He’s easy to miss but not hard to recognize. With a flat cap that never seems to leave his head and a pair of khakis that usually complement a playfully logoed T-shirt, Paul Strickland seems average. He believes the world is trying desperately to make itself more and more boring, so he does what he knows best to relieve the boredom. But what this multitalented 35-year-old knows best might not be exactly what the rest of us are familiar with.
“I feel like I do several things in a Venn diagram-y kind of way,” the Cincinnati transplant says. “My goal is just to be delightfully strange, to make things that are not off-putting but definitely make you think about what you just witnessed.”
A maker of things, as Strickland often refers to himself, is a modest title compared to the many he could use. But no matter what he’s making – and he is always making something – it is undoubtedly meant for the stage. He brings a one-off storytelling element to everything he does, which on any given day could be standup comedy, alternative theater or musical performance.
He fuses his flair for comedy and music in his well-known trailer park trilogy Ain’t True and Uncle False (featured in the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival), in which he mythologizes Big Fib Cul-de-sac and its inhabitants. Like most of his work, Strickland brings the show to life in one-man form, accompanied only by a guitar and simple props.
“It’s an entire world that I’ve built and created myself because it’s a comfortable world to live in,” he says. “I really love certain things about the South. There is a way in which older southern people are so unique to themselves, I really admire that and I have a not-close relationship with most of my family, so I just invented one I liked.”
Strickland found comfort onstage singing in church when he was 7 and from watching his grandfather preach the gospel in a full-spirited, music-infused kind of way. Now he doesn’t think twice about stepping in front of an audience and can'’t even recall a specifically embarrassing moment in his career, which doesn’t mean he hasn’t failed, he’s just more receptive to it.
“I’ve never been a guy that has let myself off the hook,” Strickland confesses. “If I’m not working on something I get very depressed. I don’t have days where I don’t work.” His stubbornness can be a double-edged sword. He refuses to do anything he’s not passionate about, even as he went through stints of homelessness and standup wasn’t paying the bills, he toughed it out until it worked in his favor (and it eventually did).
Strickland landed a record deal with On Tour Records in 2012, which has since produced two standup albums — Levels of Difficulty (2012) and The Adolescence of Adulthood (2014) — and is set to release a third in 2016.
While Strickland’s theater productions are imaginative and unconventional, his standup mocks the standards of life and is more reliant on delivery. His material fits into the mainstream but doesn’t follow today’s trend of being offensive for the sake of a laugh. Jokes about having no “game” or getting older may fall short on laughs but never entertainment because he does what few others do with these common topics by exploring them through song.
One would imagine someone who makes fun of his own shortcomings, animates invisible characters and belts out songs about trailer park drama to have a loud personality, but Strickland is more reserved. He is a heightened version of himself while on stage, as if his true identity thrives within his performance while his real life persona strives to perfect it. It works so well because he does it for the sake of enjoyment. He dares to be tangible in this age of the Internet. He is not concerned with fame, he doesn’t have his own YouTube channel and his website hasn’t been updated in years but he is constantly improving what his audience will see.
Strickland found an artistic home at the Know Theatre when he moved to Cincinnati in November and has since been teaching storytelling and standup workshops there. “It is the single most supportive environment for the art that I make that I have ever found in my entire life,” he says of the Know. In late May it will host the ever-anticipated 2015 Fringe Festival, which includes the Cincinnati premiere of the last installment of Strickland’s trailer park trilogy: Tales Too Tall for Trailers. Strickland described it as “Pee-wee Herman meets Mark Twain,” a show full of mask work, shadow puppetry, movement, music and … clothespins as an instrument. We’ll never know until we see.
At times it may seem as though Strickland doesn’t have a specific direction, but he definitely isn’t aimless. He has found his place in the unforgiving world of theater and Cincinnati is lucky to be one of the places where this unpredictable artist shares his talent.
For more information on PAUL STRICKLAND, visit talkingpaul.com.