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PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING

Truth, and other overrated ideas

Lying. Some people might call it pathological. Rick Cleveland calls it "The Beginning of How I Became a Writer."

November 20, 2005|By Rick Cleveland | Special to The Times
  • PRESIDENTIAL PAL: "My Buddy Bill," written and performed by Rick Cleveland, revolves around his relationship with the commander in chief.
PRESIDENTIAL PAL: "My Buddy Bill," written and performed by… (Lee Salem, xx )

When I was a kid, I lied a lot. Lying, for me, was easier than learning to tie my shoes. I could tell lies like my best friend, Dave, could eat French fries — by the fistful.

When I was in junior high school, I used to cut class and take the bus downtown to watch movies in the big, old, rat-infested theaters. If you were a kid you could get into R-rated movies, no problem, as long as you paid. My classmates liked to hear my renditions of those movies, in all their gory detail. "Deliverance," "The Godfather" and "Walking Tall" went over especially well.

For some reason, I missed the opening of "The Poseidon Adventure." Even though it wasn't an R-rated movie, it was a Disaster Movie — and Disaster Movies were the next best thing to R-rated movies.

Instead of telling my classmates I hadn't seen the movie, I just pretended I had. The more I went into detail about what happened (the movie poster was extremely helpful because the one-liner screamed "Hell Upside Down!"), the more I became convinced I had actually seen the movie.

Some people might call that pathological. I call that "The Beginning of How I Became a Writer."

Eventually, I would become a writer. But deep down, I didn't want to be just a writer — I wanted to be a monologuist.

I knew I was hooked when, in the 1980s, I saw Jonathan Demme's movie version of Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia." Sure, it was great, but more important, there was this part in it where Spalding admitted he wasn't telling the truth.

This, to me, was an epiphany. I needed to know that it was sometimes OK for writers to lie. Until then, all the playwrights I had been studying — guys like Arthur Miller — were saying things like, "All plays are political." And truthfully, I didn't understand that. What's political about "The Odd Couple"? It's just funny.

In the mid-'90s, when I was a graduate student in the University of Iowa's Playwrights Workshop, I actually spent time with Spalding Gray. Honestly, I did. This isn't a lie. In fact, I once took him owling — which involves going out into the woods late at night and calling owls. Really. I even have friends back in the Midwest who can use their vocal chords to call owls. Me? I cheat and use a boombox with a Peterson Field Guide tape with owl calls on it.

By this time I had seen most of Spalding's work, and because there isn't a whole lot to do in Iowa City late at night except drink beer, Spalding actually agreed to go owling with me one night. So there I stood, holding my boombox aloft — like John Cusack in "Say Anything … " — and the owls came. Beautiful, snow-white, barred owls. After half an hour or so, Spalding asked me if I knew where he could get a hot dog at that hour. That's not a lie, either.

So while I watched him eat his hot dog at a truck stop — yes, I once watched Spalding Gray eat a hot dog at a truck stop in Iowa, that's not a lie — I asked him how much of his other stuff might have not exactly been, you know, truthful.

Finally — I think he was getting fed up with me by this point — he said, "It's called 'poetic license,' kid." Actually, he didn't call me "kid," that was just my own example of poetic license.

By the time I made it out to Los Angeles, there were a lot of monologuists at work. Great ones too: Anna Deveare Smith, Kevin Kling, Julia Sweeney, John Leguizamo, Lewis Black, my own good friend Evan Handler. But within a few years, the market seemed glutted.

There was one guy who had a one-man show and, I swear to God, his show was about growing up as an orphaned girl who got abused by her foster parents, then in her 20s became a transgendered transsexual, then got hit by a bus. The show was called "The Bumpy Road to Recovery" — and supposedly it was all true, and there was even "life-affirming" humor in it. I thought, "Enough."

I quit writing monologues and started writing for television and film. I also started reading a lot of nonfiction. One day I picked up Mark Perry's "Grant and Twain" and discovered that Mark Twain did one-man shows! All this time I thought it was performance artists in the 1980s who invented them. (My first monologue play, "Skinny White Boy," got reviewed in the Performance Art section of the Chicago Reader. I never could figure that out.)

Anyway, Twain could tell a tall tale and make it as believable as an everyday anecdote. And he could relate an everyday anecdote and make it as entertaining as a tall tale.

Touring around the country and playing theaters to plug his latest book, Twain told stories. Some were true, some were not — but it didn't matter. What mattered was that they were famously entertaining.

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