The blinding glare of the spotlight: Welcome to storytelling

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=S776lS6rQW0://

I was bored the first Monday night of 2013. My hangout Starbucks, 10 minutes from New Haven, was closing, and I didn’t feel like going home just yet. So I headed up 95 and into downtown, to Ninth Square and the friendly confines of my favorite club, Cafe Nine.

You can see me -- maybe too much of me -- but I certainly can't see you..

You can see me — maybe too much of me — but I certainly can’t see you.

I figured I’d get there in time to hit the tail end of Get to the Point!, a new monthly first-Monday storytelling series, but I was a little too late. Not too late, though, to do some commiserating at the bar. There, I sat in between the show’s host, longtime New Haven arts writer Christopher Arnott, who was my “rival” music writer when I was at the daily New Haven Register and he at the weekly New Haven Advocate; and the lovely and quite-talented Lys Guillorn, a singer/songwriter I didn’t really know before I moved away but who has become a dear friend and supporter in the two years since I came out as transgender to most of the people I knew in Connecticut.

And Chris, in the midst of perhaps the longest conversation we had in the 25 years or so that we’ve known each other, asked me, “So when are you gonna tell a story?”

The thought had crossed my mind before. After all, having lived in Fresno for eight years — the home of the largest fringe festival west of the Mississippi, the Rogue Performance Festival — I’ve harbored the notion of doing a one-woman show the past three years and debuting it there (because, after all, I began my wild gender trip there). Of course, I want to finish my book first, which I can’t do because I don’t have that happy ending yet (in other words, the job, or perhaps the sugar mama), so that kinda rules out the show for now.

But maybe storytelling would be a way to work up to doing a fuller, longer, more theatrical performance. And for all the writing I’ve done about gender matters the last three years on this very blog, and in a page-one op-ed piece in the Register in June 2011, I’d never talked about it on stage. Sure, I’ve talked about it on the radio — I came out to my WPKN audience on my 20th-anniversary show in January 2011 — and last fall, I talked about trans healthcare to two nursing classes at Southern Connecticut State University.

But this was a stage. The domain of a performer. How would this play with a mic and a spotlight and a lot of people who didn’t know about me or my story?

Nervous much? Not that much, but still, a brave new world …

*****

Part of me was made for the stage. Guess it goes with being born a Gemini. (“Ahhhhh!” you might be saying to yourself. “THAT explains a lot!”) Even in my shy days, as an adolescent with no self-esteem, I felt comfortable in front of an audience. I mean, I was an altar boy at St. Anthony’s in Prospect for eight years — standing in front of a couple hundred or people once a week, wearing a dress!

(Actually, cassocks were the ugliest, hottest, stiffest, most shapeless things you could wear. Even though I knew I wasn’t quite one of the boys, I didn’t consider cassocks to be dresses. Black, but not little. It wasn’t why I wanted to be an altar boy. The prospect of going for free on the annual June CYO outing to Riverside Park, New England’s largest amusement park, might’ve had something to do with it; that’s where I first started honing my pinball and Skee-Ball games …)

But I really found a niche right before I left middle school. My eighth-grade English teacher at Long River, Don Gray (who was Paul Newman’s college roommate his freshman year at Dennison), saved me from a fate worse than the everyday routine of “You faggot!” — the town’s annual eighth-grade oratorical contest, where every student had to write a blau-blah-bullshit essay about America and patriotism and all that, then present it in public. That’s because he cast me as the comic sidekick to the lead in the school play, The Boarding-House Reach. It was the first time in my life I was ever laughed at for all the right reasons.

And after a stormy adolescence, I finally earned my Holy Cross High varsity letter right before I graduated — a little too late to go all in on a cool green-and-gold varsity jacket, but I’m sure the chenille HC with the drama-mask pin is still in its wax paper envelope somewhere in one of my boxes of packrat piles. Again, it was my English teacher, Chuck Rinaldi, who cast me, in this case as a sailor in the chorus of South Pacific. (And I was skinny enough to actually fit into a borrowed WWII-vintage sailor outfit.) I can still hear us all singing “Bloody Mary” and me singing my one solo line later in the show: “… Has a soft and wavy frame … like the silhouette of a dame!”

And I still think I have an outside shot at a singing career, if I can focus long enough to write some songs.

*****

First time singing in front of people in a club was in June of 1983, my first summer out of college, at Club Electra, a since-torn-down venue in New Haven that started its existence as a Studebaker dealership in the ’20s, when Whalley Avenue was Automobile Row.

Mark Mulcahy and Ray Neal of Miracle Legion had launched a concert-and-trivia series called The Hungry Brain Club, modeled after the shows of the same name at Danceteria in New York. Win the trivia contest and win prizes. My first time there, I won. Got a bunch of free bowling passes … and the chance to sing “Louie, Louie” with The Three O’Clock, the L.A. psychedelic-revival popsters playing that night. Took me six Buds, and I think it was more like screaming than actual singing. There were about 20 people there, but for a year and a half after the Grotto, the city’s legendary underground music club, opened that fall, people kept coming up to me and saying, “You don’t know me, but I saw you sing ‘Louie, Louie'” with The Three O’Clock.” Instant credentials.

And after I became the New Haven Register’s music writer in 1992, I started getting some nice cameos here and there.

The longest-lasting was with a rockabilly trio, Gone Native. Paul Mayer, the Nine’s current owner, was the bass player, under the alias Nervus Chet Purvis; Gary Mezzi, aka Buzz Gordo, was the guitarist and singer (and also briefly a co-owner of the club with Paul). I was their Cousin Loomis from Alabama; the shtick was that I was “related” to the obscure rockabilly singer Groovey Joe Poovey. But I’d get up at nearly every show for a couple years and sing “Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll” or “Ubangi Stomp” or “Somethin’ Else” or something else. One night, playing at Rudy’s for the aforementioned Mr. Arnott’s birthday, Loomis — now Loometta — joined in on “Goo Goo Muck” (which, contrary to belief, was not a Cramps original; it was by Ronnie Cook & the Gaylads).

And the night before my 33rd birthday — thanks to the kindness of the then-booking manager of Toad’s Place, Katherine Blossom — I got to sing with all three bands on the bill, including my two favorites. One of the thrills of a lifetime.

After Loomis made his usual Gone Native appearance, Peter Detmold of New London legends The Reducers came up and asked me if I wanted to sing a song with them. I chose their anthem, “Let’s Go,” and I guess they liked it enough, as they brought me up to do it several more times the next couple years — including, to my pleasant surprise, a New Year’s Eve show at their home stage, the El’N’Gee.

And once I was done singing with The Reducers, Peter Zaremba of The Fleshtones came up and asked, “So what are you gonna sing with us?” The Kings of Super Rock, my favorite band since about 1984, asking me to sing with them. Only one answer: the song I’ve begin my radio shows with since 1991, “American Beat.” They were out of practice on that song, but I guess my wish was their command. And it didn’t suck. And again, a huge thrill for me.

And the last big thrill on-stage for me before I moved to California in March 2004 was singing with another of my favorite bands, Black 47, at Toad’s, three weeks before the move. Larry Kirwan, whom I became friends with through the course of my Register job, knew my favorite song of theirs was “Who Killed Bobby Fuller?” So he brought me up to do “I Fought the Law” with them. I really did live a charmed life …

I guess I didn’t suck that badly. And I still do the occasional cameo. The Big Fat Combo, a great local group led by the big redhead from neighboring Cheshire, Tom Hearn — rock photographer extraordinaire and the oldest childhood friend of the guy who gave punk its name, Eddie “Legs” McNeil — often bring me up to sing “Ubangi Stomp” when they play their home bar, C.J,. Sparrow’s in Cheshire.

And Thanksgiving night was nerve-wracking, but another thrill. Dean Falcone, a multitalented music veteran (among his credits: playing and touring Japan with The Excerpts, an ’80s New Haven pop group which also included the reigning heavyweight champ of L.A. pop, Jon Brion), puts on an annual Thanksgiving-night show, the Vomitorium, at the Nine. Get a hold of him ahead of time, and he and his band will work out the song you want to sing.

And Frannie 2.0 wanted to make her post-transition New Haven singing debut doing something appropriately girlish — in this case, kicking off my first holiday season back home with The Ronettes’ “Frosty the Snowman.” I rehearsed it on my own all week, making sure I had the pipes for it and had all the lyrics to the other verses down.

Well, come that night, I strained my voice rehearsing in the car on the way down (and in the cold), and something didn’t feel right. But right at the end, they had room for me to get up on stage, and I guess it didn’t suck. Dean told me he was surprised that I was singing it in Ronnie Spector key. (Hey, I’m not a boy anymore, y’know? As I told him, I had to train my voice to talk in a higher register than I used to, in order to pass well.) And Jen D’Angora, the leader of the Boston punk-meets-Shangri-Las greats Jenny Dee & the Deelinquents (whose hubby, Ed Valauskas, was also on stage), came up to hug me and tell me I sounded great.

If I could just find some great local musicians who aren’t occupied, maybe I can front a band and see where it goes.

*****

Okay, you get it by now — I’m comfortable on a stage, regardless of gender identity. (It’s exciting to be able to sing well on stage, y’know?) The thing about singing other people’s songs and acting other people’s lines, though, is that they’re not your own. This was gonna be my baby. For the first time, I’d be talking on a performance stage about the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me. And while I was sure some friends would be there, I figured most of the room would be filled with strangers.

Chris Arnott was asking me to tell a story. And I actually had something in mind as I was sitting with him and Lys at the bar that first Monday of January.

“You know, Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of my gender epiphany,” I said. “Maybe I can do something about that.”

“Well, yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany,” Lys piped up, referring to the Christian feast day.

And there was my jumping point. My personal Feast of the Epiphany, January 9th. I now had a lede for my blog post about it. And I would turn that into my performance.

Chris contacted me a couple weeks beforehand to ask if I still wanted to do it. I told him yes; I mean, what would be the worst that could happen? He told me to try to keep it to 20 minutes, maximum. That sounded just about right.

And then I found out Steve Bellwood was on the bill for February as well. Steve, an Englishman living in nearby Milford, has been doing the storytelling thing around New Haven for decades, often at the Neverending Bookstore on State Street. Oddly, for all the years I ran photos and calendar listings of him and his shows in the Register’s Weekend section, I didn’t meet him until I moved to Fresno. He flew out there to do the Rogue in 2010, and I introduced myself. We talked for a bit. What he did was pretty amazing. He performed five one-hour shows during the Rogue, and each of them was a different story. I only saw one, but that was a hell of a lot of work.

So yeah, the virginal storyteller was gonna be on the same card as a heavyweight of the medium. No pressure there …

*****

I started rehearsing a few days before. I would wait until my parents were out of the house, lest they thought their daughter was certifiably nuts and not just a little touched in the head. Then I would start reading and trying to get it down in my head as best as I could. I mean, I wrote the damn thing; I should know it by heart, right?

But one thing I found right at the start: I would have to put it in my own words a second time over.

One thing I always did when I was writing for newspapers was to make my stories sound as conversational as if I were talking to you directly. Looking at that blog post, I realized that I hadn’t done that. I was stumbling over my words as I talked them out, tripping over syntax. It was definitely a wakeup call — a reminder to myself to get back to what had been the strongest facet of my writing.

I figured if I could at least get my introduction into a conversational tone — explaining the Christian Feast of the Epiphany and tying it into my personal epiphany — then the rest would fall into place. And slowly, it did. Chip by chip, it was being rounded and relatively smoothed into place. And things I wanted to explain — say, trying to describe the climate in Fresno into which I came out — entailed some degree of extemporaneous talk, so I had to make room for that as well. And to make sure I delivered my story in an even tone, so I’d have time to tell the tale without rushing it.

And, truth be told, I wasn’t that nervous about getting up there. It was a story I’ve told my friends in one form or another the past three, four years, and I did have the two speaking sessions with Southern nursing students. Besides, the fear of having your money run out before you can find a job — now, that’s something to really worry about. It’s always running around inside my skull. Not that my gender tale isn’t real life, but I do have some real-life problems to truly set me on edge; getting up on stage wasn’t gonna be one of them. In fact, it would be an outlet, a respite from the pervasive dark thoughts that go with a prolonged jobless spell.

*****

I knew my dearest friend, Paola, would be there. So would at least a couple other people I knew — Chris, Lys, Steve, Laurie the bartender/waitress. But one floored me.

Diwata, like me, worked at The Fresno Bee; I didn’t really know her then, as she worked out of a bureau and I was in the newsroom, but she sought me out after I came out and after I joined Facebook. She’s now living in Harlem as her husband does his hospital internship. And when I posted about my upcoming show on my news feed, she contacted me and told me she was coming up from the City for the show.

And did I mention she was eight months pregnant?

I arrived around 7, and a couple minutes later, she walked in. Again, floored. I can’t believe someone did that for me. We sat at a table near the corner of the bar and sipped cranberry juice as we caught up. A short while later, Lisa, a New Haven artist friend with whom I reconnected a month ago, joined us, as did Paola.

The room filled up nicely for a Monday — granted, it doesn’t take much to fill the Nine — and somehow, despite my novice status, I sensed this would turn out just fine.

The program started at 8. Chris put me on just about the halfway point of the show. That was an ideal spot — I could get my sea legs watching other people do their thing, while at the same time I’d be on early enough that people wouldn’t be storied-out.

I watched with the admiration of a fan and the observancy of a student, just taking mental notes on delivery. A little bit of nerves, not too many.

Somewhere a little after 9, Chris walked back: “You’re on deck.”

I pantomined a batter taking his on-deck cuts to my friends. By then, whatever butterflies I had were pretty much gone. It would be like singing. And … I knew I had a story to tell.

And then, my turn. Chris got up and introduced me, mentioned my newspaper background in town and how I had recently moved home from California, though he didn’t give a hint as to what my story was about.

And the girl in black strode enthusiastically onto the stage.

*****

The reception was warm. So was the spotlight. In mid-winter, I certainly wasn’t gonna complain about that.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the glare. Its not as if I’d never encountered a spotlight before, but this lone light broad-beamed down practically into my line of sight. I mean, it was probably for people who needed to read off paper, but I couldn’t see a thing beyond the edge of the stage, about two feet away. In a way, I imagined this was the type of atmosphere under which so many stand-up comics cut their teeth. I thought of black-and-white images of Lenny Bruce and coffeehouses.

It did give me something to hide behind psychologically. In a way, it was like doing radio, where I would sit behind a microphone in front of a console that served as a mini-wall between me and the rest of the world.

But the reality was I didn’t need it. I was fine once I adjusted the mic. You can see the results up top. I kept a calm and even pace, I kept the ums to a minimum, I was conversant with the audience, and I even gave my friends occasional shout-outs. The only thing I didn’t like was the camera angle that caught the extra chin in all its gory (and reminded me once again that I’m too damn fat).

Got a lot of warm receptions 20 minutes later when I finally said “Thanks for indulging me” and walked off toward the intermission. A few storytellers and a couple strangers complimented me. Steve, the master, came up and told me I did a great job. Laurie had a huge hug and told me she loved me. Diwata told me to keep it up; the next day, she messaged me: “I’m happy you performed on a day I could go. It was wonderful! Run with it:)”

Paola drove her back to the train station, then told me afterward, “You’re a natural.” She might be the founder of my fan club, but she’s also one of my most astute critics, so if she said it was good, I’ll take that.

That wasn’t so bad, now, was it?

I think I needed that. Sitting in the vacuum that is life back here in Connecticut, I get discouraged a lot. The job hasn’t happened yet, I feel as if no one reads the blog anymore, and I haven’t plowed into the book because not only don’t I have the happy ending, I don’t think anyone’s gonna want to read it. But maybe I do have a story. Maybe I have a lot of them.

I don’t want to make a habit of it, but I think I’ll do it again at some point. This post is going up as the Rogue sets to start its week-and-a-half run in Fresno. I still do harbor thoughts of going out there and seeing how it plays in a still-loose, yet more formal, setting. There are a lot of maybes here.

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