Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Transformational Monologue Process

After writing and performing my own solo shows for several years, I needed to find a way to support myself and daughter. I was going through a divorce at the time and she was little and I wanted to find a way to make money doing something related to what I loved and what I ws good at.

I decided to start a class at the Center for Contemporary Art, here in Santa Fe for people to come and write stories from their lives and perform them. I had 6 woman in that first class and I just decided to work with them the same way I worked to create my own solo shows.

When people are given a sacred space where you really listen to their stories, without interruption, critisism, or an attempt to "fix them or their problems" the whole inner world of a person opens up. I understood that this was (and is) my primary job in working with people and their stories.

If I hadn't been in therapy or twelve step programs for many years, I would not have been able to do this work and offer it to others in a successful way. I created it organically from what had been modeled to me in others sacred space.

I'll never forget that first group and the first "group monologue" performance. There were about 40 people who showed up, all friends of the performers basically.
One woman told a story of growing up as a lesbian in the South and her mother's horrendous cooking of such 70's recipes as canned fruit chicken! (Yuck) Another woman told of her experiences in Afica before she became a mother and the HIV infected children singing on the banks of a river with such joy. There was a woman who was the youngest of 14 children in Detroit. She never had her own bed and her dad ran a sex shop.

And on and on..... The stories just spilled out and the audience was rivited. My experience in doing solo shows was that I went into rehearsal for a month. But, we did this in two weekends and even though the performance was not polished, the stories were so intimate and raw and human. We were all laughing and crying and getting goosebumps.

It was perfect and it gave me the inspiration to do all my subsequent shows. Around this time, I has a dream where I saw the words The Cancer Monologues floating over Lincon Center in NYC. I decided to focus the work, initailly just for cancer survivers. I invited groups of 8-10 people to write and perform their authentic stories of the experiences of having cancer. And, from there I've done numerous shows with groups of people writing and performing their authentic experiences to audiences around the country. I can tell you that it's the most amazing work I have been given and I carry it in my heart and work to deepen and honor it everyday.

I've done these group monologue shows with mothers sharing their birth stories, hospice caregivers who share about losing a loved one, Palestinian and Israeli teens working to understand each other and create peace, Veterans working to heal and create peace, sexual abuse survivers, people with AIDS and more.

I have become not only a storyteller but a storygatherer and I carry each story that I have helped facilitate and present to audeinces in my bones. It works on me in an alchemical way and has made me stronger and more fierce than I would have imagined.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Creating Original Characters in a Solo Show

A Woman's Work.........(performed Feb. 2000)

I did nine performances of an original monologue show that I worked on with two other Santa Fe woman. The inspration behind the show was from a Studs Terkel song about working. The concept of the show was that we would each write three , 10 minute monolgues exploring female characters at work and their personal stories.

All three of the charcters were based on my personal life experience but I put them into the context of different voices. The first character that I created was based on Barbie (the doll) She was giving a speech at the annual "Barbie Convention" being her ususal "perfect" self when she starts to have a bit of a nervous breakdown onstage. She gets carried away and speaks of her longtime lust for G. I Joe and what it's like to be put into an arranged marriage with that "unic", Ken. She speaks about what it'slike to smell food, but only to be allowed to snack on celery sticks and have to manage about 30 different "careers" and the "Malibu beach house" all the time with an insipid smile plastered on her face. She speaks about the emptiness of never aging and getting "laugh lines' from really never having lived.

When I created this piece, I found that I was able to publicaly present some of my own political views in a clever and humerous way. It would have been "preachy" if I had given a speech about these topics, but as I incorperated them into an original character and showed the juxtaposition about how she was forced to live as an "image" rather than from a place of authenticity, these views were received in an open and positive way by the audience.

When I teach solo performance classes now, if someone is attached to "making a point", I encourage them to do it through a character. In my experience, when we're speaking on stage as ourselves, it only works if we stick to our own experience. In other words, our own stories from our lives and the insights that arise from our experience. I challenge my students to cut all opinions, judgements (good or bad) and metaphors out of their own story. Onstage, opinions and judgements will distance the audience from you. It takes the audience out of their own experince and into their intellects. Does this mean that you as a performer don't have opinions or judgements or a point of view? No. All strong artists do have a point of view. Your point of view comes across by what stories from your life you choose to share, the tone, your body movements, energy and presence. But, for me nothing is worse than going to a one person show where somebody starts to preach at me. Even if I agree with them!

However, the one way I've found to get around this is through creating original characters. You can take a point of view and show it through a character. For example, rather than saying "war is bad", create a character of a veteran whose child has died from birth defects related to his exposure to depleted uranium. Have this charcter tell his story.This will make your point much more powerfully and effectively than saying "war is bad".

Instead of saying "I hate the values of Hollywood and everybody's shallow there", I created a second character based on someone I knew who was an planner. I had her entire monologue on the phone calling various people for an event she was planning. I didn't talk about narcissism being unpleasent to people; rather I portryed how her curt and bitchy with every person she spoke to. I also added a surprising vulnerability to her last phone call which was with her dad who didn't (and obviously hadn't ver)had time for her. Instead of preaching about how people can become mean and self centered by lack of parental involvement, I painted that picteuer, through Staci's(the chahrcters) interactions.

To sum my point up, if you are working on a solo show
a) if you are working in a storytelling format, stick to your story. Eliminate rants, and statements of judgement or opinion.

b) create original characters based on people you know or have interviewed. They can be and say anything that you want them to as long as they feel true to themselves.

c) To begin to create original charcters, begin with people who have strong personalities who you know well. In my female students, I notice that their mothers and grandmothers are endless goldmines in terms of material. That is because these people literally "live inside" us. When you are developing original characters for the first time it is good to work initially with what we know (same with beginning writing- no coincidence)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Genius of Spalding Gray

Spalding was completly riviting that evening. His autobiographical monologue entitled "Travels Throgh New England" was so intimate. He shared stories from his life about his mothers suicide and her odd Christian Scientist ways. He spoke of going to Walden Pond and of masturbating there to feel closer to Thoreau! He was outrageous, he was funny and above all he was real. The character he was choosing to portray was himself. His script came from his life.

After the show he sat on the edge of the stage and had a beer and answered some questions and comments from our class. I don't remember saying anything to him except "thank-you" but I left the theater that night and knew that the course of my life had been altered. I didn't know how and when I was going to get there but I knew that what he was offering was a path that I too would follow.

I had been craving this simplicity of expression without even knowing it. The combination of authentic and brilliant writing based on his direct experiences delivered to a live audience blew my mind. I understood immiediatly ad intuitivly the enormous possibilities for performers and audience members alike.

As a teacher of solo performance and solo performer myself I have come to understand many of the componants of solo performances that inspire an audience and those that don't. One of Spalding's great talents was his ability to completly embody his material. He made every word a visceral experience for himself and his audience. One of the amazing things about this was that he never moved. He sat at his desk in every performance I ever saw (except in one brief moment when he danced across the stage with a boom box in Morning, Noon and Night- what a joy!!!) and yet he filled the theater with his presence.

For me, the undertaking of a solo show is about 90% about presence. Yes, the story is important. The writing is very important. But what makes it or breaks it for me is the performers presence. Are they willing to take us beyond a "reading of a work" into a "feeling of their work"? Are they willing to show up with every emotion available to them and every cell in their body willing to re-experience the events they are sharing about?If they are, they can take their audience on a journey like no other.

At it's best solo performance connects us so deeply with one individual and their humanity that it connects the audience with themselves and their own deepest humanity. It takes a bedrock of courage to expose so much;not just in the writing of our stories, but in the embodiment of them for the audeince.

Spalding had the knack.

Monday, July 16, 2007

My Love Affair With The Art of Storytelling

My love affair with storytelling began in Boston in 1985. I ws twenty one years old and an acting major at Emerson College.......

Since I was fourteen years old, theater had been the major focus of my life. I had also stidied in Pittsburgh at Carnegie- Mellon and had a year with Bill Hickey (the Godfather in "Prizzi's Honor) at HB Studios. My immersion at all the places I had trained had been both tradional and contemporary theater. By the time I was nineteen, I had performerd in at least 50 plays and scenes including classics such as Macbeth and The Rivals. And contemporary classics by such playwrites as Tenessee Williams, Harold Pinter and my personal favorite, Edward Albee. I had done monologues by the Greeks and studied theater history in great depth.

In a way, I felt my focus in theater saved my life and gave me a much needed focus in my adolescence away from my suburban Maryland upbringing.

My first theater class had been the day my grandfather died. It was at an afterschool studio with the teacher being an old vaudvillian named Ralph Tabikin. When my mother came into my room to tell me that my grandfather had died (the second death in my family in a month) she added "I'll cancel your acting class." Something in me screamed out "No" in such an adament way that she drove me there later that afternoon despite my families shell shocked grief. I had been immersed in the horrors of illness and death for the past three months and lost the only two men in my family during that time. It wasn't a callowness in me that drove me toward that acting class. Indeed, I felt laden down with a depth of grief that I had no idea how to begin to work with. It was an intuition for self preservation.

I was handed a scripted monologue seemingly well beyond my 14 years. It was about a woman contemplating suicide (rather Hamlet-esqe, but less existential in her reasonsing). I stood up on stage and read the monologue, pouring all my own grief, confusion and sense of loss into the reading. The vaudvillian sat up; the class stood and applauded. That was less important to me than how I felt. I would not have had the word for it but now I may say that I stumbled on the process of alchemy. I was able to spin gold from straw. I did not know how I did it but I had stumbled on the experience of transforming at least a tiny piece of my overwhelming grief into something else through the process of expressing my authentic feelings through the thoughts and words of a character. I remember feeling lighter when I left the theater despite the family drama that I knew I had to go home and face. There was a spark that had been lit in me. A light. Perhaps.....hope?

I continued on the path that began that day for many years. I auditioned for every play I could through high school both in and out of school. I loved the feeling of taking on a new charachter or role. Accessing my own emotional landscape and channeling it into a role had a profounf effect on me. In a way, theater was the only place where my lifelong "intensity" not only wasn't a problem; it was welcomed and even rewarded with some of the juciest roles. I felt that my life would be, as a serious New York stage actress and that was the path I was pursuing until one February night in 1985.......

My acting professor at Emerson, Ron Jenkins invited my class to a special theater at a tiny theater in Cambridge called The Brattle Street Playhouse. He told us it would be a "one man show" by an alumni of Emerson and old friend of his. I imagined something like "Krapps Last Tape" by Pinter, the only one person show I had ever heard of. (It's about an old man alone, recording and playing back pieces about his life)

The name of the show was "Travels Through New England". No curtain came up. There were no clever stes or costumes or any of the artifice I had become accustomed to in the theater. Just one man coming onstage with a heavy looking manuscipt and sitting behind a desk. he was wearing a red flannel shirt and that evening, he would change the course of my life forever. His name was Spalding Grey.