Growing up in the 1960s, Rain Perry had the kind of childhood your grandparents warn you against. As a young child, she had to depend on a hippie dad with not enough money and too many girlfriends. She shared houses with roommates with names such as "Superman" and "Bear," wore hand-me-down clothes from other poor kids, ate rennet-less jack cheese sandwiches for lunch, and was told never to smoke pot – except with her dad.
Was it a tragic experience?
Not really: Perry survived, as children usually survive the excesses of their parents, and along the way grew up to be an award-winning singer-songwriter, becoming the sort of semi-famous artist her late father always wanted to be.
Now, with characteristic good humor, she is opening a theater show about her upbringing, having some fun with her hippie past, but also giving audiences a chance to hear in song (and see in photographs) exactly what it felt like – the joy and heartache of growing up a "wild child."
A new song by that name tells the story of her youth in foggy West Marin County, to the north of San Francisco. Now the area is known for bed-and-breakfasts and well-off tourists, but at the time Inverness was an obscure little town with big farmhouses that could be rented cheaply – ideal for hippies living communally. Perry sings: "Played tag on the ridge by moonlight/Just because it was a lovely night/Everyone in a circle/We had so much time."
The songs she wrote for the show will be part of a new album, her third, but as she began writing the songs after her father died of cancer in 1999, she found she had too much good material to fit into 12 songs.
"I was working with a musical career consultant named Kari Estrin," Perry says. "She told me to write everything out in prose, and figure out later what would work in songs and what wouldn’t. I came up with what I thought was a lot of really great material. I knew that it was bigger than an album, but I didn’t know what to do with it until I took a class with Kim."
Kim Maxwell, a fast-talking and animated actress who co-founded Theatre 150 in Ojai with her ex-husband Dwier Brown, specializes in helping students find their voice on stage. When Perry took Maxwell’s acting-writing class, she found it liberating, both as a performer on stage, and as a writer. It especially benefited Perry’s sense of humor, which isn’t always easy to fit into songs, but gets plenty of exposure in the show.
The humor also comes out as she rehearses the show with Maxwell, who has gone on to become the director of Perry’s show (called Cinderblock Bookshelves, which is also the name of the soon-to-be-released album).
While going over a scene from her teenage years, Perry reveals that when she moved from California to Colorado as a teenager, she found herself going from a hippie world where "everyone was naked – often" and women didn’t shave at all to a conservative town where the girls shaved not just their legs, but their arms as well.
"Oh my God, they did not!" cries Maxwell in mock horror. A little later, as she works on the movements onstage with Perry, she decides Perry should return to a central chair on stage, to make a central turn in the narrative clear.
"Run back to the chair," she tells Perry. "Run back to the chair and wait for the arrival of your sexuality!"
Perry smiles with wry appreciation. Looking back at her childhood, Perry sees both good and bad, but one of the worst parts of it was what she called the "too much information aspect." Because her mother died when she was a young child, she grew up sharing everything with her dad, and ended up learning far more than she really wanted to about his personal problems.
"In talking to my childhood friends now, I think we agree that there was an epidemic at that time of parents over-sharing with kids who really weren’t old enough to understand adult issues," she says. "I’m trying not to do that with my kids."
Perry stresses that she feels the counterculture brought a lot of good to American culture, much of which she believes we now take for granted. She cites patients’ rights, the questioning of authority, natural childbirth, the peace movement, and yoga. On a personal level, she is deeply grateful to her father for believing she had something worth saying and worth writing down.
"My dad taught me to value my expression," Perry says. "A lot of kids aren’t raised to value that at all, and it becomes a huge struggle for them as they grow older."
After her father died, as the only survivor she inherited his papers, and spent months reading through his letters, screenplays and diaries. (She didn’t worry about prying into his private life, knowing he always wanted to make an "autobiographical epic" movie of his life at some point.) Reading letters from his stern Midwestern father, who wanted him to go to a prep school back East, who couldn’t understand why he named his daughter Rain instead of Lorraine, and who never approved of his interest in drama, Perry gained a new appreciation of why her father had rejected his in-laws. But she also knows from personal experience how difficult it was for her as a kid, which she describes poignantly in a couple lines in the title song: "On the highway together, my daddy and me/From where we can live freely to where we can stay for free."
She has been working on the show for the last three years, taking it through two versions, but neither she nor Maxwell was entirely happy with the past performances. Before planning a big premiere at the new and much-larger version of Theatre 150 in Downtown Ojai, they gave the play to veteran English screenwriter Peter Bellwood for editing.
Bellwood, who learned a great deal performing on stage with famous friends such as Peter Cook and the late Dudley Moore, made some crucial changes. First, he cut the show, to maintain its momentum, which also allowed Perry to sing her songs from start to finish (previously, she had only begun many of the songs, fading them out partway, which was frustrating to audiences, given her songwriting ability). He also asked Perry to play her story "completely straight, without any kowtowing to the audience."
Too much self-deprecation makes audiences nervous," he says. "As the chairman of her supporters’ club, I don’t want Rain to say or do anything that suggests she should be given a free ride. I’m so impressed with Rain; I want her to get in the audience’s face while telling her story, to just do it without any apology."
This she now does. At one point, she plays a brave young teacher, trying to teach sex education to a rowdy assembly of middle-school kids, answering questions written under anonymity and passed up to the front of the class. Naturally, the mostly immature kids ask the rudest questions they can think of, forcing the teacher to pretend to be far more comfortable with the subject than anyone facing a crowd of middle-school kids could possibly be. Perry plays the teacher’s mortification directly. It’s hilarious.
From Perry’s perspective, the irony is that although everyone expected her to become some kind of free spirit when she graduated from Nordhoff High School, she was only able to become an artist after she became a soccer mom first.
"When I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I had no idea what I was doing," she said. "It wasn’t until I settled down that I was able to figure out how to do it."
Maxwell, who admits her life has become "disheveled" in the aftermath of her recent divorce, admires Perry’s ability to focus, and even has taken lessons from her in stability, such as how to use Quicken and control her finances.
"I grew up in a completely different town, with parents who could hardly have been more different than hers, but I see the exact same struggles in her family as I had in mine," Maxwell said. "All parents want it to be perfect for their kids. That was Rain’s father’s intention, and that was my parents’ intention, and none of them could do it."
Maxwell tears up a little, thinking about her own struggles as a parent, and reveals that since she started working on the show, she has been spending more time trying to make sure her kids are her first priority.
From Perry’s perspective, these kinds of worries are inevitable – but as a kid who survived a good deal of neglect, she has a philosophical outlook on the question.
"I think kids understand a lot more than parents think they do," she says. "They just ‘ozmose’ it. Not telling them everything doesn’t mean that you’re lying, and that’s OK."
Cinderblock Bookshelves: A Guide for Children of Fame-Obsessed Bohemian Nomads opens Feb. 8 at Theatre 150 in Ojai – 16 E. Matilija St., Ojai, 646-4300 – and runs until Feb. 17. For performance dates, times and other information, visit www.theater150.org. For more information on Rain Perry, visit www.rainperry.com