San Churro, QV, 5:45pm

Jolene Bolinger grew up in the tiny village of Byhalia, Ohio, in the Midwest United States.  It is a town of open fields, friendly folk and grandmothers who have ‘hobby’ gun collections. In this conservative part of the world, Jolene always felt her family was a little kooky; her parents were divorced, her brother had a mental illness and her mom grew weed in the backyard.

Last year the 24-year-old actor decided to leave Ohio for an adventure in the wide world. Two continents later, she found herself at the 2010 Melbourne Fringe Festival with her own show, Gospel Truth. The show delves into stories from her childhood and explores how she has, slowly, come to terms with who she is and where she is from.

I met Jolene at QV shopping centre and (resisting the inappropriate urge to break into a Dolly Parton song) I sat down with her for some chai before her final show rehearsals.

What has led you to be putting on your first show, Gospel Truth, at the Melbourne Fringe Festival?

In 2003, I was studying medicine at Ohio State University and as an elective I took some acting classes. It was then I realised that I didn’t so much want to be a doctor but play a doctor on TV.

After I finished my degree, I went backpacking and I arrived in Edinburgh. The whole experience of travelling on my own was so romantic that I fell in love with Scotland so I lived there for six months. During the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I met so many people from Melbourne, each one better than the last, so I decided to come here.

My show director is comedian Andy McCelland. I was having lunch with him one day and I started telling him stories from my family and the show concept just grew from there.

 Your show looks at some of the peculiar cultural traditions in the American Midwest. Can you share some of those?

I grew up on a dairy farm and there is a very strong farm culture in the Midwest. For example, we had a ‘drive your tractor to school’ day. Growing up, the culture was centred around Friday night football games and hanging out in parking lots and in the backs of trucks, having bonfires or hayrides.

What parts of Australian culture have surprised you?

It’s very culturally diverse in Australia. Ohio’s population is 97 per cent white, so I’ve never encountered some of the cultures I have seen here or eaten their food. Sushi is eight dollars a role in Ohio but I’ve been eating massive amounts in Australia and it’s delicious.

Your show draws on some very personal themes from your life. What is the main narrative you want to convey?

The show is about me coming to terms with my family and the way my life experience is very different from other Midwesterners. I was sort of angry with my family for a long time because I had such an abnormal upbringing. My mom smoked a lot of weed and she grew it in our backyard; my brothers are half Indonesian and less than one per cent of the population in Ohio is Asian; also one of my brothers was schizophrenic.

It felt like everything in my childhood was different from everyone I knew. I would try and draw attention to myself to take the focus away from my family. I didn’t invite kids over and I had a hard time fitting in. I was also really religious, more so than the rest of my family. I don’t think I became religious to fit in, but because I felt displaced it gave me a sense of security. My mom actually encouraged me to go to church even though she was doing really outrageous things. It was sort of when I fell away from my faith that I had a clearer understanding of my family and almost caused me to be more accepting of them.

You’ve said you were quite religious during your upbringing, so I guess I am a little surprised you have a tattoo. Is there a special story behind it?

This tattoo on my upper arm is of Ohio. I love the Midwest because you can see miles and miles of cornfields which are really very beautiful. When I go home everyone knows me and they pull over their cars on the side of the road. It’s just a place I never want to go back to [live], so when I was leaving I got the tattoo.

Do you have a favourite anecdote about your family from your show?

One story I really like is when I was twelve and my brother became schizophrenic. He had this weird paranoia where he would only take things that I bought him. So if he needed socks, my grandma would go out to buy them, bring them to the driveway and give them to me, then I would give them to him. He would say “oh they’re from you, I love them”. At Christmas, this made me the best little sister ever, because I could say all the presents were from me and the rest of the family got him nothing.

Has doing the show changed your relationship with your family?

It was very cathartic for me because I realised I really do love my family. They have made me confident enough to do things I am doing now. They responded incredibly well when they found out about the show. I was home a few weeks ago and I read the whole thing to my mom. She loved it and said it made her feel ok about herself.

Finally, what will you do to prepare yourself for the big opening night performance?

I will spend the next day looking for reassurance from everyone I talk to. I like to go to the venue I perform at and do it once with no one there. It’s mostly about gearing myself up for it because I am a very prepared person and I know my scripts well.

Gospel Truth opens Wednesday 22nd September at the Grace Darling Hotel, 114 Smith Street, Collingwood, as part of the 2010 Melbourne Fringe Festival. 7:30pm – 8:30pm. For more information about the show click here.