What We Monologue About When We Monologue About Monologues

Hey, what did you do this weekend? Oh yeah? The beach? Cool, well, I –  Oh, you went parasailing? That’s really – A secret midnight beach party? With an open bar? Brittany Spears invited you to the VIP lounge?! Well, shut up. I had a cool weekend too, alright? You want to know what I did this weekend? I mean, what I did this weekend besides watch random Olympic events (Canoe Slalom anyone?) and feebly “work out” to stave off the overwhelming sense of my own physical inadequacy in comparison to these athletes?

Well, I spent nearly five hours of my weekend sitting quietly in a dark room while a large, passionate and frighteningly articulate man berated, seduced, interrogated and confided in me. No, it wasn’t date night. I was watching two interrelated monologues by Mike Daisey: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and The Orient Express (Or, The Value of Failure), which wasperformed at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in a special workshop presentation.

OH MY GOSH, huge surprise! I totally lured you in with that intro, right? You thought I was starting a new gossip and nightlife column on the Woolly Mammoth Blog. Instead, I’m going to perform my own monologue (see what I did there) about monologues. A meta-monologue. I know; it’s a huge disappointment to all of us.

Now, I know I wasn’t the only one sitting in the audience of The Orient Express who’d just been to The Agony and the Ecstacy, and, to further complicate this Venn Diagram, I imagine that of the segment of the audience who were there seeing both monologues nearly back to back, I wasn’t the only one who’d seen some of Mr. Daisey’s other work, like How Theatre Failed America or The Last Cargo Cult. And of that minority, maybe even a few had been to Woolly Mammoth in previous seasons to see Josh Lefkowitz’s monologues at Woolly. So, with all this said, I may be making an unfair assumption, but I believe I was one of the few, if not the only, person who was there not because of the controversy and press surrounding Mike Daisey, or because of the low price (free) of the tickets, but because I’m a real fan of monologues as a theatrical genre. I mean the real introspective, storytelling, “non-fiction” kind of monologue written and performed by artists like Mike Daisey and Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian. They get me going, get my brain working, my heart thumping, my juices flowing.

Now, to be honest, I’m the kind of person who gets excited by a great New Yorker article or by someone reading out loud to me, so if you’re thinking, “Uh, the The New Yorker?  Reading out loud? So Lame,” then you might want to leave. But, as a consolation prize, here’s a great YouTube video. Really though, I think the comparison between a well written monologue and a well written New Yorker article is apt. There’s a certain way in which both are constructed, esoteric observations, descriptive metaphors, digressive anecdotes, and cold information jutting off like ribs from a central narrative spine made up of the author’s personal experiences on a trip to China or following a celebrity or researching Shakespeare or investigating the spread of Dengue fever. In some sense, it’s an ethnographical approach to storytelling; by inserting themselves into the narrative and subject matter, the author’s cultural biases and personal proclivities are made evident, making space in the narrative for matters of subjectivity and cultural relativism. But what’s so beautiful about the monologue is that, unlike just about any other narrative form, is that everything – its creation, presentation, and reception – happens at the same time, in front of the audience, in the same room, united within the single figure of the monologist.

The first monologist I saw perform was the afore-mentioned Josh Lefkowitz, when he performed as part of the 2006 Washington, DC Fringe Festival. I was a young and impressionable 16, an aspiring and apparently terrible actor just introduced to Stanislavski, The Actor Prepares, objectives, beats, spines and super-spines. I was filled with theatrical jargon and misconceptions about what constituted “real” theatre. But, when Josh walked on stage, sat behind the table that was the only set piece in the tiny room, and began talking to us, the audience, without pretense, without character, without objective, I was blown away.  I was blown away by the form’s immediacy, it simplicity, its intimacy. That someone would sit there and with the self-bearing honesty of a confessional, talk about their life, their passions, their family. In the monologue, Josh mentioned a couple other monologists, but in particular he talked about Spalding Gray. When I got home, I sat down in front of YouTube and watched the entire film version of Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. You can too, if you like. Then, I bought up book versions of all his monologues. I even read his collected journals (really interesting by the way). I was, and still am, fascinated by the connection that Gray forms with his audience. I could feel it even through the computer screen. I felt like I knew this man, and that he was speaking directly to me. And in some sense, he was. Gray never wrote down his monologues, rather creating rough outlines in journals and on legal pads, from which he would perform the monologue in real time. In that way, the monologue could be different every time. Gray would perform a monologue over and over again, and based on the audience’s response and his own perception of how it went, would add or subtract text, move passages and words, try a new inflection or add a pause. Through that process he would crystalize and refine the shape and content of his monologues, all based upon his relationship and his perceived relationship with the audiences he had in front of him.

And that’s exactly what was so fascinating about watching Mike Daisey perform The Orient Express, a brand new piece and is still finding its exact form. In The Agony and the Ecstasy it is clear that Daisey, over the course of much iteration, has found exactly the right metaphors, the exact words, perfected when to quip and when to shout, when to draw the audience in and when to excoriate them. But, with The Orient Express, he’s still in the process of distillation, and watching him search for exactly the right way to say something to make it clear to us, was evidence of just how much his monologues are based upon that basic interaction between performer and audience. If he sensed we hadn’t understood something, and who knows exactly how one feels that, he’d try to refine whatever image he’d just presented us with to make it clearer. Often, he’d make several passes over the same point, approaching from different angles, burrowing into its marrow, ear cocked to hear just how we, the audience, reacted to each pass.  And midway through the play, as I sat in the dark way up in the second to last row of the balcony watching this process, I realized that my laughter, my shifting in my seat, my nodding, my gaze may affect some small part of The Orient Express, and that was truly exciting.

~ Sam Lahne, Literary Assistant

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