From the Artistic Director, John Lithgow: Stories By Heart

Posted on: December 14th, 2017 by Roundabout


I could not be more thrilled to bring John Lithgow’s extraordinary solo show to a Broadway stage for the first time ever. Stories By Heart originated about ten years ago as a series of storytelling events that John performed in repertory. Since then, John has toured the show around the country, growing and revising his performance along the way, and he has crafted a theatrical event that is just as hilarious as it is moving. As an original presentation of stories that are over 70 years old, Stories By Heart touches on all parts of Roundabout’s mission to both foster new works and revive timeless texts. I am so honored to have John bring his unique performance to our stage under the direction of beloved Tony Award® winner and frequent Roundabout collaborator Daniel Sullivan.

One of the most versatile performers of his time, John Lithgow brings two distinct short stories, over a dozen characters, and decades of his family history to life in a single night of theatre with nothing more than his own transformative abilities as an actor. In a Broadway house literally surrounded by gigantic movie theatre complexes, multistory billboards, and some of the most technologically involved stage performances the world has ever seen, it is important to remember that a single storyteller, equipped with little more than their own instrument, can be just as formidable a dramatic force as the latest big-budget blockbuster. John’s enactment of stories by Ring Lardner and PG Wodehouse is a reminder of the enduring ability of our earliest storytelling traditions to captivate us with their powerful simplicity, as they have throughout history.

John goes even one step further, though, demonstrating how stories, in captivating us, have the capacity to do so much more than entertain. Chronicling his relationship to the two stories he tells from his first memories of them to the very performance you’ll be watching this week, John explores the ways in which stories have accompanied himself and his family in some of their brightest moments together, as well as helped them through some of their darkest. In capturing our imaginations, stories can be agents of both mental and physical healing in ways we might never have thought possible. As Stories By Heart begins, then, I challenge you to embrace that sense of wonder and awe that you once felt at your childhood storybooks – which, as John so masterfully proves, is never lost to time.

I have wanted to collaborate with John since before I even worked in the theatre industry at all. As chance would have it, at the age of 16, my mother took me to the Opening of a Broadway play her friend had produced called The Changing Room on March 6, 1973. It was my first Broadway Opening, and I would not attend another one for fifteen years. All I remember from that night was that the play starred an extraordinary young actor whom I had never heard of named John Lithgow, and that he went on to win the Tony Award for his performance in the play. In the decades since, the stars never quite aligned to allow John to work on a full production here at Roundabout – until now, over 44 years after I first saw him onstage. Having admired John and his work from afar for such a long time, it brings me so much joy to see him now make our stage his own with this incredible evening of theatre.

I am so excited for you to experience John’s virtuosic solo show and the incredible work that Daniel and our design team have done on it. As always, I am eager to hear your reactions to the production, so please continue to email me at with your thoughts. I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!


Todd Haimes
Artistic Director/CEO

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2017-2018 Season, From Todd Haimes, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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Variations on the Truth: The Art of Solo Performance

Posted on: December 11th, 2017 by Lucy Powis


In describing Stories By Heart, one word that has been used by Lithgow’s collaborators is “Homeric.” Indeed, while Homer’s works The Iliad and The Odyssey are now most commonly encountered in written form, this was not their original form. Called a “divine singer,” Homer is said to have been a traveller who communed with the Muses and the Gods, collecting stories from those around him and spreading them further, establishing the importance of stories to those divine and mortal. To say that someone’s work is in the “Homeric tradition” typically means that they regard the telling of stories as an art, a craft to be learned and refined.

Spalding Gray

This craft is one that has been practiced by the Lithgows, with John not only retelling stories that shaped his childhood in Stories By Heart, but adding some of his own as well. The idea of autobiographical solo performances was popularized in New York in the late 1960s by Spalding Gray. A member of The Performance Group, a company of experimental theatre-makers based in SoHo, Gray became famous for his monologues. When he performed, Gray would sit at a desk with a microphone and glass of water, speaking to the audience on a subject that he had predetermined thoughts on but largely improvising the text. In describing his work, Gray referred to himself as taking on the character of “Spalding Gray.” He would record himself telling stories, play them back, and ask questions about them like “what would this character do next?” in order to determine how to redraft his work. This process led him to a lengthy career as a writer and actor, most notably with his 1985 monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which was later adapted into a film.

Nassim Soleimanpour

Someone who has managed to tell his story through solo performance without ever appearing on stage is Nassim Soleimanpour. Unable to leave his native country of Iran due to his refusal to serve in their military, Soleimanpour wrote White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, a piece performed by a different actor each time it is produced. The bigger twist? These actors are given the play for the first time in a sealed envelope when they walk on stage, and they are required to perform it with no preparation. Soleimanpour uses this unique approach to speak to his isolation and to explain why he cannot tell his story himself.

Anna Deavere Smith is someone else who sheds light on stories that would not  otherwise be heard. In pieces like her most recent one, Notes From the Field, which looked at racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, Smith creates and performs solo performances by conducting interviews and performing the responses verbatim, inhabiting the bodies and voices of her interviewees.

Anna Deavere Smith

Lithgow, Gray, Soleimanpour, and Smith don’t all appear in their work. Some of their stories are their own, and some of them are not. They are only four examples of the many who have honed the craft of solo performance. What they all share is a tradition in which stories are told, refined, and hopefully shared even when their tellers are gone.








John Lithgow: Stories by Heart begins performances at The American Airlines Theatre on December 21, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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The Act of Storytelling

Posted on: December 5th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs


“Why do all of us want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them? Why, for that matter, are all of you even here tonight, huddling in the darkness with a bunch of total strangers, staring at me for well over two hours, listening to me talktalktalk?”

-John Lithgow


Stories By Heart invites us to consider our primal relationship with storytelling.

As we huddle in the darkness of the American Airlines Theatre, we are connecting to an ancient tradition, like our cave-dwelling ancestors gathered around the fire. Storytelling predates the invention of writing and print, and it can take forms of poetry, song, dance, and masks. Across cultures, storytellers serve diverse roles, from leader to spiritual guide, historian to shaman, healer to jester. The common thread, according to Dr. David Leeming in Storytelling Encyclopedia: Historical, Cultural, and Multiethnic Approaches to Oral Traditions Around the World, is a human obsession with narrative that transcends culture and time. The question of “why” has invited explanations from anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and scientists.


Our Brains on Stories

Our brains are wired to think in narrative, linking events through cause-and-effect, and we learn better when information is transmitted through stories. When we are curious, emotionally engaged, concerned about what happens next, making predictions, we produce neurotransmitters that allow the brain to change. This explains why the Bible uses stories rather than lists or bullet points to engage and teach.

Humans need to connect with each other, and stories develop our capacity for empathy.  Neuroscience now understands the role of “mirror neurons,” which are activated in the brain when we hear stories. We may not feel a physical sensation of pain when the hero of a story hero is hurt, but mirror neurons allow us to process emotional experiences in fiction as if we they were happening to us. Through this mirroring, we “put ourselves in another person’s shoes.” Our capacity for empathy may give us a long-term evolutionary advantage.


Survival of the Fittest Storytellers?  

From a biological and evolutionary perspective, our capacity to tell and listen to stories helped the human species to advance. Stories allow us to prepare for life-threatening situations from a position of safety. They simulate potential crises, which we can virtually experience while listening from a secure place. In Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd explains how fiction and the arts are important forms of “high play.” Just as animals chase and tussle, safely practicing how to react in actual life-threatening situations, stories prepare us to process important patterns, images, and social information. Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, notes the centrality of “trouble” in stories. Fiction is driven by conflict and struggle, which allows our minds to simulate threatening events, removed from the actual risk. This virtual experience may prepare us to react better when real trouble arises.

Gotschall also asserts the value of storytelling in teaching us to cooperate within social groups, and this social bonding contributes to our long-term survival as a species. He posits that, across cultures, humankind is attracted to stories with a positive moral viewpoint. Stories with protagonists who are rewarded for honesty and playing by group rules show us the collective benefits of prosocial behavior. By promoting our capacity for cooperation and creativity, storytelling has helped humans to advance.


Stories are Good For You

Native American people have long recognized that storytelling has a beneficial impact on both individual and communal wellness. Through characters that model both positive and negative behaviors, tribal stories help promote introspection and convey essential values, including self-respect and health. While Native Americans have honored the power of stories to preserve cultural traditions for centuries, a 2002 study showed a correlation between storytelling and individual health. To test the impact of storytelling on heart disease and cancer in tribal communities, stories were selected to motivate tribal members to make healthier lifestyle choices. The researchers concluded that “storytelling becomes a powerful adjunct to health education.”

By helping us understand the world, prepare for threats and danger, connect to culture, learn about cooperation and collaboration, and work through our darkest fears or strongest desires, storytelling helps us survive and thrive. For thousands of years, whether in fire-lit caves or Broadway theatres, we still come back for more stories.



Australian Aborigines

Australian Aboriginal

Aboriginal cultural heritage goes back between 50,000 to 65,000 years and is today still passed on mostly through oral storytelling, song, and dance. Stories of “The Dreaming,” which describe the travels of the spiritual ancestors, are central to the Aboriginal belief system. Dreaming stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values, and beliefs from one generation to the next and are told progressively as people age in life. Through these stories, contemporary Aboriginal people maintain a link to ancient times.


Griots (griottes for women) originated in highly stratified West African societies. Their traditional role was preserving the memory of their societies, and this included taking on the job of genealogist, historian, spokesperson, diplomat, musician, teacher, master of ceremonies, and advisor. Griots held a unique social caste; their work was seen as a service, particular to the nobility and richer members of the community. The male griots used spoken word and musical instruments, while the female griottes specialized in singing. Contemporary griots still use storytelling, performance, music, and art to embody and pass on history.



The Grimm Brothers

Many of the fairy tales beloved today (think Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood), were originally collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century. The brothers collected oral German tales from people throughout the countryside in an effort to preserve a communal volk (folk) culture that was disappearing with modernization. They intended to capture the natural language of the people and understand the customs, rituals, and beliefs that bonded communities. After publishing the tales, which were crude and often violent, the Grimms began to revise and polish the stories, inserting Christian morality and making them more appropriate for children.



John Lithgow: Stories by Heart begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on January 11, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website

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2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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