Writer and performer Polly Frost revels in the life lessons she learned at the hands of nontraditional mentors in her new one-woman show, “Bad Role Models and What I Learned From Them.” The show runs Saturday at The Bard’s Town. New York-based Frost last performed in Louisville in 2011, with her show “How to Survive Your Adult Relationship With Your Family.”
“Bad Role Models and What I Learned From Them” is an autobiographical show that spans her horse-obsessed girlhood in 1950s Southern California to her emerging adulthood, in which she becomes a European art-obsessed free spirit, prone to skipping school, she says, to go “hanging out with naked revolutionaries in Big Sur.”
“When I went back through my life, I realized that the people who had this very positive influence on me could really be seen as very bad role models,” says Frost, whose work has been anthologized in “The Best American Short Plays, 2008-2009.”
She offers her riding instructor, an American Saddlebred horse trainer, as an example. She had starred in early silent Western films, and was in her sixties when Frost started riding with her, staying over at her house with the other girls she instructed.
“The first morning I get up at 8 a.m. and she’s pouring herself a Scotch. I stared at her. I had never seen an adult drinking Scotch at 8 a.m. in the morning,” says Frost with a laugh. “She had a very ladylike manner, and she always smoked a cigarette, and she said ‘it’s for my heart. The doctor tells me I need to do this every morning.’”
She taught her charges how to drive, even before they were of legal age. Frost acknowledges that her instructor wasn’t perfect, but she made an impression.
“She really empowered us in this very deep way, because she followed her passion,” says Frost. “And she made it work in a world of cowboys and male trainers.”
Autobiography — especially when you’re recounting the flaws and foibles of real people — can be a tricky thing to negotiate. Frost says when she performed in Altadena, Calif., where she learned to ride horses as a girl, people she hadn’t seen in forty years came to see the show.
“I was almost a little freaked out, because what are they going to think about what I’m saying?” she says.
But reception, she says, has been mostly positive, with old friends getting back in contact to contribute their own memories to hers. And she made sure to perform due diligence on her own memory — the show goes back to the 1950s, after all — interviewing her subjects and those who were around in the times she writes about, in order to check her truths against others’.
“I think it’s really important to get a lot of this history in the way that it actually happened. My generation went through an awful lot of things, and I think it’s really important to get it accurately,” says Frost.
“The other part of it is that a lot of the time when people shape creative nonfiction, they shape it around a trauma, (like) I had a horrible childhood and I went through recovery. And I think those are very important stories for people to tell. That’s not what this story is at all. This story is (about how) you may be appalled by how some of these people behaved, but ultimately it was a very positive thing in my life,” she adds.
Not everyone agrees — a friend of her mother’s told her at a recent show that she “really abused (her) liberal upbringing” — and Frost says she has to remind some audience members of how times have changed when it comes to raising kids.
“Parents didn’t hover over their kids in those days. They weren’t texting their kids. A lot of parents in California were discovering the sex and drug revolution themselves. Why should it just be for the kids? The parents wanted to have their fun,” she says.