Dallas Storyteller And Comedian Julia Cotton Says When You Make Your Work Meaningful to You, You Make It Mean Something to Audiences.
Julia Cotton is about to open up about her personal life in front of a crowd of strangers. And, after she’s done, she’ll watch a comedian take the stage and build material around those details.
She’s looking forward to it.
Cotton is part of the second “Truth in Comedy” show, a hybrid stand-up/storytelling format concocted by comic Byron Stamps, someone we’ve talked to before. In this show, three storytellers will offer up a true tale from their lives, with each offering followed by a comic tasked with building a stand-up set around that story. It makes sense for Stamps to enlist Cotton as a storyteller — she’s honed serious chops in that medium already thanks to her past work with Dallas-based Oral Fixation, as well as the recurring show Gettin’ It, which she helped developed with fellow performer Noa Gavin. Cotton also currently teaches a storytelling class at Dallas Comedy House.
But while she’ll be performing as a storyteller for the next “Truth in Comedy,” but she’s also a remarkable comedic talent. She’s part of the sketch comedy group FCC, a collaboration between her, Jade Smith, Jerrell Curry and another comic we’ve previously featured, Paulos Feerow. Their initial show, The Wrong Party, was recently revived so it could be included in the most recent Dallas Comedy Festival. It was a terrific debut work — strong evidence that their future efforts should be priority viewing for comedy fans.
In advance of Cotton’s appearance at “Truth in Comedy” on Saturday night at Checkered Past Winery in The Cedars, I recently spoke with Cotton about how storytelling can help performers of all mediums learn to connect themselves to their work, what her future goals for are FCC, and where she finds the fun in producing one’s own shows.
So you’re doing the upcoming “Truth in Comedy” show. I’m familiar with the concept: It’s storytelling and comedy, where the comedians base their set off of the stories told. you’re part of the storytelling portion this time, correct?
I am. This is the second show Byron [Stamps] is doing. I remember when he first told me about the concept, and I remember being really excited. Storytelling is something I like a lot, and I feel like people don’t think about it as a different type of performance to do. I teach a storytelling class, and I teach it like it’s like an intro to get you… if you haven’t taken any classes before, and if you haven’t been onstage before, this is a good entry level to not only get you onstage and talking, but also making you think about yourself and start talking about yourself. I think a lot of the people who get into comedy are ready to flesh out a whole bunch of jokes, and a whole bunch of one-liners. But with storytelling, you have to be really introspective, and pull something out of you that’s really real. “Truth in Comedy” is a great show.
Are you apprehensive at all to see what your comedian comes up with based on your story?
Yeah! [Laughs.] No, I actually talked to Mama Michelle, my comedian, just to say, “Hey, have you heard what my story is? Have you read it? What are you thinking about it?” She’s actually really, really cool. She made an extra effort to make me understand that it’s not her effort to make fun of whatever situation. For somebody to be really vulnerable like that, you shouldn’t attack it, you should complement it. I’m anxious to see what she comes up with, but she threw a couple of ideas my way, and I’m like, “Alright, that’s gonna be funny!” I’m excited.
I like the concept a lot, but it’s interesting because half of your performers are going to be really vulnerable and open, and you don’t necessarily expect that sensitivity from comedy.
Right. I went to the first show, and it was interesting for me to see how delicate all the comedians were with the stories they were getting. Because not all of them had that previous conversation first. For them, they would each have to even take a moment from their set to a) recover from what they heard, and b) make sure they were respecting it. It also made them think about themselves a little bit. Each of them also, into their sets, ended up taking a true story from their lives that had nothing to do with whatever stand-up they were going to do that day. I thought that was really, really cool. But that whole idea is scary, on both sides, I think.
How long have you been teaching the storytelling class?
Today is the second day of the fourth class. I think we started offering the class back in October of 2016, and this is the fourth one. It’s been interesting, each class has been different. The second class we did, everyone was so willing already to talk about themselves, which was good. But there were other classes where you had to pull it out of them, and let them know hey, it’s OK. I’m real big on making sure it’s a really supportive environment in that room, even when it’s just 10 of us in a room, to feel comfortable being yourself and talking about something that’s real in your life. People have brought up some… it’s not always funny stories. That’s another thing, because they’ll come in – especially that second class – they’ll come in with something they really want to talk about, but they also know they’re at Dallas Comedy House, and they’ll wonder how important is it that [they’re] funny. What I tell them is don’t worry about it, because the comedy comes from all of the ridiculousness of life anyway. People are going to laugh with you because they’re going to connect with their internal thoughts that they’ve probably also had about whatever situation that you’re talking about. The laughter will come, don’t think about that. I always tell them focus on the story, and focus on giving us the best parts of you, and the humor will come.
You also produce the Gettin’ It show, an all-female show that’s… just storytelling? Or is it storytelling and comedy?
It’s storytelling. For a while we did a hybrid of storytelling and stand-up. Not so much like “Truth in Comedy” — with that, it was just, “There are ladies that are gonna do stand-up, and there are ladies that are gonna tell stories.” We did that in the mid-run of the Gettin’ It stories, but now we’re back to all storytelling. And all our stories are funny. [Laughs.] Just because that was the premise and the basis of that show, telling funny stories.
How was it pitching that idea? Because it is at a place called Dallas Comedy House…
Gettin’ It came about with Noa Gavin and myself – Noa reached out and said, “I want to do something cool with stories, but I don’t know what it is yet.” I was like, “OK.” [Laughs.] We met and had lunch, and started talking about what could we do, and she knew that I did storytelling with Oral Fixation in Dallas. I told her, “How about we just start doing a storytelling show at DCH?” And she and I are both about girl power so hard, and we started talking about women just being fearless, going after something — maybe it doesn’t always work out — and the great feeling that you feel after having just gone after it regardless. And usually some really ridiculous things happen when you go after something you think you want, you’re pretty sure you want, you decided that you wanted, and just sharing those stories, and being silly onstage.
So it sounds like the representation aspect was there on the ground floor.
Yeah, absolutely. I think [the show] is for everybody. I do get… not flak, but whenever there’s an all-female show, or an all-something show, you get someone who’s not part of that “all” saying, “Why is it exclusive to this?” And for Gettin’ It, that was the idea for that thing we had. Obviously, storytelling isn’t female-exclusive — everybody has stories. And that’s something me, and some of my TA’s that I’ve had like Devon Kodzis, are working on. We’re trying to build storytelling at DCH all around, and help other people come up with different ideas for different storytelling shows. But with Gettin’ It, we were both going through something at the time, and everybody has women in their lives that are doing things. And, sometimes, we feel like women don’t take the time to celebrate themselves or celebrate their efforts, and we thought that would be a cool opportunity.
Can you talk about the experience of hosting and having to produce your own show?
I’m tired! [Laughs.] It’s fun, though. Getting people on board, number one, is the first part of the process. When we first started doing Gettin’ It, we pulled people we knew would probably be down for this. And the first couple of shows were really successful, and people got really interested. After that, it was really easy to be like, “Do you want to be part of this show?” We gained a whole lot of interest. When you have people who want to do something, versus having to beg people to do something, it’s a whole lot easier. Everybody’s on board. Just like the class — any show I’m a part of, everybody’s putting in their two cents as far as what should this look like, how should it go, what are your thoughts — it’s very collaborative. So it’s fun. But I’m tired. [Laughs.] All the time.
I also wanted to talk to you about FCC and The Wrong Party.
Ah, man, I love that so much! The Wrong Party comes from FCC, we’re called FCC. You’ve talked to this guy, you’ve talked to Paulos [Feerow].
I did. At the time, I knew there was going to be a run of shows, but I don’t remember if there were plans for a continuation after that.
Oh yeah, we always definitely planned on doing a whole lot more. When they came to me about it, they were like, “We want to do something.” I was like, “OK.” [Laughs.] We all came to my house, we sat down and had dinner, and we were thinking, “Are we gonna do sketch, are we gonna do improv, what are we gonna do?” And we just said, “Whatever we do is gonna be amazing.” That first night we just sat down and started talking about a whole lot of things, and with the volume of thoughts that we had, we were just like, “We should put this into a sketch show.” And then came The Wrong Party. A lot of the stuff we talked about came from being an outsider, or feeling like an outsider, but not understanding that you’re kind of in control of that position on your own. If you feel like you belong somewhere, don’t assume that you don’t just because it’s not looking like you do. Get in there, do what you do and have a great time. The Wrong Party is just the first of thousands of things we want to do together.
When I talked with Paulos, the show hadn’t debuted yet, so nobody had seen it. How’s it been now that people have seen it?
It’s been mildly overwhelming, the feedback. I’m bad, anyway, when anybody tells me something positive about something that I did – not that I don’t feel like I’m great, because I definitely do! [Laughs.] But to have people break down specific points about your show, and have so much insight, and so many feelings about what you did onstage… We just did half of the show at Dallas Comedy Festival, and there people who said, “Man, this was great! It was just as good as the first time when I saw the whole thing!” They came out twice to see the show, and that feels good. And they always have specific things to talk about in the show. Everybody’s talking about how, “This is such an important show, I wish you could do it in more places, I wish more people could’ve seen this show!” And it feels really, really good to hear. That’s great confirmation that you put up something that meant something to somebody else. I think it’s because it meant so much to us. And not to take it back to storytelling, but that’s my point in storytelling class: If you start with yourself, and something that means something to you, then by the time it gets to whatever product you put to stage, it’s going to mean something to somebody else. That’s what ended up happening with The Wrong Party. It feels really, really good. I’m sad that the last time we’re gonna do it was a couple of days ago. At first, I was sad that we only got to do half the show for DCF, but after we started – we only rehearsed, like, twice before the show, one of which was the day of the show – being able to tie it down to our best, best material, and still have that energy? To me the energy was even greater. I don’t know if it was because we got to revisit it again after such a long time, but also making sure we put out our tightest, best stuff, it was a lot of fun. But, yeah, we’re going to do a bunch more stuff.
Can you give us any previews on upcoming projects?
[Laughs.] No, but I can tell you in April we’re gonna start meeting up pretty heavy again. It’s harder, because Jerrell [Curry] don’t live with us no mo’. [Laughs.] But we’re in constant contact, and it’s always gonna be a collaboration with the four of us. We are working on something post-festival, coming soon. Hopefully by the summer.
Are there any talks or thoughts about putting out content online? I’ve talked to a few people who are making online content here in Dallas.
Oh yeah. All of that stuff is on the table for us moving forward. It’s a matter of getting everyone’s schedule tight. Paulos stays doing stand-up everywhere. Jade [Smith] is directing another sketch show at DCH. It’s just us finding time in our schedule. We chopped up The Wrong Party video that we had, and we started releasing that a little bit. Just having that out there has already given us the idea that we need to start producing little videos on the regular. We just need to find the time.
I did want to talk to you generally about being a performer in Dallas, and get your thoughts.
I do it a lot less than a lot of other people who are out here grinding on a regular basis because I am a mom, so the opportunities I have, each experience has been so unique, and so impactful. I can carry it with me, whatever happened the last time I was onstage. I want to do more things in more places for sure, certainly with FCC, because I think our voice is important, and it’s not out there as much as it could be. Certainly in Dallas, but also in the world. [Laughs.] I want to do a lot more than I get to do, but also the government says I have to take care of my kids until they’re 18, so I gotta put a lot of my energy there. But it’s a lot of fun. I’m accepted everywhere that I go, as an individual or in the groups I’m in. I love that I get to do the “Truth in Comedy” show, it’s something different for me. I’ve been wanting to do more storytelling things, and I like that Byron had this idea. He told me about it months ago, and I was like, “Please hurry up and do this so I can be a part!” [Laughs.] And I want more stuff like that to happen, and I’m certain that it can. But it’s been fun, and interesting, and it’s not a surprise, being welcomed. But if you stay in your own little zone for a while, and you’re just kind of looking, and notice the lack of representation, you don’t know how it’s going to be when you go out. Btrut it’s been nothing but great.
Cover photo by Allie Trimboli.