One Man Talking
Steven Tomlinson and the Art of the Monologue
By Wayne Alan Brenner
APRIL 3, 2000: We're here at the birth of the 21st century, friends and neighbors. We have movies and MUDs, IMAX theatres with SurroundSound, interactive software featuring all manner of hijinks in 3-D hyper-realism, corporate sponsorship of multisensory spectacles the likes of which would've impressed even St. John the Divine. These are the days -- especially entertainment-wise -- of miracles and wonders! So who the hell wants to listen to some guy just ... talking?
"It's kind of presumptuous of somebody to take the stage for an hour and say, 'You should watch me talk,'" says Steven Tomlinson, Austin's premier monologist and Tall, Lanky Guy with Intense Eyes. "But I think there are a few things that happen in live theatre, and monologue especially, that give a payoff that you don't get in other places."
This payoff was certainly experienced by audiences of Tomlinson's most recent work, Millennium Bug: Why else would they pack house after house for an extended and re-extended run at Hyde Park Theatre? Sure, the promo poster was almost insidiously effective; yeah, he has some ready-made crowds among the arts community, the business-school community, even the religious community; but that wouldn't account for people leaving the theatre with looks of downright epiphany on their grinning mugs.
"Monologue, as an art form, is very close to what most of us are doing all the time, anyway, to make sense of our lives," says Tomlinson, his hand gestures spare and measured to best support his words. "We're talking to other people -- in restaurants, at home, at parties. Wherever you look, people are verbally grooming one another, giving each other the delight of good laughter and entertainment. But they're also using words and stories to cast their life's experience in a way that justifies themselves before other people and before their own conscience.
"Monologue," he clarifies, "is like those moments in conversation when one person kind of takes the stage and interprets his life to his companions -- in a way that attempts to justify himself, but also in a way that connects to other people."
Tomlinson, an award-winning lecturer of finance at UT, also a lay preacher who delivers guest sermons in churches around Austin, was attempting just such a connection when he first ventured into the world of performance art. New to Austin in the winter of 1989, he headed for Chicago House downtown. Chicago House, now years gone and still lamented, was the focal point for spoken-word performances: poetry, monologue, storytelling, rants both inspired and un-. Tomlinson merely wanted to meet interesting people; he wound up doing a bit more than that.
"The first time I went to one of their open mikes," he says, "there were people telling stories, and I was enjoying listening. But I was sitting there, very uptight in a corner, and Peg Miller [one of the proprietors of the venue] came over and put her hand on my shoulder. And she leaned over and said, 'You're next.' And I said, 'Oh, no -- no -- I'm just here to listen.' And she said, 'If you won't tell a story, you can't stay.'"
Tomlinson pauses, blue eyes brightening with the memory. "So I got up and told a story about how my family came to visit me when I was 25 and living in California, and we went on a vacation together, and it caused me to completely revert to being an adolescent again. And the audience responded very warmly to the story, and I -- I got a charge out of it. So I went back the next time, and then I started going every Thursday. And after I'd exhausted all my family stories and college stories, I started making up stories that were loosely based on things that had happened."
Eventually, the Chicago House proprietors asked Tomlinson to do an entire evening of his monologues, which he did, featuring four short pieces, under the title of Pretend You're Not at Home. This performance proved so successful through six shows that the tall man with the knack for a good spiel could do little but move forward. First, though, it was time to polish.
"A sort of competitive energy has always informed what I do in theatre," says Tomlinson. "I try to make it tighter, make it faster. You have to work to keep people's attention, you've got to earn that, and in some respects you've got to be better than the alternative -- because it's a free market. They can go to a movie, they can watch TV, they can go to a restaurant. When they come to a theatre, I want people to feel like they got their money's worth."
Major corporations call in consultants in such cases; they might even need the help of an economics professor to ready them for a new product launch. But aspiring monologists?
"I started taking classes at UT: Lynn Miller's performance arts class, a writing class with James Michener and Jim Magnuson, and playwriting classes with David Cohen and Suzan Zeder. All of that got me thinking about how stories work, how the story's structure and the devices used to tell it are as important as what the characters and events are. In my early monologues, the point was to make people laugh and be entertaining while revealing something about myself. And it was working, I got a great response, I was forming a little rolling community around the work. But then, due to the classes, I started thinking about how the elements of structure and technique in a story could serve the process of investigation.
"I'm an economist," Tomlinson points out. "I was trained as a social scientist. And the method of research is, you ask a question and then construct a model -- a simplified version of the world that contains the elements that bear on the question you want answered -- and then you run experiments and you see what you learn about life. So I discovered, in these classes, that playwriting was similar to science. In a play or a monologue or any kind of narrative, you're simplifying the world down to a few characters who are wrestling with some little chunk of the human condition."
The first post-Chicago House work Tomlinson created was written for a performance arts class and staged as part of the original FronteraFest in 1993. It was based on the performer's experience teaching economics to students in Mexico.
"On my trips to Mexico City," says Tomlinson, "I carried this guidebook that was always getting me lost: Things were mislabeled, things were inaccurate, they were completely outdated. And I started to see the guidebook as a sort of metaphor for economics. When I was walking through the streets, going from my hotel to the school and back, what I would see -- the way the world actually worked -- seemed to have nothing to do with the theory that I was bringing these people. In fact, the theory seemed to be totally disconnected with the reality of life as I was witnessing it. It seemed irrelevant at best, and maybe even dangerous, but certainly arrogant for me to be there, telling people how to think."
This new piece, called Free Trade, was a braiding of economics theory, and the story of a foreigner trying to teach it and of a flower vendor who gets tossed roughly out of a restaurant.
"And the techniques I used in exploring this onstage, in telling the story, were the same techniques I use in teaching economics. I used an overhead projector, I got in people's faces, I used examples, I went into the audience and pointed at what was on the screen. I made people look at it, just the way I do with my students. And there's this really strong interplay with the importing of educational technology and classroom techniques into the theatre. It grabs onto stuff that people already have, from school, so I have an idea of what I'm messing with when I play with that. And when I go back into the classroom, I bring techniques from the theatre."
It's this cross-pollination, then, as it also informed Tomlinson's subsequent opus -- the depression-plumbing Managed Care -- and as it's incorporated into the forthcoming Curb Appeal, it's this transmedia exchange that puts the former Oklahoman on people's must-see lists. But it's also, besides the talent of the performer himself, the arena of performance. Anyone who has seen Tomlinson's shows -- especially the timely Millennium Bug, a skewering exploration of control-freakism pushed to extremes, and his first to involve another actor onstage -- knows that his talent can be easily described as brilliant. And those who know that may also concur with this Tomlinson observation: "There's an intimacy and an immediacy to theatre that I've never seen or felt in a movie. Theatre is something that, at any moment, can happen to you. And the more our work and our education and other aspects of our lives are saturated with media, the more we're going to want theatre as a transformative experience -- because of the physical, emotional immediacy."
In that way, he says, it's like the third part of the publicly outward Steven Tomlinson: It's like church. "In spite of all the wonderful multimedia that's available," he says, "you don't see people wanting to go to church online. You see people watching televangelists, and I think people get something from hearing good sermons by themselves. But a lot of people are going back to church, to worship, for places where you gather with other people, where you can smell and feel and touch and there's a measure of unpredictability to it. And, you know, just the effect that an environment has on your body and your mind is hardwired. I think that's what we want with theatre: We want to be physically present in an environment that is potentially transformational."
Which has such a ring of truth to it that even Quasimodo would have heard it. But if someone is getting that experience with the theatre, especially in the perhaps even more transformational role as performer, especially when one's self is being aesthetically expressed and the expression is attended by sold-out houses the sheer numbers of which are sufficient to stroke a hangarful of egos, why would someone also need to spend time in church?
Because church is also about something else, of course. But that something else -- a formalized relationship with God, let's call it -- often tints a person in ways that can be off-putting to others. In ways that can set off the early-warning, Oh-Shit-It's-Another-Religious-Guy radar in, say, an interviewer, ahem. But regardless of whose problem that really is, it's remarkable that Tomlinson -- a preacher, for crying out loud -- never even tickles that radar. He's not the least bit pushy or obtrusive about his beliefs; which, knowing his background, is so tantalizing it makes one ask.
"People would probably say that I'm a Christian," he replies, considering, "although I'm not sure what that means to people. I'm a believer that if you're relentlessly trying to tell the truth about yourself and about life around you, you're drawn to this point where it's pretty hard to defend your ego, and you need something else. And my religious faith and practice is my way of wrestling with those things, and I find that the place where I'm wrestling now is a very productive place to be."
Which is why, in this age of multimedia frenzy, people still pay attention to monologists -- at least to good ones. When the performer is telling the truth about himself and life in general, when that truth is presented with skill and talent, it's like having a ringside seat at a wrestling match of the soul. And in a way it's your soul that's up there, too, being slammed into the turnbuckle -- and who wouldn't want to watch a fight like that?
And, next up, it's Tenacious Tomlinson vs. the Real Estate Marauders. Actually, it's a new show called Curb Appeal, and it's just what citizens of this boomtown redux need in such rent-frenzied times. "Curb Appeal is about real estate and dating," says Tomlinson, smiling. "I became a homeowner recently, and I was astounded by what one goes through to get a house. I've always liked renting, you know, because I didn't want the responsibility of caring for anything, and I didn't want to think about a mortgage and all that. And looking for property brought up all this stuff about what a home is, and how the market works, and how, when you're looking for a house, it immediately tells people all this intimate stuff about you. At one point, I had a contract on this house in Rosedale, and my priest told me, 'You're not going to get that house, your attachment to it is unhealthy. What you don't realize is that every house that excites you is a fantasy of what your life could be like; and until you've figured out the fantasy, you must not buy the house.'
"So that became part of my challenge, to try and figure out what the fantasy was every time I liked a house. I had the Funky Neighborhood fantasy, the Quiet Street fantasy, the Urban Goat-Farm fantasy, the Edge of the Woods, the Little Piece of History. And the process of identifying all these fantasies became the beginning of the story."
And the dating part?
"My father told me that the real-estate market has all the worst aspects of the dating scene," says Tomlinson. "Except that, in real estate, you get lied to more and kissed less. And I was beginning to look for a house at the same time as I was dating, and the similarities were remarkable. You know, you do the drive-by ... you see if there's curb appeal ... you do the walk-through ... there's an inspection period. So it was irresistible, and the piece just started taking shape."
That final shape, illuminated with all the craft and style Tomlinson can muster, will soon be on public display at the Hyde Park Theatre. And after that, he's working on a piece for a small cast, in which he hopes to showcase the talents of some of his favorite Austin actors.
As in the beginning, Steven Tomlinson is trying to connect: with performing peers, with theatregoers, with congregations, with business students. With fellow human beings. And, as always, luckily for the audience, the connections he manages are enough to render things like ISPs temporarily irrelevant.
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