I first met Martin Moran back in the 20th century when we were both just beginning our work as solo performers, experimenting with words and stories in the small theaters located in downtown Manhattan. Marty has always told deeply personal stories about sexuality, spirituality, and the mystery of the human experience. His confessional style of storytelling is his own and has evolved as a result of his profoundly inquisitive nature. With equal parts honesty and entertainment, Marty tells stories that make us all lean forward. The Tricky Part, which he adapted from his memoir of the same name, recounts a time between the ages of 12 and 15, when he had a sexual relationship with an older man, a counselor he met at a Catholic boys’ camp. It is a riveting, often funny, and always surprising story about the complexities of growing up Catholic, in the midst of desire and human trespass. He received a 2004 Obie Award and two Drama Desk nominations, including one for outstanding play. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with Marty and talk to him about his most recent solo work, All The Rage, which picks up where The Tricky Part left off.
James Lecesne (Rail): You’ve certainly had an impressive career as an actor in New York and also on the road. You’ve been in shows like Spamalot, Cabaret, How to Succeed, Fun Home, Wicked, the list goes on and on. But I’d love to know what made you decide to become a solo performer.
Martin Moran: I never felt as though there was an actual decision involved in becoming a solo performer. For me there’s just some odd imperative in the body, something that makes me create these solo works. I remember about 27 years ago when I was working in Stockbridge with Music Theater Group. We were all living together as a company, and I remember making a solo dance piece in the backyard and then inviting everyone to come see it. The creative process was agonizing and yet at the same time, exciting. The truth is, I would’ve preferred just hanging out with the group or doing fun things, but a kind of obsession or question arises, and I have to answer it. That’s what happened with me when I started working on The Tricky Part.
Rail: So The Tricky Part wasn’t you’re first solo piece?
Moran: Oh, no. The Tricky Part was the first time I’d done a full-scale solo piece. But before that I was always working on solo things, always in bits and pieces. In fact, you and I were involved in an evening together years ago at HERE. A group of us: you, me, Brenda Currin, Eve Ensler, Jessica Litwak, and I think David Cale. It was an evening of solo work, and I told this story about going on a trip to the mountains with this older guy. Looking back on it now I see that seeds of The Tricky Part were buried inside that piece. There was a piece I performed at Westbank called Fallen Angles and one entitled The Geometry of Sleep that I did at Alice’s 4th Floor. Sometimes I’d ask Ricky Ian Gordon to write some accompanying music for me. But these were in the early days, and it was never my intention to be a solo performer; it was just a sort of compulsion to explore a question that motivated me and then to get on stage with it. I guess it still is.
Rail: What kind of questions would you say interest you?
Moran: Questions like, what is forgiveness? Why do we hurt each other? What is reconciliation? How do we move on from things that cleave us? These are the questions I always seem to come back to in my work. I’m just exploring them on deeper and deeper levels.
Rail: And were there solo performers who’ve inspired you along the way?
Moran: Well, you.
Rail: Nice of you to say.
Moran: No, really. Your work inspired me tremendously. Your unique and vivid story sense, your loving rendition of characters. The same is true of David Greenspan. I saw his work, and I remember thinking: he’s so idiosyncratic. And it takes such courage to be that idiosyncratic—in public. He inspired me because I’m always wondering if I’m being understood, is the story clear? David gave me permission to just trust the work.
There was a guy at St. Ann’s last year who I loved, Daniel Kitson. He can spin the most poetic language in a way that makes you think he’s making it up, on the spot, just for you.
I also look to Spalding Gray. He had a mysterious way in of interconnecting stories, and creating theater in a way that wasn’t obvious. He gave audiences a different kind of theater experience. You could be sitting there asking yourself, “Wait. Is this theater? Is this storytelling with a twist? What is it?” I loved that.
Rail: Would you say you’ve developed your own distinct style of storytelling?
Moran: The form I’m presenting always remains so elusive to me—right up until the 11th hour. Even then. I’ve been in rehearsal with this piece [All the Rage] for weeks and I still feel as though I haven’t really cracked it. The rehearsal process is really all about me learning to trust in the alchemy or the serendipity of doing the piece; trust that the meaning will be revealed when it gets in front of an audience.
Seth [Barrish, director] is constantly reminding me that performing is a present act of communication. It cannot be a planned-out thing. In rehearsal I’ll try to plan moments out, I’ll settle on a particular gesture or a movement. And he’ll say, “Yeah that’s an interesting idea.” But then he’ll encourage me to let it go. Anytime I set it, or codify the performance in any way, he’s there to remind me to maximize the alchemy. He tells me that the particular group of souls who are with me while I’m telling the story will inform what I’m doing on any given night; the audience will help me to tell the story. Sure, I have plot points and things I need to accomplish, but the experience and energy of what happens is born in the moment when I’m with the audience. I have to trust that.
Rail: That said, how much does this show vary from night to night? How much does the audience affect the performance?
Moran: Certainly the text stays the same. Or very close to the same. I think it’s more about where the emotional peaks and valleys tend to present themselves depending on who is in the room with me, where the biggest laughs occur, which passages are felt more deeply. It shifts from performance to performance.
Rail: Sounds as though this is a process that allows room for plenty of accidents, happy accidents.
Moran: Yeah. I guess. It’s sort of like sports—where you have all the rules and parameters of the field, but how the game is played, how it unfolds, changes from night to night.
Rail: But you must love this sense of uncertainty. Otherwise, why would you do it?
Moran: I ask myself that every day. Why do I do this? I know that on some level I’m a rigorous craftsman. I love to craft sentences. I love to craft the performance. I love to do the work. But then I have to surrender. And that may be the best of all—surrendering to the work. I may have this thing to say. But I also know that there is something else knocking, something wanting to come through the work. This is where accidents can be helpful; they are how “Spirit,” or whatever, sneaks its way in. Meanwhile, I just try to show up and do the work. I hope that the human questions that I am asking will resonate for others in a way that I can’t imagine when I start out. And of course, I am plagued with doubt. Will this work? How will this work? As Socrates said, “The only thing I know is that I don’t know.” So there’s that.
The questions I am asking are difficult. Very difficult. What is it to be human? We hurt each other. There is torture. There is rape. There is sexual abuse. But at the same time there is forgiveness, healing, and revelations as to how we are One. Maybe being human is learning to live with both of these sides of ourselves.
Rail: When I saw a workshop last year of All the Rage, the show was about locating one’s anger. Have you? Have you located your anger within the piece and within yourself?
Moran: This was really the impetus for the piece. I was getting that question a lot. After The Tricky Part, people were asking me, “Where is your anger? Where is your anger?” And I felt that I had to answer it. And I think in some way I’ve located my anger physically and emotionally within the piece. There’s a spot in the piece where I take complete ownership of the power of my anger. But what I’ve come to understand through doing the piece is that anger is not only a destructive thing; it can also be a good thing in our lives. Particularly when it is free to unleash power. I saw that documentary film recently, How to Survive a Plague, about the AIDS crisis and about the men and women who stepped up to make something happen at a time when no one was doing much to change the situation. And I’m still struck by how much good came of that anger, how much good can come from anger when it is directed in a constructive way and for the good of others.
Rail: Is that what want to do with this piece? Direct your anger in a constructive way?
Moran: It’s what I’m hoping to do.
All the Rage, written and performed by Martin Moran, directed by Seth Barrish, runs through February 24th at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues, Manhattan). It is a coproduction of piece by piece productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory, in association with the Barrow Group. Tickets ($55): www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200. Further info: www.alltherageplay.com.
JAMES LECESNE has been telling stories for over 25 years. He has created several solo shows, including Word of Mouth, which won the New York Drama Desk Award & New York Outer Critics Circle Award). His short film, Trevor, received an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 1994 and went on to inspire The Trevor Project, the only nationwide 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention Lifeline for L.G.B.T. and Questioning youth. James has also written for T.V. He is the author of several novels for young adults, and he was most recently seen as an actor in Gore Vidalâs The Best Man on Broadway.