By Seth Reines, March 2018 Issue.
There is no funnier, more inventive actress in Phoenix than Sally Jo Bannow. For years, she has delighted audiences with her insightful, comedic performances at Phoenix Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Actor’s Theatre and many more.
Now, she has taken on the most challenging role of her career as playwright/composer/star of The Boob Show, a musical journey that walks audiences through various perceptions of breasts.
“I have written many songs, but The Boob Show is my first musical,” she explained. “I never imagined when I started out as an actor that my writing would be in the forefront.”
Described by Bannow as “funny, poignant and thought-provoking,” The Boob Show is “about perception and its effects and, ultimately, about finding your way to self-acceptance.”
According to Bannow, the show came about in 2003, shortly after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had a 3-year-old son and was suddenly facing my mortality,” she recalled.
Until this experience, Bannow said she had never given a lot of thought to her breasts and was happy with them.
“The first breast surgeon I went to was a woman,” she said. “I thought I’d feel safer with a woman doctor. She sat down with me, glanced at my chart, and said, ‘Hey! You’re gonna get a free Scottsdale boob job outta this!’ Then she took me across the hall to the plastic surgeon she worked with. After studying my chest, he said, ‘If you went a little bigger, you’d be perfect!’ I was in a health crisis and was suddenly confronted with the reality of what breasts are in society.”
From there, Bannow began noticing all kinds of perceptions and opinions that are laid on the appearance of that particular part of a woman’s anatomy.
“My coping mechanism is always to create art … [so] I began writing songs,” she said. “The first song I wrote for the show was a tribute to the women who came before me, which I wrote while I was undergoing chemotherapy. The comedy songs came shortly after. Now we have the gamut of songs from ridiculously comedic to deeply thought-provoking.”
Throughout the next decade, Bannow continued writing and, in 2013, introduced some of her The Boob Show characters and songs at Space 55 in a 15-minute performance piece called “What Are You Looking At?”
A year later, she performed a 45-minute version for Herberger Theater Center’s Lunch Time Theatre series. At this point, Bannow asked longtime friend and local composer Craig Bohmler to arrange her material. (For more on Bohmler, visit echomag.com/riders-of-the-purple-sage.) Later in 2014, Bannow performed an hour-long version of The Boob Show at Actor’s Theatre, recruiting Bohmler as her co-writer.
“I love working with Sally Jo,” Bohmler said. “Not only is she a really compelling actress, she is a very funny and sensitive comedian. I also like that the show is a nonlinear tale that addresses judgement [and] perception, and enters an absurdist world where any kind of story telling can happen.”
In 2015, Hormel Festival of New Plays and Musicals, Phoenix Theatre’s annual series of staged readings of works in progress, presented a two-act version of The Boob Show. The next year, Bannow and Bohmler were invited back for a second round of development and – to the team’s delight – Phoenix Theatre’s artistic director Michael Bernard came on board as director.
“Michael Barnard has been a terrific guide and dramaturge in this process,” Bohmler said. “He has directed three other shows of mine, so we are in very fine hands.”
When asked what has The Boob Show has taught her, Bannow replied that saying “yes” might just be the way to live.
“In improv, we learn to say yes,” she explained. “I started writing plays because Phoenix Theatre’s Robbie Harper called me one day and asked me if I’d like to write for their 24-hour play festival. I had never done it before, but I said yes. Because of that, Kim Porter of Space 55 saw my work and asked me to perform something at her theatre. I didn’t have a thing prepared, but I said yes. Judy Rollings at the Herberger asked if I had something for their Lunchtime Theatre. I did not. I said yes, because I knew I could. It goes on. The journey of The Boob Show is one big chain made up of yes.”
In terms of how her show speaks to the LGBTQ community, Bannow said, “the show says that everyone should be qualified by their heart, actions and the love and kindness they show to themselves and others. It’s tricky territory when we judge someone by a certain aspect of his or her self.”
An appropriate response, since 15 years of Bannow’s work culminated with a Valentine’s Day opening.
The Boob Show
Through March 18
100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix