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I’ve lived in Denver nearly five months now, and one of the best nights I’ve spent since coming here was at a performance at the Lighthouse Grotto last weekend. It’s funny how we get dressed up to cry. The crowd was good sized and got up for a night out, but there were wet eyes and red noses all around me and in the quieter moments you could hear whispering Kleenex and those soft, awkward sniffles.
We were all there to see someone I’d never heard of before, Michael Catlin, deliver a one-character autobiographical monologue. I don’t know what I expected – I was only there because I like Lighthouse and it was a Lighthouse event – but what I saw and heard was not only moving but thoughtful and honest and cracking with laughs. Michael’s son writes hip-hop music these days and Michael put all of us brilliantly at ease at the outset by playing a slightly suggestive track (lyrics: “slide up on it / slide down on it”) and ass-dancing along. Then he made us laugh with an unrepeatable story about involuntary reflexes at the movies. We were with him then for wherever he wanted to bring us. And where he wanted to bring us was into the darkest period of his life, the weeks and months when he and his six-year-old son were struggling with a diagnosis of leukemia. He had to physically fight his son to get the pills down his throat; he had to talk with honesty about death.
There’s a reason Spalding Gray caught our attention years ago, and it’s not dissimilar to the reason for Louie CK’s success or why so many of the faithful buy themselves admittance to the rustling green heaven of televangelists. We have a human need – perverted now, as all things tend to be – to hear stories told out loud, to be inside a room with a sole speaking voice, to let our spirits be carried by that voice. This is Homer with a lyre, Virgil in a palace, Chaucer’s traveling raconteurs, but it’s also Jean Shepherd on WBAI-M, and the moment at a crowded dinner when one voice emerges from the din and holds all others hostage. What happens next?
When we read, of course, we transfer that single voice into the amphitheater of the mind. But literacy is not only a gift, it is also a price. In the middle of last century Lord and Parry demonstrated how pre-literate cultures like those in remotest Serbia still entertained themselves with sung tales at cafes, and how those tales could go on hour after hour, detail on detail, all unwritten, all memorized – they could accommodate improvisation, they could swap around their structure, and they could do it again night after night. Listeners, of course, sat rapt, as we all did last Saturday in the grotto. This sense of the speaking voice telling stories at length is too infrequent in our world.
Although this was Lighthouse Writers Workshop, I hadn’t expected a Q&A that solicited feedback from the audience. This completed the performance somehow, allowed us to participate in its future. Yes, reciting the piece from memory is better than reading it off a page, we all agreed. But we parted ways on whether pictures should be included. I held – still hold – that the best parts of a spoken performance take place in the theater of the mind, that we have to internalize it, invent it, to make sense of it on our own terms.
All this conversation of course nicely mirrored the writers’ workshops which make up most of our primary experience with this place. How our reading one another’s work and talking about how to make the story better fits in to this primal urge I can’t say for sure. But my own workshop is so diverse – a punk rocker from Boulder, a manic mechanic, an international business man – that, short of jury duty or the DMV, nothing could collect in a room, unless it was something very important, necessary even. Our talk about stories is the next best thing to telling them, our small corrections and our questions are aimed at cracking those stories open, making them come to life. We get to know each other, share morsels of the stories of our lives. But it’s a different thing from sitting in an audience like Catlin’s and there are times I wonder if it isn’t all somehow secondary to the primal relationship between teller and listener, the yarn by the firelight, the stories that tell us who we are, that speak in a voice we know.
If you get a chance to check out Michael Catlin’s show in the coming months, you shouldn’t hesitate. Let me know how it’s changed. And let me know of any other good storytellers or storytelling venues you know of. I’m obviously keen on the stuff.