Lauren Weedman wants to talk to you about rape and prison, and she wants you to laugh about it.
Weedman, who has written six autobiographical plays, opens Thursday at the Studio Theatre in her one-woman comedy “Bust.” It recounts her experiences volunteering at a women’s prison while dealing with the fallout of a confessional article she wrote for Glamour magazine in 2005, “I Lied About Being Raped.”
“My life is my material,” she says, explaining that she knew she wanted to write a show about the lives of female prisoners. “At first I thought I’d go to the jail and teach a writing workshop,” she says, her voice taking on a melodramatic tone that says she knows how hokey that would have been, “and then it could be the story of how I inspire them and they think I’m hilarious.”
But Weedman, a 42-year-old comedian who has been featured on the HBO series “Hung” and as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” decided the logistics were too daunting and it was easier to work through the prison’s volunteer program, simply talking to incarcerated women. It was then that Glamour published her article, in which she recounted that when she was a DePaul University freshman, she lied about being raped in a misguided attempt to get sympathy and attention. “This was just my version of cutting myself or a suicide attempt or something,” she says now.
She found herself the object of vitriol from anonymous authors on Internet message boards. The two stories of false rape and prison volunteer intertwine as “Bust” contemplates questions of guilt and societal shaming of women.
“I was helping all these women who didn’t have any sense of entitlement. They would be left in that jail for weeks on end when they weren’t supposed to be there but didn’t have anything in them that thought they should fight because they’re so used to the idea that they’re bad people,” says Weedman. “Then the Glamour magazine thing happened, and I got all this message-board hate and e-mails about what a bad person I was. And a part of me thought, ‘This is just what I deserve. I made this happen.’ ”
While some one-person shows (such as those of monologist Mike Daisey, whose current work is “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”) focus on dispensing wisdom, Weedman’s work doesn’t gloss over her flaws and foibles. I don’t know what I’m doing, she says, but none of us do.
“I’m going to show you the bumbling, messy person I was,” she says, “And you see me making a change in someone’s life. But I’m still kind of an [expletive].” Weedman eschews the false wrap-up, the hero moment. She treats the audience as if they’re her friends — and when you tell your friends about a time you did something less than admirable, they don’t tell you you’re a horrible person. They tell you they’ve been there. “Some people think the show is just about bad women, or bad people,” Weedman says, “Instead of thinking: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”
Part of the danger of a one-person show is that if the audience starts to sour on the narrator, there’s no other character who can sway their opinion. “If you don’t like me, you’re screwed,” Weedman jokes. “You’ve got a long night ahead of you. It’d be like a really bad date.”
But the problem of an audience just not getting the tone of a performance upfront is real. “As soon as the subject matter is introduced, it just shuts some people down,” she says, “They’re like, ‘This is a serious matter.’ It’s harder to laugh because they know it’s not funny. It’s like when I did a show about adoption and some people said, ‘Well, that must have been an interesting journey.’ Like you told them something tragic. They don’t want to laugh because they think it’s something really intense.
“But when women who work in jails come to the show, they see the humor a lot more, because it’s their life.”
Thursday through Dec. 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org, or call 202-332-3300. Written and performed by Lauren Weedman. Directed by Allison Narver.