At a time when we’re all bombarded by various and compelling forms of social media, it turns out that true stories, artfully crafted and verbally shared, have the power to alter people’s lives. “I was surprised,” Novak continues. “My monologue about gender issues: It was a hard story for me to tell people; I struggled with it – but then people responded with examples of how they could relate. You tell it, and you see how universal these stories are.”
The outgrowth of a fundraising effort to benefit Hope’s Fund, TMI was created a few years ago by Eva Tenuto. She had directed Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, and had previously done a one-woman show herself. “The idea of doing our own stories, writing our own monologues emerged,” she says, “and it seemed that the audience got really charged by hearing people tell the truth in a way that I hadn’t experienced in other projects I’d done. After that first year, we decided to do it again.”
Partnering with Sari Botton, a memoirist/essayist, and improv leader Novak, Tenuto developed a writing workshop for the purpose of producing a show. “We didn’t know what the title was, what the through-line was. It was all about telling the part of the story we don’t normally tell people. The second time around (this past year) we had much more intention, knowing what we wanted to get out of people in terms of helping them to develop their stories, what to extract from them.”
Botton admits that she didn’t know how it was all going to come together at first. “We came up with writing prompts, because many people didn’t think they were writers. ‘Just see what you can come up with in ten minutes, a throwaway exercise that nobody expects to be that good.’ Twelve women stuck with it, and followed it through to write/edit/stage monologues. And it became a show.”
Each woman started with something that had happened to her, and then transformed it into a story, which in turn transforms her audience and herself. Tenuto calls it a ripple effect that comes from women getting comfortable writing their words down and having confidence in their stories. “We go through an editing process, take away the extra. It’s a phase of letting go of how they’ve been telling it, letting new material develop. The result is the difference between writing a journal and producing a work of art. Things come up: shame, fear; but people are moved by bravery to tell the truth, to put a real story forward.”
Novak says, “There’s something you get in return: Something shifts in your life; maybe after years of therapy, years of talking about it, even, you begin to find your voice. Those things for which you might feel shame, after writing and sharing, you actually celebrate.” Tenuto describes having her 94-year-old grandmother come to the shows and hear stuff that would be really uncomfortable to hear in a one-on-one conversation. In fact, attending a TMI performance often generates more intimate conversations. “I’m blown away at how touched the audience is,” she says, “people standing in the lobby crying, they feel that they’re so opened up from hearing our truth. We hear ‘On the way home my husband/partner talked about…’”
A new 12-week session of the TMI Monologue Workshop will begin on Sunday, October 9 and run through Sunday, January 8, meeting every designated week from 3 to 6 p.m. at Canaltown Alley in Rosendale. Each three-hour workshop will include writing exercises, improv and warm-up exercises, sharing your writing, gentle guidance to probe for the parts of the story that you leave out, editing and shaping the story into a monologue to be performed onstage – all taking place in a safe space with lots of laughing, crying and bonding with other courageous storytellers. The culmination of this session will be the next production of TMI, to be staged in February 2012.
Tenuto says that no one is required to perform, but so far nobody has decided not to. Everyone who commits herself to the process gets up onstage in the end and exposes ten minutes of her personal history with an audience of friends and strangers. “When we share the secret truths burning in our souls, we unburden ourselves while paving the way for greater understanding and acceptance, at both the individual and community levels.” The cost for the TMI Monologue Workshop is $295.
Meanwhile, the three women are setting up Starling Productions with not-for-profit status, thanks in part to a small grant that they received from Hope’s Fund. “We want to tour TMI, share the process, show people how to do it,” says Tenuto. “We want to be booked at colleges next year, and we have this idea for a True Stories project for young people, to help work on anti-bullying and racism awareness campaigns. Eventually we want to bring it to community organizations for people who could really benefit from telling their stories, like prisons and shelters. It seems like everything is falling into place pretty amazingly.”
Starling Productions has also recently launched a story slam that they’re calling TMIdol, an informal evening of shorter, unrehearsed, unworkshopped monologues that the producers have never heard before. Anyone can sign up to read a five-minute tale crafted from a predetermined topic. TMIdol is held in a local restaurant or bar, adding to the slam element, and at the end of each event, the audience votes to determine which reader should be featured in the annual TMIdol showcase at the end of the year.
Again, the objective is to get people telling their true stories. Novak says, “They don’t have to be funny. It helps to have some comic relief, but if the work is powerful enough, it speaks for itself. The atmosphere is supportive; it’s another way for people to grow on their journey and get validated by an audience of strangers.” The next TMIdol (in conjunction with the Woodstock Writers’ Festival and the Golden Notebook) is scheduled for Thursday, October 20 at 8 p.m. at Oriole 9, and the topic is “Pretending.”
TMI was staged at Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville in May and repeated for a sold-out show in Rosendale in June. If you missed it then or if you want to have friends experience the magic, be there when Starling Productions brings TMI back to the Rosendale Theatre this month. The last performances of this year’s workshop group will be held Friday and Saturday, September 9 and 10 at 8 p.m. each evening. Featured writers/performers include Novak, Botton, Tenuto, Patty Curry, Fatima Deen, Jessica Barry, Vincenza Dante, Marta Waterman, Stephanie Ellis, Nancy Plumer, Valerie Eagle and Brenda Eagle Davis. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/183807. For more information about this and other Starling Productions projects, call (914) 299-2363 or visit www.tmiproject.org.