Chin Up, Chest Out, That’s What It’s About

What with recent visits of “The Vagina Monologues” and last month’s world premiere of “Bloodlines,” which featured a similarly-structured series of vignettes about menstruation, one had to do a double-take when “Nipples to the Wind” showed up on the upcoming Lobero Theatre lineup.

But despite its title, “Nipples” isn’t intended to titillate. In fact, the theater piece isn’t even about women’s body parts at all.

“It’s just an old Southern expression that means ‘Head up and chest out,’” says Paula Coco, who created the series of monologues that comprise the show and, along with her aunt, Janye Anderson – who is only five years older than her – performs all of the roles.

“It means you have to face up to adversity in life and keep moving forward,” Coco continues. “I used to hear it a lot when I lived down South, but I’m finding out it’s not as common everywhere else. But we’re sticking with it because it just seems right.”

The phrase and the attitude sum up the 15 or so characters featured in the play. ”They’re all struggling with a problem or two, but they have the strength to survive,” Coco says. “That’s the way we all should be.”

Surviving, or at least persevering, could also describe Coco, who after earning a degree in theater spent nearly 15 years as a suburban housewife in Texas never setting foot on a stage. Then the family’s move to New Jersey prompted her to revive her acting ambitions via the comedy clubs in New York. After scoring gigs at such places as Caroline’s and the Comic Strip, Coco created her own improvisation troupe after the family relocated to Connecticut.

Several of the characters in “Nipples” grew out of sketches for the group.

“One night when we asked for an occupation for the World’s Worst game, someone yelled out ‘suicide hotline operator,’ and I immediately came up with a narcissistic operator,” Coco recalls. “That became Flora, one of my favorites.”

Others characters were fashioned from her earlier stand-up routine, such as the narrator of “Little League Moms Gone Wild.” “I used to see some rather tragic parents when our kids were in Little League,” Coco says. “So I talked about it a lot in my act. But in seventeen years of comedy, I’d developed a lot of characters that weren’t right for the standard set up followed by punch-line format of stand-up. I wanted to flesh them out for a different stage.”

Coco began building “Nipples” in 2003, and workshopped it for the next two year, thinking it would be a one-woman show. Somewhere along the way, though, she realized adding another actress would bring the play to a different level.

“I wanted to have high production values, and fully enhance the characters with costume and wig and make-up changes for each monologue,” she explains. “I wanted people to think of The Tracy Ullman Show. Janye and I grew up making each other laugh, and she’s studied with a Julliard-trained actress, so bringing her on was a no-brainer.”

The duo opened “Nipples” in hometown New Haven just last year.

“The response was way beyond our expectations,” Coco says. “It really sparked something for people. I think it’s because they’re universal characters. They’re you or your neighbors, or maybe one of your relatives. And surprisingly, men seem to like it even more. I think they recognize the women they live with – or have to put up with. I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘Oh, my god, that’s so-and-so!’

“But they’re all ultimately lovable,” she goes on. “People walk away thinking, ‘You know, even though they’re over the top, I wouldn’t mind hanging with them for a little while.’”

“Nipples to the Wind” plays Thursday through Saturday at the Lobero Theatre. Call 963-0761 for tickets.