Sandra Tsing Loh is not your typical performer. With a BA in physics from Caltech and trained as a classical pianist, she became a phenomenon in 1987 when, positioned atop the roof of a parking garage next to the Harbor Freeway downtown, she played a grand piano amplified by massive speakers that was heard by thousands of rush-hour commuters.
She realized that while it might make a splash, performance art wasn’t a way to make a living. She began writing for LA Weekly and Atlantic Monthly, where she’s still a contributing editor and where she famously chronicled the blow-up of her marriage.
She started writing books (she published her seventh, “The Madwoman in the Volvo” in 2014) and doing one-woman shows based on her semi-autobiographical material. And she’s become something of a poster child for menopausal women.
I’ve known Sandra for many years, including a stint in the ’90s as a commentator on KCRW with “The Loh Life.” It got hairy when she used an FCC-forbidden four-letter word on a Sunday morning that should have been bleeped out … but wasn’t. A backlash of First Amendment absolutists took their vengeance out on the station. (I was KCRW’s publicity director at the time; the fallout was consequential.)
KPCC now runs those personal commentaries, and her syndicated feature “The Loh Down on Science” is heard on more than 200 stations across the world.
Next Thursday, July 9, Sandra Tsing Loh opens at the Edye, the black box theaterbehind the Broad Stage, with “The B**** is Back,” her hard-won, funny and very personal reflections on menopause. It’s based on “Madwoman,” which was included in the New York Times’ 100 most notable books of 2014.
When I reached her, she was at Palmdale Medical Center, where her 94-year-old father had just been hospitalized. A frequent subject of her commentaries, her dad is a feisty, eccentric Chinese man to whom I once gave a ride after bumping into him at CVS pharmacy. He was in his 80s then, picking up a prescription for Viagra. He confided in me that he cut them in half to make the supply last longer.
“I’m part of this sandwich generation of women,” Sandra told me, “who are madly multitasking. I’m a divorced mother with two teen daughters, I’m here with my 94-year-old dad, I work during the day and record my spots and check emails on my phone. The car AC is turned down to 20 degrees because I’m sweating, the travel mug coffee spills over the gearshift or the Apple headphones drop into the coffee. The car has a bunch of wires popping out as I’m frantically try to power up the phone while Wazesquawks about which freeway I’m supposed to take; it’s a mad rush pretty much every day.”
The show’s setup is cabaret style with tables, adult beverages and bites as Sandra strikes up a conversation interacting with the audience. There’s both prepared material and room for improvisation.
“This format came about when I was appearing at UC Santa Barbara, thinking I would do the usual interview with a host onstage, read a little from the book and do some audience Q&A,” she said. “But an hour before going on they said you’re on by yourself for 60 minutes. So I stumbled onto the stage with my notes at the podium, but I walked out into the audience and started riffing and telling stories and it all sort of came out organically. I just told some of the truth of where we’re at as menopausal women, it was hysterically funny and an electrifying experience.”
Writing for page, stage and radio requires different skill sets.
“Writing for radio is definitely verbal, it’s going into people’s ears through time,” she said. “A book is something you can take to bed or the bath and it’s more like painting a journey, describing the scenery to evoke places, smells and senses. But when you’re onstage, you have to cut almost all the scenic descriptions, creating a shorthand version for character and dialogue.”
Since the material is menopausal and hormonal in nature, how do men react?
Sandra shared this: “The World Presidents’ Organization Bluegrass chapter in Louisville, Kentucky,flew me out to give something like a National Geographic lecture on what was going on with their wives, why they didn’t sleep through the night, why they were sweaty and angry and they were wondering what the hell they could do about it. So yes, men should come because the show is like a behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on inside your crazy wife’s mind.”
In addition to sharing techniques for weighing yourself, discussing whether Trader Joe’s or Costco has better samples and “fun” at the gynecologist’s office Sandra says, “I think this is stuff that women go through on a daily basis that we don’t often talk about. We’re balancing jobs, careers, marriage, children, and God forbid if we don’t get to the farmers market for locally sourced organic vegetables, we end up letting McDonald’s win. It’s a look at how much progress we’ve made in the 50 years since Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ We are the madwomen in the Volvo but we’re expected to get dinner on the table, mysteriously remain a size 2 while keeping our IRAs funded. Maybe it’s the world that’s mad, not us.”
By the way, Sandra says, “The Volvo finally died after about 140,000 miles; now I drive a used Prius.”
“The B**** is Back” runs July 9 through August 2. Find tickets and details at www.thebroadstage.com.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various publications.