My Face Book memories offered up a post from Colleen Kruse from this date in 2019, asking if it was time for us to do another performance of our stories of the unsavory, unkind or the just plain awful, aptly named, The Sh**ty Things We’ve Done. My answer then and now is “yes” - happy to do so,
Colleen is one of the three performing partners I have had over the years that is a good balance to me and for me. She has lived through some awful things, both done by and to her, that she is willing to own without shame or regret. She is fiercely honest and sometimes emotionally raw in her telling. Put in seasonal terms, she brings just enough light to the dark, humor and pathos to the stage to make stories that might otherwise be uncomfortable worth the hearing. It was and is a pleasure to tell those kinds of stories with her.
Before I get further into this, I’ll answer the who are the other two performers question I hear lurking in the background. Historically the first and still the most joyous person for me to tell on stage with, is Megan Wells. The second. after thirteen years and counting, is my longest performing partnership with Howard Lieberman. More on each of them anon.
I suppose I could also count the 25 years of Michael Sommers and Kevin Kling and I on stage as Bad Jazz, but in truth the dynamic of that is different and worth a long consideration on its own. Next year, 2023, will mark 40 years since we three met on tour with In the Heart of the Beast’s Circle of Water Circus. As often as we talk about doing another, final performance, given the difficulty of matching our calendars, I am not holding my breath that a Bad Jazz Funeral is in the offing.
I first met Colleen in the late ‘80’s when she was still a fledgling standup comic single mom with a waitress day job at Mickey’s Diner. Was she even old enough to legally drink in the clubs she was performing in? I don’t remember her ever saying or my ever asking. What I do remember was that her humor was embedded in narrative. There was one understated or skewed laugh line after another inside the kind of story that invited you to take a fast ride on a twisting road. If the essence of humorous storytelling is the transformation of the ordinary by way of the unexpected, she was already adept at it though I suspected that she was not consciously crafting the material. In those days it was natural and improvisational.
In 1997, over coffee, we decided to do a performance of stories that were true confessions of the bad and worse. No guilt, shame or blame, just what happened and maybe a little bit about how we felt about it at the time. There was no artifice. It was the two of us on the small Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret stage. One would tell then the other. Often, I let her story serve as the suggestion of what mine should be and in that respect, it mirrored the dynamic of Two Chairs Telling which I was producing at the Jungle Theater, without the chairs and with a “if you did that, I did this” vibe. Affairs, clowns, revenge, alcoholic excess, and sleeping with witches made appearances. Every performance had different stories and it was a joy to see how far afield we could go.
It was a success. One that we repeated at that year’s Minnesota Fringe with five sold out (or nearly so) performances. By the end, the catalog of stories we could mix and match was substantial and profitable. So much so, that while I was living and working in Chicago on my Bush Leadership Fellowship, Colleen brought the show back to Bryant Lake Bowl a couple of years in a row with other partners. My response was, good on her for making it her own,
Then in 2012, we paired once more for a third Sh**ty Things, on the Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret stage. It felt like coming home. My mother was dead and I told a few of the stories she would be embarrassed to hear or be the subject of. Colleen told some old and some new stories, but the one that made me laugh on stage, was about moving from one apartment to another where the hamster cage got misplaced on the top of some shelves and by time it was discovered, one hamster had eaten the other. Oven mitts and the release of the cannibal into the alley followed. It was the story that everyone asked about after the show.
In 2019 we did not schedule that fourth outing, but I am still ready if she is. And I suspect in the post-pandemic world, a few stories of the wicked and the dumb might be enough to offset our sense of having had time and opportunity stolen by an uncaring virus.
I can’t remember the first time I met Megan Wells. It was probably at the Illinois Storytelling Festival. It was before I brought her to Minneapolis for 1998’s Jungle Tales Festival. I had already heard her tell Psyche and Eros, and knew she was a formidable performer.
Our history is a tangle of friendship, conversations, mutual encouragement, support, introductions to others who have their own tangled relationships with her or with me. I think it is fair to say that we love each other without ever having been romantically involved. Much of that intimate caring, and that is what it is, comes from knowing and respecting who the other is.
While I was in Chicago, we spent a lot of story related time together, as members of a large vibrant community, as consultants and as performers, but it was at the Northlands Storytelling Conference in Madison in 1999 that we found ourselves truly playing together on stage. A two-voice improvised version of “Little Red Riding Hood” with digressions, asides and a kind of joy in the moment. It was recognition that we were in sync, that like great jazz musicians we knew the form and the melody and could take solos without stepping on each other. That the whole was more than the sum of the parts.
In 2003, we did Beauty/Beast at the MN Fringe. It was a wildly deconstructed performance of the classic tale in which Megan and I played/told the story in nine interchangeable vignettes, switching in a moment inside the scene from one character to another, or from one scene to another – with the one constant from one performance to another being her picking up a china cup and saucer, saying “This isn’t Disney...” and throwing them against the brick wall. Trust your partner, trust the flow, trust the audience as they puzzle out the who, what, where, when and why of it.
Howard is another kind of pairing. Male energy. Simultaneously collegial, competitive, and appreciative. The stories are grittier, the edges a little sharper, the content often a little darker. The complexities and contradictions of his life have made him, as he says, a “jaded optimist” and as such is more cynical than I am. It is a front. A speed bump on the way to a tender heart.
The first time I remember sharing a stage with Howard is at an Antiquarian bookstore in Stillwater in 2004. At that point he saw himself more as a performance artist than a storyteller, but by time we began doing Fringe shows together in 2008, he would warm to my suggestion that he is a storyteller and should claim the fact of it. When he actually tells a story, no matter how many variations he offers, there is always a emotional vulnerability at the heart of it.
Beginning in 2009, we created the fundamental vehicle for our pairing, 55 Minutes of Sex, Drugs and Audience Participation. Built around a game show motif, a fishbowl circulates through the audience and when the music stops, whoever has it comes on stage, pulls out a sealed card with one of 20 topics, announces it and is told: “You have three options, return to your seat in shame, sit in this chair and stop us at any point to ask questions about the story we are telling, or to be incorporated into the story itself.” Most audience members go for incorporation and the very fact of it adds a degree of improvisation that pushes Howard and myself to do “more” with the material. Then we launch into the story. That improv element has meant audience members taking off clothes, kissing one or both of us, awkward silences and helping the falling down drunk get on or more likely get off the stage without embarrassing themselves in the process.
Here’s a secret: For any given performance Howard has three or four stories he wants to tell so it does not make any difference what the topic is, he’ll find a way to bend it to one of those stories. I have at least two stories for every topic and my role is often to serve as the foil, providing the counterpoint or compliment to whatever he is telling. That’s fine with me.
We’ve done 55 Minutes for a total of 36 performances in one or more fringes or other venues in Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles (Hollywood), Baltimore (Charm City), Kansas City, and Indianapolis. It is always the first show we offer any Fringe Festival. One that we know can bring in an audience and be fitted to any stage/venue.
We’ve done other shows as well. 1967 focused on the urban race riots of the titular year and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assignation the next. We performed it with Felix Hampton Brown one time and with Rose McGee and Mari Harris a decade later. A Fool’s Errand explored our experience of religion or the lack thereof. Our most overtly political experiment, Animal, Vegetable, Political was our least successful show because neither of us could argue the MAGA/conservative view for more than ten minutes or find an engaging story for an audience that came to the Fringe to get away from the incessant news cycle.
What do these three have in common?
First that they trust me and themselves to know the stories they are telling. Really know them, and able to tell it as a five-minute glimpse or twenty-minute saga as needs be. They trust themselves to bring energy and craft to the stage. We are there to tell stories. We can and do make choices that provide contrast and clarity. It is not just my stories or theirs, but the synchronicity of each in the back and forth.
Second, they each have a specific and distinctive style of telling. It balances my own without being the same. We are there to support each other whether by modeling listening for the audience when we are not telling or in how we acknowledge and reference each other in the transitions from one story to another. We are moving the whole enterprise along, from first story to last, taking the audience deeper into, as I like to say, what it means to be human.
There is a third piece that I have already touched upon. Howard, Megan, Colleen and I do not work from a fixed script. We might give each other some indication of what we want to tell but we are not telling the same stories in the same order with the same words from one performance to another. Fast or slow, this or that, we are in the room with this audience, in the moment of the performance. There is room for and appreciation of improvisation.
Usually by this point I have come around to the Equinox and the transition of seasons. It might be a little awkward in this missive but what I will say is that the Vernal Equinox is the harbinger of change, Winter, for all it's thrashing about, is done. The warming will come and the greening with it.
If it makes it easier, think of me as old man winter, striding the stage, huffing and puffing one blustery story after another. Any of these three who I love and appreciate, is then the welcome warming spring, albeit with the occasional storm or tornado. How’s that? Good? A stretch?
Spring is coming and with the warming, I celebrate creative partnership. The pairing of the honey bee and the waiting blossom. Let a thousand stories bloom. Let them be sweet in the hearing and nourishing in the remembrance.