The May/June issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine includes a feature by Sara Felder titled “Juggling the Truth: True and Semi-Factual Confessions in Solo Performance.” We’re pleased to present a number of Felder’s interviews with her fellow Bay Area solo performers that went into the article.
Charlie Varon is an award-winning San Francisco playwright and solo performer. His works include “Rush Limbaugh in Night School,” “The People's Violin” and “Rabbi Sam.” His latest show, “Fwd: Life Gone Viral,” is a two-person piece cocreated with actor Jeri Lynn Cohen and director David Ford, now playing at the Marsh. Visit charlievaron.com.
“Dazzle Plus Truth”
Charlie Varon, interviewed over the phone by Sara Felder, February 22, 2012.
How do you pick what a show is going to be about?
The last two plays picked me. The ideal is when the intuition sends the germ of an idea and then you serve it. One day I woke up with the words “Rabbi Sam” and then I followed it. There’s a lot of ways to make theatre. I’m wary of plays that begin from a high concept. I trust the intuition more than the intellect. Worst of all are plays that start from the thought, “Maybe this will get funded.”
Tell us more about intuition in the role of creation.
The intuition is what outsmarts the part of you that wants to be liked. There is always the problem of vanity that never goes away. There is always this voice that says, “Are people going to like me?” You have to wrestle with that. For me, this question is, Can I listen to something deeper than that – have some deeper “kavanah” [the Hebrew word for “intention”]. The intuition sends me to something that is unknown, scary, something I’m not sure I can pull off. There is chapter after chapter of fear that I have to walk through to get to something that works.
What about as a teacher? How do you help students find their material?
When I’m teaching, I’m always listening for what is trying to be born. And I’m tracking energy. I’m looking for where things seem most alive and dangerous. What is the discovery the student is on the brink of, that they are tiptoeing up to? Is there some way that I can encourage them to take the next step?
Why is it important for you tell this story on stage? Why solo theatre?
I want my work to be produced, and I can’t stand being a supplicant. I’m impatient. There was a time when I was working on “Rabbi Sam,” and I thought, “I cannot do this. It’s too enormous for me to hold. It needs to be held by more people.” But even if I cut out the one board member in the play that is silent, I need a minimum cast of eight. How often do you see a show produced with eight actors? I don’t want to constrain my imagination. So I play all the parts and I exhaust myself. In an earlier era, I would have been a playwright, but the economics of it make it difficult. I want the work to be produced and be in front of the audience.
There is something special for someone to be in the room with the author—when the author and the performer are the same. In my case, I’m not the only author; I have a collaborator. Many of the words the characters speak are David Ford’s. This is a 20-year conversation I’m having with David that periodically turns into a play. But in solo theatre, the audience is in the room with the person who is trying to wrestle something from their experience or imagination and offer it to an audience. How often are we in the room with the artist? How often do you see them create the work tonight in front of you?
The best compliment I ever got—a woman after “The People’s Violin” [which has 20 characters] said, “When you came out for the curtain call, I was expecting all of them.” What that told me is that what I was doing was the beginning that was completed by her imagination. In some ways, she was a collaborator. With a full cast, there is less imagination required from the audience. There are some imaginative leaps with Jeri Lynn [Cohen, Charlie’s partner in “Fwd: Life Gone Viral”]. The audience is watching a relationship between actors which is a triangle instead of a line. There is something elemental about the relationship between the performer and the audience: I/Thou [referring to Martin Buber’s concept of “I and Thou”]. Something that is so strong when it works, and when it doesn’t, boy is everyone embarrassed.
Is it important to you that this show is based on actual events?
Why do you tell audiences before “The People’s Violin” that the piece is not about your parents?
Because I was tired of people saying, “I really liked the part about your father. Boy, what a monster.” I put a note in the program and people still didn’t get it. My guess is that people are so used to seeing autobiographical work on stage. One hypothesis is that people are hungry for and accustomed to hearing first-person stories. And also it was at the Marsh, which specializes in personal autobiography, so people were accustomed to that.
Can you talk about the role of comedy?
There is something about live theatre with audiences coming together and laughing. We’re here. We’re together. We can hear each other laughing. As for making the humor: don’t chase it. Let it find you. Be true to the situation. I do chase jokes, but I try to let them come out organically.
The happiest writing moments are when my characters make me laugh in ways that I hadn’t predicted. I couldn’t have gotten to this idea without this invented person—that’s as good as it gets. And when the audience laughs, boy!
What’s it like performing in front of an audience?
Very complicated and getting worse. In the philosophy section of my website I list “spiritual exercises for solo performers.” These are practices I’ve come to over the years with rabbis and other professionals. Things I do before and after a show. Here’s one prayer I do before the show: “May what I give be received by whoever can receive it, now or in the future, and may that be enough.” Because how can you not, as an artist, aspire for every audience member to get every thing that you’re giving? Someone gets more, someone gets less, someone didn’t get it. And some people say stupid things to you about your work.
It’s hard to keep putting it out knowing that it means something to someone, but you never know exactly what. Any conclusion you come to about an audience is a generalization. Standing ovation or totally quiet—you never know. You don’t really know what anyone is getting. There is pain in that. Why? It is very important to be witnessed and have your work received. Your fantasy is that everything you intend is understood.
I’ve really struggled with this stuff. I’ve struggled so much with the emotional journey of solo performance. Some of the deepest personal struggles have been while I’m performing. So that has given rise to these practices. Rabbi Dorothy Richman gave me this practice that I’ve been doing for 10 years. I would be picking apart the show afterwards. She said to just say “Dayenu” (“It’s enough”) after a show.
What makes good solo theatre?
I guess some combination of passion and craft, which I guess describes theatre in general. Authenticity, passion and craft. Audiences, when they see one person onstage, they want to see dazzle. It’s best when it’s coupled with something deeper than dazzle. Look at the craft of “Geezer.” Hours and hours for one 30-second bit of physical business. There’s beauty in that. Geoff [Hoyle] has all this craft. But he’s practicing his craft in the service of something deep, true, passionate. It’s not just a show of “let me dazzle you.” It’s in the service of truth. Dazzle plus truth.
Sara Felder is a local solo performer. She recetly workshopped a new play, “A Queer Divine,” at the Marsh on June 6, and is teaching solo performance at Berkeley Rep this spring. Visit sarafelder.com.
Charlie Varon with Jeri Lynn Cohen in “Fwd: Life Gone Viral” at the Marsh.