Photography by: Zeke Hanson
By: Zeke Hanson
When Bob Seger was writing the song “Turn the Page,” he was touring through the Midwest with Teegarden & Van Winkle. Before recording it, the first ears to hear him play it were the corn fields near Mitchell, SD. That is not a joke.
Thankfully, you’re in luck, because while this article is about a comedian, I am not that comedian.
The song “Turn the Page” is about how long a tour can be, and how it’s not always as glamorous as it may seem when you’re surrounded by the screaming crowds and full stadiums. But instead of being somewhere East of Omaha, we’re headed South to start this journey.
While there aren’t ever any eventless trips, the jaded nature of the song may have been avoided entirely if they had toured the country like Aurora LaRay.
At any given moment, it might be easier to find Waldo, than to pinpoint where in the world Aurora is playing, and this article would undoubtedly be shorter if I were to list the things that she didn’t do on her travels than all of the creative endeavors she finds time not only to do, but to do well as she canvases the country.
Aurora grew up in Nebraska, attended college in Arizona, but soon moved to LA to pursue her master’s degree in screenwriting.
“I moved out there to get my master’s degree in Screenwriting. After I graduated, I was…not lost, but I didn’t really know what to do next.”
That’s one of those visceral realities that settles in after you’ve completed a goal, only to find that there isn’t anyone knocking on your door to say congratulations, here’s a pile of cash. Rather than rolling over, or curling up, Aurora dug in, and began to put herself up for background work.
“I signed up because I needed to pay my rent. I think a lot of people do this. I was at Central Casting every day doing background work. Which was cool, because I got to learn a lot. To really see what was going on, how things worked, and how much really goes into the process. Even though I went to film school, I had only studied screenwriting in depth. They did this amazing section that took the screenwriting program, and put us on the Universal Backlot, and let us basically play Cinematographer, or play Editor. It wasn’t enough time to really hone those skills, but it gave us the idea of how long it really takes to make a movie, or a TV show, or even a five-minute web series episode.
I was at Central Casting all the time. Then I had this audition, down in North Hollywood, for a comedy stage play. I got lost. I ended up walking into Ha Ha Comedy Club to ask for directions, they thought I was there for the open mic. And I was like ‘Oh no, no, no. I’m looking for this other place.’ And they gave me the directions, I went to the audition, did not get that part, but then it just kind of… it was a moment. Throughout my life, people have been like ‘You’re funny. You should try standup.’ I was in improv courses at UCB, and my instructor kept saying ‘Your monologues are strong. Go do stand up.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, it’s so scary.’ I ended up going back to Ha Ha Comedy Club, and I was hooked. So, it was kind of a weird circle around how I started to do standup comedy. I sucked so bad. But, everybody was so nice to me. I think they kind of felt a little sorry for me, I was so nervous on stage, I talked into my armpit the entire set. But, I loved it. I loved being on the stage. I loved being part of the community. And I kept going back.”
Getting lost to find yourself at comedy is quite the start. But it wasn’t just finding the nerve to do standup, it also allowed Aurora to draw from the strengths that she had already honed, and gave her another reason to bet on herself. Because standing on stage alone, working on her own written material, and being the sole focus of the attention on stage, allowed her to broaden her horizon toward acting.
“The acting was totally secondary,” Aurora recalls, “I specifically moved to Los Angeles dead set on writing. While I was there, I caught the acting bug. I mentioned we started to do those practice things in my acting course for screenwriters. Which, still to this day, when I’m writing a script, I think about that. About how it’s so easy to overwrite dialogue, and remembering not to. And how awkward it sounds when it’s not natural.
My friend and I chose to do a scene from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. We were playing it fun and light. It was such a riot to grab those things from my own personality and build that. Pairing that with Central Casting, it just kind of spurred things, you meet people, and they put you in their web series and things like that. But I really like both sides of it. I like being on screen a lot. I like that opportunity to find things to build these characters and connect them to myself. But I also really like the writing aspect. I love all of it. You know? I lucked out. I really lucked out.”
The move to LA was a giant leap, but after moving to LA, and also expanding her creative skills, Aurora decided to move…everywhere.
“I grew up camping. Of course, I’m from Nebraska. We spent a lot of time camping…motorhomes, tents, all of it. I was living in my apartment, and I actually got to this point where I was starting to book out of state. Which was great. That’s that moment, that initial break where you’re like; Yes, I can actually make a living at this.’ So, I’ve got this apartment, I’m paying rent, and I’m not there. Ever. And I’m living in hotels,” harkening back to that bleak lonely lifestyle from Turn the Page, “and it really wasn’t the lifestyle that I wanted. I feel like that’s why they write the songs about it being negative living on the road. ‘I want to have fun. I’m in these places, and I want to eat here and go check out this thing that’s three hours away.’
I started looking at motorhomes. That’s when I adopted Paco (*Paco is half Coyote, which gives this origin story a similar start to Pecos Bill, making it a legendary tale). We became our own little road trip family. We keep adding members. I said the other day, I think I’m going to have to upgrade to a larger model. I love this size motorhome, because you can go to any State Park. You can boondock anywhere. But when you throw two 50-pound dogs, myself, and the cat, who seems to take up the most space of everybody, it might be time to go from a Class C to a Class A. So, we’re dabbling with the idea of an upgrade.
No matter what you do, or where you live, or where you travel, life always seems to catch up with you. That’s just the nature of it. It isn’t different for Aurora, she still has things happen that go against the bubbly and smiling personality that seems to spread wherever she goes.
“I don’t know. It’s a weird thing that happens. I feel like the moment when I step on stage, it’s like all of that stuff weighing me down, it just stays in the green room or wherever. It doesn’t come on stage with me. I think that’s a big part of the reason I get so much from being on stage. Because it’s this moment when I get to be funny. I get to share my experiences. I get to connect on this amazing level with the audience. I’m talking, but the laughter is the answer. And just keeping that going, and that wave of feeling. I’m not tired when I’m on stage, you just check it. It’s not even something that I have to mentally do. I leave whatever is on my mind outside to pick up later.
The Upright Citizens Brigade in California proved to be a driving force in Aurora’s comedy growth.
“I loved it. The first course was a big challenge. The goal is to be based in reality. I’d always veer toward pretending that ‘I’m a plane. I’m a monster.’ Actually being a person who’s doing a thing, existing in the world, it took a minute for me. I always wanted to go for the crazy thing or the quick, easy laugh. Honestly, improv was a huge part of making me a better comedian, better writer, and better actor. I feel that taking those improv classes immensely…It was that step where it was like, whoa, this has taken who I was as a writer to the next level of clean, tight, based in reality writing. I would recommend improv to anyone that’s doing comedy. Same with film and acting.
Aurora wasn’t bitten by an acting bug; she was consumed by a creative monster. And while style is born of necessity, LaRay has a style and tenacity all her own. She writes, stars, shoots and edits her own material.
“I shot a mini short called Gussy. Actually, the character is based on the main character in a script that I wrote, called Under the Law, that went around last year on the festival circuit. I love this character, I wrote her as…well, I wanted to write a villain. I wrote her as, kind of, a vehicle for myself, because I’ve always wanted to play a villain. Usually, when it comes to casting, because of comedy, I’m the girl next door, or the friend, not a murderer. I basically wrote her a “bad guy” monologue. We shot it (Aurora and her mom). I’m really excited about it. I look forward to taking this project to the big screen as a feature in the future.”
Aurora seeks out a lot of those hidden gems in small towns. “I spend a lot of time in Dodge City, Tombstone, Abilene and the like. Any of those places would be amazing to bring Gussy, the live one-woman show version. I think it’ll be a really cool opportunity. It’s something different, kind of outside of the box. When it comes to filming and directing, it’s all very new to me. I think it’s going well, but I’m keeping it in its simplest form. I’m in the learning process of, ‘Okay, let’s get these three shots. Let me learn… The one thing that I think has been…and everybody warns you about sound. You don’t have a movie if you have bad sound. When I was trying to draw out what I was wanting to do, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s like a think bubble, and she’s burying a body.’ So that I would basically be able to have breaks in it. But, I was so worried about the sound that I didn’t actually record it at a healthy volume. When I got everything together, visually it looked really good, but it was like I was whispering. So, I ended up ADR-ing (Automated Dialogue Replacement) it, and that in itself was a whole crazy thing.”
It was an easy lesson learned for Aurora though, who also has a web series called “Go Camp” and sings as well, so she realized that she didn’t have to completely re-invest in audio gear. “I just used the stuff that I use for music, and it worked a lot better. Because I was like, ‘Why am I trying to figure out something new when I actually know how to use the audio equipment that I use for recording music. It was just one of those moments where you go, ‘I wish I would have realized this six hours ago.’ I’m so happy with how it came out. Honestly, it came out so much better than I could have possibly imagined. And my mom is amazing. She shot the whole thing. We used my phone, so it was like…’budget’.”
LaRay isn’t being chased across the country. She works coast to coast because she wants to. “I love to travel and I want to share that in the web series. I want to connect with people. I want to…I use “inspire” loosely, but if someone is sitting in their apartment in Burbank going ‘man, this is not fulfilling to me, I want to be doing something else.’ I hope they run across my YouTube channel and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can have it all. I think we get really stuck in the “I can’t do this because of this. I can’t move because of this.” At the end of the day, we are allowed to have it all. If you want to travel, and you want to make films, you can do it. I know a lot of us are making fun of millennials and their buses, or whatever. It’s an opportunity. When I told people I was going to live in a motorhome, they kept asking if I was okay or if I needed financial help. You know, deeply concerned. But I think that they were thinking a van-down-by-the-river type of thing. Just eating cheese, you know? But it’s like, ‘I’m okay, I promise. This is a choice.’”
The one person show. Being your own advocate, fan, and manager, is a tough row to hoe. Especially when you also have to find the time to be the talent, which in most cases, is the only part that other people get to see.
“The thing that I have the most trouble with, especially when I’m getting ready to book, is the cold call. I’m going to message people and call places, and they’re not going to be interested in what I have. That’s not a reflection on me, it’s not a reflection on them, but it’s hard, because it’s like, ‘Why don’t you like me? Why don’t you want to hear my jokes about gas stations?’ That can be hard sometimes. When I first started booking in the southeast, I didn’t have a starting point. It was a lot of throwing a dart and guessing. That is always an uncomfortable situation, especially when you haven’t been there. If I’m visiting a place and I want to come back to the area, I’ll usually go in and introduce myself. It’s definitely very 1980s style, but it’s so much more comfortable for me when I’m making that cold call down the road. It’s not really so cold. In person, if you’re just sitting there, having a grilled cheese sandwich and you say, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing comedy? I play music, too!’ And if they’re like, ‘That’s not really our vibe.’ I like that a heck of a lot better than an email that says, “pass”.
That’s a lot of time, sweat and patience to dedicate to a project. Between the stages, clubs, festivals, and open road, Aurora has made a point to stop and smell the roses.
“I pick places on purpose,” she says with a smile, “anytime I’m on a trip, I’ll end up in a situation where I’m like, ‘Oh man, I wish I had time to go see that.’ I keep a little notebook of things, places, events that I must see in the future. For example, the next tour that I book for Texas, I’d probably look at Spring. I’d stopped at the Visitor’s Center. It’s always worth a stop at a Visitor’s Center. While I was there, they told me about this place called Fredericksburg, Texas. They have these beautiful wildflowers, and there’s all kinds of cool stuff. It still keeps me close to towns that I already love to perform. The towns where audience members become friends and now, family.
The plan is always to see as much of a state as possible. I am a huge fan of small towns, hidden gems, state parks, national forests, anywhere that you’re kind of away from the bustle of everything. A lot of the cool stuff I’ve found is because I’ve made the wrong turn. That happens more often when I’m towing a car, because I don’t want to try to turn around so I just go, ‘Oh, I’ll just keep going down this road until there’s a wide parking lot.’ Which, sometimes, can be days.”
Aurora: Okay, well, the two dogs and the cat.
Bleeds: Put them in one kennel. Then you can take them as one.
Aurora: Well, I guess, if I was anywhere, they would just be with me. Because they’re an extension of…Can I just bring my motorhome?
Bleeds: You can bring the motorhome.
Aurora: Okay, that’s really all I need: the dogs, the cat, and the motorhome.
Bleeds: There you go.
Aurora: Yeah. And then, maybe a backup solar panel.
Aurora: Yeah, because then you could run everything out of it. And I’m assuming an island on the water.
Aurora: Yeah, so I know how to fish. But this is basically hurricane ready, so you could just drop it anywhere and we can live.
AND – The Last Act on the Titanic
Aurora: I’d like to think I’m the person who would have already given up my seat on the boat. I feel like you are on the water, so maybe a little Jimmy Buffet. Maybe some sea shanties, some singalongs. I don’t know. I guess you just have to see what the crowd was into, lean on those improv skills. Are we going to go gallows, or are we going to pretend like it’s not happening? Like, what realm of pretending are we going to be in?
Bleeds: No gallows humor, though?
Aurora: Well, I mean, if they wanted it. You’ve gotta give the crowd what they want.
Bleeds: That’s true.
Aurora LaRay has a web series called “Go Camp with Aurora Laray”. You can hear her sing and share stories of whatever fantastic corner of the country she currently finds herself in.
You can follow her here: @auroralaray
Or you can check for tour dates here: auroralaray.com
Aurora is on the road again, and if she isn’t playing at a location near you now, just give her time, she’ll get everywhere man, just watch for the RV with a windshield full of smiles.