by Randolyn Zinn
Last week Martin Moran performed a private run-thru of All The Rage at a midtown rehearsal room for his director Seth Barrish, stage managers, assistants, a friend, and — me.
Moran is a well-known actor and memoirist who goes public with his private musings, seeking where the disparate threads of his life intersect, especially the doubts, guilts and misdeeds that trouble him. He discerns patterns and consequences and then presents them as questions in performance, checking in with the wider world beyond his personal preoccupations.
His latest solo performance piece All The Rage is now in previews at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in New York City. Moran has done this sort of thing before. In 2004 he brought his Obie© award-winning The Tricky Part: A Boy’s Story of Sexual Trespass, A Man’s Journey to Forgiveness to the stage before it was published as a book.
After the run-thru (a compact 70-minutes), Martin and I walked to a nearby restaurant to chat about his process.
Randolyn Zinn: I was so moved by your story and how you tell it, the ease with which you make an audience feel focused and connected to your world. I suspect that your theatrical presence, while casual and charming, belies a highly sophisticated set of skills you've developed as an actor. And then there’s your terrific script. The piece moves effortlessly from topic to topic and locale to locale: from Manhattan to Denver to South Africa and back. How did the idea first present itself?
MARTIN MORAN: Every time I make a piece as a storyteller, it’s an imperative, like a knocking in my chest.
It all began with my stepmother. I started writing about my relationship with her because it’s the first time in my life that I actually felt such an outrageous hatred for another human being. That feeling frightened me. Around the same time, my home town newspaper ran a review of my book, The Tricky Part, and it felt like the village elder was saying Martin Moran has no testosterone, why does he not blame his abuser, why is he so mellow, how will this boy ever move on??? And that really threw me for a loop. When I handed my book to a radical feminist to blurb, she said something like Oh Marty your book is so beautiful but where is your anger? And audience members would say in talk-backs after that show, Where is your anger? It all really freaked me out. I thought I had explored my subject, but maybe, I thought, I’m not finished after all, because I skipped an entire realm of human emotion.
RZ: So this piece is a quest to understand anger, your anger…
MARTIN MORAN: Yes. And how anger and compassion can live side by side, like a dance. Of course, there are things worth being angry about and, in a strange way, anger can fuel understanding for how we’re one, connected. We’ve all been wounded somehow. Siba, the man seeking asylum I translated for, was a torture victim. I was abused as a kid. Everyone has something that has sliced through them. So that wound calls us to examine what it is to embrace the reality of why is it we hurt each other and/or why we reach a sublime place of understanding. Perhaps in this piece I’m trying to forgive myself for forgiving.
RZ: So how and when did writing this piece come together for you?
MARTIN MORAN: So there I was in the middle of my life in NYC, performing in a Broadway musical (Spamalot) and pushing back these worries about my anger, when it occurred to me that perhaps my life was losing meaning. I felt very strongly that I wanted to have some impact in the world, DO something real and helpful. So I decided to work with refugees. Unfortunately, I failed my application test for Doctors Without Borders, which led me eventually to the job of translating for Siba, a survivor of torture, who was seeking asylum in the United States. When I met this man, the horror of what he’d gone through appalled me. And yet I was fascinated by the lightness of his being and I found myself wondering: where was his anger?
RZ: This pieces also touches on your brother.
MARTIN MORAN: Yes, he was the “angry” one in our family, who died at the young age of 43. There have been other moments in my life when I’ve tripped on anger, like we all have: observing a pedestrian screaming at an oversized car in the middle of the street. And then there's the time that I actually screamed at a NYC taxi cab driver in the middle of the street.
I also examine a moment of anger I directed at a man I hired to drive me around the outskirts of Johannesburg. I lost patience with this man over map directions, but when I managed to calm down, we actually shared a moment of concord.
Anyway, all these stories and incidents function like a prism through which I look at the energy and mystery of anger in our lives as human beings, using mine in particular.
RZ: Why have you chosen to traverse the rocky road of memoir as opposed to writing fiction or drama?
MARTIN MORAN: It really doesn’t feel like a decision on my part. I have an essential feeling about writing fiction and multi-character plays…I’m in awe of them. In my opinon, fiction is god, the king. I have an essential shame about writing memoir. The I, the I, the I… The only thing that helps me live through the shame is the sense that by burrowing into the I, you sometimes break through the limited into the universal, the human.
All I can say is that literally, physically, when I go to write what captivates and engages me are the questions that live as an ache in my being. The only way I’m able to address them at this point in time is through memoir. And I acknowledge that there’s a lot of reimaging, artifice, sleight of hand, and editing that goes into this form. What’s the famous quote? If you want to tell the truth, write fiction…? Memoir can be full of baloney. All I can say is that memoir is the way I play with language on the page.
RZ: Since you’re an actor you can get up on your feet to explore these monologues and see if they work, which must tell you a lot. It must be a great advantage to you as a writer.
MARTIN MORAN: There comes a point when I’m writing at the desk and I imagine that there are a few people sitting around me, listening. This little fantasy puts the writing more in my body, and I’ll start to imagine engaging a group of human beings in a story or a joke and it loosens me up for the page.
RZ: So it’s different to write the same story for the page as it is for the stage?
MARTIN MORAN: It is different, but so related. I find essential structure at the desk…and I love beautiful sentences, the music and rhythm of language: those sentences come more at the desk. Then I use them when I improvise on my feet, to be a bit more off the cuff. How the language differs from page to the stage came up a lot with The Tricky Part, the play, which had grown out of mostly prose on the page. I found I needed to change things in syntax to make it work as a theatre piece. Then for the book, I went back to the desk. It was weird, one informed the other, but they were distinct in their rhythm and experience. The private experience of someone sitting in a chair reading a book versus the collective experience of folks gathered around the theatrical campfire calls for two different kinds of language and rhythms of disclosure for the same story.
RZ: That said, there are many points of intersection between your book and the play. Does the need to change syntax and rhythm come up because one form comes in through the eye while the other, the theatre, comes in through the eye and ear?
MARTIN MORAN: Yes. And also because part of the sleight of hand is the teller's and listeners' belief that it's all being made up for the first time, on the spot.
RZ: That must call into play acting technique even though it’s your own story you’re telling.
MARTIN MORAN: Yes, absolutely. I have found a style or a tone or a way of playing my own material that plays like it’s genuinely off-the cuff. And it is, but it isn’t because I’m performing the same piece 8 times a week. Like any play really, part of the artifice of a live performance is that you’re saying the words for the first time ever. That’s the actor part, yeah.
RZ: How does the director help you?
MARTIN MORAN: My director Seth Barrish helps on many fronts. He has a great ear for when language sounds written and literary, which is often disengaging for the audience. He hears when I fall into a cadence of recitation rather than a human being freshly minting an experience in the moment.
RZ: So Seth encourages colloquial language over high-flown literary prose.
MARTIN MORAN: Yes. I pepper the monologue with interstitial links like you know…so then I….oh mygod…this is so interesting…. These little asides are actually written into the script so that the audiences will feel like we all are creating this story as a group of souls discovering it. And Seth is incredibly helpful with that. He stops me all the time with, I don’t buy that or That sounds written. I remember when we went to Sundance Institute with The Tricky Part, it was three weeks of language shifting slightly every day, moving towards the spoken, but with the anchor of a literary structure. By literary I also mean beautiful sentences. I love word play. It’s a mystery, this back and forth, because there’s no question that my years as an actor inform me as to how to fully engage the audience. Seth also encourages me to use the little things that might pop up in the moment, to just go with them on the spot. Today, for instance, as I did the play with you in the room, lots of new things popped up. He’ll say during notes sessions, I think you should keep this one but not that one. It’s like a marriage almost, director and performer, a very intimate relationship, now that I think about it. An intense relationship. It’s our second go round.
RZ: Will this piece turn into a book too?
MARTIN MORAN: I’m hoping. I don’t know. I have an editor at Beacon Press. I don’t have a book deal yet. I’m two months late writing a proposal. I don’t know how to write a proposal. But they’re intrigued. Figuring out what the book might be in terms of its relationship to the play is still an unknown to me at this point.
RZ: Would you have to rewrite it?
MARTIN MORAN: Yeah. They feel it could only be a book if it was a fuller exploration of cultural aspects of anger with more examples. What will make it a book as opposed to a play…? I don’t know yet. Maybe I wrote one book and that’s it.
I’m really excited about the benefit performances on Feb. 6 and 17th for the Refugee Immigration Fund. Afterwards there will be a panel discussion with asylum lawyers and two immigrant seekers who have received asylum. And they’ll be also talking about in particular the work done in Brooklyn and Queens by the Refugee Immigrant Fund with their urban farm project where they have two large farms and employ refugees to work and grow their own vegetables in order to have the kind of agricultural work that’s familiar to them from their homeland and an opportunity to connect and be together. It’s a wonderful organization. I approached the producers about doing this and they have been so responsive.
My friendship, getting to know Siba, the refugee I translated for, has been an eye-opening experience about the daunting realities for asylum seekers in a post 9/11 America and the organizations that help people who have landed on our shores under incredibly difficult circumstances. I feel strongly that my piece plugs into a living cultural issue of our time.
RZ: It certainly does. Lots of luck, Marty.
MARTIN MORAN: Thanks, Randolyn, it was great to talk to you.
All The Rage is being performed now in a limited NYC engagement through February 24 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre NYC 416 West 42nd Street For tickets: TICKETCENTRAL.COM or call 212-279-4200
ALL THE RAGEPLAY.COM
and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AllTheRageThePlay?fref=ts
The Tricky Part http://www.thetrickypartbook.com/index_content.html Now available in paperback and as an audio book read by Mr Moran.