Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report
A 78-year-old talks about dating at her age. A Vietnam veteran tells stories he has kept to himself for 50 years. A retired physician relives a difficult birth she attended once in Haiti.
They share one thing: They are all onstage, telling their stories.
We commonly hear about people writing their memoirs, about wanting to get their history down on paper for the family. But some of us want to take it a step further: We want to perform them in front of a live audience.
Years ago, when my son left for college, I told him it was his responsibility to live an interesting life. Now I was challenging myself with that same advice.
“There’s something about face-to-face storytelling, having an audience, the interaction, that current of energy that flows between an audience and a performer when an audience and a performer find each other,” says Charlie Varon, who leads solo performance workshops in California. “That is a sacred moment, something fundamental to being human.”
My sacred moment occurred Dec. 22, 2014, when I stepped onstage and performed a 15-minute sketch I wrote about being new to being old.
A Life of Experience
Varon, 57, was my teacher. He has written and performed hit solo shows around the country. And since 1991, he has been affiliated with The Marsh, which has theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley. There, he leads a writing class titled “Say What You Mean Before You Die” as well as workshops on how to translate meaningful events into applause-worthy sketches.
Since 1993, about a thousand people have taken solo performance classes at The Marsh. Some students get hooked and keep signing up for more.
That doesn’t surprise Varon.
“A lot of older folks are signing up for solo performance classes, and it’s fantastic,” he says. “At last they have the time. And they have a life’s worth of experiences to wrestle into art.”
My Sacred Moment to Talk About Aging
When I signed up for the eight-week workshop, I was feeling too settled, up for something new and seeking excitement. Years ago, when my son left for college, I told him it was his responsibility to live an interesting life. Now I was challenging myself with that same advice.
“Solo performance is a container for life experience, a place to wrestle with what you have learned,” Varon says. “It’s also something you can invite people to come see.”
The last time I had embraced this “be interesting” advice was in 2010, when I ripped up 62 years of roots in St. Louis and moved to San Francisco. Not only did I gain a treasured place in the family realm — because that’s where my son and daughter-in-law have a home — I got a whole new life in a whole new city. That was a huge and invigorating experience. Yet four years later, I was once again ready for a new adventure.
The stage beckoned. In earlier days, I had done a lot of public speaking. Plus, on a seasonal basis for eight years I had pretended to tap dance on tour in the Midwest while wearing an abundance of red fringe and sequins in a dance company’s droll parody of The Nutcracker.
I looked at improv classes. I looked at acting classes. I looked at solo performance classes. The latter really appealed.
An Old Pro
Before I signed up for Varon’s workshop, I made a coffee date with a retired nurse, the friend of a friend who was performing her own show, called Cheesecake and Demerol, at a small theater in San Francisco. At the time, Gene Gore was 82, and she had been working in theater for a dozen years.
“I like being part of the theater community, I like connecting with the audience, with new people, and I like telling my story,” Gore told me when I asked about her decision to take her story to the stage. She also told me, “It’s expensive to put on a show. Often, you pay for the space, you pay for tech and you pay for publicity.”
If that was meant to discourage me, it was too late.
I told Gore I already had taken a recent three-day workshop with Alicia Dattner, who has performed her award-winning solo shows in San Francisco, New York, Hollywood, Bombay, London and Chennai, India.
At the end of that workshop, I had written seven pages of material about my take on aging, material that had made my younger classmates laugh and also maybe think differently about their own experiences. Still, a seven-page narrative is not the same thing as a script for a solo show. Dattner said I would need to pull apart some of the paragraphs, develop characters, write dialogue for them and learn how to act — how to show, rather than tell.
That is exactly what I did in the eight-week workshop. With help from Varon, I boiled down my seven pages to three, highlighting the essence of the stories. I also learned a bit about how to inhabit a character and how to take time to let that character interact with an audience in order to achieve that desired current of energy.
I also learned by watching my classmates each week as they performed their shows in progress. Mostly I learned what to do, but sometimes what not to do.
An Inspiring Classmate
Corey Weinstein, a physician, human rights advocate for the incarcerated, composer and clarinetist, was in the workshop. Weinstein, then 70, was working on a performance piece about his visit eight years previously to Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev where over two days in September 1941, German SS troops and police units fatally shot more than 33,700 Jews. Standing there on the edge of the ravine, Weinstein had been profoundly affected.
“Suddenly, I wanted everyone to know about Babi Yar,” Weinstein told us.
Back home from the trip, Weinstein researched the massacre. He read extensively about the Holocaust — something his Jewish family had never discussed when he was growing up in Chicago. And he thought deeply about the consequences of tamping down his emotions for much of his life, a skill his parents had taught him in the hope of protecting Weinstein emotionally.
Weinstein’s first response to all his research — the historical parts and the personal parts — was to write a song. Then he wrote another. Then he wrote even more. The songs were not the sort Weinstein could perform when playing gigs with his jazz band or his klezmer band.
He decided the songs needed a formal context. Weinstein, who admits at the time he knew nothing about drama, decided to write a play.
After completing the eight-week workshop, Weinstein took private classes, drafted additional performers to help tell his story and worked with a friend on the harmonic structure of the piece. His show, Erased: Babi Yar, the SS and Me, has since been booked at various synagogues and theaters in San Francisco.
I haven’t accomplished all that Weinstein has. I do continue to buy tickets to solo performances, and now I look with deeper insight into the performer’s challenges. I still wrestle with aging, and I have written more articles and blog posts about the mystifying experience of growing older. And recently I have been nurturing a vague notion that maybe I could write a play.
My first step? Find a class in writing for the theater. Why not?
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