Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads Benefit Screening
7:30 p.m. Monday
The Prytania Theater, 5339 Prytania St., 483-3129; www.bestofneworleans.com
Among the lessons for a first-time filmmaker is that a film screening for strangers can be less nerve-racking than one for friends.
"I learned the worst thing to do is to have a couple of friends over to watch the movie, because they know you want to see their reaction, so they act funny," says Jeffery Roberson, the man behind the drag persons Varla Jean Merman, recounting a viewing of his film Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads at a friend's house. "Throughout the film they were silent — it was awkward. I was so depressed."
"But when you show it for an audience, they're just there to see it and have a good time, and it's like, 'Thank God,'" he says.
Production for Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads, the locally shot and produced movie based on Roberson's Schoolhouse Rock-style stage comedy, wrapped early this year and is approaching its official release. Screenings in New York and Provincetown, Mass. were well-received ("There were so many laughs, you couldn't hear the next line," he says), and local audiences get a chance to see it at a screening to benefit Gambit's Big Easy Foundation on March 14.
Roberson says he's excited to show the film in New Orleans, where it is set — including sunny shots of the Marigny and Bywater and scenes at spots like Le Chat Noir and JohnPaul's Bar. Brian Peterson, Ricky Graham, Becky Allen and other local theater personalities also appear prominently in the film.
"I can't wait for the actors to see it," Roberson says. "It was long hours and hard work, so I want them to hear the audience's laughter ... and have that be their payment."
Loosely based on the stage production of the same name, Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads is a mockumentary in which students from the fictitious Crescent City Community College film Varla as she tries to create a children's television show.
In the film, Varla yearns for a child but cannot conceive or adopt one due to an uncommon gynecological problem and legal troubles, respectively. Realizing that her audience is not getting any younger, she decides to rework her cabaret show to target children ("Like they did for Camel cigarettes and Sudafed," Varla says). She lies, cheats and swindles a desperate infertile couple and a Broadway writer (Seth Rudetsky as himself) in pursuit of her TV show. It's no Barney: characters include Sharon Needles and Tickle-Me Pickle, and there's a segment that encourages viewers to mail their parents' prescription drugs to Varla.
Roberson says the next step is to get it in film festivals such as Outfest and the Toronto International Film Festival. In the meantime he is still tweaking the film, using the screenings as barometers for the movie's success.
"Screenings are good for knowing what works," he says, adding that he will likely be taking notes during the screening at Prytania.
Roberson recently returned from Los Angeles, where he was filming the sequel to the drag-cult comedy Girls Will Be Girls, and he is preparing for a role in the off-Broadway play Lucky Guy. In New Orleans, he will perform his solo cabaret show The Loose Chanteuse at Le Chat Noir. Varla shows are typically video-heavy, but Roberson is happy to get back to traditional cabaret after completing a feature-length film.
"I was starteing to use so many videos in shows, I joked I would name my next show 'Phoning it In' and just play videos the whole time, and keep calling during the show to say 'I'm on my way,'" he says. "I've done plenty of video work."