philosophyheader.jpg

Thoughts on Storytelling

1. Storytelling has been transformed
In the past 100 years television and the movies have become our dominant storytelling forms. These media provide a kind of "completeness" that was previously impossible. When we watch a film or TV show, our senses are fully occupied, leaving little role for the imagination. By contrast, mythic stories (like those in the Odyssey or the Torah) are incomplete, inviting us to enter into them and allow them to "vibrate" inside us.

A Story Machine now exists (Hollywood), which chooses which stories will reach a mass audience.

And so storytelling -- human beings' basic form of communication -- has been transformed. Most people now get most of their stories not from family members, neighbors, or a religious tradition, but from strangers whose primary motive in telling the story is profit.

2. Postmodern storytelling
Postmodern narratives -- from David Sedaris' short essays to Randy Newman's songs to Wallace Shawn's play The Designated Mourner to the Coen Brothers' film Fargo -- are one alternative to the dominant Hollywood model. These stories are generally written from the point of view of the outsider. Whether the underlying tone is one of horror, sadness, or ironic cleverness, the stance is that of a detached observer. Rarely are such stories rooted in a spiritual tradition; indeed all traditions are suspect for the role they've played in getting us into the mess we're in.

At their best, postmodern stories are beautifully crafted and offer insights that jar us into new ways of seeing the human predicament. But postmodern storytelling offers us a limited view. It lacks heart and roots.

3. Hunger for alternatives
From my years on stage, I know that audiences are hungry for an alternative. Whether consciously or not, many people sense the emptiness of most Hollywood storytelling, and the disconnectedness of most postmodern storytelling.

From my years teaching workshops in solo performance, I know that people are hungry to tell their stories.

This hunger parallels one in the spiritual realm. As my friend Rabbi Dan Goldblatt says, "People are parched for community and meaning."

4. My quest
My aim is not to come up with a critique of mass media; it is to see what alternatives are most compelling now, to experiment in my own work with these alternatives, and to share what I'm learning.

 

Faith, Revelation and Writing Monologues

Faith and revelation are spiritual words, but I find no better ones to describe the artistic process.

I hear myself telling my solo performance students to do their creative work mainly from their intuition, not their intellect. This makes many people (including me) uncomfortable. Intuition seems to be something you wait for, rather than "do." It involves openness, loss of control, and a willingness to be surprised by the result. It requires a kind of faith.

I write a scene; I get stuck partway through; but I keep writing. I show up day after day with openness. At some point something right "pops up." It may pop up when I least expect it -- even when I think a piece is finished.

My monologue about my grandmother in Ten Day Soup is a good example. There's a line in it: "I don't know when I began to feel embarrassed by my grandmother. Her life began to seem small to me."

One day, after the first few performances, I took a walk and found myself thinking about the prep school I went to, Horace Mann. Its world view was in direct conflict with that of my grandmother. It was a place of ambition. Hers was a life of simple love.

So that's where the monologue wanted to go! I hadn't seen it until that point. Couldn't have seen it! It was an "aha!" experience. Aha! as an artist making a monologue. But also aha! as a human being: I had never understood this central conflict in my life: ambition versus simple love. One part of me wants fame and success; another understands that simple acts of love, giving and volunteering are what life is really about.

At our next rehearsal, my director David Ford and I spun out this new idea, trying a few different ways to give it full expression. For days afterwards, onstage and off, I was thrilled with the discovery, and amazed at the process that led me to it.

Read more on Charlie's thoughts on the craft of writing for the stage

 

The Many Signals in a Performance

As I watch students work in class, I try to "receive" them. "Receiving" a student means opening myself to their life, their journey, their pain, their joy, their struggle, and their determination to give of themselves on stage -- as well as receiving the performance piece they're doing and their craft.

Often I ask myself, "What is trying to be born here?"

This leads me to a shifting view of performance -- my own and other people's. The metaphor is transmission. The performer is transmitting -- but not a single signal!

1. The signal we are immediately aware of is the words, actions and gestures of the performer.

2. Below that, there is a signal that you could call the "energy" behind those words, actions, gestures.

3. A third signal is the intention or will of the performer: their determination to give their gift.

4. A fourth signal is the life path that has led the performer to this moment, and the movement of the performer along that path.

5. A fifth signal is the unique essence of the human being before us.

6. Finally, there is the signal of mystery. This human being, in this moment, performing, giving; the audience, in the same moment, listening, receiving. Even the possibility of communication! The human faculty for speech and language! A theater where this can happen! The existence of our species! Life!

Our Western fondness for words, externals and the empirical domain leads us to focus on the first, and possibly second, signals. And certainly there's plenty there to behold: content, craft, talent, style.

Over the years I've heard many, many audience members' reaction to my work and the work of my students. Very few have the framework or language to address the last four signals on the list above. Sometimes people will speak of the courage of a piece of performance -- which is a response to the intention (the third signal).

But just because they're not consciously aware of it, doesn't mean that people are not receiving the other signals!

What am I stumbling toward here?

My view is changing. I am more interested in the three signals at the bottom of the list. More and more I see that the work on the levels of craft and energy serves to create work that will let the third through sixth signals be heard.

 

Performance Is a Meditation

After 25 years of performing, I am growing more certain of this idea. So be careful what you perform! In Ten Day Soup, between rehearsal, the 14 performances, and running of lines between shows, I said the words in the show probably fifty times.

The repetition itself is powerful, causing the ideas and feelings to rumble around in one's consciousness. But saying the words over and over in front of an audience magnifies their impact. This movement from private to public to private changes the way I hear the words.

In "Me/Not Me," for instance, those most inner and difficult thoughts are transformed when I bounce them off an audience; they seep down into a deeper layer of myself. And when I get affirmation from at least some audience members, it encourages me to see where the thoughts want to lead. What is the next step on the journey?

This same dynamic speaks to what happened in my monologue about my grandmother. The meditation becomes more powerful when an audience is present. It was after the first set of shows that I got to the next level in my understanding of the piece, and of that part of my life.

Thus, the questions I ask as an artist begin to shift. In addition to "What do I want to express?" and "What will move an audience?" I add the question: "What words do I want to say over and over so that I can move along my path?"

And my experience doing the piece about my grandmother leads me to ask: "How can I include in each show something that takes me to the place of love?"

 

Spiritual Exercises for Solo Performers

To download the printable booklet, click here.

 

Thoughts on the Passing of Spalding Gray (March 2004)

My feelings about Spalding Gray are many and mixed:

1. Storytelling and innovation.
In a time when much theater wasn't working (still isn't), he woke us up. He returned to elemental storytelling and freed a lot of people to think new thoughts, take risks. Stephanie Weisman says: If it weren't for Spalding Gray, there wouldn't be a Marsh.

1a. Innovators tend to be difficult people with glaring flaws.

1b. But by taking the risk, he invited others to take other risks, to see if they could do better than he. (I am one of those others.) Innovation is a messy process.

1c. The virtue of persistence. How many other people would stick with it as long as he did?

2. The avant-garde.
Spalding Gray's roots in avant-garde theater of the 1960s and 70s shaped his art in ways that are telling. There was a certain amount of bullshit there: a preciousness, a self-centeredness, self-indulgence, that always repelled me.

The delight at one's own modest insights is a huge artistic pitfall. And Spalding fell into it a lot, abetted by style and self-confidence. I am blessed to have David Ford, who always, but always, pushes me beyond those first modest insights, and to have Jim Rosenau, who always, but always, believes there is a better, sharper, or more insightful joke or idea around the next corner. And Myra Levy, who urgently demands that I sharpen my ideas. In my teaching & directing, I try to bring this rigorous approach to all who are ready for it.

Many are not. It remains a struggle for me in my stage work. Never underestimate the vanity of those of us who stand on stage.

Audiences are often flattered & seduced by performers who offer modest insights and, with the equivalent of a wink, tell them they are sophisticated enough to "get it." This creates a dangerous feedback loop: performer and audience convince each other that something profound and full has been said, when in fact something clever and partial has been said. Everyone becomes lazier and more smug.

3. Solipsism.
I remember feeling quite angry after seeing the film of Swimming to Cambodia. The appropriating of other people's real suffering to serve one's own narcissistic story seemed to me to verge on the unethical.

On the other hand, by pushing the boundaries and in fact going too far with stuff in this way, he exposed the limits of that kind of work -- which, now that I think of it, served as a kind of warning to me.

4. Postmodernism.
Ironic detachment is central to the aesthetic of postmodern storytelling; it leaves me hungry. It is a safe nibbling at the edges of things, rather than a diving into the center. Postmodern storytelling is the predominant visible alternative to Hollywood storytelling. (Hollywood storytelling falls into different traps: sentimentality and banality.) I'm convinced that neither form offers artists room to become the best artists and human beings we can be.

Thus, I don't think we have heard the best, deepest work that Randy Newman is capable of, or Laurie Anderson, or David Sedaris. Or Spalding Gray. All are hemmed in by the fashion of postmodernism. And, as Renoir says, "Fashion spares no one. It keeps you from seeing what is eternal."

Spalding Gray did not invent postmodern storytelling but his work did abide by its norms. I did see him transcend it once. Scott Rosenberg was interviewing him onstage at the Herbst Theater and asked him a question -- what exactly I don't remember, perhaps why he started telling stories on stage. A spark of anger passed through Spalding. And he said -- here again my memory is imprecise -- "Because through my whole childhood no one told me the truth."

I can still feel the power of that moment -- stronger than anything I'd experienced in any of his shows. Direct; unfiltered by cleverness, detachment, or artsiness. He seemed a different person. I wanted to hear more.

 

Scenes from an Artistic Marriage:
A Conversation between Charlie Varon and David Ford

(from Theatre Bay Area magazine, January 2008)

Every fall, when the MacArthur Foundation announces its Genius Grants, I read the list of winners. And every fall, I see that, once again, the MacArthurs have made a terrible mistake. They have overlooked David Ford.

David is the leading director of solo theatre in the Bay Area and-to my mind-the country. Everything I do onstage, from short monologues to full-length solo plays like Rush Limbaugh in Night School, grows out of my collaboration with David. Josh Kornbluth, Marga Gomez and dozens of other performers have worked with him. Brian Copeland, whose Not a Genuine Black Man became the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history, says, "Without David, I would have had two hours of really good intentions."

David and I have been working together for more than 16 years, and I still have trouble explaining just what he does. Collaborator, coauthor, artistic midwife…mentor, therapist, keeper of artistic faith…. All of these fall short. To see if I could do better, I sat down with David to discuss his way of making theatre. As jumping off points, I used moments in our rehearsals over the years, moments where David said or did things that changed the direction of a play. We recorded the conversation in May 2007, in preparation for a benefit at The Marsh honoring David, which took place in July 2007. Short video excerpts of the conversation were shown at that benefit.

Here's an edited transcript of our talk.

Charlie Varon: Sixteen years ago, we were working on my first solo show, Honest Prophets. One day I started doing this character who wasn't in the show, a character based on the voice of Studs Terkel. And you said, "Wait, wait, let's do something with this." I remember leaving that rehearsal surprised. What was it that jumped out at you and said, "This should be part of the show"?

David Ford: That's funny. I always thought it was because you liked him. [Laughter.] I suppose I was reacting to the joy you get from doing him.

Charlie Varon: Is that what you're listening for in rehearsal?

David Ford: I don't know. I don't have a theory of What I'm Listening For. It feels a little goofy but when I teach classes, people always say, "Oh, you never take breaks." And it's true. There's a state of being in rehearsal-I'm not in my body, I'm in the other person's body. And so it's very hard to have any sense of myself in it, which is a little creepy and not always healthy.

Charlie Varon: Is it a pleasurable state?

David Ford: Well, in the sense that a vacation from self is always pleasurable. But it's hard to go back and forth. So I don't take breaks.

Charlie Varon: I've always been impressed by your stamina. I remember there was one Sunday I bumped into you at The Marsh. You'd gone from morning and worked all the afternoon and then there was a show you were seeing that night.

David Ford: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. is not unusual. But it's too much.

Charlie Varon: Another rehearsal: we were working on Rush Limbaugh in Night School. It was 1994, and we had set the play in the future, in 1996. And you demanded that I create the full fictional world: What's it like to be Rush Limbaugh in the future? Who is he surrounded by? What's changed? Your questions reshaped the play, liberated a huge amount of comic and creative energy for me. Where do these questions come from?

David Ford: As an undergraduate I was interested in design. And I took a course at the Yale School of Drama and did a design for Shaw's Saint Joan. And it was supposed to be in the round, and I did a floor, and I was really specific about the floor. I wanted a floor that had a sound of stone, and I placed, as in many medieval churches, these gravestones in the floor. And Michael Yeargen was the instructor. He's a soft-spoken Southern guy. And he said, "You have great ideas, but why don't you just go all the way with them? Why don't you have the whole floor be the tombstones?" And I thought, "You're right! Why don't I do that?"

I also remember one of the few courses I ever took in directing, a two-week thing with Joe Chaikin. I directed a couple of scenes from Medea, and afterward he gave sort of conventional feedback on it. Although I knew that he had liked what I had done. But then I said, "What would you do next?" I knew was kind of violating some law of teaching-you don't ask that. But I really wanted to see what would be his next move as a director. He said, "Oh, no." And I said, "Really, I want you to do that." And he thought about it a second and then he goes to the moment between the two scenes-a moment with which I'd done nothing. As though there's any time on stage in which nothing's happening, or where it doesn't have to be brought alive. And he asked the woman who was playing Medea-whom I later married-he asked her to start walking around the chair, and he said, in his broken language because he's aphasic, he says, "Heart. Heart. Like bomb. Like bomb. But, control." And he does this gesture. And so she's walking around the chair and then he kind of repeats it, because she's clearly feeling self-conscious. But he's so present with her, he's clearly very with her on this, and he's just saying, Try this, try going into this. And she's walking around, and at some point she wails with this cry of anguish. Which was-wow!"

So I got two things from that. Ask for more, don't be afraid to ask for more. And, at the same time, be present with the other person while you're asking. Not: "You give me that!" But: "I'm here with you with this." Does that answer the question?

Charlie Varon: No. [Charlie and David laugh.]

David Ford: Well, what was the question?

Charlie Varon: I was asking about your demand that I build the world.

David Ford: It's saying to you, "You started the project by this imaginative leap of 'I want to be Rush Limbaugh,' and 'It's set in the future.'" And it's so easy to say something like that, although most people don't, you have this great imagination for these things. And then, when we make those statements as artists, those discoveries, those little things that tickle us, a lot of people just stop there. It's terrifying to actually have the courage of your own imaginative leap. And say, "OK, I'm going to keep going. That little spark of imagination now demands that I create the world two years from now, and to inhabit it-I can't stop, I have to go all the way there."

Charlie Varon: The effect on me was, it opened this door to thousands of comic possibilities….

David Ford: It's overwhelming!

Charlie Varon: But it's exhilarating! I remember one of the ways we approached that question was: Is there some character that embodies Limbaugh's acolytes? And that's how we created the Entourage, these hundreds of people who would show up and pay money to surround him every day. There is something amazing about a question which invites the next level of creativity. And for many of us, it's difficult to get to that next level of creativity alone. We can come up with that first construct, or that first conceit or premise. And then it gets scary and it gets lonely.

David Ford: It feels like the choices are endless and they multiply. And they do, they multiply exponentially. In our work together, you have this explosion of ideas, and then I'm always trying to look for the time when the force of explosion can't keep going out in every direction, it needs to start bending in one direction, sensing how can you take some of this force and get it to start interacting with another part of it.

Charlie Varon: I'm remembering you told me once about an Israeli guy you worked with in France.

David Ford: Ah yes, Amir Abramov.

Charlie Varon: He changed the way you work with actors.

David Ford: As an undergraduate at Yale, I worked at the Yale Rep as a production assistant, and saw these directors like Andrzej Wajda and Andrei Serban-the Andreis-these auteur Eastern European directors, and very impressive, but I did not imagine myself as a director when I watched them. It never occurred to me that I would do anything like that.

And then I was living in the south of France with my girlfriend at the time who was a painter, living in a broken-down chateau, no running water, and I hooked up with this guy Amir, an Israeli, he was living with his beautiful French girlfriend at the time, she looked like Sophia Loren with blond hair, and they're both bisexuals, which everybody was in France at the time, it was the fashion. And they were trying to put together a pared-down version of Medea, oddly enough. They were re-writing it, trying to make it a play for two actresses. And they needed somebody to be a designer for it, and that was my ambition at the time, design.

What struck me about Amir was that he asked everybody what they thought about everything. He was so unafraid of hearing from people. He later told me, "David, when I first met you, I did not like you. Because you were so professional. I did not like this. You come in, you are like résumé. You know? And then I throw the I Ching, and say, 'What should I do?' And it says, 'You should work with this man.'" [Charlie laughs.] And it bugged me! That it fell to the I Ching, this collaboration. And he was one of those people-I'm not a spiritual person-but he was one of those people who could manifest things, you know, he could contact you from thousands of miles away in your dreams and things like that.

But mostly it was his model for directing which seemed extraordinary to me, and made me think, "That's actually what I want to do. I'm not so suited to be a designer." I'd always felt very strongly about theatre but hadn't quite found my place in it. It's funny, because I don't think I work in solo theatre. I work with people who are writing and performing their own work. So when I was working with Bill Talen, who was writing for ensembles, I feel like that's the same as working with solo performers, there are just fewer people in the room. But what I'm interested in is gathering together and creating something together.

I remember being in therapy once-I was sad because I'd gotten a bad review. And the therapist was saying, "Well, David, are you just upset because the arts are a subjective thing?" And I thought, "They don't seem that way to me." Because what I create, I create in community. I create with other artists. And it feels like it gets created in the space between us. So I feel like there's some strange sort of objectivity to it. And then when a reviewer doesn't see that, it's really upsetting. [Both laugh.]

Charlie Varon: We do have a picture, in our culture, of the director of being some sort of czar. Certainly film directors, but also theatre directors, as being the genius who makes all the pieces fit or who pronounces what's going to happen and then other people are inspired by the great-

David Ford: Or not.

Charlie Varon: But you have a very different way of thinking about theatre. I'm remembering when we took Rush Limbaugh in Night School to New York, being at a theatre where we did not have that feeling-where we didn't feel that the lighting person and the literary manager and the artistic director were collaborators. Policemen, maybe. [Charlie and David laugh.] And how chilling that is, compared to this collaborative safety where we're listening for what might happen next-and anything can happen.

David Ford: I have a very thin skin. There's this Lillian Groag, who is a playwright of Italian descent from Buenos Aires. And I remember her telling me, "David, David, we must have skins like elephants!" And I don't. I do not. So I'm not good when there's someone looking over my shoulder. I have a friend who is a TV director. And she's got this charm and this stubbornness and this fight to her that I just cannot believe. And she talks about how she's surrounded by fear with hair. People are fearful, producers are fearful, presenters are fearful.

You go to other theatres and they're fearful, they don't want to lose money, they've invested in you-and that fear just saps my strength. And we don't have to contend with that at The Marsh. We're very fortunate. It's the only way I can work. I don't want to take anything away from these other people who are these Tamerlanes of the theatre, who take no prisoners, but it's just not me.

Charlie Varon: So just last Wednesday we were rehearsing, working on my new solo play, Rabbi Sam. And it's late in the play, a three-character scene, and I'm doing this character, Bob Lew, the president of the synagogue, a guy who wants everybody to be happy all the time. And he's stuck trying to balance different factions in the synagogue. And Bob says to Jerry, who hates the new rabbi, Bob says, "So I don't know if that changes anything, just in terms of whether you want to give the Rabbi one more chance, just in terms of, uh..." And I was trying to figure out Bob's next word, and you said: "…just in terms of-hooh!" [Both laugh.] And it was one of my favorite moments in a rehearsal, ever. And I've been enjoying that line since then. I've been walking down the street saying, "Hooh!" The descent from language into noise. Where did that come from?

David Ford: You know, again, that thing of being in bodies. I mean, here you are, being in Bob Lew's body-which is weird enough-and then I'm kind of being in your body being in his body, and feeling the tension building up in him, and the fact that it's just getting impossible for him. He can't possibly make everybody happy any more, and then it just needs to come out somehow. I just felt that. You know, it is strange, the fact that we are compassionate creatures. I don't know why that magic happens. You can talk about mirror neurons or something like that, but it's just extraordinary that we can feel inside one another-

Charlie Varon: Feel inside fictional characters.

David Ford: Absolutely. Otherwise they would mean nothing to us. We would be watching them like we were watching robots. But the fact that we can feel inside other human beings is why we can come together as a community and have such a thing as theatre. And it feels like all I'm trying to do as a director is just show up for that. And even with someone who is new, who is not so good at getting in those bodies, maybe not so good at being in their own body in that moment, and trying to sort through all those conflicting feelings and figure out what's in the middle of that, what's the heart of that? And just show up for that.

Charlie Varon: What's that like for you as a playwright? What's the difference between showing up when somebody else is inhabiting a moment, a scene, a character, and going into your own characters?

David Ford: I started playwriting late. And it would not have happened without having done this other kind of work. It feels like it very much comes from that practice I was just talking about: being able to show up for other human beings, and disappearing into a world that they're describing, which is not my world. We have all these divisions in our culture right now, so I'm not supposed to be able to work with Marga Gomez because she's a Puerto Rican lesbian. And yet it's so easy to disappear into Marga's world because she's so transparent as a human being. She so invites you in. I feel like I was learning, through that, how to start showing up for characters I made up out of my own heart.

Early on in my playwriting I would often get comments-I still hear this sometimes-that my characters are all strange or weird or offbeat. And sometimes it was kind of a criticism, like, "There are no normal people in your plays." And I felt like, have you met any Americans lately? [They both laugh.] People live extravagantly complicated and-just to have a sister or a brother-just that, right there-that's enough, to live with just the compromises of family. So it felt like that, like being able to feel into people that way started making me understand.

Charlie Varon: I'm remembering a reading of your new play Elaine's Brain at the Magic Theatre, where suddenly you're seeing characters embodied by actors, characters that you've created in your own playwriting world. What's that like?

David Ford: [Laughs] I always cry. And I do think I have a pretty good ear for language, because it always sounds like I expect it to, with a few exceptions. Sometimes the actor doesn't hook up with what you're doing, and that's always painful. But a couple of weeks ago it was great. It was such a relief to have what was on the inside be on the outside. It was nice, they got that it was supposed to be funny. People don't always know I'm funny.

Charlie Varon: You've worked with Marga Gomez. You've worked with me on a lot of material about being Jewish and American. You're not Jewish. Material that has changed the way I understand what it is to be Jewish and American. Places I could not have gotten without you. You've worked with Brian Copeland on Not a Genuine Black Man, with Wayne Harris on Train Stories. So you've had this extraordinary opportunity to extend yourself into other people's worlds. It's a defiance, it seems to me, of the way a lot of people are moving now, where if you're black you work in a black theatre company, if you're Jewish you need a Jewish director, and so forth.

David Ford: I'm trying to remember how old I was when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. I would have been 6 or 7. And it was on TV and my parents watched, and that defined in me what it is to be an American. I was just at an age where I could just kind of understand it. I could certainly get the passion of it. And I'd been saying the Pledge of Allegiance and not really understanding the words, and learning about the Declaration of Independence, but not really understanding the words. And here's this man telling us what these words mean. And I thought that's the way it should be-as a kid does. So I wanted to be able to be that way in some little way.

 

Political Theater Now

I remember seeing Mother Courage at Berkeley Rep a year or two ago. The acting and production were excellent! But the transaction seemed off. I would have preferred a documentary film about one of our current Mothers Courage, living in Iraq or Congo. The transaction at Berkeley Rep seemed comfortable. An affirmation that by watching this play and getting it, we audience members know something about the world and are on the right side of things.

Some days I wonder how much theater (and other art forms) consists of flattering its audience. Offering comfort food of one sort or another.

I look at the world. Who can fathom the global economy? The future of disease? Climate change? Korea? Megacities? The massive behavior modification experiment called the Internet? I inspect my world view. Totally inadequate to the times.

So for me the question is always: How do I let myself write from inside the question, and resist any impulse to offer an easy resolution, facile answers, or stale truths? When I'm doing my work right, my characters take me to places I wouldn't otherwise go, and say and do things that scare and trouble me.

And now I must indict myself. Last fall, my agent got me a weekend's worth of gigs doing Rush Limbaugh in Night School in Kirkland, WA and Tacoma. I printed out the 3-year-old script -- which was itself a 10th anniversary revision. Which meant that many of the words were already 13 years old. Reading the script, I laughed. Some good jokes! It was like reading someone else's play. One of the nice surprises of time passing. You get to be the audience of your own work. I memorized, I did character work, I purchased pears. Politically the play felt dated. I cut out some lines about voting machines in Florida. But satire really wants to be fresh -- to have not just the absence of the stale but the startling new. And RLNS did not meet that test. I rationalized doing the show on the grounds that it's a well-wrought story, it's funny, and people need to laugh. And I need to buy groceries.

But that is a rationalization.

One night recently in my solo performance class, a guy about my age did a piece about his first job as a newspaper reporter, in the early 1980s, in a small town in Connecticut whose main industry -- silverware making -- had just collapsed. The Hunt brothers had bought up silver futures, causing the price to skyrocket, and the industry fled overseas. The performance piece was full of the texture of decay -- potholes, eviction notices posted on plywood doors of houses, bars full at 2pm. A girl rides a motorcycle without a helmet, suffers brain damage, Reagan's Medicare cuts prevent her from getting the rehab she needs. The reporter writes a series of stories about this and wins an award; some action is taken; and there is a death. So why was I riveted? Why didn't this all feel dated?

Maybe it was the presence of the man who had lived it. The events occurred 25 years ago, but he's here, still struggling to understand, wrestling with the past in the present, asking me to join him on the journey. Maybe it was the fact that it forced me, uncomfortably, to see afresh. "Holy shit, I lived through this! I lived through Reagan and decimation of social programs and deindustrialization!" Or maybe it was just that he told it well.

(Winter 2008)