Imagine you're in the Middle East in a cement-block hotel room with no windows, no ventilation, and a hole-in-the-floor toilet. Oh, and you have food poisoning.
That happened to Jesse Kalisher of Chapel Hill, N.C. In a feverish delirium, he started ranting about his recent sojourn in Turkey and asked his wife to take notes. It was the beginning of his solo autobiographical show, We're Not the Tourists You're Looking For, a Spalding Gray–style monologue that Kalisher has since performed in various venues. He wrote most of the show—a series of anecdotes strung together to tell a larger story—from memory about a year after getting home; he'd been asked to talk about his photography but thought, What if I did a monologue about my Middle East travel instead?
Kalisher is a professional photographer, not an experienced performer (most recently he provided the images for Jeff Greenwald's book If You Find the Buddha). If he can create a show about his travels, then you—a working actor—can, too.
For example, actor-playwright Tanya Shaffer kept a detailed journal of her year traveling alone in Africa. Early on she realized she was writing mostly about her inner life, which she could have done anywhere. So she switched gears, writing constantly, often recording conversations verbatim while sitting on the side of the road. Once home, she transferred her scribbles into the computer, churning out 500 single-spaced pages, but she didn't begin working on the show for several years. Eventually, teaming up with director Amy Mueller, Shaffer focused on just one aspect of that year: a two-week boat trip up the Niger River to Timbuktu.
"It was by far the most dramatic part of my trip," Shaffer says. There was a boat accident, a death, and built-in structure: three clear primary characters, two of them men competing for her friendship. She also transposed a few other stories, incorporating them into the river voyage, which was a microcosm for lessons learned during that adventurous year. The hour-and-a-half Let My Enemy Live Long! has played at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, San Diego Repertory Theatre, and elsewhere.
For Shaffer, creating the play was all about showing, not telling. She looked for ways to inhabit characters rather than describe them, taking out words, whittling away. "Whatever you can do with props, sets, body, face, voice, I did that instead of using words," she explains. She kept her narrative persona to a minimum and says that if she were to redo the show, she'd take out the narration entirely.
To create the various characters, mostly African, Shaffer started with the voices; she has a natural affinity for accents. From there she developed stock postures for each role. By now she has performed the play so many times that it's taken on a reality of its own. "Sometimes, waiting to go on stage, I'd get a flash of one of the actual people, and I'd think, Oh yeah, this really happened," she says. "I was living in the world of the play." She adds, "You're reinventing yourself and the experience. The you isn't really you. Some aspects are magnified, others ignored. My play was not a documentary; things got to happen in it that didn't happen in real life." Later she turned her material—and other stories from that trip—into a book, Somebody's Heart Is Burning (Vintage Books, 2003).
Dan Hoyle went to Nigeria for 10 months on a Fulbright Scholarship to study oil politics and turned the experience into a performance piece, Tings Dey Happen (running through March 31 at The Marsh in San Francisco, directed by monologuist Charlie Varon).
But before that, while a student at Northwestern, he created Circumnavigator, based on the five months he spent investigating American companies operating in developing countries on three continents. He kept a journal; recorded interviews, street sounds, and music, which became the play's soundtrack; and took photos, used as projections to introduce each scene. Later, in San Francisco, Varon helped him shape the material. "Basically, I had some characters," Hoyle says. "Charlie helped me bring out what was deep in each scene and put the scenes together to form a whole play.... One of the most difficult things was finding a story that was continuous while going to all these different countries...trying to stuff as much meat into it while still keeping it entertaining." He adds, "I think there's an increasing hunger among audiences for authenticity and complexity."
In both pieces, Hoyle plays many characters of various ethnicities. When traveling, he observes "how people shift their eyebrows, weave their hands in the air, pause, laugh." He adds, "When I meet someone who's [dramatically] rich, a light goes off in my head, I lock in on them, the world around me falls away, my brain's recording device [activates]. Sometimes I'd write a note, like something about their physicality. I do believe that your right brain, if you train it, absorbs a [character] unconsciously better than consciously." His process is to work from the outside in, initially facing a mirror.
For Tings, Hoyle removed himself as a character from the story, depicting only the people he met as they talk to him. Thus the audience becomes him. "My burden is to represent people truthfully," he says. "And so one character might emerge out of three different people. There's so much material, so you let it all soak in, and you want it to soak in deep." He also worked hard to capture the local pidgin English.
Unlike Shaffer and Hoyle, who were thinking as actor-writers while traveling, actor James Gleason's mind was elsewhere when, in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, he toured base camps, hospitals, villages, and the frontlines for several months in Neil Simon's The Star Spangled Girl.
For the past 15 years, Gleason has been developing Actor Under Fire, using reel-to-reel tapes he sent to his parents during the war as source material. First he transcribed them; then he began writing characters, though he says he's not a writer. Using the tapes primarily to jog his memory of the chronology, he embellished incidents, choosing seven of the most interesting tour stops. The characters he plays are male and female, including two Vietnamese children. His show is interesting and funny, Gleason says, and provides a lesson that's relevant to today's political situation, telling of "soldiers' problems, disasters, funny things, and great tragedy."
Like his colleague Kalisher, travel writer Jeff Greenwald had no acting background before staging Strange Travel Suggestions. (His 1990 book Shopping for Buddhas, reissued in 1996 by Lonely Planet, won a best travel book award that year.) Greenwald writes in a journal one or two hours a day when traveling, no matter what else is happening. When he was invited by a theatre to read from his books at a program of travel-related performances, he opted instead to create a show replicating the strangeness and unpredictability of an actual trip. He says, "I had to allow the most important aspect of travel to enter in: serendipity." So he crafted a production in which audience members spin a wheel of fortune with 30 stops, each one a theme. For each theme, Greenwald improvises, choosing among three or four tales. The mix is different for each performance, creating an atmosphere of suspense. Sometimes Greenwald finds new parts of the story that he'd forgotten. After writing for 25 years, he says, he now prefers storytelling.
Kalisher concludes, "The trick as a traveler is to have an eye for the larger story. If in the natural course of events you travel through life aware of the interesting things that are happening to you, then you can come back and create something." And in a xenophobic era, he is happy for the chance to talk about his Middle East travels. "I don't want to stand on a soapbox," he says. "But I hope [in my show] people got a glimpse of a culture they might not get a chance to visit."
Whom do you fantasize about playing opposite (whether a celebrity or a colleague) and why? Send your answers, for possible inclusion in an upcoming Craft column, to firstname.lastname@example.org.