Eric Bogosian on the Art of the Monologue
The legendary monologuist shares his thoughts on the one-person form as he brings ''100 (Monologues)'' to Labyrinth Theatre Company.
To many audience members today, Eric Bogosian is best known for his four-season run as Captain Danny Ross on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Yet Bogosian is far more than just that. Mention his name in theater circles and you'll quickly remember that this Obie- and Drama Desk Award-winning writer/performer is one of the truly legendary monologuists of his time.
With Labyrinth Theatre Company at the Bank Street Theatre, Bogosian is returning to his old stomping grounds to celebrate the release of his new book, 100, a collection of works originally performed as part of his six off-Broadway shows. The lineup for the stage version of 100 (Monologues) changes nightly and includes excerpts from his works like Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll; Pounding Nails in the Floor with my Forehead; and Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, among others.
TheaterMania caught up with Bogosian to discuss his thoughts on an art form so near and dear to his heart.
Tell me about the genesis of 100 (Monologues).
Eric Bogosian: Last year, I don't know why I was doing this, but I decided to count all of the monologues I had done back in the day. I guess it was about ninety-eight or ninety-nine. I called up my publishers at TCG, who publishes all of them as individual books, and I said why don't we make it into one book? We started planning for this book to come out, which is going to [happen] in three weeks. Unfortunately, it's not exactly the right timing [to coincide with the production].
Concurrent with that…I know a lot of really wonderful actors, my friends in the city. I play poker with a bunch of guys who are generally amazing actors, and I wanted to create a project they could work on. I don't know who I asked, Bobby Cannavale or someone, and I said "What do you think of doing one of my monologues?" [So] I'm filming all of these monologues with all of these actors doing them themselves, and it's going to be on a dedicated website that opens at the beginning of January. So far, it's been excruciatingly wonderful.
Does your "set list" vary night to night?
Eric Bogosian: The idea was, along with the publication of the book, that I'd do some readings. I do about a dozen a night. I change the program slightly, depending on how I feel that night or as I'm up there. Last night, I could feel some of the people were a bit skittish, so I did more [to make them feel even more skittish].
Is that frequent in cozy spaces like the Bank Street Theatre?
Eric Bogosian: It's interesting to be at Labyrinth, because when I first started doing these solos a long time ago, I was performing in small spaces. An audience in a very small place is different from a three-hundred-, four-hundred-seat theater. The uncomfortability quotient goes way up. I'm right there; I'm only a few feet away from people. It brings me back to that vibe. I didn't want to sell this as a performance. These are not the original staging that Jo Bonney did... I want people to come and feel like they got their money's worth.
Is there monologue in resurgence today? There seem to be a lot of them popping up.
Eric Bogosian: The monologue always appeals to producers — let's be clear about that. Anything that has a limited number of performers [is appealing], and you can't get smaller than one performer. The producers would like to have nobody up there. [laughs] There's always room for [monologues]. I had been writing all sorts of big, crazy, huge plays that no one had seen in the seventies. I used all of my money to [produce], and the monologue was a way for me [not to]. There are practical reasons why monologues work.
Eric Bogosian: Direct-address creates an intense relationship with the audience. I wanted my theater to be as intense as possible. It does get people going when you look right at them. The monologues that I did, the idea of an entire group of monologues coming together as a piece, I didn't invent that. Lily Tomlin did that on Broadway before me. Whoopi was doing that in '84. Spalding Gray succeeded, and Mike Daisey stays with the idea. The themes kind of died away and it became Look at all these characters this talented actor can do. It became a showcase, which kills the form. I don't want to see a show that's going to be a showcase of some actor being funny. I shouldn't say I overcame that, because over the years I learned to be funny. I did always think about the whole show as a "theme show." There are shows that are one person, but they're not in fragments, like Mark Twain Tonight! That's a completely other kind of thing.
You mentioned Spalding Gray. Was his work influential on yours?
Eric Bogosian: Spalding was an extremely fascicle stage actor. I saw the first of those shows and the last of those shows. He was dealing with some very tiny things that were hard to do. It took Jo and I a long time to get as much into that one monologue. I would write many that never made it to the stage. You want that piece to hold a lot of different kinds of information. And there has to be something about it that has to be watchable.
And if it's not watchable…
Eric Bogosian: So much of it is just boring. Keep me interested. That's another reason why I like the little fragments; in three minutes there will be another one. Some of my stuff, I didn't realize until I started doing these shows again, it's got a nasty edge to it. There's a lot of overt blue imagery to it. That may not be to somebody's taste, but I can't do anything about that.
You can feel them react to it?
Eric Bogosian: I can feel them being shocked. But if I have my friends there, we don't think about that. We like spicy sauce and that's what tastes good to us. [I'm asked,] Am I gonna keep shocking? I wasn't trying to shock anyone in the first place. I really believe that theater is based in community. Your audience is as much an author [as you are]…[But] I don't expect my work to be done in China. Bizarrely, this work has been done all over the world. There's a guy coming to the matinée who did the show in Italy for years. I'd get royalty checks. Bulgaria just celebrated its twentieth anniversary of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. There are people who've come to the show in Bulgaria on a date, got married, and now their kids are seeing it.
As an author, that must be wonderful.
Eric Bogosian: I always like the idea that other people could do these things. When stuff is done in other countries, it reads differently. When they get produced in former Communist Bloc countries, they read completely differently. I have a lot of stuff about capitalism. It's the rich people being s*itty to poor people. When you do that stuff in Poland, they're really listening to that indictment of the capitalist system.
I find that so fascinating. They seem so uniquely American to me.
Eric Bogosian: When I started doing my solos here, they were incredibly unpopular. I'd perform for three people and people would walk out all the time. At the time, I got brought over to England by an impresario and I toured. I'd get a hundred dollars. I played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it was very popular over there. When Luca was doing it in Italy, they flew me over for a press conference. One of the questions was, "Mr. Bogosian, what does American society think about your commentary?" What does American society think about my commentary? I work in theater. Nobody's thinking about my commentary at all.