Lisa Verlo wanted to write a musical about sex — a family musical, that is, with sex education elements. The longtime Sierra Madre resident writes musicals with her husband, Frank Simes (aka musical director for the Who), and at the time she was also separately writing about skeletons in the closets of certain Norwegian ancestors. Somehow those distinct thought trains merged and picked up speed on a new set of tracks.
What arose from that was “Sex Rated G,” a one-woman show with music she performed at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which mixed Verlo’s personal history with “statistics, and commentary on body shaming.” Two years later, as the #MeToo tidal wave roared across the globe, she began retooling “Sex” with details from her own past as an actress, a change encouraged by director Jessica Lynn Johnson. Verlo is performing her “musical memoir,” retitled “Hollywoodn’t,” this Saturday and Wednesday as part of the Hollywood Fringe festival.
She laughs now at how much her healthy, curious teenage self “just wanted to look at naked pictures in the library.” While working on her show, she explains, “I ended up writing sexual memoirs. I had a very strange introduction to sex. From 16 to 21, I was with the same guy, my first boyfriend. We decided to wait until I was 18 to go on the pill, and then we moved out to LA together [from Michigan]. It ended up he was into S&M, but young and innocent.”
Landing in LA with said boyfriend and dreams of being an actress, Verlo studied at the Lee Strasburg Institute, and wrote letters to her “top 10 directors,” including Warren Beatty, who answered and, after lengthy conversation, invited her to a meeting at his house. Beatty comes across as relatively generous, in Verlo’s telling, but other characters she subsequently encountered were far less so.
“I would be asked to compromise my values, basically, for a part,” she recalls. “I never did any porn but I did an AFI film where they asked me to take my top off because I was to play a 15-year-old girl and I was 24.”
She agreed, thinking it was an art film. But when the grad student director drove her to the first screening, she says, “he totally molested me. I fought him off enough to have it not go further, but he was the director of the first movie I was in. I was really bummed because I thought he had a girlfriend and I thought it was safe.”
Researching what happened to that director before performing an earlier incarnation of “Hollywoodn’t” at last year’s Fringe, Verlo learned he was a college professor — and had been arrested: “He had molested women in two or three colleges but nobody reported him. He was finally brought up on [charges of] actually having a sexual performance by a child. He did time, but only on weekends, and he’s out already.”
That discovery galvanized her. Statistics were out of the script; the creepy director, his mind games, and some creatively deployed Barbie and Ken dolls were in. Refocused on her sexual awakening and personal experiences, the new “Hollywoodn’t” confronts the “gray area” of coercion and consent. Verlo wants to take it on the college circuit.
Onstage, she calls out Hollywood associates who professionally enable sexual predators. One is a woman, an acting teacher who advised the ingénue to sleep with Beatty: “You’ve probably done it for less, and he’s known for using a lot of women in his movies that he sleeps with.”
“She was kind of jaded — like, this is what goes on. But I wasn’t, because I had only been with one boyfriend,” Verlo insists, laughing. “I had not done it for less!”
That exchange inspired one of the hour-long show’s songs, the tongue-in-cheek “You’ve Done It for Less,” whose slinky beat evokes tacky lounges and cheap drinks:
“So he wants a little kiss, big deal
Then he wants you to undress, get real …
Run out and buy some lingerie
To hang on that fine line between work and play
And bask in the glory of being pursued
It’s all in the moves and the attitude”
“I could have made a misery out of it,” Verlo acknowledges, but a little laughter helps process weighty themes. And she still enjoys her teenage self’s sexual curiosity and love of flirtation. Bottom line: we need “a new language, a new vocabulary — not just a verbal vocabulary, but a physical vocabulary” about consent.
“I feel like this is very cathartic, finally being able to come clean — not just as a person with my experiences, but even with myself. I started uncovering all the ways I had framed all these things that happened, just to feel OK about it. That’s also why my show [asks], what have we been conditioned to accept as inevitable? We were all just so conditioned. Child molestation is all about grooming. But we are groomed as a culture, by our media, to accept certain behavior and certain standards. …
“What’s really amazing about doing this show: We uncover more and more all the time. You go deeper and deeper. Because when you really go for the truth of what’s underneath the motivations, that’s where you get the gold. That’s where you start resonating with others.” n
Lisa Verlo performs “Hollywoodn’t” for ages 17+ at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 22, and Wednesday, June 26; $22. Tickets: hollywoodfringe.org/projects/6087?tab=tickets. about.me/lisaverlo, theatreplanners.com/lounge.html