Monday, September 02, 2019

Rodney DeCroo: Didn't Hurt at the Vancouver Fringe Festival

I saw a preview screening of Rodney DeCroo's Didn't Hurt at Havana last February. I thought it was remarkable. A piece of spoken, autobiographical storytelling, it offered harrowing insights into DeCroo's childhood, the backstory to much of his PTSD, and the other impacts the abuse he underwent had on his later life. DeCroo sometimes assumed the voice and demeanor of the child he was in some of his recollections, often doing something closer to acting than "spoken word;" but mostly it seemed like a piece of autobiographical writing that was being performed. The only parallel I could think of was Bukowski's Ham on Rye, but while Bukowski's stories had a sort of self-romanticizing edge to them - the sort of stories a drunk might tell at a bar to convince you to buy him a drink - Rodney's purposes seemed more moral, more ambitious, more healthy than that.

I don't want to say much more about the subject matter of the performance - which was considerably richer than I'm letting on - but I highly recommend catching it during its upcoming Vancouver run, opening September 5th at the Cultch. DeCroo has been touring North America with the show; we discussed how it has evolved as a result, below. There's going to be other local press which might give more insight into the content of the piece, if that's what you want; I personally was glad to see it knowing only of Rodney through his songs and a couple of past interviews (here and here; I had actually considered titling that "Of Poetry, Pain, Shit and Survival," but left out the shit out of fear that my editors would snip it anyhow; I'd rather cut my own writing up than have it cut for me). I hope my questions, and Rodney's answers, will speak for themselves, and that you'll accept my urging: if you like storytelling or theatre or theatrical storytelling; if you appreciate people laying themselves bare in their art; or if you simply are a Rodney DeCroo fan, Didn't Hurt is a must see. Facebook page here.... 

AM: Curious - since the Havana preview, you have gotten, I am sure, a lot of feedback. Have you changed anything as a result? If so, why?

RD: Surprisingly, the script has remained mostly intact since the preview. Well, the structure- the overall arc of the story- has stayed the same. But there has been a tightening process. I've cut a fair number of lines. [Director] TJ Dawe encouraged me to do that. Mostly because I'm locked into a 75 minute time slot. The more you do a show and settle into it it sometimes takes longer to perform. So you need to cut more.  I looked for places where I unnecessarily repeated myself and got rid of them. And I cut lines that weren't crucial to the central needs of the story. I think, like in a poem or a song, compression is a good thing. It makes the piece more potent. The more focused I am, the fewer words I use to make a point then the greater the impact of the content. If I don't tighten, then it becomes more diffuse, weaker.  But the story itself hasn't changed much. 

My performances however are much different from the preview performance. It takes time, it takes a lot of shows, to drop into the text. The words are in my body now. I'm not searching for them. They're tied to my breath and my impulse life. The text is moving me around now, I'm not trying to control it. I'm constantly surprised onstage by new discoveries, but I don't try to repeat them (well, when I'm on my game I don't) I just let the text do its work. So there are nuances and subtleties that emerge from the story (hopefully) that weren't there before. Also, the show has become more buoyant the last few times I performed it. Because I'm embodying several traumatic experiences it made the show quite heavy seeming- literally- like I was traversing a swamp. I could feel it in the room. It was an emotionally humid presence that saturated the theater. Which was okay, it was true to the content we were exploring as performer and audience, but that has lightened. It's still there but it's much less. It's like we're on dry land now. But our destination is the same. The impact of the story hasn't changed. But it feels like the way we get there isn't quite as heavy. I'm noticing more laughter in the bits that are humorous and new places where people laugh, they seem to enjoy the excitement and enthusiasm of the young Rodney more when I play myself as a child, etc. And this has also lessened the toll the show has on me. Man, these things are hard to explain, but they're there, they're real. 

How has touring a theatrical piece been different from touring as a musician? How have audiences been different? Did you also do any music on the road? How many dates was it? 

When I tour musically it's usually me and a few other musicians driving a van around Canada. We're in a different town and different club every night. We often don't crash until after three A.M. and we get up anywhere between eight A.M. and noon depending on how many hours it takes to drive to the next gig. The drives vary from three to ten hours. When we get to the venue we load all our gear in and sound check, set up merchandise tables, eat, find where we're staying which can range from not bad to awful hotels to couches in somebody's trailer, etc. This is what we do every day and every night with slight variations for two or three weeks, sometimes longer. So it's exhausting mentally, physically and emotionally. And because we're always rushing we eat fast food or hit diners. And a lot of musicians drink hard to take the edge off but that only takes a bigger toll ultimately.  It's a horrible way to live, but we get to play every night and when we're playing well and the shows are good the other stuff is bearable. Oh did I also mention we don't make much money?

In comparison the Fringe tour I just completed was a breeze. I was out for nearly four months which is a long time, but each festival was twelve to fourteen days. So I could create some order and patterns. I didn't really make money doing this either, but my needs were mostly met. And I got to sleep normal hours in the same bed for a couple weeks at a time. The hard part was being billeted; I was always staying in someone's house. That's a grind after awhile, but still much easier than a band tour. I was also able to buy groceries and cook so I wasn't eating crap nearly as much as I would on the road. And I could get to a gym to exercise. In Toronto I was able to take Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes and spar several times because my old coach lives there. So I was less stressed, eating better and staying healthy, well, road healthy. I find it difficult to nearly impossible to adhere to any strict regimens while touring. The stress is too much and I often cave and eat bad food or stay up too late. Also, I only had to take care of me. I didn't have to search for band mates or argue with them about what time we're leaving, etc. Though if I'm honest I'm usually the one that caused problems because my PTSD acts up big time when I'm under so much stress. And then I feel ten times worse for being a head case. So the Fringe tour was much easier than a music tour. 

At first its easy to say theatre audiences and music audiences are a lot different. But I think it's the venues that create the differences. When I play a concert in a theatre it's similar to performing a play. Everyone is focused on the show. That allows the musicians to connect with the audience and get something back from them and they usually play their best. When people come to the theatre they expect to listen. They've come for the show. And they've usually paid a lot more for a ticket too. But if you're a musician at my level, you're playing in mostly in bars and clubs with the odd theatre or festival gig. So people are loud, they often talk over you, they're drunk, they're trying to get laid, they got a lot of other things they're thinking about. They're not there for the show. I've been doing it for awhile so I do have fans that come out to hear me. And there are always people who come for the music or people you win over. But bar gigs aren't easy. And the bars themselves often treat you shitty. They don't care about the music, they want to sell drinks, the band is an after thought. But I will say I prefer playing to theatre audiences because it's almost always a much better experience. I mean, the audience gives themselves entirely over to the show. They don't interrupt you. No one talks, no one comes in late or leaves- though there are exceptions. You can dig into the work, really hold the space and connect with the audience which is an intoxicating experience, it's fucking addictive. It's kind of like a ritual in theatre. There's a spell that gets created, there's magic. But concerts under the right circumstances can be the same. And I've had incredible nights performing in bars. You never know. But I prefer theatre.

Yes, I did do some music gigs on the road, but only in Calgary where I played three for some reason. I played one show at the Ironwood Stage and Grill which I love. I've had some incredible shows there over the years. Pat Macintyre, the owner, has created a venue where it's all about the music and the musicians. They do everything right from the easiness of the load in, to the way the staff treat you, the  great sound guys, the quality of the sound, the great stage, the wonderful free meals they provide, etc. I love playing there. It was a slow night because it was a last minute gig but we still had an audience and I got to play with a guitarist named Joe McCaffery. That was great. I've wanted to play with Joe since he came into the studio while Lorrie and I recorded Old Tenement Man  and he played on my song "The Barrel had a Dark Eye." And I got to hear Lorrie Matheson perform a set of his songs which I loved. The second gig was at the Blues Can. It was a different vibe altogether. The sound man was a lazy prick who hates his job and shits on musicians. I nearly got into it with him. There was a bigger audience but also a lot of people were there just to drink and hang out with friends, so they talked over the show. It sucked. I also played a feature set at the Ship n' Anchor Saturday afternoon jam.  The sound man was okay and the management treated us fine, but I couldn't get into it. The other featured band that played before us was way too loud and were pretty shit. It was fronted by a young woman who clearly thought she's on the fast track to corporate rock stardom. Fuck me, I'd rather punch myself in the groin repeatedly than deal with that crap. But as always I did my best to disappear into the songs. I gave myself over to them as much as I could, listened to Joe and played my best. And when you do that, assuming your songs aren't total garbage, there are always people who are drawn in, who listen and care. Those are the people I play for at gigs. The thing is, my songs are always about the lyrics, the poetry. When I have a full band it's easier to get through those kind of gigs because you're louder and there's more going on onstage to break through to them. But when I'm playing either alone or with one other musician in that kind of environment it's tough because people aren't there for you. Though I've had incredible gigs in those settings too where the room goes silent and magic happens. I will say that if Joe and I had played onstage in a theatre both our performances and the audiences would've been much much better. Give me a theatre audience over a bar gig any time. 

Has your relationship to the piece changed after having performed it? When I saw it at Havana, there were some really raw moments, as I recall, where you had to pause to gather yourself (maybe some of those were cintrolled/ acted, but it did not seem that way) . Does performing it several times make it easier or harder for you? Did you learn anything from the experience?  

I've performed the show forty times now. I know it much better than I did than when I previewed it.  On the most basic level I know my lines now. And I've made a ton of discoveries. I've been living with it for four months. The only way this really works is time. You have to perform a show a lot of times to get it. You can't hurry that process, there are no short cuts.  In that preview there were moments I had to gather myself. I was stressed because I barely knew my lines and I felt lost sometimes. I wasn't sure where I was in the story. That kind of stuff happens in a preview no matter how many times I've rehearsed. The adrenaline is going to hit me because it's my first time onstage with that material for an audience. So the stress caused the most traumatic moments to hit me harder than I expected. I had to grab the chair to pause and collect myself a few times. But I wasn't out of control.  I just needed a moment to steady myself before I could continue. I'm familiar with the terrain now. It's like say skiing. I've been down this run many times. I know it inside and out. I can let go and enjoy myself. And even if there is a surprise I'm ready because my skills are sharp because I've been onstage night after night. 

Yes, I've learned many things about the show. I don't like to talk about them too much though. I want to save it for the stage. When I talk about those things too much it takes away from the performances. I've also learned things about myself. I've always resisted the idea that I had a responsibility for the audience beyond doing the show to the best of my ability. I'm willing to be vulnerable onstage and to connect with audiences but I've avoided connecting with people offstage with the exception of my friends of course. But I noticed that people were getting triggered sometimes by the content of this show. And I could feel the tension that created in the theatre. So I decided to talk to the audiences before the show. 

Now I tell them that I have Complex PTSD and I revisit deeply traumatic experiences in some of the stories and if they're triggered or deeply uncomfortable it's absolutely okay for them to leave. And I let them know that I'm not overwhelmed onstage. That even in the most intense moments I'm in control, I'm acting, I'm using technique. For lack of a better term I give them a trigger warning. I think having permission to leave makes it easier to stay. They don't feel trapped. But I really think it's making the connection with them before the show starts that allows them to trust me. They get a sense of me as opposed to a character. I think this helps immensely. I also stand by the door and say goodbye to each person. A lot of people hug me. Some people cry.  I've come to love it. I look forward to it. I get to thank them and close the circle with them before they leave. I feel like I'm saying hey, I'm honored that you took this trip with me, that you allowed me into your life for this last hour and let me tell you my story. Before I'd just go backstage and hide unless they're were friends I wanted to see. But I can't imagine doing that now. I feel I have a greater responsibility to the audience.  TJ Dawe encouraged me to allow this to happen. He told me people would want to connect with me more because of the nature of this piece. He was right and I'm glad I listened to him. Also, I've always been way too worried about the number of tickets sold, the finances etc. Which makes sense because if you don't worry about those things you can't finance tours. But TJ encouraged me to focus on the experience of being with an audience as I perform the piece. Of really immersing myself as deeply as I could into the text, into the stories and bringing that across to the audiences. He kept telling me success was creating a great show,  creating moments of intense vulnerability and truth,  of connecting deeply with the audience, that it wasn't measured in ticket sales. Eventually I heard him and put my focus there. And because of that I'm feeling the incredible magic and privilege of what I'm allowed to do. There are very few things like it. 

Can you take us through some of the best, most useful, most interesting or complimentary feedback/ reviews you got... And the worst?

Aw man, I don't know. I'm kind of tired of talking about reviews. I'm grateful for the good ones. They help me sell the show. But honestly I can't say I've learned anything from them this time around. I've learned way more talking to audience members and hearing their impressions. And of course, the feedback from other artists is often helpful. But TJ Dawe had the biggest impact on the piece during and after our rehearsals. After that it was what I've discovered while mostly being onstage. TJ cautioned me against paying to much attention to reviews. He said don't let the reviewers get in your head, don't let them direct the show. We've gone through a process, we've created something that we're taking out into the world. Don't start changing it because of what critics say. And he's absolutely right. 

Though I'd be lying if I didn't say a good review doesn't make me feel something. They make me feel good. And bad reviews hurt. They can really hurt. And not all critics are equal. Colin Thomas here in Vancouver wrote a nice recommendation last week for my show on his blog based mostly on the number of good reviews I've received, he hasn't seen the show. But he also cautioned against trusting critics if you don't know their work. Some critics don't know shit about the art form. They really don't. There's a part time reviewer for the CBC in Winnipeg. He said some pretty ignorant things about the show. I think they hire him during the Fringe because they don't have enough critics to cover the shows. His review pissed me off because he wrote nothing about my show. It was all about him. He couldn't handle the content.  If it's not a Shakespeare mash-up or a comedy he trashes it. And he knows nothing about the craft of acting. Why would I want to give his opinions any credence? They mean nothing to me, but the fact that he hurt my houses through his ineptitude did bother me. Alex Dallas - she's a tremendous artist, a real pro- gave me some great feedback after seeing my show in Orlando. She recommended that I make more of an effort to connect with audiences before and after the show. I didn't quite take her advice right away, for reasons I mentioned earlier. But then I saw Stephanie Morin-Robert greeting her audience before her show and saying goodbye to them at the end. Watching her do this really struck me and reminded me of what Alex had said. So I changed things up. But I try not to give critics too much ability to impact what I do onstage. I do learn things from the good ones but that's for future reference. I don't alter my shows for them. I will say that with the exception of the CBC reviewer in Winnipeg I got universally positive reviews. NOW Magazine picked Didn't Hurt as an Outstanding New Play at the Toronto Fringe. I enjoyed that a lot. I did get a lot of emails and Facebook messages from people who saw the show. They were beautiful. One woman sent me a heartfelt poem she'd written about her own experiences with trauma based on a line from the play. Others sent me long messages telling me that the show moved them deeply. Those messages make me feel like wow, I'm touching other people. They can relate to my innermost feelings and memories. That's powerful stuff. I'm not alone. That's the stuff I take with me. 

Where do you go from here with the material? Any thought of filming it, adapting it for a book , touring it elsewhere, or...? 

I've had no thoughts of filming it. I mean, we're going to videotape a performance but that's more for archival purposes. And I've no desire to adapt it for a book. That doesn't appeal to me. Probably because I don't think I could do a good job and I'm lazy.  A book would be too much work!  I've had some informal discussions about taking it to Scotland. I'd love to do that. Moniack Mhor - a writers' centre in the Highlands- gave me a poet-in-residency gig last March. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had. I loved just walking through the forests and roads in the hills working on lines in my head.  I walked for hours. I've never felt so at ease and at home in my life. And the people at the centre were wonderful. I miss it all the time. So I hope maybe I can go back and do the show over there. Also I might do the play at Lip Fest in Lago, Nigeria in October. But I haven't received a formal offer from them so who knows. If it happens I'll be thrilled.

Didn't Hurt opens September 5th, at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, at 1895 Venables, and runs through to September 15th. To buy tickets, go here.  For more information on Didn't Hurt - written and performed by Rodney DeCroo and directed by TJ Dawe - see the Facebook event page here...

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