Overlap - Investigations in new and forgotten storytelling

AVlap #1 – ‘Gray Spirit Yearning’ – A tour of Monologuists

Photo courtesy of Clay Walker

“In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…”

So began each episode of stop-motion animated Nordic King, Noggin the Nog‘s beloved children’s television show. Noggin is an early (abeit fictional) example of a monologuist, the subject for this first in a series of audio visual storytelling primers from Overlap. I’m considering a monologue to be a dramatic first person speech that tells a story from the speaker, but over the course of the half a dozen examples we’ll look at in this primer it’ll become apparent that most, if not all, of these characteristics are flexible, if not disposable.

Noggin is literally a campfire storyteller, but he’s also a fictional character in a television programme. In film and television, monologues are overwhelmingly used to present extended and immersive character illuminating narratives ripe with realism and detail. These are resolutely land-locked, soapy stories – rainy days in the launderette and cream crackers lost down the settee. Conversely, real life monologuists tend to hark back to a broader, more robust adventuring. Keeping an audience’s attention demands a widescreen approach and a willingness to serve story rather than reality.  Big canvases, big performances and big ideas.

Spalding Gray‘s approach to monologue saw him touring theatres from behind a desk, armed with nothing more than a notepad and a glass of water. Gray’s Anatomy is his best. It sounds like a pitch for a road movie: a man attempts to avoid minor surgery on his eye by pursuing a series of bewildering alternative therapies that take him from a sweat lodge in snowy Minneapolis to a psychic surgery in the Philippines. But by transforming the experience into a direct to camera monologue, the consistently negotiating, engaging and, pivotally, controlling, Spalding gets to play all the parts and ‘remember things my own way’. His monologue format maintains the informality and immersiveness of his anecdotes but under the radar there’s structure – careful character development, narrative and thematic exploration – that turns these stories into modern odysseys. He’s like a neurotic one man remake of Jason and the Argonauts and directors including Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh have worked with the monologuist on adapting his work for the screen (Soderbergh has also just released a documentary on Spalding). Here’s his trailer for Gray’s Anatomy.

The speedline blur between travelogue/monologue is there in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, a 70-line poem in blank verse about a restless King trying to resist a wanderlust as insistent as a tethered boat tugging at a rope. Written in 1833, Tennyson deliberately avoided selecting the poem for publication, instead preferring to include it in teaching publications.  The result was a piece of work more heard than read. Factor in Ulysses’ slightly hysterical confessional tone “…how dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!” and guilty banishment of family and you’ve got the model of a conscience-stricken, exhibitionist monologuist.

Ken Campbell is best known as a writer, director and theatre producer with a fascination with ventriloquism and science fiction (he unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of the seventh Doctor Who as well as producing a stunning theatre production of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy that transported the audience via hovercraft). The interview below, conducted by Theatre Voice, focuses on Campell’s monologues. Introduced to the medium via Spalding Gray’s work, which he describes as ‘Sit Down Tragedy’  (as opposed to Standup Comedy), Campbell describes the development of his own monologues, which he put together based on Robert McKee and John Truby‘s screenwriting principles. Campbell’s monologues Pigspurt and The Furtive Nudist were adapted by Resonance FM, of whom more later.

Listen to Ken Campbell interviewed on Theatre Voice

Campbell’s fascination with throwing voices and monologue is twinned in Anna Devear Smith‘s ‘Documentary Theatre’. An acclaimed  actor with credits including Nurse Jackie, Rachel Getting Married (directed by Swimming to Cambodia‘s Jonathan Demme) and The West Wing, she also records interviews with interesting people and performs them, verbatim, in monologues that place her as a kind of Molly Dineen ventriloquist’s dummy.

Smith’s channelling of character testimony focusses on curation and representation rather than story. They’re technically incredible performances documenting everyone from race rioters to evangelists. But when she describes these characters in her own words there’s a narrative in her outlining of her feelings about the murderer, the hero, the boxer, that’s just as powerful. It’s in these moments that Smith herself comes to the campfire, rather than her subjects.

Kevin Eldon’s ‘Lecture’ shouldn’t even be in this list. A comedy podcast that breaks most the rules we’ve spent this tour outlining, this was the first in an eight part series called ‘Speakers’ recorded for London’s Resonance FM and it’s as funny as you’d expect of a comedy actor who regularly works with Chris Morris and Armando Ianucci. But it’s also thought provoking, grounded in reality (space’s emptiness is a scientific fact and the behaviour of ‘Thing’ is no more problematic than the possibility of the Higgs Particle’s non-existence) with a journey as grand and hammerblown as any of Gray’s or Tennyson’s; a narrator adrift in a universe of silence he might just have created himself. Every one of monologue’s characteristics is discarded apart from the most important one – this is still a singular voice telling a story.

Listen to ‘Lecture’ on Resonance FM

The likes of Gray and Campbell used live performance to push forward the monologue and today Anna Deavere Smith’s Documentary Theatre uses the format to transform the stage into a setting for factual testimony. But the web looks likely to be the setting for the next generation of monologuists.

Two podcasts in particular – New York’s The Moth and This American Life offer exciting new directions for the format. Both focus on spoken word and This American Life in particular presents work of such high quality that it’s arguably provided a mass media breakthrough for Monologuists (over half a million people download each episode) and been rationed as a result. It’s hard to avoid wondering what voices Campbell would have thrown at this medium, what Gray would have done with the thrilling episodic format podcasts offer. But it’s not difficult to see the master monologuist’s influence in these new storytellers. The Moth‘s live recordings are purest Gray, while This American Life‘s sound effects and masterful editing offer the broadcast edit of America’s master monologuist. If the shared experience is lost as a result of headphones transforming this to a one-to-one relationship with the storytellers, this might be more evolution than degeneration – these meticulously crafted versions of our deepest, most  personal stories were always a weird fit for auditoriums.

Category: AVlap

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