"I was drawn to the movies when I was a little girl. I believed in that world, and I still do," Nora Dunn says. "But I am not drawn to the reality of show business. The show is kind of about the tension between myth and reality."
Sitting at a sidewalk cafe in the Loop on a recent sunny afternoon, with her pup, Petie, at her feet, the former Saturday Night Live cast member is talking about her new solo show, Mythical Proportions, which she's premiering at Lakeview's Theater Wit. "It's about the myth of your own life," Dunn says of the show, in which she performs some pieces in her own voice, others as characters.
"I don't like to say the theme is show business, because it's not. But [it's] the tension between reality and myth. And being in show business, Hollywood has its own myth," she says. "You can't be drawn into that as a real thing. I've worked with people who are. Liza Minnelli—she lives in that myth. That's all she knows. Kind of Carrie Fisher, too."
The Chicago native, 61, who now splits her time between here and a home in Pasadena, California, describes a childhood in "a bad neighborhood" where she and her five siblings shared a single bed. "I grew up on just what was called the West Side back then. We moved a lot, Homan up through Austin. We described our neighborhoods by parishes, so I was in Our Lady of Sorrows."
As a defense mechanism, she says, she retreated into "a fantasy world" that eventually led to pursuing a career as a writer and performer. Still, "when I got to Saturday Night Live, I was all my life a very, very shy person. I was a witness, not a participant, and I think a good writer always is a witness," she says.
"Madonna was our first host," Dunn recalls of joining the show in 1985. "I didn't talk to her. It was very weird to suddenly be working with Jerry Hall and have Mick Jagger come up and say, 'Hey, how are you?'" she says, miming her silent, jaw-dropped response. "People must have thought I was rude. But what do you say to these people? Everybody who came through there was an icon. I eventually got used to it, but I never equated myself with those people," she says.
"I tell a story in my show of the first time we went out to dinner—Lorne Michaels took me, Dennis Miller and six other people out to dinner, and we weren't hired yet; we were out there auditioning. On our way out, Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston were having dinner. Lorne introduced us, and they invited us to sit down for an after-dinner drink. And I just couldn't do it…I didn't want to know them as people. It's always a disappointment, even when they're wonderful people."
In addition to tales from her own life in showbiz, Dunn plays characters including a fictional 87-year-old agent who reflects on Hollywood's golden age and a seven-year-old girl who's obsessed with a prison reality show. Yet she still struggles with how to describe the show succinctly. "I should know that by know," she says wryly. "It is the fictional life of truth, is the subtitle of the show…I know when people walk out, they will know why it's called Mythical Proportions. All of the stories, they're epic."