First Person Singular’s Performance-Art Grab Bag

The series adds original material to its mix of re-contextualized narratives, found art, and repurposed literature.


There’s a rich tradition to the art of the found. From Marcel Duchamp’s readymades of the 1910s through today’s Found magazine, found art has a way of capturing the imagination. Often the artist (or archeo-artist, as it were) simply puts an ironic frame around an item and recontextualizes it. Found performance tends to repurpose its source material. For instance, verbatim theater encourages an audience to listen in a new way (Anna Deavere Smith does this powerfully), while found comedy takes the accidentally hilarious and shines a spotlight on it (think: Tina Fey’s verbatim reenactment of Sarah Palin).

Smarty-pants word watching has become an underground sport and another element of the growing found-art genre. Witness the cataloging of grammatical mistakes known as Chinglish (Chinese signs with unintentionally comical English translations) and collections like The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

Upcycling of poor prose for comical purposes is also a winning formula, as in Mortified, a supremely popular staged reading series that draws from the vaults of teen diaries and poetry. SF Sketchfest also loves this formula; its material is often culled, swiped, or appropriated from real life. The Sketchfest series “Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words” features funny actors reading from B-list celebrities’ life stories.

Similarly, First Person Singular, the Berkeley-based dramatic reading series, shines new lights on forgotten texts and offbeat material. The more-or-less monthly series is designed to highlight personal voice, “broadly defined.” Its theme-based readings are part spoken-word, part play, and part book reading.

Memorable found-art performances of the past include Josh Kornbluth reading Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, an acoustic performance of the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and an all-female reading of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s testosterone-soaked play. Another interesting mingling was a staged reading of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style — paired with music from Schoolhouse Rock.

On December 18, First Person Singular will again stage the unlikely in SCHMALTZ! a holiday sing-along celebrating the genius of Barry Manilow. But before that, on Monday, December 3, The Ashby Stage (1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley) hosts First Person Singular as it eschews found art (but not its spirit) by offering its first evening of all-original material in Hear Me Now: Cell Phone Monologues. Joe Christiano, the series’ producer and host, said the genre of cell-phone verbiage is suited to First Person Singular’s voice-centric tastes.

“When cell phones became a cultural phenomenon, people suddenly had license to exhibit themselves in a curious new way; with many, it became a kind of performance,” Christiano said. He calls these public displays of cell phone conversation “unsolicited public theater.” Hear Me Now aims to place it in a proper context.

The show features local performers from the solo theater and the literary worlds presenting monologues of one-sided phone conversations. The lineup includes performer/comedian Marga Gomez, novelist April Sinclair, actor and playwright Christopher Kuckenbaker, and comedian and solo theater writer-performer Alicia Dattner.

The performances will no doubt expand the genre of one-sided phone-call comedy. While phones have gotten smaller and less tethered, there haven’t been many advances in this comedic form since the 1970s, when Bob Newhart raised the telephone monologue to an art. Still, one imagines that “found” cell-phone conversations — overheard on the street or in line at the grocery store — could offer just as much comedic value.

Hear Me Now: Cell Phone Monologues plays on Monday, Dec. 3, at The Ashby Stage (1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley). $15. 510-841-6500.