Storytelling center stage as stand-up sits down
February 26, 2004
From its beginnings 10 years ago, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival aimed to move beyond the stand-up form that was predominant in comedy clubs and ubiquitous on cable television.A question was, what would take the place of the tried-and-true stand-up? The USCAF has presented theater pieces like The Comic and last years J Edgar!: The Musical; successful innovations like the Def Poetry Jam and The Simpsons Live. The USCAF has loaded up on awards and honors programs, and instituted a big, vibrant film component.But as the USCAF wraps up its first decade, the new form that seems to be emerging is a very old one. Storytelling, the worlds oldest art form, will be prominent when the 10th annual USCAF is staged in Aspen this Wednesday through Sunday, March 3-7.Weve always had storytelling, from the beginning, said John Moffitt, who has been executive producer of the festival from the start. When we started the festival, the one-man shows were people who had a story to tell that was worth listening to for 45 minutes or an hour.What has happened is, it has increased and spread, There are so many stories out there to tell.In the one-person show category, the focus is not on wacky personalities or observational humor, but on true personal experiences crafted as stories. In many instances, the story will be delivered in its most elemental form, with a storyteller, his words and a listening audience. Dave Gormans Googlewhack Adventure has Englishman Gorman in the mode of documentary storyteller, spinning his tale of googlewhacking the art of finding two words that, when googled on the Internet, will yield exactly one Web site. But Gormans focus is not so much on googlewhacking itself, but about his personal journey. Gormans tale involves his failed effort to write a novel, his obsession with googlewhacking, and his two-month, 100,000-mile odyssey chasing that obsession. Gorman is making a habit of uncommon obsessions, In his last USCAF appearance, in 2000, Gorman performed the one-person show Are You Dave Gorman, which documented his global search for other Dave Gormans.Kirk Ward spins his experience of reconnecting with his estranged father into Fatherland, a tale of guns and dangerous creatures in the desert. Its storytelling, not stand-up comedy, said Ward. The twisted tale alone is very funny. Its got not much to do with me. Its about my father, and hes a dying breed.Pat Combs Man 1, Bank 0 details the storytellers entanglement with the banking and legal systems after he successfully deposits a $95,000 check marked non-negotiable. In Untitled & Unfinished, Yolanda Kai Wilkinson describes her first 18 months as a New Yorker, a period which saw her live in eight different apartments. Wilkinson is paired with the unforgettable Beau Sia. Sia scored a hit at last years Def Poetry Jam with his extreme rant; this year, his one-man show Fish Out of Water examines how raging words led him on a journey of self-discovery from Oklahoma City to New York City.The three-man Los Angeles Latino troupe Culture Clash will give a different spin on the story, weaving community history into the mix. Their Chavez Ravine is a theatrical exploration of the tearing down of a Latino community in the L.A. of the 1940s, to make way for Dodgers Stadium, a haven for baseball.Two of the more high-profile movies in the USCAFs Film Discovery Program are documentaries in the form of first-person narratives. Morgan Spurlocks Super Size Me documents Spurlocks health nightmare as he embarks on a month-long diet of nothing but McDonalds. My Date with Drew traces the quixotic effort of ordinary guy Brian Herzlinger, who gives himself 30 days and a thousand dollars to fulfill his dream of scoring a date with Drew Barrymore.Capping the storytelling end of the USCAF is the Moth. The Moth, a hit in its Aspen debut last year, has its roots in New York, where Southern-born writer George Dawes Green started putting on storytelling events in relatively intimate settings in 1997. This year, the Moth expands to two separate programs. Call of the Wild: Tales of the Untamed will feature literary-style stories by Janeane Garofalo, Omid Dijalili and Aron Kader. No Way Back: Stories from the Frontline will have tales by Robert Schimmel, Teri Garr, Mark Katz and more. The Moth is also at the center of a late-night event, which has typically been the domain of standup comedy.Moffitt, the USCAFs executive producer, says that the Moth programs take the art of storytelling to a new height. The Moths two directors, Catherine Burns and Lea Thau, work closely with the comics to craft their tales.The Moth has made a name for itself by refining the stories, working with the talent and setting time limits. Its more structured in that they are directed by these two women.Moffitt said the emphasis on storytelling reflects what a significant part of the festival audience producers looking for future sitcom stars is searching for.When you go back to people who have sitcoms in the past, they had stories to tell, he said. The comics who have developed into sitcoms, or television, have basically been storytellers rather than jokesters. Thats the way to get out of telling jokes in the comedy clubs, is to tell your story.