On a January evening, a small group gathered behind a nearly translucent curtain in MU’s Corner Playhouse. From a nearby fluorescent-lit hallway, passers-by could hear the echo of a chant-like verse: “These are my words, powerful and unwavering. This is my voice. This is the story I tell.”
The scene was part of a rehearsal for “Voices Made Flesh,” a new collection of monologues written and adapted for the stage by a group of current and former MU students. The production is directed by Heather Carver, an assistant professor of playwriting and performance studies in the MU theater department.
Carver is also artistic director of the department’s Life and Literature Performance Workshop, from which “Voices Made Flesh” emerged.
Carver says “Voices Made Flesh” was conceived as a forum for voices that are often marginalized. “We play with voices — who gets to speak, who doesn’t get to speak,” she says. “Everything from the joy of speaking to the pain of censorship, we’ve got it all. We can’t go everywhere, but we can open the box.”
Lisa Lynch, an MU student, is one of eight performers contributing to the production. In one piece, Lynch details her experiences as a server at a local restaurant. Another piece, titled “What Racism Looks Like,” features the poem “Skinhead.” Lynch, an African American, offers her reaction to the violent, racist persona at the heart of the poem.
“I chose ‘Skinhead,’ because we were supposed to do something risky, something that wasn’t at all ourselves,” Lynch says. “So the piece is about how I made that choice, why I made it.”
Kevin Babbitt, a doctoral candidate at MU, says that as an art form, the monologue allows a performer to put a personal stamp on issues that often don’t receive a thorough public discussion. His performance is an adaptation of a letter by Paul Monette, author of “Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir,” in which Monette discusses the death of his lover from AIDS.
Babbitt hopes it will raise awareness about gay rights and rekindle what he perceives as a dwindling interest in AIDS as a public health issue.
“So often when you go to the theater, you see the traditional white European male point of view,” Babbitt says. “You don’t see points of view from ethnic minorities, from people who don’t fit that Anglo-Saxon, Protestant background. It’s showing people a side of the world they generally don’t see and don’t think about.”
Although “Voices Made Flesh” is a new forum, the monologue is rooted in the 18th century when the British satirist Samuel Foote created “The Rehearsal,” a burlesque that mocked popular figures of the day. A few decades later, Alexander Stevens, now known as the father of the monologue, wrote “Lecture Upon Heads,” the first true monologue, which, like Foote’s work, satirized contemporary political figures.
Over the years, individual writers and performers have brought different elements to the art of the personal narrative, incorporating comedy, musical theater and multi-media art. One-person shows like Rob Becker’s “Defending the Caveman” and Willy Russell’s “Shirley Valentine” have helped popularize the monologue, while artists like Spalding Gray, Anna Deavere Smith, Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo created a niche in modern theater. Because full-scale theater productions are expensive endeavors, the monologue is the perfect vehicle for regional theater groups with something to say. There has consequently been a boom nationally in one-man shows.
The monologue continues to evolve under writers new to the form, such as MU student Whit Loy. Loy’s musical numbers for “Voices Made Flesh,” at once comical and sobering, recount his experience being arrested and jailed.
“I’m using a traditional genre very untraditionally. I am that musical comedy kid, and I am telling my story through this genre I know and understand,” Loy says. “But it’s real, and it’s about me actually going through a life-changing experience.”
Patricia Downey, co-director of “Voices Made Flesh,” thinks such productions are needed in communities like Columbia. Downey likens “Voices Made Flesh” to the creation of the hit Broadway show “Chorus Line,” which debuted in 1976. The show evolved from recordings of gypsies who gathered after their shows to talk about their experiences. Choreographer Michael Bennett created a scripted show from the voices of performers on the edges of popular culture, much as “Voices Made Flesh” has done.
Elise Link, an MU student and “Voices” performer, adapted a role she created in an acting class into a performance piece about circus sideshow performers. An exercise in the beginning, the work has come alive on its own, like all the pieces in “Voices.”
“This piece as a whole doesn’t pretend to have answers, doesn’t try to say ‘this is how things are,’” Link says. “It’s just a representation of stories we don’t always hear.”
Although Carver and Downey have tried to include as much material as possible in the show, they have found there is simply too much new writing to include it all. So, each performance includes what the directors call “crème fraiche,” in which a new piece of writing is debuted.
“This is not a piece that needs an intermission; we want the whole up and down, ebb and flow,” Carver says. “We want to keep the audience the whole 90 minutes.”
Crème fraiche performances include selections from the Troubling Violence Performance Project, which was co-founded by Carver to raise awareness of domestic abuse, a silent movie and pieces on gender and culture.
Emilie Sabath, a former MU student, will debut a work that has literally been a lifetime in the making. Since she was a child, Sabath has been fascinated with abandoned houses. After spotting a particular house while driving down Interstate 70 , Sabath began an exploration of the emptiness that pervades an abandoned home. The multimedia monologue features photographs of the homes she explored, as well as the onstage construction and deconstruction of a building using materials found at the sites.
“I have created a piece that really focuses on the idea of empty space, and how empty space affects a community, and how it affects us as individuals,” Sabath says. “It’s really a hard piece to do, and I don’t know if I will ever really do it again because it’s really about confronting my own fears, and about other’s expectations, and how sometimes that can enclose you in a space, and how you have to break out of that in order to be yourself.”
“Voices Made Flesh” originated with a suggestion from an audience member at the Life and Literature Performance Workshop. The series of performances follows an exhaustive process of improvisation, rehearsal and editing that have become a unified chorus of voices fromthe fringe.
“We think of the very old theater analogy: that theater is the mirror to society, holding it up and reflecting society back to itself,” Downey says. “But if you hold the mirror the other way, it’s the closest you can get to the inside of the skin of another person to look through their eyes. And if you can do that, you can learn something about yourself; the deeper you go, the more you’ll find out about yourself.”