Who are your monsters, baby? Does Frankenstein’s monster give you chills? Are you intrigued by the search for Nessie? Or are internal monsters more distracting, like anxiety, self-doubt, fear of the unknown? Personally speaking, I could type out an A-Z encyclopedia of ‘em right here. Is it the glimpses of monstrousness in others that are most unnerving? Or do you contend with more mundane, but equally disquieting ogres like serving incessant corporate goals while your dreams wither? And what about all the monsters in the headlines these days? Or how about strangers who think they can call you “baby”?
Whew. Our times have unleashed a lot of monsters. It can be overwhelming. But Katherine Biskupic and Leah Frires, also known as the comedy duo Pure & Weary, have an antidote. On June 2, they will bring The Monster Show to Chicago’s Second City stage for one night only.
Katherine and Leah, friends now for ten years, both moved to Chicago after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Leah spent time at the Annoyance Theatre while Katherine was at Second City. Three-and-a-half years ago, they formed Pure & Weary. Last year, they made the big decision to move west and since then, they have been creating and starring in comedy shows in L.A. (“Pure & Weary” comes directly from their names. Katherine literally means “pure.” Leah means “weary.”) They have a gift for finding historic parallels to our turbulent times and for making it all come alive while bringing out the funny.
For The Monster Show, they crafted stories that take an up-close look at monsters past and present, at the monsters that live within and the monsters who invade from outside. They emphasize that the evening is “damsel-less.” What does that mean? Says Leah, “We don't have any women needing a hero to save them. They save themselves in this story. They are their own hero.” The result is a comedic evening that they describe as “cathartic and empowering.”
The partners-in-laughter kindly took time to speak with me by phone about monsters public and private, how to disarm them and what to expect at The Monster Show.
Teme: How did you get the idea for The Monster Show?
Katherine: I was reading about Mary Shelley. She was self-taught and only eighteen when she wrote Frankenstein. The book was so dark that people didn’t believe she had written it. Her husband Percy Shelley was a famous writer, so some thought that he wrote it.
Before we moved to L.A., we were thinking about women writing about monsters and people underestimating what women can write. Then we moved here. The headlines began breaking starting with [Harvey] Weinstein and it became “monster” season. We were already writing The Monster Show, and …
Leah: … things just kind of fell into place.
Katherine: Mary Shelley and Lord Byron narrate our show, but it's also about the current monsters that women experience every day.
Teme: When I heard about your show, I wanted to know more about Mary Shelley. The things I learned blew my mind. What are your favorite facts about her?
Leah: I love that her mother [Mary Wollstonecraft] was also a feminist for her time.
Katherine: I was drawn to Mary Shelley's story as a comparison between her and her mom. Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth with Mary Shelley, but still transferred her empowerment to her daughter. Mary Shelley’s writing has hints of her mother.
People underestimated Mary Shelley and how she could write about topics that were so dark. But when you read about her, you see that she had a lot of struggles. She had multiple stillborns. When her husband died, that was very tragic for her. She had plenty of darkness to draw from, but because she's a woman, people didn't believe that could be.
Teme: What will happen at The Monster Show?
Leah: Mary Shelley and Lord Byron do the intro, a short middle section and appear towards the end. In between, we tell stories about other monsters that women face.
Teme: What is Lord Byron’s role?
Leah: He's the antagonist, at least in the beginning. We drew on the experience of Mary Shelley and Lord Byron’s salon-style readings where they would sit and tell ghost stories to each other. We use him as the “other,” the male character, whom we kind of poke fun at and hope to change his mind at the end of the show.
Katherine: We also have Godzilla, Medusa, and Loch Ness. The different monsters bring more comedy and layers to it.
Teme: Why are humans drawn to monster stories?
Katherine: Everybody relates to a monster story or finds a monster story in their own life. Everybody's been scared. Everybody's reflected on their own internal monsters. There's something so relatable about monsters.
Teme: Who are your favorite fictional monsters or the ones who scared you the most?
Leah: That's a good question. I'm a sucker for horror movies and the realness of some of them. I'm not really afraid of ghosts, but I am afraid of stalkers. So we have a really good sketch about the monster under your bed. I relate to that one a lot and to being afraid of things that are in your home that can get you. Home can be a very vulnerable place if someone is breaking in.
Teme: I have to do my tour of the house every night and check every door like six times.
Katherine: I love looking into historical monsters and why some stories stay with us and stand the test of time. I loved digging into the stories about Medusa, Godzilla and Loch Ness.
Teme: Do you think that men and women relate to monsters differently? Do women feel more vulnerable or is it at the human core to find monsters frightening?
Katherine: I think everybody can relate to being scared, for sure. But I do think women experience specific types of monsters.
When we first came up with this idea, I went to pick up a book about Mary Shelley. On my way, somebody cat-called me. I went through that thing in my head that every woman goes through. He started with just “Hi” and I was like, I want to be friendly. Should I say “hi” back? Should I say nothing? Or should I walk the other way? There were all these options. I said “Hi” and then he started following me. I was thinking, “Oh, my gosh, this is just so crazy that we’re writing about this topic and this happens.” So that's specific to women.
Teme: What happened? Did he finally stop following you?
Katherine: I was in downtown Chicago going to the Harold Washington Library. I was thinking, “Where is the closest entrance?!” Originally, I was going to go all the way around to the front entrance, but I was underneath the Red Line. So I just snuck into a different entrance that was closer and lost him.
Teme: Isn't it crazy how we always have to survey the land and think “maybe we could lose him here or hide here or disappear here ...” It’s so crazy to have to think like that, but so real.
Leah: Yes. We have three blackout scenes that poke fun at that. It’s about all the products for women that will help you not get raped, like pepper spray or nail polish where you can stick your finger into your drink. If the drink has been drugged, the nail polish will change color. Women have to buy all of these products to protect themselves. And our final beat on that is “how about just don't rape people?”
Teme: It's amazing that we haven't reached that point. What are your biggest internal monsters and what do you do to make them manageable?
Leah: That is the question we asked ourselves when we started this project. My biggest monster is anxiety. I have one of those personalities that is very people-pleasing. As I've gotten older, it's become a more manageable monster by accepting the fact that I can't make everybody happy and can't control other people's feelings. I think you learn that with age and just growing up and living life.
Teme: That's a big one for me, too.
Katherine: Similar to people-pleasing, my monster is usually guilt. I was raised Catholic, so the guilt monster is always over my shoulder. That's the one that I wrestle with most, I would say.
Teme: I relate to that one, too! What is the most recent monster you’ve faced?
Katherine: We had plenty of monsters just moving across the country; a new home, new jobs, new groups of people. I think change can bring out any monster.
Katherine: For me, a monster is tons of homesickness. I’ve had to let go of control and knowing how everything's going to play out. The plans you had when you were settled may not work when you're somewhere new. You have to learn to let that monster come in and say “hello” to it and “you're not staying, but I guess you're here right now.”
Leah: We have some broader stories, too, like a corporate monster. We both found ourselves taking on corporate jobs while we're in L.A. We find it funny how different it is from our artist's world, and how we came here to create and now we're sitting at a desk. So the show has a story about that. We also have fictitious monsters like the Loch Ness monster – well, I guess you could say “fictitious.” I haven't seen her yet. One of our favorite scenes is two Scottish women searching for her.
Teme: Did you ever meet someone who you thought was a monster, but turned out not to be? I was reading how Frankenstein’s monster was actually vulnerable, sad and lonely. I've met people who I thought were horrible. But eventually I saw that it was a mask for insecurity or something like that. Have you ever met anyone who appeared to be a monster, but that wasn’t the whole story?
Leah: That's probably every monster. There is some underlying reason for their behavior and it probably comes from their own personal monsters, their own personal insecurities and anxieties.
Katherine: That's what I love about Mary Shelley. Dr. Frankenstein takes responsibility for what he did to this monster and how he created it. That feels like a very female perspective. To have the empathy for the monster, to know how this creature came to be. We look at things from an empathetic perspective to a point to see how some people let their monster completely take over. If you're able to see where somebody is coming from, it can help you heal.
Teme: Absolutely anything else you would like people to know about The Monster Show?
Leah: We cover a lot of touchy subjects, so have an open mind. But it's all for fun and to make a point. By the end of the show it's pretty clear what we're trying to say.
Katherine: We love Chicago and we’re so excited to come back with this show that we care so much about.
The Monster Show is Saturday, June 2, 2018 at Second City’s Judy’s Beat Lounge, 230 W. North Ave., Chicago at 9:00 p.m. The show is created and performed by Katherine Biskupic and Leah Frires and directed by Monique Madrid. Tickets and more details here.
My April 2017 interview with Katherine and Leah is here.
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