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.
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.
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.
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.
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart