By Samuel J. Cox
The late John Peel (the English DJ, radio presenter, record producer and journalist) once bemoaned ‘I just want to hear something that I haven’t heard before!’ If you feel the same way, don’t miss Brian Finkelstein’s Fringe World comedy about working the graveyard shift on a suicide-prevention hotline in New York.
Written and performed by the Emmy nominated writer (for his own work on ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’) and host of The Moth LA StorySLAMS, his show ‘First Day Off In A Long Time’ is brought to Perth by Andrea Gibbs and Kerry O’Sullivan, the co-founders of our own storytelling institution Barefaced Stories.
If you have reservations about the idea of a storytelling show about suicide, read away and have said fears alleviated. Although, in a world where you can probably stream the entire show online and make up your own mind from that, how useful is this interview? Is anyone reading this? Hello?
1. What can people expect from your solo show?
It’s a storytelling show about me working at a suicide hotline. I talk to a girl who is trying to kill herself for most of the show. I think when people hear that they think that it going to be sad or dark, but it is a comedy show! I performed this in the States and you have to trust that it is very funny, as well as being dark.
2. Do you have any qualms about discussing suicide within the frame of a comedy show?
Do you mean moral qualms about the ethics of talking about it? Or the stigma in society against talking about it? Morally I don’t. I worked it out with the President of the hotline and I’ve volunteered with suicide organisations. I think I’m respectful to the anonymity of it, and I treat it with respect. I also relate to it because I’ve considered suicide myself. I think that bridges the moral gap. I performed the show recently in the States and a lady whose husband had just killed himself came up to me afterwards and said that she loved the show. I get a lot of that, so I feel like it is OK in that world. As far the stigma goes, that’s what I like. It’s what I think is funniest. It is stuff that people do not like talking about, although most people feel sad at some point.
3. What were you experiencing when you were developing the show, having been there yourself?
When I made the show, a couple of things happened. I always wanted to talk about this because I thought working at the hotline was interesting. There’s a performer called Spalding Grey, an actor who was in a lot of movies and TV shows in the States, and who did solo shows that were really big on Broadway. They made a major movie about one of his monologues (‘Swimming to Cambodia’) that Jon Demme directed. He’s about 15-20 years older than me. When I was in college I saw him do shows and he was my hero! One day he went missing, he had a wife and kids and was in his late 50s, and it turned out he had killed himself. When that happened, I decided I wanted to write the show because I was performing in his style, and I thought doing a show about him, and working at the hotline, and my own suicide could be connected. I met a director called Adam Schwarz who really helped me work on the show. He’s great, and he told me to be more vulnerable and include my own suicide story. So it was a little bit depressing for me, yet it was also cathartic. And again, I’m all about trying to be funny, it’s not as heavy as it sounds right about now.
4. If you feel you’ve done your job, what would you want to hear people saying about the show?
What I love about this show (because I’ve done it a lot and it’s been very successful for me), and what surprises me about it, is that some people come backstage crying, and other people tell me how they can’t believe I can make it so funny. Most people just agree that they’ve been in the same position. I’m a comedian, so I want people to tell me that it’s funny, but I also like watching people getting caught off guard and crying. I like taking them up and taking them down, and I think that rollercoaster is my favourite part of it.
5. You are described as a master storyteller. Do you agree that you have nothing more to learn?
I don’t believe that I have nothing left to learn; otherwise I would kill myself (laughs). I have been doing it for a long time, I teach it and I think a lot of people who do it also dabble in other stuff, whereas I primarily do this. Between hosting The Moth and being involved in the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, I get to do a lot of it, which helps me. I think ‘master storyteller’ just means ‘super narcissist’ and I agree with that (laughs). I like to talk about myself way too much!
6. How do you think you have you evolved as a storyteller?
My background is comedy, but my director is purely a modern theatre buff, very much into Sam Sheppard, German playwrights and all that stuff. I’ve learnt to be vulnerable, to connect with audiences, and to not always go for the jokes. I’ve also learnt how to make my shows more universal.
7. What do you think the power of storytelling is over other mediums of expression, like dance or music?
They all share honesty, but storytelling is different because you can be incredibly specific about yourself, for example I can hear a story about somebody who was a lost boy in Rwanda, or who lived in Syria during a revolution and watched his family get machete’d, and yet there’s something about the way that person can tell that story and (if it’s done well) I can relate to it. Even though I’ve never seen it. A storyteller can talk about the way they feel and everyone can relate to it.
8. Is there one story of yours that you are most proud of, whether because of its content or how you delivered it?
There are two shows that I’ve performed a lot. The last time I came to Perth I performed a new show. I really liked it and was proud of it, but I would have to say that the one I’m doing this time [‘First Day Off In A Long Time] is the story I’m most proud of. My reason to perform it here is to try and get it back on its feet, produced and made into a Broadway show.
9. You recently ran some workshops for Barefaced Stories. How do you teach someone to be artistic or creative? Isn’t it something you either inherently have, or you don’t?
A lot of the students work with Kerry and Andrea [the co-founders of Barefaced Stories], which I think is amazing, so I don’t think I’m teaching them anything. They’ve already learnt it from watching the Barefaced shows and knowing those two ladies. It’s just experience; I’m not teaching them how to be creative or artistic, they have to have that intuitively (which I think they all do). I’m helping them focus upon the specifics of the story so that they don’t go off on a tangent, which can happen if you follow laughter or drama away from the story. I also teach them not to rush themselves. Many people, especially in Australia, have the feeling that they don’t want to talk too much about themselves because it’s too self-indulgent or selfish. I just try to convince them that audiences are interested, and people do want to hear their stories. All you can do is help people be more comfortable being who they are in front of their audience.
10. How important is truth in your work? Is there somehow less value in fictional stories?
What’s funny to me is that when I sit down to watch TV, or read a book, or watch a movie, I don’t ‘do’ non-fiction. I don’t like memoirs or documentaries. I don’t even watch comedy. I like the opposite. I like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Breaking Bad’, things that are totally fiction. For me as a performer, the only thing I know how to do is tell the truth. I don’t have that other skill. When I try to veer away from that and write fiction, or do some other kind of acting, I’m just not as good at it, although I enjoy it.
11. Do you remember the first time you performed?
I do. I performed a lot of weird shows when I was younger that weren’t really in front of an ‘audience’, but the first time I got in front of a big crowd and told a story was at The Moth [the American not-for-profit organisation dedicated to storytelling]. I remember that I didn’t know what it was, a friend invited me and I just got up and told a story. I was instantly addicted to it. It was amazing! You hear celebrities like Michael Jackson, or rock’n’roll guys, like those dudes from The Rolling Stones, talking about how performing is like having sex. I used to think ‘that’s so obnoxious!’ but it does feel really good. You have a whole audience of people telling you they like you, and it makes you feel good (laughs)!
12. What is it like to host The Moth LA StorySLAMS?
It’s fun, because I get to see people perform! I watch them develop and I like being a part of it. It’s kind of like here, in Australia, where there’s a guy who was in my workshop two years ago, and I worked with him again this time. He’s totally come out of his shell. I love seeing people being themselves, becoming comfortable and discovering this passion that they didn’t know they had. At The Moth Slams you see that a lot. A few friends come in for a couple of drinks, someone comes up on stage, they do really well and they get addicted. Then they keep coming back and getting better and better. There’s also the fun of watching someone get up who thinks they’re great and they actually suck. It’s fun to see an audience go ‘nope, sorry, you need to work a little harder’ (laughs).
13. Did you ever envisage you would become famous? Was there a time when you realised you’d gone from being a regular dude to ‘a somebody’?
I’ll let you know when that happens (laughs)! I don’t think of myself that way. It sounds so obnoxious, but the thing I love about it is that you get to perform in front of bigger audiences. When you are young and you do a show, you have to beg friends and family come. The best part of getting some more experience and a bit of a reputation is that you put on a show and there’s a line of people trying to get in.
14. Please tell me something exciting about your future.
I’m trying to get some funding to do ‘First Day Off In A Long Time’ as a produced show in New York, rather than a black box show [in a small theatre with 100-200 people]. I’d like to do it in a full theatre with a budget and have some production value. I’m also working on a screenplay I wrote which is being made this year called ‘Good Grief.’ I’m pitching a TV show called ‘Domestic Disturbance,’ a half-hour comedy, and I’m also working on a book proposal. This is a good year, there’s a lot of stuff going on!
First Day Off In A Long Time runs February 18 – 22 @ The Blue Room Theatre through Fringe World.