Help Yourself centers on a self-help guru named Gabe Newland (Jeff Smith) who conducts a weekend seminar for a group of people hoping to drastically change their lives: a meteorologist named Honey Weathers (Teri Adams), a nurse named Caroline Weathers (Stefanie Stevens) and a recovering alcoholic (Kyle Dyck).
Other people’s problems, Reed said, were “a rich cesspool” of inspiration.
But the play’s based on Reed’s own experience as well. In the late 1990s, at the urging of well-meaning friends, Reed attended a seminar similar to the one in Help Yourself.
“They were right,” Reed said of his friends, even if he wasn’t ready for it at the time. “I think we all want change, but when it stares us in the face, we think, ‘I’m scared, I don’t think so.’ These weekend seminars expedite the process, push you quicker. You might get there on your own time, through a New Year’s resolution, or right away through a transformational seminar.”
Back then, Reed said he struggled with feeling as if he wasn’t good enough. It’s a common sentiment, he said, and he eventually gained more confidence. But there’s always something.
“I’ve had a myriad of problems since,” Reed said. “Problems are the gasoline that runs the self-help car – otherwise it wouldn’t be an $8 billion a year industry.”
Reed said he’s a fan of “the construct” of self-help seminars, television makeover shows and “the whole religion of Oprah and her congregants.” Viewers can get a vicarious transformational fix, Reed said, by watching such shows’ climactic reveals.
“It's how that makeover transforms people. When they see themselves in the mirror for the first time and it’s a recognition they’re a different person now, there’s something very exciting about that transformational moment – we can experience the transformation without having to do the hard work ourselves.”
Although Help Yourself might seem different from his previous work, especially the trucker-movie parodies Mother Trucker and Mother Trucker 2: Ride On and the “tabloid nativity” of White Nose Christmas, Reed said there’s a consistent through-line.
“I’m interested in communities’ different languages. There’s the trucker language, the pop culture language, tabloid language we explored in White Nose Christmas. With this there’s the self-help language. I’m interested in how people speak to each other in those different vernaculars. Also, when I went to this transformational retreat, there was a leader on stage, the audience, the microphones. It was like church, which has its origins in theater. That really inspired me.”
That theatricality is what provides Reed’s fictional self-help guru, Gabe Newland, with his signature schtick:
“Here’s the thing folks,” Newland says in the play. “Life is just one big metaphor. Life is a choose-your-own adventure book. Life is just a story. You are the lead character. You are the writer. You are the great American novel, each and every one of you. So who’s the hero of your story? Is it you? Because if it isn’t, it should be.”
Newland’s self-improvement model, Reed said, is based on dramatic structure.
“We are just a bunch of pronouns," Reed said. "And we have falling action, rising action, climaxes if you’re lucky, resolution.”
Host Gina Kaufmann sounded dubious about that last one.
“Do we always get resolution?” she asked.
“I think we get little resolutions,” Reed said. “A series of tiny resolutions that might be good enough for then.”
And if all else fails, there’s that old cliché about how time heals.
“When I look back on my life and think of times when really terrible things happen to me," Reed said, "I think what happened in the day, the months, the year after that and there was always a huge positive came from that.”
Help Yourself, Jan. 16-Feb. 2 at the Paragraph Gallery, 23 E. 12th St., Kansas City, Mo., 64105. Ticket information is here.