Let me preface all my blogging by saying that the Word Sprout Artists who’ve preceded me here have written such excellent things, and have shared such good stuff that I worry anything I post will be dull and lifeless. Like my hair right now. If I let myself descend into the self-judging and anxiety that seems imminent, I will seriously never write anything, so I am totally, for real, just going to do this like a stream of consciousness blurt. Here we go. ☺
When I was a theatre major at the U of MN, I discovered and fell in love with issue-oriented theatre. This was probably the result of a combination of factors – the fact that I was too funny-looking to get cast in conventional plays that required pretty, desirable females; the fact that I loved sociology and psychology almost as much as the stage; and my own background as a misfit youth from a very troubled home, trying to find, in art, a way to keep going and a sense that change was possible. I wrote all my class papers about the work of companies like the Amsterdam Werktheater, which would take up residence in a community and built theatre with its members, out of whatever problem was most significant to them; and Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which basically became my personal bible; and Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont, which is basically, well, Heart of the Beast, but in Vermont, with the whole company living in a commune, and growing their own food, and crafting epic, march-down-the-street puppet pageants about crises large and small… I loved all the ways that live performance could break the fourth wall, and could be authentic and true and connective. Very quickly, I stopped dreaming of belting out a show tune on Broadway, and stopped wanting to wear exciting costumes…all my theatre goals turned towards wanting to create works that spoke to our struggles, that involved the audience, that were gritty and raw, brave and human and immediate.
By this time I was living in Seattle, with my then-boyfriend David, and I was super immersed in Seattle’s indie theatre scene, which was amazing in several ways – one of which was that it was filled with boundlessly talented interdisciplinary artists (actors who wrote, writers who directed, directors who wrote and designed, etc etc), and these people created a lot of original solo theatre.
Now, I had seen solo shows before, in my Minneapolis years, and I loved them, and those who performed them – Kevin Kling, Jim Stowell, Charles Schuminski – became some of my secret heroes, for their acting chops, charisma and creativity.
But now I was actual friends with (or at least in the same general circles as) the people taking these theatrical risks, creating this intensely personal, organic material…and so I felt more directly connected – and I would see my friends’ shows, and was blown away, over and over. At how these actors took their life experiences and layered them with so much – humor, and emotion, and thought, and parallels between things I‘d never have thought to sit side by side. I saw shows about teaching English in Japan, and what it’s like to be a nude artist’s model, and awakening to feminism, and the experience of parenting a son with Autism, and a gay man who went undercover in a 6-week conversion-to-heterosexuality program…
This was everything I loved all rolled together: the authenticity, the immediacy, the reflection of individual truth and vulnerability, the message that no one is alone, that we can transform isolation into connection, via theatre. And I knew that I wanted to be someone who did this exact work SO SO SO badly.
And I also knew that that I should NEVER EVER be a solo monologist. Ever.
Because I was fat, and ugly, and boring, and self-indulgent, and untalented, and had nothing whatsoever to say that was worth fucking crap, and also I sounded like a chipmunk with a sinus condition, and my mouth moved funny because of a damaged nerve, and I had a hunchback, and bit my nails, and was shaped like a beach ball perched on Q-tips, and sometimes people actually thought I was mentally challenged, and my face looked like a moon made of dough, and did I mention I was fat and ugly?, and NO WAY should I subject an audience to that, all of that, for 45 minutes to an hour. That was TORTURE. I mean, maybe if someone built a concentration camp around me, I could stand in the middle and be the extermination device. Or maybe if I hung a TV around my neck, people could watch that instead of me, and I could just be this…background noise?
But yeah. No WAY was I cut out to create a solo show.
I shoved that idea into the dark recesses of my psyche.
I fell in absolute love with this workshop, and took it over and over. It was the first experience I had that gave me this tiny, tiny speck of belief that okay, maybe SOMEDAY, if I changed almost everything about myself, I’d have both the ability and entitlement to generate some kind of autobiographical performance. Maybe.
And then, my boyfriend of 10 years broke up with me (for real this time) (well, I didn’t actually even know that then, but) (this is all a totally different story) (I’ll just keep going, howbout), and in a cataclysm of brain-fogged grief and panic, I moved from Seattle back to Minneapolis. And something about that move flipped some kind of switch inside me. Because the Seattle artists whom I’d held up as demigods weren’t around in the Twin Cities for me to use as a yardstick of self-flagellation, I felt freer to say “whatever”, to be mediocre, to fail in public. There was no performance standard for me here, yet. I felt a little less intimidated.
I took a bunch of writing classes at the Loft, and found new solo performance classes with Heidi Arneson, and Djola Branner, and others. I started writing material for my own voice. I mean, I had been writing poetry, and essays, and “hilarious” emails to my friends, and lots and LOTs of entries on LiveJournal, which always got a pretty high approval rating…but now I consciously wrote material about me, my own real life, that was pretty intensely honest, and that was meant to be performed live. And I started doing so, at Balls Cabaret, and Patrick’s, and other open mikes.
And all of a sudden, I submitted an application to do a solo show in the MN Fringe. In 2003. It just sort of happened*. I was TERRIFIED.
[*Sidebar: Actually, there was a distinct, identifiable event that predicated this, but it’s so totally another story that I’m going to gloss over it. Glossssssss.]
I remember being backstage at the first performance of “Does This Monologue Make Me Look Fat?”, at the BNW space on 26th and Hennepin, 3 minutes before the show was supposed to start, and literally GRABBING my stage manager by the shoulders and looking at her wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, and whispering “I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t do this this was such a bad idea such a horrible horrible idea please I can’t go out there please help help oh help oh my god oh my god”. And she peeled me off of her and said, “Yes you can. Also, you have to, because you have to earn enough ticket sales to pay me.”
And somehow I got myself out onstage, and within the first 3 minutes, I knew that I wanted to do this forever. I know that sounds so cornball. But I remember looking into the audience, and I could see people’s eyes. I could see their faces. I was talking TO them, and my lines that I was saying…I meant them, like I’d never meant lines before. I mean, I was still acting –I wasn’t just regular me going, “Hey guys, lets’ get coffee”, I was an amplified, theatrically filtered version of me – but I felt present like I hadn’t ever felt before (which, honestly, probably means that I’d been a completely fucking horrible actor up until that point. Sorry, Everyone Who’s Ever Cast Me.) I felt like I was communicating something I deeply, authentically cared about, and I was right there with it.
And I wanted to have that feeling always. I wanted that to be my new standard.
I didn’t know I’d be any good at this. I mean that, so sincerely. I had been pretty sure that I’d be booed off the stage for every performance of “Does This Monologue…” -- that people would throw tomatoes at me, that the audience reviews would tear me to ribbony shreds, and that the newspapers would write, “This woman needs to find a different hobby.” (Side note: I still feel ALL of these things, every single time I create a new show. Every show. Every time. Always.) I was shocked to my core that anyone liked my work. I was shocked that my luck went beyond that, into getting good reviews…awards…gigs.
I still have a massive case of imposter syndrome. I’m still sure that someday, someone is going to reveal me to be a talentless fraud, and admonish all my audiences for drinking a big jug of theatre lobby Kool-Aid.
“Does This Monologue…” did so well that the next year, 2004, I remounted it at the Minnesota Fringe, and then, as had been a longtime dream, took it to 3 other fringes – Thunder Bay, Vancouver, and Halifax. And then I realized that there were juried solo show festivals and women’s theatre festivals that I could submit my show to, and I started doing that, and was part of events like the UNO Festival in Victoria, BC; Cape May Stage’s Flying Solo Festival; and the Columbus GLBT Theatre Festival in Columbus, OH.
In 2005, during the run of “So Kiss Me Already, Herschel Gertz!”, I got fired from my day job at the U of MN for taking too much time off to do theatre, and I decided that was a sign that I should just…not have a day job anymore.
Oh, Amy. You maker of bold and questionable choices.
So, um, then this thing happened called The Recession. You may remember it.
I got back from my 2009 summer of fringing that ended with Edmonton to find that all the fall and winter gigs I was trying to book were no-gos…and that every other place I emailed had no more arts budget…and that entire producing organizations were shutting down. My touring life died.
I had no backup plan.
I was stupid.
It was bad.
It happens, though, that at the same time that it became clear that until the economy shifted, I wasn’t going to get my same flow of theatre gigs, the shorter-form storytelling and slam scene here was exploding into a renaissance. I’d been participating in our “scene” already, but that’s what spurred me to channel more of my performing energy into the shows you’ve probably attended.
I know, when it comes down to it, that my innate orientation is probably towards longer-form storytelling (NO, Amy, you DON’T SAY!). Just like there are runners who sprint and runners who do distance, it’s way harder for me to craft a slam story than it is to build a 75-minute solo play, and I’m in awe of those who can write short.
It seems, from the reviews I get, that my other innate orientation is to (as reviewer Quinton Skinner says) “mine humor where others might find only darkness” – to find ways to put embarrassing, painful personal experiences onstage in a way that’s accessible and maybe even funny. If this is my calling, I’m honored (and if it is, it’s also because I’ve had excellent mentors to learn from). I want to keep pushing myself to tell the hard stories, whether it happens in 5-minute bursts that get scored by judges, or in evenings with just me onstage. I feel incredibly lucky to have an absurd number of storytelling events in this city to be a part of, and to have such amazing teachers, supporters, collaborators and friends. I got into this because I heard stories onstage that reached out to me and made me feel validated, understood, and less alone. If I can make others feel that way, I’m humbled and grateful.