(Warning: Non-Running Post)
I was going to wait until New Year’s Eve to write my “what happened this year” post. I’ll still write one. But I thought I’d get a jump on writing about one aspect of what was a terrible-yet-wonderful year.
In the fall of 2010, while attempting to stay in shape as I recovered from a stress fracture, I was spending huge amounts of time running in the pool, spinning and doing whatever it’s called when you use the elliptical. I was in the gym for many hours each week and, unlike running, there was no joy in the activity. It was just a tedious, boring, time-consuming grind.
My playlists of music got old quickly. So I turned to podcasts. I listened to lots of different podcasts but ended up only sticking with a few that were reliably good. Two of them, WTF! with Marc Maron and the RISK! Show, remain my go to podcasts. I wrote about them in February. The first is an interview program hosted by standup stalwart Marc Maron. The second is a storytelling podcast, a weekly show that typically combines 2-3 true stories, told either before a live audience or in a studio, with musical interludes between them.
These two podcasts mean a tremendous amount to me personally, although for different reasons. There was a period of time during January and February when I was completely mired in one of the worst periods of depression that I’ve experienced in years. Coupled with the despair and hopelessness was a near total inability to sleep for several weeks. During that time, because I was so restless, I moved into our guest room and spent many nights listening to archived WTF! shows. Between the highly personal stories of what happened to host Maron during the week (usually a mixture of hilarity and unforgiving self-examination) and his intelligent, empathetic interviews with guests, I was often moved. His voice was like an audio life raft that I clung to in the night.
The other show, RISK!, whose tagline is “True tales, boldly told,” was a similar mixture of comedy and tragedy. Some stories were better than others, but they were usually honest and unflinching. I forgave the more self-indulgent or boring ones because when the stories were good they were incredibly good. Yet, during some shows I’d find myself thinking, “I could probably do a better job than that guy.” Even months after I’d emerged from the depressive mud, that thought stayed with me.
For decades I’d been attracted to the idea of doing standup comedy, yet was terrified by the prospect. And I do mean terrified. I have (or had, up until a month ago) an intense fear of doing anything in public. Public speaking was torture for me. Even business meetings were (and, oddly, still are) a challenge. So the prospect of getting up on stage and trying to make people laugh seemed like the craziest, hardest thing one can do. It’s the purest form of failure — you’re there to make people laugh. That’s hard to do. And you’re doing that as yourself. So if they don’t laugh, in a sense, those people are rejecting not just your jokes, but also you. Like I said: terrifying. I still have trouble imagining it.
But these podcasts, especially RISK!, were a revelation. You could tell honest stories about yourself and people would listen. You didn’t have to be funny, although you could be if you wanted to. For me, storytelling falls somewhere along a spectrum that spans monologue and standup, as illustrated below. I inserted names of entertainers and where I feel they fall along that spectrum. I in no way include myself in their esteemed company — they’re just there to help you get a picture of what I’m talking about and also because I admire them all in their own way. I can only hope to achieve an originality and consistency of performance, perspective and persona that each of them has managed to.
Storytelling is the oldest form of entertainment, yet it was news to me. I’d sampled the storytelling podcast, The Moth, which is the one everyone knows. But it didn’t grab me the way RISK! did and still does. In fact, I was so affected by RISK! that I started scheming ways to get on it. I started working on story ideas and struggled with how to pitch them. But the biggest obstacle was the performance issue. If you want to tell stories, you have to get up in front of people and tell them. There is simply no way around that. So I started looking for classes. I needed help not just with the “how to” of constructing a story, but also with the mechanics of telling it without being totally petrified on stage. And, what?! It turns out that Kevin Allison, the brains, passion and voice behind RISK!, teaches classes! In storytelling! It was fate! It was fate. I signed up for the September class at The Story Studio.
It was a great experience. I met other talented people. Kevin is an excellent teacher and listener. I got everything I wanted out of it, including the encouragement I needed to keep working on it.
This and some related activity in the theatrical realm has given me a new lease on my creative life. It’s introduced me to some wonderful people — other performers, new friends, potential collaborators. It’s given me the confidence and curiosity to take an acting class to further plumb the mysteries of performance and onstage persona. I am finding themes in my stories that may eventually drive me to doing a longer piece consisting of a cycle of related stories. But I’m getting ahead of myself already.
I invited several friends to my end-of-class performance. Jonathan came too. I deliberately did not share the story I’d tell with him — although he’d heard less-detailed forms of it over the years. I did not invite him to come to the two open mic story slams I attended to get some experience with an audience that was not my class. I needed to do this on my own, unsupported (and unfettered). The act of keeping him at a distance throughout the learning process had one fantastic side effect, though: I got to watch him in the audience, watching me. During my 13 minutes on stage, he wore an expression that was some combination of delighted and dumbstruck. Later, I asked him what it was like to watch me and he said, after a long pause: “It was like seeing you, but some other version of you.”
I knew what he meant. I was me. But I was also not me. I was a transformed, perhaps better version of me. The me I’d like to always be. But I needed a story and an audience to be that person. It’s the person I’m not yet. It’s a start.
A few years ago, when I was still struggling to write short stories, I registered the domain modernstories.com. I was surprised no one had taken it. A bit later someone offered me a few hundred dollars for it. Even though I’d abandoned fiction by then, some instinct told me to hang onto it. I’m glad I did. I’ll do something with it, although I don’t know what yet.
Telling stories to strangers is gratifying, fun and very hard work. I am lucky to have found it, especially while living in a suburb just north of New York City, which seems to be ground zero for live storytelling. There are so many shows to explore. The Moth is not the only game in town. Nor is RISK! For the next month or two I’ll sample other shows and see what’s a good fit, then see if I can fit in somewhere.
Anyway, here’s the first of many ventures I hope to make onto various stages starting in 2012. To honor what RISK! did for me, I decided to tell the truest, boldest tale I could think of. The name of this story is “The Beast.”