The Playgoer: Storytelling in Tough Times

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Storytelling in Tough Times

by Steven Leigh Morris

As a kind of complement (and compliment) to Abigail Katz's lovely post on Wednesday, I point to the last show I saw in L.A. before spending the weekend in New York.

Jay Sefton wrote and performed in his one-man autobiographical show, “The Most Mediocre Story Never Told” at a small theater near Melrose and Fairfax called Meta Theatre.

It's the remarkable tale of an unremarkable young guy struggling to tell his life story in a one-man- show for reasons that he doesn't fully understand. But perhaps by telling of his youth in Philadelphia, and his humiliating performance as Christ in a Catholic school production of the Passion Play, he will discover the reason that he's on the stage recounting his adventures as a child actor, stooping in a “fairy robe” to wash the feet of Christ's disciples.

A personable and charming actor, Sefton flinches at the special effects – stage smoke and roving spotlights -- that open the show, as though he's the star of a rock concert. Sefton points out how these theatrics were suggested by some one-man-show expert who makes his rent by shaping the stories of would-be actors into a serviceable performance. The bells and whistles really aren't necessary, the actor demurs.

He tells of how, at age 13, he lifted the robes of his classmates for Christ's foot washing ceremony in the Passion Play, to discover messages written onto the feet of his peers: “Fuck you.” “Fag.” “Asshole.” and “Hey Jay, what's up?”

After this, he was tied to a cross while dressed in a diaper, during which the thoughts running through his mind included wishing he had some hair under his armpits, and his eagerness to fall in into the arms of Mary Magdalene because she's played by his voluptuous blond eighth grade classmate, Lisa Connor.

Among a small gallery of characters whom Sefton also plays are his alter-ego, Phillie Jay, who points out that his life is so dull, it would benefit both him and his audience to make stuff up, invent some drama. And, under Debra De Liso's direction, which nimbly guides the show along its magic carpet ride, this is where Sefton cuts to the heart of his tantalizing concept:
“I looked up 'story' in the thesaurus, just to see if I had one, and most of the words had something to do with not telling the truth. Fable, yarn, gossip, rumor, legend. There are other words there too. Anecdote, chronicle, but there is a whole subsection called lie. As an actor we hear, 'Just tell the story. What’s the story? I am just listening for the story. You are a storyteller.'”
“Where are these stories? Where do they really exist? And who am I without them?” Sefton asks in his show. The last question loops back to Abigail's implication that if you want to feel poverty, try living without art. The broader question that Sefton doesn't ask is, Who are we without stories? And an economic crisis does nothing to change the answer to that.

So far, Wall Street's crisis has had no tempering effect on the quantity of plays opening across Los Angeles, which is reeling with the same fears as in New York.

At the Abingdon Theatre Company, where I've been spending quite a bit of time for the production of my play, “Beachwood Drive” (which starts previews on Friday), the management is showing an uncharacteristic anxiety that Wall Street's woes may hammer their upcoming fund raiser, and they're eager to see the Dow Jones index at least stabilize before then.

In the rehearsal hall over the weekend, the volatile stock market was part of some distant echo. As rehearsal progressed, the sounds of wild applause from a performance of Richard Etichison's “Force Majeure” (presented by InViolet Repertory Theatre Company) bled through the walls from the Dorothy Streslin Theater across the hall.

This beehive of theatrical activity, in the Abingdon Complex, as well across both New York and L.A., is neither solipsism nor theater removed from reality. It is simply the reality of theater telling stories in hard times, and of some high regard for those stories being told.

This is my last post here for a while. Thanks to Garrett for the opportunity, and thanks to you for reading.

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