The cat that got the cream

Jillian Armenante on comedy writing and Kittens In A Cage

by Jane Fae

Jillian Armenante in Kittens In A Cage
Jillian Armenante in Kittens In A Cage

Sometimes – don’t I know it! – I can be too clever by half! Which is why the opportunity to speak with the director of a film I’ve just been theorising over is so salutary. Because nothing puts you in your place more precisely than the realisation that there is more to research than…research.

It begins with Kittens In A Cage, a film I reviewed for Eye For Film last week.

Cards on table: I loved it. Why? Not because it is ‘great,’ but because I love comedy. More: I love absurd, outrageous, campy, queer comedy and Kittens delivered all of this. It fills a niche, in terms of bringing the lesbian gaze to an area of comedy more usually dominated by guys.

But was there more to Kittens than meets the eye? I spoke to director Jillian Armenante on a mission to find out.

Armenante has already banked a long and impressive career, not just as a film and TV actress, but also as a theatre director and writer. So, my theory that she was 'getting back to' directing was obvious bunk.

As she explained, “I do love the ridiculous. There’s a whole credo and manifesto: Ridiculous Theater, Scourge of Human Folly by Charles Ludlam.

Axioms to a theater for ridicule:

  1. You are a living mockery of your own ideals. If not, you have set your ideals too low.
  2. The things one takes seriously are one's weaknesses.
  3. Just as many people who claim belief in God disprove it with their ever act, so too there are those whose every deed, though they say there is no God, is an act of faith.
  4. Evolution is a conscious process.
  5. Bathos is that which is intended to be sorrowful but because of the extremity of its expression becomes comic. Pathos is that which is meant to be comic but because of the extremity of its expression becomes sorrowful. Some things which seem to be opposites are actually different degrees of the same thing.
  6. The comic hero thrives on his vices. The tragic hero is destroyed by his virtue. Moral paradox is the crux of drama.
  7. The theater is a humble materialist enterprise which seeks to produce riches of the imagination, not the other way around. The theater is an event not an object. Theater workers need not blush and conceal their desperate struggle to pay the landlords their rents. Theater without the stink of art.

“I studied as a young actor and director that I love. So, when I did Kittens, I thought: should we do another play or should we make a web series or a comedy series? And I went: let me scare myself a little!

“Maybe I’ll do something that is a little less hanging lights on the wall at four in the morning and more like getting my friends to all chip in and making a stone soup project.

“From the off, Kittens was about having fun. But then it snowballed: “[I thought] you know there is a little understanding like this is a $50k movie - which is what it was: $47k is what we raised on Kickstarter. We’ll shoot it in the back yard and it’ll be done in a month. And then it just got bigger and bigger and bigger.

“Suddenly all these huge actors wanted to be in it. Misha Collins. Felicia Day. Tyne Daly. Joel McHale.

“Both my kids are in the movie. The little one who is shot in the back running down the street with whisky is mine!”

“The redhead is mine!”

So it is a labour of love – or at least of fun. And it absolutely played to Armenante’s love of the ridiculous. "The reason I wanted to do something a little lesbian pulp and more campy was because I knew my production budget would be very low and I feel like there’s a little tongue in cheek can be achieved.

For influence, one needs to look to Armenante’s favourite writers. She was, she admits, “lucky enough to work with Victoria Pile, Oriane Messina and Fay Rusling - the Green Wing girls.” They are still friends on Facebook.

Also influential is early chick sketch comedy and British Television. She remembers going to the Kings Head to see Victoria Wood. But not Carry On: that is, perhaps a bit too quintessentially English. Or maybe just dated!

And then it all just came together: “There was a play at my old theatre in Seattle called Kittens in a Cage written by an incredible writer named Kelleen Conway Blancherd.”

Armenante adds: “I was raised on Caged with Eleanor Parker and the old Prisoner Cell Block H. I loved that whole Jonathan Demme thing and when I read that script, I thought this is the funniest. This just tickled me.

“I called her and she was like ‘I don’t want to write it’ but I just busted it apart and tried to make it more visual than it was literary.

“By the time we’d finished we had costumes from the Titanic and monkeys and horses and we were playing in 158 countries…”

And then it took off: “One night me and a bottle of wine clicked a million festivals and we started winning dozens of them!”

Fun! That’s the way to do it. Because if you are not working within the constraints of financial expectation, you can be freer, experiment, head off in directions at which the backers of a more traditional production might blanche.

“We had so much fun. We weren’t doing it to sell. We weren’t doing it for anyone to look at. The first time we showed it, it got like an 8-minute standing ovation. People were howling. It was so great in a room full of drunk people. And it ended up doing really well.

“Right now it can be streamed on iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, YouTube, Google Play but I am most excited about the recent partnership with LesFlicks. Lesflicks exists to increase the knowledge of, and access to, lesbian films through film clubs, dedicated lesbian video on demand platform and film database. I think Naomi is making great strides for lesbian visibility.”

“It is that whole thing “Dance like nobody’s looking”. I made something with no design on an end product.”

Along the way, Kittens benefited greatly from word of mouth and social media: “I had no idea that people like Joel McHale or Felicia Day had 3 million followers. I was just asking people who I thought were cool and would find it funny.

“I would just tweet, and I would watch 80 people click on the link and I thought omg: the power of just sitting in your house!”

On the other hand, there is a down side to not quite fitting any neat category. Kittens is over: but a sequel is still very much on the cards. Armenante explains: “I’ve got a second script all ready and a third script ready to write.”

But: “We were ‘dangled’, as they say in the business. People said ‘oh, yes: we’ve got money for you’ Get ready, get ready, get ready!’ and then the money never came.

“I have a second script that is so much better than the first. I’ve got a third outline that we wrote for a company we thought we’d be working for in Finland. And that money fell through.”

For the time being, Armenante has not yet come up with the funding for a second season. But she is still actively looking for investors. Because a world so serious and full of gloom needs a little cheer from time to time. It needs some no-holds barred, outrageous, tongue-in-cheek lesbian comedy.

At the end of the day, it needs more fun. And Armenante is one of the few directors keen to give us that!

If you’d like to hear more Jillian Armenante, don’t miss her talking live, tomorrow (Thursday) evening, with Lesflicks, for Lesbian Visibility Week:

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