Walls have a perverse way of defining spaces. When people feel trapped by circumstances, they often describe themselves as being "up against a wall." In a speech commemorating the 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin, President Ronald Reagan famously said "Tear down this wall."
Visitors to certain rooms and historical sites have often wondered what they might learn "if these walls could talk." In the scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream in which Quince and his friends act out the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, the actor portraying the Wall utters the following lines:
"In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall;
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same wall; the truth is so:
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper."
There's a wall at 156 Eddy Street with strange powers. During the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival, it separates the performance spaces known as the EXIT Studio and EXIT Stage Left. Both venues frequently host monologues by storytellers of all types.
- Some impersonate numerous characters they have met during their travels.
- Others stick to telling their tale from their own point of view.
- Some have finely sculpted their performances so that the running time remains sweet and lean.
- Others are so in love with their material (and the sound of their own voice) that they don't know when to stop.
When the San Francisco Fringe Festival is in full swing, that wall is listening to numerous tales of triumph and tragedy; of love, lust, and loss. Two women, performing on opposite sides of the wall this fall, delivered monologues that were radically different in their displays of physical energy. Each dealt with some of the more curious aspects of being an introvert.
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During the 2011 San Francisco Fringe Festival, I watched Laura Austin Wiley perform a monologue in which she described her experiences as a community college English instructor who was subject to depression and panic attacks. While much of her writing was solid, Wiley seemed like she had not yet been able to weave all of her characters into a comfortable dramatic mesh. Wiley returned to the Fringe this year with a new monologue, Driven Bananas, that benefits from two things in particular:
- A more easily definable personal conflict.
- A much more confident performer.
At the top of her show, Wiley explains that she was the fourth daughter born to a father who always wanted a son. Shortly after promising Laura that she could have his shotgun and his beloved car when he died, her father was diagnosed with a rapidly spreading cancer and passed on. Having never gotten around to earning a driver's license because of her fear of driving, Laura has always managed to get by with her husband at the wheel or friends offering her rides home from her Jazzercise classes.
Driven Bananas details the pity felt by some people for someone like Laura (who can't drive) as well as the power of procrastination to find creative ways around a problem. Directed by Rebecca Fisher, it gives Wiley a chance to demonstrate how paying a gift forward to someone who will really appreciate it can make more people happy than the employees at the Department of Motor Vehicles could ever be bothered to care about.
Wiley's performance in the 49-seat EXIT Stage Left space was genuine and meticulously choreographed. Her material had obvious appeal and was greeted by an adoring audience of friends and fans.
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Over in the 40-seat EXIT Studio, Nell Weatherwax was disarming her audience with The Storyzilla Full Frontal Human Movie. The Bloomington, Indiana native (who spent several years working in the Bay area) has built her act around explaining to the audience that although she's really an introvert, sometimes she can't stop herself from turning into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that not only insists on making lists, but compulsively checks off those tasks which have been completed (her precise timing for a trip to the airport will resonate with many travelers).
Whether describing her hair-raising adventures hiking up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park or her experiences playing stepmother to a petulant teenage girl who wants to get a job at Hooters. Weatherwax's material is ribald, hilarious, and wonderfully fresh.
One segment, entitled "My First Open Mic as the Lone Vagina" recalls what it was like for Nell to audition in a comedy club that was filled with male stand-up comedians who were little more than talking penises. When she explains that the fear gripping all the men in the room is that she is their mother, Weatherwax starts to mine comic gold.
Weatherwax specializes in a unique form of storytelling that can deliver bawdy narrative wrapped in an aesthetic coating of modern dance and movement theatre. Far more animated than most monologists, she gratefully acknowledges the influence of Sigfrido Aguilar (her teacher at the Estudio Busqueda de Pantomima in Guanajuato, Mexico), who taught her how to "create any atmosphere, texture, point of view or character on stage as if living inside a waking dream."
To Nell's mind, "this study of theater as magical realism has colored every performance I have ever done. The commitment to creating the sound, shape, line, and feeling of anything that can be remembered or imagined stays with any performance I do." Her commitment is obvious from the moment she starts performing.
A delightfully physical monologist with a unique presentation style, Nell can be seen in the following clip working her magic on a grateful audience. If you ever have a chance to catch her act, don't miss it!
To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape