Message and Delivery

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A man out of synch.

To stand at a microphone reading a personal anecdote is maybe not to enter the most sophisticated performing arts arena. Opera certainly has more component parts than a Moth true-stories show. Dance is more physically demanding. But commanding attention with no tool but your self, with little element of spectacle, is an essential challenge. It’s artist and audience in direct confrontation. It’s as close to the fine art of stand-up comedy as I’ve come. I haven’t done very much.

This year I wrote some critiques of Rogue Machine Theatre’s Rant & Rave storytellers – many of them very good – as a form of study, because I intended to be one of them. Before I did go up in October, I’d taken stage in the last few years only to lecture or debate. I was able to listen to my ten-minute performance for the first time this weekend. You may listen to it here.

I start out okay.

A rookie to the room, I was the opener of six storytellers on the theme of Magic. Going first didn’t intimidate me. I felt my material was strong, and I had faith in my chops. I’d broken my arm a few days before, but I didn’t have to do gymnastics. I had this. I remember joking pleasantly with the other storytellers before the show. I remember the positive vibe of the whole thing. I remember feeling complacent about my lack of nerves.

On the recording, Ron Bottitta gives me a strong introduction, selling the biographical joke I wrote for him to say about me. It is very nice to hear this actor I admire say my words. He gets the laugh.

The applause of welcome as I approach the mic sounds dutiful, but encouragingly so. Not hostile, still they don’t particularly give a damn – I am not a draw; this crowd is a third smaller than others I’ve seen here. The room’s tone is fair. I feel met halfway.

I remember my posture was an immediate issue. Too vain to wear a sling, I find my broken elbow crooks the arm at a specific angle. Standing with your hands in your pockets is no way to address a crowd. I start that way regardless, on the wrong arm, as ’twere.

I begin speaking and read unhurriedly, not rushing it. I establish goodwill and rapport. The text is, fairly early, unapologetically ponderous and poetic. I must own that. I speak as if owed the privilege of attention. I take stage. It works. I have the room from the first syllable, for almost a minute.

At the time, I heard at once that my voice was pitched a little high. I was over-enunciating a little. Telling a story about events that happened to me twenty years ago, I realized I’d spontaneously adopted a character – I was attempting a kind of ironic distance, a This American Life pretense of disinterest actually loaded with commentary. Listening to it, I can hear through the microphone the faint fear of exposure, the flopsweat waiting in the wings.

At about 45 seconds, there’s a small witticism, and it gets the small, reserved reaction it deserves. I don’t wait for or try to sell the laugh, I move on as if that mild cleverness was just another line. Everything’s fine.

About a minute in, I begin one of the two areas where I’ve been concerned about the writing (the other is the climax). This bit, about a trip to a restaurant, fails. Clearly, what I’m trying to say with it does not communicate to the live audience. Trying to make a poignant point, the words are wrong, the delivery is wrong. For almost 30 seconds the people I’m talking to aren’t able to respond because they’re not sure what I’m saying. What happens next is my favorite, most successful moment of the whole ten minutes:

I keep going.

I recognize in the moment that the bit’s not working – there’s a rule-of-three trope, by the third element of which I am supremely aware that all of it has fallen flat. Instinctively, I push into the next section, molding that half-minute of silence into a payoff that I shamelessly milk with body language and a pause. The audience is bullied into response, a shrewd defibrillation of attention. I’m instantly proud of it. I have them back. The new confidence moves me forward.

The words are pretty good, most of them, but the first three or four minutes are veined with too much self: my opinions at the time of the narrative, my opinions now, unnecessary ego, not enough narrative thrust. The lack of urgency, the thin value of this material is reflected in my most embarrassing moment of the evening: having prepared a small retort to a potential audience reaction, although no one in the audience has reacted in the manner prescribed I deliver the rebuttal anyway. It didn’t bother me that much at the time, but it’s awful to listen to now. It’s a dangerous, willful, undisciplined and inartistic moment. A couple members of the crowd take pity and offer a courtesy laugh.

I move on.

The next three or four minutes are better, but there’s a performance element that doesn’t entirely work. It’s not crippling, but my sureness is cracked. My delivery becomes folksy, pandering. The character I was playing goes in and out. There are a couple of inappropriate curse words that sound desperate now, but I remember thinking at the time that the middle eight minutes or so went extremely well, considering I hadn’t done this kind of thing in over a year. I was carried for the rest of the performance on the roar of blood in my ears, making excuses for myself, judging and weighing and adjusting in the moment. It’s not my favorite way to perform. It’s a way. The monologue doesn’t suck. It’s just never really excellent, and worse, it never reaches its potential. My diction is the best thing about it.

The climax is redolent of some of my oldest, least evolved tendencies. Terrified of obviousness, of being seen coming, at the crucial moment I get too esoteric. The writing underexplains, and the performance pushes to make up for it. The piece finishes not flat but with the sense that the performer has made an intellectual connection to which the audience is not privy. My exit is abrupt. The applause communicates that the crowd feels I meant well – they clap about equally for what I have done as for what I might have done had I done better.

Middle age has not granted me patience. I have little use for a performer who has not done the work required to be worthy of scrutiny and focus, and my criticism can be harsh. So the next thing I have to admit is that since I liked being in front of an audience again, I’ve got labor ahead. Fortunately, I think that in me, there’s something worth working on.

It’s hard not to think so. Being onstage is very gratifying. Look at all the people doing it.

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recent Stage and Cinema reviews:

Rio Hondo & Indecent (now playing)

Goodnight Mommy (available on video tomorrow)

Hit the Wall (now playing) 

Replica (now playing in a remount at the Complex)

The Sparrow (just closed)

recent Bitter Lemons columns:

“Never Cry Critic”

“Lynched”

Comments (2)

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In the interest of full disclosure I must own up to being one of Jason’s elementary school teachers thirty plus years ago. By his questionable accounts, I ranked among his favorites. I felt the same about him then as I do now. He was/is—far and away—my most remarkable student…ever.

And so anything I say here may be taken as what any doting parent might gush about their genius offspring. If that’s how you choose to feel about it I can’t stop you.

Prior to hearing Jason’s Rogue Machine Theatre story of magic the last time I had heard him perform live onstage was as John Proctor in a production of “The Crucible”. I believe he was a high school senior at that time. I hadn’t seen him much in the several years after he’d left my classroom. His Mom called me up one day and begged me to tutor him through algebra. He was—as we quickly got reacquainted—still exceptional—just moreso. He was now in high school and seriously pursuing dreams of a career in theater. (An aside…except to graduate from high school I still have no idea why he needed algebra.)

Then thirty years pass in a heartbeat. With this recording I get to hear his voice onstage once again.

Contrary to his self-evaluation, I find this a fine performance on just about every level. Foremost for me is that the piece is entirely Jason’s voice—the writing as well as the delivery. While I’ve read much of what he’s currently writing I’ve heard none of it read by him—until this recorded performance. Stand up comics, singer/songwriters and poets are the rare artists who typically treat us in this way and—particularly with the growth of podcasting—original storytelling does seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance.

Along with this intimate personal element I’d add that—to my ear—the delivery, the timing, the content and the length of the piece are spot on.

The performance works…and well.

That the author has elected to play critic to his own interpretation of his own written words as well as his performed rendition is frosting on an already tasty cake. I enjoy nothing more than looking at artist’s sketchbooks. For most I’d rather do that than view their “finished” pieces. With his self-criticism Jason has opened his sketchbook—pre- as well as post-production—for all to explore. What he intended, where he feels he hit his marks and missed, what he might choose to do differently are bonus dimensions he has offered to his audiences. They are all here for us to agree with or debate.

I, for one, look forward to Jason writing and performing more tales of this sort.

Every student I ever had from the dullest to the brightest taught me far more than I ever dreamed of teaching them…about teaching…about life…about what really is and is not important in this world. As a teacher it is both gratifying (and humbling) to be able to witness former students delivering work of this caliber.

It would be folly to take ANY of the credit.

Bless him, Jason will always be one of a kind in my world. I’m forever grateful for the wisdom of our principal, Mr. Bird, who assigned Jason Rohrer to my classroom all those years ago.

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If I had the capacity I’d blush. Thank you, Jim.


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