Monica Bauer replays her life on stage
PITTSFIELD -- "There are important people in our lives, and we forget. We forget how we got here, and there's a moment when we remember someone special," said Monica Bauer.
For her, it was a friend from a year she spent at the Interlochen Arts Academy, in Interlochen, Mich. Her friend was the film maker Bill Sherwood, and after that year they completely lost contact until she had such a moment.
"I had met someone who was also at our year at Interlochen, and we were talking, and that's how I found out that he had died," she said. "I looked up his photo in the yearbook, and the moment I saw it I started to weep. So many memories came back." Sherwood had died of complications from AIDS in 1990, after making only one movie.
Bauer wrote and performs "The Year I Was Gifted," an autobiographical solo show, which she said she wrote because she "wanted to bring him back from the dead." The play is devoted to Sherwood's memory, and Bauer said "The gift of friendship is the real heart of the show," although it is just one meaning of the title, alongside "gifted in the arts" and other gifts.
She has been performing the show, Off-Broadway in New York and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, for a year. Starting July 23, she will take it to the Berkshires, with a series of performances at the Whitney Center for the Arts.
In the show, Bauer tells the story of her teenage year at Interlochen, an exclusive boarding school for the arts. To go to the school, Bauer had to receive a large scholarship -- more than half of her family's yearly income at the time -- which she got by making percussion one of her specialties, even though at the time she hoped to be a composer.
Once she got there, however, she began to notice that gay students kept leaving the school. She asked Sherwood, whom she calls her first gay friend, why this was, and he told her they were being outed and expelled by the school's conservative headmistress. She had to decide whether she would live her dream but forsake her convictions or vice versa.
"It's about how young people decide," said Bauer.
The show is Bauer's first fully autobiographical work, and the performance is a rarity -- she usually writes plays for others and has never acted professionally.
She expressed surprise over how easy aspects of it were.
"I was only going to do the show if I could get Bill right," she said. "But it surprised me how easy it was to get [him] right."
"Don't live for next year, Nebraska; who knows who is going to even GET a next year?" he tells her in the play. He calls her Nebraska because she's from Omaha, and every third sentence is an innuendo.
She said playing her younger self was remarkably natural. At this point, after the runs of performances in New York and Edinburgh, Bauer said "not a line is wasted." She has done rewrites after each run, and she thinks the work is now in its complete form.
Bauer emphasizes that she does not use much in the way of costume changes or indicators, which she calls "that high school thing." The show contains one costume change, taking on and off a blazer, and very little direct dialogue, which would mean more distracting back and forth.
The key to a good solo show, she said, is "to be fluid" in transitions between roles. She likes the solo work of people like Spalding Gray, Mike Birbiglia and Mike Daisey, but emphasizes that they're all very different from her show.
Along with performing, Bauer will also run a workshop to teach what she practices, also at the Whit. The workshop will occur immediately after the final show and be free to people who attend a performance. The idea is that everyone who sees the performance will have the opportunity to go to the workshop if they wish, although it is also open to those who do not see the show.
Bauer and Ghazi Kazmi, director of the Whitney Center, both said that solo shows are popular right now for their intimacy.
"There's no barrier between you and the audience," Bauer said.
In the third portion of Bauer's time at the Whit, she will show Sherwood's 1986 film "Parting Glances," which Bauer said she had not seen until her former classmate reminded her of Sherwood.
Kazmi said they are showing the film in honor of him.
Bauer calls it "the first feature film about gay men living with AIDS."
It was the only feature-length film he made, because he died four years later. The movie is well-regarded for its nuance and its early honesty in dealing with the AIDS crisis.
She said it is a wonderful film and pairs well with the play.
The Whit opened last spring and has another solo show this summer, "Heroine's Journey" by Amber Chand, who returns by popular demand. Kazmi likes both "personal, autobiographical shows" by women who had not often acted in professional theater before they wrote these pieces.
"Anyone who can be at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh has a pretty good shot they can survive here," he said. "One of the things we want to do at the Whit is to bring new blood to the town."
Bauer felt the Whit was the right place for her show, as it is a "play about young people and the arts."
"So is Pittsfield in the summer," she said.
If you go ...
What: ‘The Year I Was Gifted'
solo show by Monica Bauer
When: 7 p.m. July 23 and 24, July 30 and 31
1 p.m. July 27
2 p. m. July 26, Aug.2 and 3
Where: The Whitney Center
for the Arts, 42 Wendall Ave., Pittsfield
What: Screening of ‘Parting Glances' by Bill Sherwood
When: 3:30 p.m., July 26
Where: The Whitney Center
Admission: $10, proceeds to go to the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition
What: Solo show workshop with Monica Bauer
When: 3:30 - 5:30 p.m, Aug. 3
Where: The Whitney Center
Admission: $15, free for attendees of ‘The Year I Was Gifted'