to get to the U.K. for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and possibly to go and do my own comedy thing over there.