Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Keep that dead dog crap off my stage! (Private v. Personal)

The most interesting thing about writing stories is that no matter what the story is about, or who, it’s really about the writer. Give ten writers the same plot, characters, and events and the story would still be different. This is why Seneca's Oedipus Rex is so different than Sophocles'

Because plot is not necessarily story.

If you gave ten writers the plot, characters and events that make up “Little Red Riding Hood”, you’d get ten different stories. The plot is just a collection of facts. Red goes to see Grandma. Wolf tries to trick and eat Red. A hunter saves Red and Grandma by killing the wolf. But what’s the story really about? Each writer may think Red has different wants and relationships with the forest or the wolf. One Red may be frightened of the wolf or doesn’t want to go visit Grandma. Another writer’s Red may love the adventure of it or love Grandma’s cooking. Is Little Red Riding Hood the story of a girl facing her fears? Is it the story of her connecting with her Grandma (youth v. old age?)? What if we told the story, not from Red’s point of view, but from the wolf’s, who is just doing what’s in his nature? Suddenly the story might become a tragedy.

When we tell a story, we reveal how we see the world. So every story I write is really about me. All the characters are from my head and grapple with my own burning questions or issues. Some are more personal than others. No writer can write about something outside of his/her experience. And usually the personal issues of the writer are universal…becomes everyone has a family, has a lover/wife/husband/partner, feels love, anger, loneliness, or deals with rites of passage like growing up or follows their dream or whatever…

Stories should never be private. Private means “so personal, so secret” that it has no relevance to anyone else and is in fact not designed to. Private is not universal.

Personal is for others, involving humanity. Private is “just for me, “aka self-indulgent. In more crude terms…Personal is making love. Private is masturbation.

These thoughts are on my mind because I’m going to develop a solo performance. A monologue. I figure if it worked for Eric Bogosian, it can work for me. Bogosian is a playwright (SubUrbia, Talk Radio) and performer (currently on one of the Law & Orders) and you can check him out on Utube.

I saw him perform his show “Wake Up & Smell the Coffee” at the Jane Street Theater in New York City when I lived there. It was one of those theatrical experiences you remember because you think, “Holy crap, that’s a charismatic performer who doesn’t pull his punches and doesn’t waste my time. He’s got the goods.” Not quite as momentous as when I saw Mnemonic, but still quite thrilling.

What I like most about him is that he doesn’t merely stand up with a microphone and tell me a story about his personal life (like Denis Leary or Mike Daisey). He actually performs characters in dramatic situations. Okay, sometimes he tells personal stories—well, rants is a better word. He even did a character with his own name once. But he never confused the fact that he knew theatre was a construct and therefore the character of “Eric Bogosian” is different than the real person.

Sometimes that personal style of storytelling can be done quite well (Spalding Gray was a master). But usually in less capable hands, it sucks.

Why? Most times the solo performer confuses personal with private.

Theatre involves an audience/actor relationship. Solo performance is not merely a way of expressing emotions without any thought to what you are actually trying to convey. I’ve seen actors who “felt so sad” onstage, but communicated nothing to the audience. It’s not your job as performer to feel sad, but to tell a story. In the end, the audience should feel sad (or whatever you want them to feel, get, understand, etc.). Some solo performers confuse the art of confessing with the art of telling a story. So what you end up with is a lot of crap about a dead dog but no relevance. There’s no story, no social commentary, political context. No point of view about the world. It’s more “let me tell you about something that made me sad”.

So what?

Theatre is too important to waste time on triviality. Also, theatre is not therapy. Theatre is communication. So keep the banality and the confessionals off the stage.

I’m not interested in relating stories about my childhood like reading from some diary. And it’s not because I’m afraid of revealing my inner demons and secrets or telling the truth or “what will others think of me?” I’m a writer. I got over that a long time ago.

I won’t discount the idea of digging into my own personal memories and thoughts. But I want my stories to be compelling and universal. I want it to be about me and you and the world we live in. I can trust it will be about me, because I’m writing from my point of view. Who else is telling the story?

The real question I’m struggling with right now is “what is the story I want to tell as a solo performer”?

And that’s why I’m procrastinating by writing this rant instead of working on it. Or working at all, really.

Ah, procrastination…that’s a topic for tomorrow…

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