Last night was <trumpet flourish> my debut doing Story Play, Nell Weatherwax‘s pioneering art form of story, improvisation, body movement, and theatre. It was a free show in Indianapolis at the Pine Cone Yoga Center. It’s a clean, intimate space and we had a full house.
Barry Callen opened the show with some great music—as Nell’s partner, it’s no surprise he’s a master storyteller in song. I then did my piece, we had a short break, Nell did a full-length piece about her mother’s funeral and attendant family craziness, and then we broke for Q & A.
My piece was a lighthearted frolic about death and funerals. The art form is based in improv, so ideally you like to just move with the moment and shape the story as it comes to you. But since I was very conscious about not going over my time limit, I did a couple dry runs in the afternoon. These were interesting because I was aiming to hit my main points and purposely trying to forget what linked them so I could be open to whatever came up in performance. As I suspected, I was over my time, so I was able to have an idea of what digressions I should steer clear of to stay on-target.
Story Play is all about telling true-life stories in such a way that you bring the audience in with you. As I mentioned in the Q & A last night, it’s about being “universally specific.” This term comes from the greeting card industry, where you find a card that says exactly what you intend—and thousands of other people feel the same way. It’s a universal message but expressed in such a way that everyone feels like it’s a personal expression.
I began my piece with the story of my great-grandmother’s funeral when I was five. It’s a very clear memory, probably my longest continuous memory from those days. I was standing in front of her coffin, staring at her chest, waiting for her to breathe. I had never contemplated death before and I couldn’t quite grok how she could not be breathing, not be holding her breath—she was in this new state I had never witnessed before and I had no way to file it in my undeveloped brain.
There was a series of windows up and to my left, and there’s something in there about a robin. Did I see a robin? Unlikely, since the trees through the window were across the street. More likely it was a song in my head. Maybe the song my great-grandparents brought from Ireland over a hundred years ago:
Poor Robin is dead and he lays in his grave,
Lays in his grave,
Lays in his grave.
Poor Robin is dead and he lays in his grave,
Oh, oh, oh.
Or more likely, the Jackson 5’s Rockin’ Robin. Regardless, there’s some association.
I turned around and was looking into the vestibule, “golden light pouring in through the door like angels,” to see a low bench upholstered in “inoffensive green.” My grandfather sat there, “so familiar I don’t have words to describe him.” He had his arm around my grandmother who was leaning into him, “already well on her way to being the quintessential little old lady.” It was the first time I’d seen them touch. And her face was covered in a white handkerchief as she sobbed into him. It was the only time in my life I saw her cry. “Every year for the rest of her life, she will mark this day in her diary—this day when her mother left her.”
I then moved into my experiences of funerals growing up. My mom and dad, “being good Capricorns,” believed that if anything happened to them, we should know what to do. We had a large extended family, many of them old, so people were dropping like flies. We went to funerals All. The. Time. I didn’t put this in the story, but it got to the point where I was afraid of having a good time. There was one time when I went to the mall with friends and spent the day laughing my head off. But I had a sense of guilt and foreboding. Sure enough, when I got home I found out my uncle had died. I never understood people who hadn’t been to a funeral until their twenties. Funerals were part and parcel of my formative years.
When I say “funeral” I really mean three sections: the wake, the funeral service itself, and the funeral feast. Each has a different flavor. I loved wakes. I had a blast with my sisters and cousins. There was one funeral home in Hammond, Indiana that had a downstairs area with kitchen and lounge, so we would congregate down there. And they had, miracle of miracles, a fridge full of free Coca-Cola. Zing! We weren’t allowed to have pop except on special occasions, so we took full advantage of the sugary goodness. We would tear around those two rooms playing hide-and-go-seek, which is not hard to do in such a limited space. When I think of wakes, I think of being hot and sweaty. Which tells you how seriously I took the things.
A Catholic graveside funeral is a thing of beauty. Pure catharsis. I didn’t even have to know the person. I would be beside myself with grief. These days when I see the frenzies of funeral processions in the Middle East, I am reminded of the ancient Egyptians who hired professional mourners and I think, yeah, I could totally do that job.
After the funeral, we would race in our cars to the church, “where the pleasant church ladies in their pleasant cardigan sweaters would dish out comfort food like mashed potatoes.” Heaven. And a great way to ground after the hystrionics at the graveside.
Death is a great black bird which blots out the sun and enfolds me in her sooty wings, pressing down until I am in the stillness of her mystery.
The last funeral I went to was earlier this year. It was for my cousin Mike. “I didn’t know Mike as an adult but I did as a child. I was nine and he was maybe nineteen. He was six foot 12 and a million, and hugely buff from working construction. He was my Teutonic knight, with long blonde hair (this was the ’70s), a long blonde moustache, and a bright white smile that could light up the room.” (As I said that line I wished I could come up with a better phrase than the hackneyed “light up a room” bit. But we work with what we have in the moment.) My sister was afraid of him but I felt safe around him.
And he went into the house that he had built from memory, no blueprints, built with his own two hands, and burned the house down around his head and put a bullet through his brain. And the first thing I thought of when I heard the news was, “At least I know it works.” I have fingers that itch for the trigger.
That last is not my wording—it comes from a poem one of my beloveds wrote about me. It still amazes me that she captured me the way she did. She is a talented artist. Anyway, this line transitioned me into the last portion of my piece, which was the story of her leaving me, going on thirteen years ago now.
She is sitting in the driver’s seat of her small car, her hand plastered against the window, freakishly white in the florescent glare of the light which shines down on us. Her huge brown eyes stare up at me full of questions and anguish. Her pale white face, her small cap of brown hair, her pointed chin. I place my hand over hers against the glass, but there is this barrier between us.
I had wanted to say how this barrier put her beyond the Veil, how it was a permanent separation for the moment. I can’t remember if I said that “this is the parting that will not just break my heart but rend my spirit.” It broke me as a human being, and I have never been the same since.
But this time I will change this script, I will not be the one left, so I turn my back [I turned around] and I [I walked away].
At the end of every performance, whether it’s a song or a scene, I think it’s really important to hold the space. It’s not a freeze exactly, because there’s still energy flowing. You just hold the space in stillness, letting the final words and emotions seep in before you relax into applause. Silence informs a lot of what I do artistically. It has been brought home dramatically to me by Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility (and later live in London in his performance in Antony and Cleopatra) and demonstrated masterfully by Richard Harris in Gladiator. I use silence and stillness in Story Play to mark transitions between stories and themes. It’s much more effective than a tidal wave of words which the audience doesn’t have time to absorb.
All of the above storytelling is done in the present tense, which makes it much more immediate. The full body is brought into play to illustrate themes, not just individual words. And sometimes words just go out the window as sounds are substituted instead. Story Play is not about being a stand-up comedian trying to be impressive and witty. It’s about fully inhabiting the story in a theatrical way to create a transformative experience for the audience. (For an example of Story Play in action, see this hilarious story from Nell. And to see how a story can be told by two people simultaneously, check out this fabulous duo she did with Marielle Abell.)
I am deeply grateful to all the people who set up this event and made it happen, and especially to Nell for giving me the space to share my stories. The audience was stellar, just so warm and appreciative, right there with me as I led them on the journey. Nell is working on a Bloomington show for January, and has invited me to participate. I am in! Story Play feels so authentic, so purely theatrical (in the “Greek ritual” sense of the word), that it is one of my favorite modes of performing. Praise Gaia!