How 1-man shows reflect truthiness

ANALYSIS BY ANDREW JOHNSON Special to The Post and Courier

Amidst the operas, the concerts, the dancing and the traditional theater, there’s another art form shaking up Charleston this summer: the one-man show.

Between Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto, there are over a dozen one-man shows being performed in town over the next three weeks. Some, like Tobias Wegner’s “Leo” and Paul Gertner’s “Braindrops,” focus on spectacle and physical feats. Others, like David Lee Nelson’s “The Elephant in My Closet,” emphasize personal monologues and storytelling.

They all have one thing in common: reality is filtered, either through visual illusion or one person’s experience. Most one-man shows follow a set script, but there’s always room for improvisation. Martin Dockery’s show “The Holy Land Experience” uses autobiographical stories to reflect on faith and religion.

“I don’t ever write down any of the stories I do, they’re all created orally,” said Dockery. “It’s like writing but it’s not writing. And it’s like acting but it’s not acting, because it’s me. You can just come right out and tell people exactly how you’re feeling and what’s going on, and because they’re true stories they have to have some weight.”

Sometimes that weight is dangerous. One Spoleto performer, Mike Daisey, was the subject of national controversy a few months ago when it was revealed some stories he told on an episode of public radio’s “This American Life,” drawn from his show “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” were partially fabricated. Daisey’s detractors claim that he lost all journalistic integrity, while his supporters argue theater by its nature shouldn’t be held to journalistic standards. In the realm of personal storytelling, what is true?

According to Charleston native and author Jack Hitt, any “truth” based on personal experience may not be as factual as we think. His one-man show “Making Up The Truth” brings up new discoveries in neuroscience about how our brains process information as we experience it.

“Our brains are constantly turning reality into something slightly more familiar to each one of us, customizing it just on the edges,” Hitt said. “As a journalist one of the things I’m realizing is I almost have to apply a scientific method to myself. I’m changing reality with my own bias even before I know that I’ve seen it.”

Hitt argues that people are used to categorizing information as “fiction” or “non-fiction,” but that there’s actually a third category one could call “memoir” or “memory.” These stories may not be factually true upon investigation, but they’re true to the person who experienced them. Presenting something that wasn’t your experience as your experience — as Daisey did — crosses an ethical line.

“There are these subtle unwritten codes of storytelling conduct that we all instinctively know,” Hitt said. “No one’s written these down, and that’s sort of part of the problem, even though I think we all in our gut know these distinctions. And when we feel them violated, we’re profoundly upset.”

And yet, it may not be that simple. Any theatrical performance inherently involves manipulating the “facts” into something an audience can easily consume. In stand-up comedy, for example, there’s an implicit understanding that the performer’s stories are embellished, or even completely made up, for the sake of the show. Which version of the truth is acceptable and which isn’t may be difficult to see.

“When you tell a story to your friends, you’re necessarily going to leave out details and points of view,” said Dockery. “When you’re up on stage, multiple characters will get conflated into one character or quotes will be paraphrased. I know when I’m up there telling the story it’s true, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been altered to help with the dramatic arc.”

Daisey admitted his wrongdoing on a retraction episode of “This American Life.” Since then, he’s removed all the controversial material from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” — what he estimates to be around five minutes of a two-hour show.

“We conflate journalism with fact, but I think everyone living in this culture knows that’s not true,” Daisey said. “Storytelling goes into every piece of journalism. The problem is that the world revolves around laws, like there’s a law of fact. The effort to discuss individual pieces of art and where they fall on that spectrum, that conversation is very valuable.”

Despite the controversy surrounding his show — or perhaps because of it — Daisey is still going strong. He is performing “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at Spoleto, along with “Teching in India” on June 6.

“My perspective on the idea of truth hasn’t changed. It’s been fundamentally good for my art and for my work, despite all of the things that are painful about it,” Daisey said, referring to the controversy. “It’s been harrowing, but at times really useful and really illuminating.”

There are no black-and-white answers. Perhaps ultimately the best one-man shows are those that connect with audiences on a level of truth, even if the “facts” are wishy-washy.

“In whatever you do there should be sincerity,” said Dockery. “If you’re telling a sad story, don’t push any buttons just to make people sad. If you’re being funny, humor comes out of someone sincerely saying what they’re freaking out about. It’s through that sincerity that people see your heart and can relate to what you’re going through.”

Andrew Johnson is a Newhouse School graduate student.