Susanna Lee sits on the empty stage of the Outburst Performance Gallery, the new theater she opened last month in the Crossroads Arts District. Multitasking, she inflates balloons with a hand-held air blower while recounting the series of hardships and choices that brought her to the present moment.
“Six months ago, I was working in the sex industry in Los Angeles, trying to justify calling myself a comedian. Today, I own a business. I support other artists and find a place to do my own thing, a place to belong. I can’t believe it.”
She shakes her head, ties a balloon and adds it to the pile. Soon, the display window out front will be completely covered in them, a handmade invitation for new audiences to peek inside.
Known to fans as Lucky DeLuxe, the comedian and storyteller is also a study in curious contradictions: On the surface, one could mistake her for a one-woman mission to redefine what’s taboo … except she doesn’t care what you think. She cusses like Richard Pryor one minute and then eases into an analysis of the Bhagavad Gita the next.
Ink covers nearly all of her body except for a portion of her right arm; she’s as practiced in graceful movement as a ballerina. Five minutes into a conversation with Lee, it’s clear she has had a macro-view of pain and suffering yet somehow remains soft, vulnerable, compassionate; a tattooed and tenderhearted philosopher who has seen the underbelly of life and still finds reasons to smile.
Also a woman with a history of saying yes to opportunity, Lee could probably win a party game for who has the most curious lineup of occupations: a snake handler, escape artist, third grade teacher, private dancer, medical marijuana delivery driver, sex worker, yogi.
But it is her latest role as the owner of the Outburst Performance Gallery, 1715 Wyandotte St. in the former Fishtank Performance Studio, that finally has the Kansas City native saying yes to purpose.
The daughter of a local radio legend, the late Jay Cooper of the “Dick and Jay Show” on KY102, Lee moved from California to Kansas City last fall in search of a place to present her nonconforming style of comedy and storytelling to people who don’t fit into the box of mainstream entertainment.
“You create things to be sold in Los Angeles. When I came back here, I was reminded art exists for art’s sake, because that is what some people do to deal with the world, the internal world and the external world. I’m one of those people,” she says.
Lee soon found a storytelling venue at Birdie’s, Kansas City artist and business owner Peregrine Hoenig’s intimate apparel shop, which neighbors the Outburst. Her show at Birdie’s attracted a growing audience that would soon require a bigger venue.
When the lease opened for the theater space that is now the Outburst, Lee was surprised to find herself with financing to secure the venue and surrounded by friends, some well-connected, others crafty and generous with their time, to help her build the place where she could welcome all voices, especially the marginalized.
“We all deserve the opportunity to be heard,” she says. “The Outburst represents a place where people’s work can be seen and heard the way they want it to be. Pure intention, instead of altered to fit a certain audience or mission statement. It’s a safe place for uncompromised art, uncompromised expression. In a time when now more than ever, people feel oppressed, it’s needed.”
Open Thursday through Saturday, the performance space offers an ever-changing lineup of storytelling, stand-up comedy, solo shows and live music, as well as a bingo brunch and hangover comedy show. Most show tickets are $10, with none costing over $15.
Several nights later, it’s showtime. The balloons are in place out front, and the audience is seated and happy. Under the hot lights, Lee’s stage persona as patron saint to provocateurs is more aloof and bawdy than she is in person, more fearless, lovable, energetic.
“How you guys doing tonight?” she purrs, red lips turning up into a sly smile. She launches into a joke about new year’s resolutions and bar manners, and the audience is quick to laugh.
A few minutes in and it’s easy to see why she has won acclaim at the KC Fringe Festival in recent years, as well as stints on Sirius XM’s Raw Dog Comedy channel, and on TV shows like “Brides of Beverly Hills,” “Girls Behaving Badly” and “Last Comic Standing.” Her act is most definitely NC-17 and explicit, and this is the way it has to be, she says, why she didn’t fit in at any other place.
When she is done regaling the audience with stories of hilarity and unimaginable situations, Lee introduces poet Jen Harris, a performer finding room and reception at the Outburst, her one-woman show inspired by poems written during a painful divorce.
“My work is about relatability not marketability. I’m not that girl next door, I’m not going to make a career of modeling, I can’t sing. I don’t have any other talents, things you can sell. What I have is truth,” Harris says. “Every time I talk about my truth I heal and connect with people, and they heal and say, ‘Me too,’ and then we are less alone. That’s what this place is about.”
On a quiet Monday night, Lee takes the stage once again, this time to unroll her mat and prepare to teach an hourlong yoga class. The performer who cackled with glee during the prior weekend’s performance is now all about ujjayi breathing, namaste and let-it-go mantras.
For her, it all ties in together.
“Discomfort in life can lead to better things,” she says. “I’m in a good place now because of it. Artists are booked for months, my overhead is low so I can take risks and indulge in the art of it. That’s what matters to me. I’m not looking for what’s next.
This is what’s now, what’s next.”
Through training to teach yoga in Los Angeles, as well as the pivotal death of her beloved father last spring, Lee has finally reached a place of mindful consideration for what’s truly important, and it’s that principle that supports her visions for the Outburst.
“I care about telling my stories, about giving a voice to other people. Storytelling connects people, creates relations and reduces the shame we feel over the stuff we do because we see other people do stuff too,” she says, before class begins. She smiles, nods with satisfaction that she has spoken her piece with the right words at the right time, and climbs onto her mat. Once she is in lotus position, the theater seems filled with her calm intention.
“Press down into your hands,” she instructs, her voice low and strong as she directs a vinyasa flow over a Leonard Cohen ballad. The music fills the theater with longing and secret chords and chants of om that drift out the door and into the dark night of the city, a battle cry, maybe, or just a whisper, to let the people know they are welcome.
Outburst Performance Gallery
1715 Wyandotte St.