An Actor (No—Poet!) (Mm, Solo Performer?!) Prepares
After a multi-year hiatus, I’m set to return to my theatrical roots this summer. I’ll be heading out to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre as part of the Ground Floor development lab, to workshop a full-length evening of poems, in the hopes that I can figure out a way to stich them together into a cohesive theatrical event of some kind. Much like a lapsed Mormon whose upcoming flight has a layover in Salt Lake City, I’m feeling a little nervous.
My acting and writing desires were twofold: not only was I trying to make art, but also, a living. At some point, the grind ground me down, and it all stopped being the very reason I’d loved theatre in the first place…what’s the word?…fun.
Let’s back up.
I graduated with a BFA in Theatre Performance from the University of Michigan, and shot out of school like a bat out of hell (h/t: Meatloaf). I acted in plays, first in Washington, DC and then New York. At the same time, I was pursuing a career as an autobiographical monologist, in the footsteps of my hero, the late great Spalding Gray. I wrote a one-man show; it got some buzz; I was able to perform it at such prestigious theatres as Woolly Mammoth, Baltimore Centerstage, and elsewhere. I got a fancy agent. I did a play at the Humana Festival. Things were going well, except for one small greenback-oriented fact: I was running out of money. Actually, edit that: I was running out of fumes.
The goal back then, it seems to me now, was to figure out a way to make a full-time living from my theatrical work, both the acting and the writing. I was stubbornly determined to exist as an artist sans day job. I’d waited tables, and hated it. I’d worked in an office, and felt my soul ache as a result. Thus, my acting and writing desires were twofold: not only was I trying to make art, but also, a living. At some point, the grind ground me down, and it all stopped being the very reason I’d loved theatre in the first place…what’s the word?…fun.
And yet, simultaneously, there was indeed great joy being generated, only in another genre entirely. In the summer of 2007, while under commission from Woolly Mammoth to write a follow-up one-man show, I spent my days and nights pulling out my hair, wondering what story to tell onstage next, and how, and in what way. So, like any good working artist, I avoided the project at hand. I started cheating on theatre with poetry.
I was churning out poems: bad poems, goofy poems, stupid poems, unformed poems, but man alive was it fun to play in a genre where I felt absolutely, 100 percent free.
My education as a poet began as such: every day I’d go to the local library, and look through the Best American Poetry series from the last few years. Good lord! What fun these contemporary poets seemed to be having! It seemed like everything—anything!—was allowed in the act of making a poem. Whatever they’d taught us in school—poetry as the landscape of high-falutin’-incoherent-language and stuffy-tweed-sportcoat rigidity—appeared to be way out of step with what contemporary poets were up to. Hell, you could type the word fart in capital letters and put it into a poem—there were no rules! Granted, no one was making any money off of the work, but if you could set aside such monetary daydreams and fame-tinged aims, it seemed like the poets were participating in the full sense of the word “play.” It all seemed so…that word again…fun.
I managed to finish the second one-man show; it played moderately-favorably at a few theatres. I kept pursuing acting jobs, kept scratching away at a number of failures (Screenplay! Stage play!). But all along, I was churning out poems: bad poems, goofy poems, stupid poems, unformed poems, but man alive was it fun to play in a genre where I felt absolutely, 100 percent free.
Not with a bang but a whimper: in terms of theatre, I kinda just…stopped. I found a day job, back in an office setting, only this time my soul neither ached nor pined; the daily task of poem-making saved me and engaged me fully as an artist. I simply kept my head down, and kept scratching out poems. Money and fame? Not at all. But joy! Absolutely joy.
It’s been like this ever since. The process, not the product, seems the focus now.
About once a year, I’ll look through all the poems from the past twelve months or so, pick out my favorites, and do a reading at a bar or nearby space. I’ll build an arc (like from the theatre days), and stand in front of an audience of friends and peers, and read. No, not read—perform. It’s great fun! And it feels, dare I say, theatrical…to the point that I am now headed West, like an ambitious American from the 19th century, to see what sort of gold is in them thar hills of Berkeley, California.
I’m nervous! I’m excited. Mostly, to be honest—and for the first time in a great long while—I’ve begun to once more think about theatre…
It seems to me the most poetic moments from all my years (so many years) spent seeing plays (so many plays) occurred not with the text, but rather, in the spaces between the text. Memories from When The Messenger Is Hot (E5959, 2007) and David Adjmi’s Stunning (Woolly Mammoth, 2008) come to mind, but the most recent example is one I can’t shake: Ivo Van Howe’s streamlined, muscular rendition of A View From The Bridge on Broadway, wherein the climactic fight culminated with blood pouring down from the ceiling, soaking the entire cast who’d merged together into some giant huddle of madness. Now, I don’t know what the blood budget’s like out in Berkeley! But this is what I find myself considering, or rather, remembering, as I prep the poems for their stage debut: in the theatre, much like in poetry, that which is said is rarely as important as that which is not said.
Words, after all, are just a tool...
…and silence is another.