By Caro Moses | Published on Monday 13 August 2018
One of the things I like about the Fringe is the fact that while many performers arrive at it via a traditional route, loads of them seem to take a road less travelled, and that’s definitely the case for Roman Fraden, who, back in the early nineties, was a champion figure skater.
Since then he’s taken a fairly long and circuitous route to a career in comedy, but it seems as though he’s certainly found his niche. I arranged a chat to find out more about his life, his show, and the future.
CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from your debut hour? What’s it all about?
RF: Oh, hello! Yeah, ‘Back In The Closet’ is a comedy show born out of my most recent stand-up tour through the US this past year, and a significant portion of its material came out of my attempts at fitting into gay culture, my outrageous and endless pursuits of sexual escapades (usually with ‘straight’ men, sigh), and the comedic ways in which these attempts often catastrophically backfire on me… the result of which has often made me want to go ‘back in the closet’.
Gay culture often has an orgiastic, hedonistic component to it- you can basically push button on your phone and get sex at your door within 30 minutes, in pretty much any major city. However, easy as that may sound, I generally feel like an outsider to this culture, and yet I’m still constantly trying to get hook up and have those experiences… and failing at it. ‘Back In The Closet’ is definitely not all about sex, but it’s quite a scandalous show and I don’t hold back at all on the material (so don’t bring your parents unless they’re extra cool).
CM: How would you describe it to our readers? It’s listed in comedy but it sounds like there’s a lot more than just stand up to it? What genre would you call it?
RF: The show is a unique mix of various elements… I was a US Champion figure skater in my early years, from which I’d really developed a strong sense of movement and physicality (as well as gaining some scandalous stories from the figure skating world, which have all made it into the show). And I also have a music background, so I’ve been sprinkling a bit of piano on stage as well. I love psychedelic lights, sound effects, and to really take people on a theatrical journey.
I’d been making people laugh with my comedic material quite successfully in the US for a while now, but have always (until this show came together) felt quite confined just standing in place and holding a microphone for an hour as traditional ‘stand-up’ goes. ‘Back In The Closet’ is a blend of all of those various theatrical ingredients which support the comedic storyline which it takes the audience through, and so at moments it might be ‘dance’ or ‘theatre’ but very quickly it snaps back into ‘a comedy’. So yes, let’s stick with ‘Comedy’.
CM: Is everything you cover from your own life? Or are there elements of fiction?
RF: It’s a deeply personal show and very much an exposé of my own outrageous escapades through figure skating, life as a gay adult, and my cosmic quest to answer some deeply fundamental questions about life and the universe. I like to keep the laughter rolling quite constantly through the show, but it has a soul and a heart as well… so there are definitely poignant moments and pauses to reflect and digest the whirlwind of material that is flying by. Ok I admit, I have sprinkled a tiny lie here and there just for comedic punch, but essentially every storyline and theme that’s presented in ‘Back In The Closet’ comes directly from my real life, as unbelievable as that may seem after seeing it.
CM: Tell us a bit about your past career – how did your figure skating career begin, and what did you achieve with it?
RF: I became obsessed with the sport from an early age at the local skating rink where I grew up. There was something about the smell of the ice, the sound of the blades cutting through it as I skated around, the way my body felt as it spun through the air became the only thing I cared about very quickly. And I progressed through local, regional, and then national championships until eventually winning the national gold medal in my division in 1992.
I couldn’t imagine life after figure skating, it was the most exciting and thrilling thing I could comprehend at the time. I had heard of other champions that had retired from the sport and went on to university or other jobs, and that just sounded so depressing to me at the time – kind of like imagining a break up with someone you are currently deeply, deeply in love with. However, much like a break-up… when it came time to quit, I was so emotionally drained and detached from the whole experience that I couldn’t wait to get out… and once I finally did, I never looked back. And surprisingly, my life only continued to get more and more interesting afterwards.
CM: Do you have any interesting anecdotes from that time you’re prepared to regale us with here?
RF: I do have some stories about my friendship with Tonya Harding and some crazy things that went down in that small world of figure skating champions, but I would hate to give away any golden nuggets from the show in case you go and see it so I’ll leave that one a mystery for now. But I will say that the ‘finale’ of my career had to do with a huge scandal, me almost being suspended from the training centre, and my parents having to fly out for a huge meeting with the board of directors of the skating rink. But I did nothing wrong, I SWEAR!
CM: I suppose you’ve just exchanged one kind of performance for another, really, but how did that transition occur? What made you want to do comedy?
RF: The transition from figure skating was shockingly easy, I’d moved back home to California at the age of 21 and very quickly discovered psychedelic drugs, electronic music, full moon desert parties, and even basic staples like The Beatles and Pink Floyd (I had been quite isolated as a skater). I’d never smoked marijuana or even a cigarette while being an athlete, and only listened to terrible music and travelled around the US at competitions, staying in hotels with my mom and thinking only of the next competition.
So my post-figure skating life was quite an explosion of discovery and cosmic exploration. I was going to a lot of raves (this was very early on, when they were still super secretive, oozing with magic, and the coolest thing happening I’d ever seen), did 19 consecutive years of putting on a very popular camp/bar at Burning Man called ‘Pickle Joint’, and really discovering a whole new world of people and explosive fun that was beyond my wildest fantasies.
I made a popular down tempo mix during that time, and was soon after invited to join an elite collective of DJs which provided the soundscape to monthly secret desert parties filled with oceans of hot bi-curious shirtless men dancing in front of large sound systems. I became consumed by this culture and lifestyle for the next decade, and it took me through many mind-blowing adventures, beyond what I’d ever known possible…
Comedy came much later, but had always been in the back of my head as my true life’s purpose. I’d always known deep down that the thing I was really being remembered for across all of those various chapters of experience, the thousands of incredible people I’d had the pleasure of knowing… was my ability to make them laugh. My surreal and comedically distorted perspective on mundane aspects of life (like waiting in line to buy a banana) was my true talent, and I’d always known that, even back as a skater. People now aren’t thinking ‘oh Roman was SUCH a great skater’ – they remember me as ‘oh God, I’ve never laughed so hard’.
So finally, after years and years of procrastination I stepped out onto my first open mic stage in Los Angeles, did comedy, bombed incredibly hard, and have been climbing up that mountain joyfully ever since.
CM: How do the two compare?
RF: Skating definitely prepared me for going out in front of thousands of people and performing, from a very early age so I was able to short cut this obstacle when I finally got into doing stand-up. I’d been hearing that it takes years and years to finally get comfortable enough to make people laugh and it only took me a few months to get to that point with comedy – in part due to being born funny/weird, but also thanks to my lack of nerves performing in front of crowds as an ice skater.
The two are so completely different. With skating, you have to balance on a razor blade attached to your shoe and nail every triple jump and spin flawlessly. In comedy you have to balance on a razor sharp tightrope of movement and language, nailing every joke and laugh with surgical charm and precision… oh wait, the two are actually quite similar I’m just now realizing!
CM: Why did you decide to bring this show to Edinburgh? What were your expectations of the Festival?
RF: I’ve been particularly fortunate in this past year to focus exclusively on comedy, and spent most of last autumn touring the US. There is a theatre back in Los Angeles which is now the home to Phil Burgers (Doctor Brown), and he was directing a show by Natalie Palamides called ‘Laid’ which I saw at the end of last year. It blew the lid right off of whatever preconceptions I’d been having about ‘stand up’ and what is ‘allowed’ in the format of comedy, and immediately wanted to do a much more theatrical version of a show than just the stand-up work I’d been doing.
I learned of Edinburgh through seeing that show, and got right to work on mixing all of those newly discovered ingredients – stagecraft, absurd physical comedy, satire, lights, piano – into what is now ‘Back In the Closet’. The show was a hit back home pretty much straight away, but slowly waiting on the edge of my seat for the symphony of pieces to lock together as far as Fringe specifically goes (press, venue, logistics) was definitely a multi-month, nail biting suspenseful experience. I got very lucky, my team is awesome here, and Gilded Balloon is a dream come true!
CM: How are you enjoying it now you are here? What’s good about it?
RF: I’ve seen SO many people falling on the streets. Is it the cobble stone? That’s been a highlight for me (no one has gotten hurt). Also, living in a beautiful city filled with castles and going out to do my show night after night after night has always been a dream for me. Aside from getting good reviews and making connections, that alone has made the trip worthwhile.
I’m still settling in in terms of being on a completely nocturnal schedule, and have rarely been asleep before the sun comes up, but I’m definitely looking forward in the coming weeks to seeing many more shows, exploring new parts of the city, and flirting with many many new mostly-straight guys with Viking faces. That’s truly my favourite pastime.
CM: What plans do you have for the show once you’ve finished your run here?
RF: I would love to tour the show; it’s so hard to think past Edinburgh at the moment while still here… but I’m definitely in love with the idea of arriving to new cities, getting settled in, and making people laugh hysterically in all different new places. And repeat. And repeat.
I also plan on maybe eventually creating a slightly cleaner, modified version of the show (it’s very funny but quite filthy!), so that it can be digested by an even broader range of audiences. I’ll never be a kid-friendly comic, just because it’s in my nature to be brutally honest and expose and reveal everything, and ‘everything’ tends to be quite scandalous and not always suitable for children. So for now I’m just focusing on the tightest hour possible and getting it out on stages all over the world.
CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? Any other plans in the pipeline?
RF: Definitely some time back in LA just hanging out in the countryside drinking wine and petting my dog comes next after this. In some ways I’m quite lazy by nature, and like to just chill a lot and be present in the moment. On the flip side, I’m wildly ambitious and driven to make all of my dreams come true, and I do feel that the universe is conspiring with me to achieve this. So basically, yeah – at first just some nice chill time back home and then total. world. domination.
‘Roman Fraden: Back In The Closet’ is on at Gilded Balloon Teviot until 27 Aug.
Photo: Jamie Biver