Ross School - Senior Project 2007-08
Mentor: Mark Foard
Title: The Many Lives of the Tomato Baby: A Series of Monologues and Short Films
People have always told stories. Civilization is grounded firmly in oral tradition. In my project I assumed the role of the storyteller. After studying the art of the monologue, especially focusing on the works of Spalding Gray, I wrote my own short pieces. Some were personal, some fictional, but all employed a degree of sad comedy, a study of the humor and irony of daily minutiae. I also made a few short video sketches to be incorporated into the performance of the monologues, to serve as brief interludes of visual poetry, and to aid the narrative of the experience as a whole.
I knew when I was deciding on a project that I wanted to combine writing and performing, my two greatest passions. Nothing really appealed to me until I remembered Spalding Gray's work. I loved his style and sense of humor, and knew that working in the medium of a bare stage monologue would be something new and challenging for me. For lack of a better term, it clicked. I met with my mentor and we decided I would write a series of short monologues, with which I could explore different characters and styles, as well as produce a few short films to be played throughout the performance that would be the final product.
Writing the monologues was an incredibly rewarding experience. I wrote almost exclusively on the Royal Quiet Touch De Luxe typewriter my grandmother had given me the previous summer. As strange as it may seem, the typewriter was really a source of inspiration and helped in my writing process. It was nice to be able to see my work so tangibly, and the rhythm of the typing truly fit with my own inner voice as I wrote. I kept Spalding's books at my side throughout the whole process, so I could immerse myself in the style, rhythm, and tone, which was one I hadn't used before. I had never written with the intent for the words to be ultimately spoken.
At the beginning I was very productive, using the ideas I had formulated over the summer. Naturally this output had to come to a head, and soon I had a major block. I couldn't write for a few weeks, which led to a sort of creative depression, which led to more frustration, which led to an attitude even less cohesive to writing. This became especially evident as I was writing the title piece, “Tomato Baby,” which was about my own childhood, and was inspired by Spalding's Sex and Death to the Age 14. It was my longest piece, and one of the most difficult to outline and construct. I had many versions and edits of the monologue, an amount of work that I had never really put into one written piece before. It was nice, I was really feeling like a writer. A good one? I'm not sure, but a writer nonetheless. The piece, of my final six (four personal, two other characters), was eventually my favorite. A theme, although not considered at the onset, had begun to present itself in my writing. For whatever reason, coming from some aspect of my creative “psyche,” I focused on these small moments in my narratives. I've always enjoyed writing about the irony of day to day happenings, but this study of the “littler things” really showed itself in this project.
The films were a challenge to make as well. I had substantially less experience in film making, but I had done a little before and enjoyed it. Finding the time to film, and organizing people to participate was a challenge. The editing process, on the other hand, was not too hard, as my storyboards were really quite simple, and short enough just to serve as brief interludes between the monologues. I ended up with four shorts, one of which was split into five segments interspersed throughout the show. This film, in which my friends and I made a giant paper airplane, served as another unifying theme for the performance. I had also written a song, entitled “Tell Me A Story,” inspired by Lyle Lovett's “Here I Am.” In the song I told very short stories before returning to a refrain constructed with a common twelve bar blues. The song would start the show, but wouldn't quite end; instead it would sort of hang, and I'd then go into the rest of the show. Then, after the last monologue and film, I played the last riff again on guitar, implying in a sense that the whole show fit within the confines of the song.
The performance itself was nerve wracking, to say the least. I had a limited time to rehearse and try to make the technical aspects of the show go as smoothly as possible. While there were a few slips, the show was really a huge success and went better than I thought it would, especially considering it was really my first run through. There were probably about two hundred people attending, and it was very well received. I hope this isn't the end for this show, I hope to do more with it and perform it again, maybe this year in another venue.
Gray's Anatomy. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Spalding Gray. DVD. 1997.
Gray, Spalding. Gray's Anatomy. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Gray, Spalding. It's a Slippery Slope. New York: The Noonday Press, 1997.
Gray, Spalding. Monster in a Box. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Gray, Spalding. Morning, Noon and Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Gray, Spalding. Sex and Death to the Age 14. New York: Vintage, 1986.
Kirby, David. "Re: Fig Newton in Distress." Email communication. 3 Dec. 2007.
Kirby, David. The House on Boulevard St. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
Lovett, Lyle. "Here I Am." By Lyle Lovett. Rec. 1989. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. UMG Recordings, Inc., January 23, 1989.
Russo, Kathie. "Stardust." Email communication. 25 Nov. 2007.
Russo, Kathie. Telephone interview. 2 Jan. 2008.
Saunders, George. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Stand Up Comedy. By Zack Galifiniakis. Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor, NY. 8 Sept. 2007.
Wade in the Water. Dir. Gabriel Nussbaum. 2007.
Community Member (Details)
Kathie Russo: Spalding Gray's widow and monologue aficionado. It would have felt wrong to do a project so inspired by Spalding without talking to Kathie, as she is a member of our community. I was fortunate enough to have her be my outside consultant, which was a real boon as she knows his work so well. She read a few of my pieces and gave me feedback, especially with the title piece, Tomato Baby, based on my childhood and inspired by Spalding's Sex and Death to the Age 14.