Your Story’s Story

miller.583a.2Last night, my friend Janet gave me a copy of playwright Arthur Miller’s memoir, Timebends: A Life.  He wrote it in 1987.  As Janet pointed out, one of the big stories of his life is not even addressed. In the 599 pages of the book, Miller never brought himself to write about his son born in 1966 and institutionalized soon after.  The boy’s name is Daniel and he was born with Down Syndrome.  If you read the index of this memoir, you will find pages about his other children, Robert, Jane and Rebecca, but nothing about his youngest.  During his lifetime, he never spoke or wrote publicly about Daniel.

You might have heard about this open secret, there was a polarizing Vanity Fair article written about it in 2007, shortly after Miller passed away.  I thought about this story quite a bit last night and this morning too.  Apparently, Miller’s rationale about institutionalizing Daniel in 1966 was that that’s what people did at the time and he feared that keeping the boy at home would be a disadvantage for his next to youngest, Rebecca who was born in 1962.  (You might know this, but Rebecca Miller grew up to become a writer and filmmaker herself and is married to Daniel Day-Louis.) While Miller’s wife Inge visited Daniel regularly until her death in 2002, the playwright very seldom visited.

I am a storyteller myself, certainly not one as gifted as Arthur Miller, but a storyteller nonetheless.  My friend Janet who gave me the book is also a storyteller.  We both participated in a show last night with some of our best friends, Linda, Sarah, Michael and we also heard stories from two people I’d never met before.  And what impressed me most, touched me most, was the honesty I witnessed.  And with every story, without exception, there was this moment, when I could feel the person pause and wonder, do I really want to share this much of my story?  A young man going into the military to ignore his sexuality?  A cancer survivor yearning for the glow of her youth?  A woman betrayed by her two best friends?  I don’t think it was easy for them to reveal so much, but they did.  And their candor, their vulnerability is what I’ve also thought about, carried with me all day today.

It’s been said that Miller’s finest work was written before 1966.  People have guessed that the burden affected his writing, though he continued to be prolific, in the years that followed.  I am interested in his story, what led him to create men and women like Willy and Biff and Eddie and Beatrice and Catherine.  He wrote famously about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in After the Fall.  Maybe there was a part of him that wanted to write about Daniel, too. I can wonder about his path of logic concerning the matter, though I’ll never know.

But here’s the deal. There is the story and then the story of the story. His presumably forthright memoir that still sits on my desk, that I still look forward to reading, is not necessarily diminished by the glaring omission, but it’s indeed colored.

We are all storytellers. You might demure that you aren’t but, be honest, you know you are. You tell your story on Facebook and Instagram, at cocktail parties and board meetings and fellowship groups. I know that I am not the only one struggling with how much of my story, my heart, my frailties, my complexities, I’m willing to share. There are things that I think that no one will ever know, that most of you probably already know. And that’s the way it is. So, I guess, my advice, and it’s especially for me, is share your story as honestly as possible. It’s been my experience that the truth is what we respond to most.

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The Way I Remembered It

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A few months ago, I had the good fortune to participate in a storytelling show called Spark Off Rose. It was a great night, I wrote about it here and then here. Six months later, I remembered my story as me at my very best. Funny, sweet, humble, seeking, tender. In the past six months, I’ve thought about that night, and I kid you not, EVERY TIME, I thought, dang, Ray, you were pure magic.

Well, guess what? My friend and producer Janet sent me the link to the audio recording from the night, that night that seemed perfect in the misty watercolor corners of my mind. I listened and well, it wasn’t quite the Carnegie Hall debut I remembered. If I could go back and relive the evening, there are things I would change, tweak. But of course, that night has come and passed. This audio is a record of what transpired, proof. But, even hearing the flaws that I had not previously pondered, I still appreciate this particular offering as something honest, confessional, distinctively me and yes, a little bit funny too.

So, here it is. The theme was You Don’t Know Me. Obviously, if you’ve been reading this blog, you do know me, at least a bit. I’d love for you to have a listen and in doing so, get to know me, just a little more.

http://www.sparkoffrose.com/audio_performers_18.php#ray-barnhart

Cream Pies and Such

52162Last night, I did a storytelling show.  It went “okay.”  I’m not going to exaggerate, it wasn’t horrible.  But I will say, it didn’t turn out the way I’d envisioned.  When I was writing it, and practicing it, I had a feeling it was going to be something jubilatory.  I thought it was going to be like the end of Lucas where Corey Haim goes to his locker, finds the letter jacket and everyone does the slow clap and chants “Lucas, Lucas, Lucas,” until he puts it on and triumphantly lifts his arms in the air (roll credits).  My night was decidedly less than that.  I got a few “that was sweet”s and that was pretty much it.

Today, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why last night bothered me so much.  It wasn’t an all-out failure, and goodness knows, I’ve seen my share of all-out failures.  Still, I felt confident about what I wrote, I thought it was craftily woven together.  There was a Fred Gwynne reference that I didn’t explain and I arrogantly thought to myself, if they don’t know who Fred Gwynne is, I don’t want their (blank)-ing laughs.  As it turned out, I did not get them.

Me being me, I stewed about it all day and then tonight, I had a little a-ha moment.  It’s possible that everything really does begin and end with Sex and the City because I remembered Michael Patrick King talking in an interview about the cream pie, how whenever any of the girls thought they had something figured out, they got a cream pie in the face.  And on some level, that’s why we loved the show and them.  

I remember many years ago, I was in Miami doing a play and had met a guy and we’d had a few dates.  And at the play’s opening night party, he was there.  Also in attendance was (surprise!) my on again, off again (his choice) boyfriend from LA.  I felt like Archie Andrews having to juggle Betty and Veronica.  And of course, it all backfired.  It was the last I saw of either one of them.  And I thought then, just like I thought last night, will it ever be my turn to just be the king?  When will it ever be my turn to be Charlie Sheen back when he was cute?  I was Lucas at 16 and Lucas at 26 and guess what, I’m still Lucas.  Would it have killed the universe for me to have sauntered onto that stage, brimming with hubris and unapologetically kicked ass?  Just once?

So now, I sit at my computer, a little buzzed from all the Maker’s Mark I drank while watching Burt Lancaster wear a Speedo for 97 minutes in the The Swimmer.  He was 53 years old when he made the movie and my body has never looked like that. HE was the king.  I, on the other hand, write about kings, dreaming that still someday, somehow, I will be one.

 

Storytelling

179892_142463809146815_2502641_nI had a storytelling show tonight.  I just got home a few minutes ago.  I do these shows every couple of months and some go better than others.  Tonight, I talked about one of my blog posts, The Forgiveness Machine.  The goal with these stories is to be funny, but also share a real experience from your life.  From the beginning, I was a little off my game.  I was more nervous than usual, I didn’t feel like I had a strong opening to the set.  The arc of the set was supposed to be tell something funny (me being drunk at a luau in Hawaii) followed by something sad (talking about my dog Mandy’s last few days) then wrap up with something funny again (me overreacting to some stupid things I did a couple of days ago.)  Halfway through the show, before I hit the stage, a group of drunk people came in to watch their friend perform.  They sat at a table in the main room and talked during their friend’s set.  Then the emcee made a point to tell the room to be respectful of the performers and the people listening when he introduced the next performer.  They talked through his set anyway, despite people around them ssshh-ing them.  Then I got up.  Toward the top of my set, I heard them talking and I said from the stage, “Hey just so you know, there is a room in back where you guys can talk.  You don’t have to be in this room.”  They stayed in the room.  I got into my set, I couldn’t quite hit my groove, but I got a few laughs.  Then I launched into the sad part, talking about dealing with Mandy’s death. I heard that group laughing.   And that’s when I did something I have never done on stage before.  I went off.  I bellowed, “Shut the f@#% up. If you don’t want to be here, go in the back room.”  The ring leader responded, “I thought this was supposed to be a comedy show.”  And then the emcee said, “Actually it’s a storytelling show, it can be funny or serious.”  And then the guy muttered something and then I wrapped up my set, omitting parts of the story that may or may not have paid off anyway.  I got to my closing sentence about how we want forgiveness to be something instantaneous, but in reality it’s a process.  I got off the stage and decompressed while the next and last comic performed.  

Usually, after a show that does not go the way I hope it will, I have a tendency to beat myself up.  I replay all the missed laughs in my head over and over again.  For lack of a better word, I can be unforgiving. Tonight however, I felt exhilerated by what happened.  I’ve had people talk or heckle during my shows before, but it’s the first time I ever addressed it from the stage.  I was giving them the full Julia Sugarbaker and I kind of liked it.  

After the show, several people came up to me and told me how rude they thought that group was.  They were rude, but you, and by you, I mean I, you have to be ready for events like that to occur when you step up on that stage.  It’s what you’re signing up for.  Also after the show, the drunk ring leader came up to me and asked if he could have a minute of my time.  My friend Linda was there and as I stuttered with “uhhh” she told him that whatever he had to say, he could say right there to all of us.  Then he started to launch into something about how my words from the stage made him feel.  And then, Linda cut him off and said, “Minute’s up, you’re done.”  And then his friends pulled him away.  

I realized as he was standing there, that I wasn’t mad at him at all.  He hadn’t ruined my set, it wasn’t great to begin with.  Also, as I said, I was proud of myself for shouting out, in essence, “I don’t want to be treated like that.”  My daily life is filled with experiences where I have to nod and say yes when I want to say no, where the person I’m talking to deserves to be told no.  But tonight, it went a little differently. And somewhere in the midst there is a lesson in forgiveness, forgiving myself and forgiving others. Sometimes, usually, it’s a process, and every once in a while, it is instantaneous.

Ray Barnhart Likes Girls

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since I posted this video. This is from a night I produced called Ray Barnhart Likes Girls. Five of my favorite storytellers (Sarah Taylor, Rebecca O’Brien, Amy Scribner, Traci Swartz and Linda Bailey Walsh) joined me to share tales of the relationship between gay men and their straight female counterparts. It was a fun night and the rush I felt at the end of the evening I still carry with me. My best friend Michele is still my best friend Michele and it’s exciting to think about how much her life has changed since 2008. She is the busy mother of two toddlers, at least one of whom has inherited his parents’ performing gene. Her husband Stan is no longer new on the scene and he has turned out to be as special as I suspected he might be. And me, my life has changed in a few ways, too, but I’m still the kind of guy who can spend a Friday night in front of the computer drinking chardonnay, eating pizza rolls and reliving a favorite memory.