Improvising this Summer, Varla Jean Merman Spreads Laughter Poolside

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 7, 2020

Varla Jean Merman has likely been accused of being a super-spreader before, so it shouldn't surprise her fans to see her appropriate the term as the title of her current show, "SUPERSPREADER," which she is performing through September 12 poolside at Ptown's Crown and Anchor. That venue is not where Ms. Merman (aka Jeffrey Roberson) had planned on performing this summer; but with her usual indoor location, the nearby Art House, closed due to the pandemic, she and producer Mark Cortale improvised; and in an unusual move in this contentious town (especially in high season) made a deal with rival Rick Murray to play at the Crown along with comedian Judy Gold. It was an alliance that Roberson joked to the New York Times "probably wouldn't have happened unless it was the end of the world."

At what Roberson calls "the Crown & Anchor Poolside Emergency Theater," Varla is performing solo, as well as in another with Gold, "The Judy & Varla Show." (Gold also has a solo show at the venue.) While it may not be an ideal space — with a 25-foot space between the makeshift stage and the audience — both performers are making the best of it. Varla's show "SUPERSPREADER," is directed by Michael Schiralli, and features Gerald Goode and Brian W Johnston.

Varla Jean Merman

EDGE spoke with Roberson about how he is spending his summer pandemic, performing in this new normal, and what he misses about performing this summer.

EDGE: What did you do during quarantine?

Jeffery Roberson: Its been really good. I've been with my husband, which has been great. I got to read and watch Netflix. Things I never get to do.

EDGE: Given all of this downtime have you been able to do some personal reflection and growth? If so, what have you learned about yourself?

Jeffery Roberson: I can't sit still. I have always traveled. Since I started performing over 25-years ago, I've never been in one place this long. I don't look at this as a bad thing, but it did go on too long. Also, the greatest thing for me is that I really appreciate and miss my audience.

Varla Jean Merman

EDGE: For a performer, there is definitely a downside to not working, but a great opportunity to work on new material.

Jeffery Roberson: Yes, but unfortunately, you have to talk about COVID. You just can't talk about airplane food anymore. You have to talk about things that are related to COVID. So, you hear it in every joke that I am doing now, if only for now. I write a show and I use it for a year. This is the first time in my life that the new material I wrote is only going to be used for a few months. There is also something freeing about that too.

EDGE: You wrote this new show in less than two weeks during and about a pandemic. How do you do that without crossing the line?

Jeffery Roberson: Me! I wrote a show about something that is killing people. It's a subject that you have to have a very delicate balance. You can't totally make fun of it, because people are dying. You have to do it in a way that is funny and that everyone can relate too. We are definitely in strange times.

EDGE: Has being in quarantine helped with your social media presence?

Jeffery Roberson: Oh yes! I have done some online shows and those are like performing in your basement when your 12-years old. I also did some diaries and some cameos for other queens. I believe that most performers are not doing it for the money but for the love of doing it. I love making people laugh and I hope they laughed while watching my online show, but I don't know.

Judy Gold and Varla Jean Merman

EDGE: Before getting back to work, how often were you getting into drag?

Jeffery Roberson: Yeah, a little bit. I missed Varla! You realize why perform when you are not getting in costume. I perform to express myself and get some attention. When you're not performing you lose a part of yourself. For the last few months, I just felt like something was missing, so it was wonderful when I would get all dressed up. It made me feel good.

EDGE: How has it been performing in this new normal?

Jeffery Roberson: When I first came back you could have a gathering of up to 80 people. Now with all these stupid house parties, it was reduced back to 50. So, now I am doing 2-shows a night. I am just so fortunate to be in front of an audience and get paid for doing what I love. People need to be entertained. They want to laugh together to be able to share a common experience. For me, it's pretty much the same. Only a smaller audience and they are all spread out.

Jeffrey Roberson

EDGE: What have you missed about performing for a live audience?

Jeffery Roberson: The camaraderie of the experience. It sure was great when I got back up on stage again for the first time. I was worried that my new material might be too dark. There was some relief when the audience was laughing, and they were not offended by the new material. So much about Provincetown is being close to people like rubbing up next to 500 sweaty bears at tea dance and that is not happening this year. It's very sad.

EDGE: Since this summer is definitely different than any other. Do you have a favorite memory from a past summer performing in Ptown?

Jeffery Roberson: One time there was a blackout and we lost all power. When that happens during a show, it is never fun, because you have to wait for everything to come back one. I did an entire show without doing a number. I just had to talk to the audience and not able to do the videos or anything. It still turned out to be a great show. I had to do a lot of improv and thinking on the fly. I could have just said "good night" and given them their money back, but I am too cheap for that.

For more information on Varla visit, visit her website and to purchase ticket to see "SUPERSPREADER" visit the Crown and Anchor website.

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