Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On DeMark

Jeff DeMark is a unique presence in the North Coast stage ecology.  He's a storyteller who creates an entire show.  At first, inspired by the likes of Spalding Gray, his shows were mostly stories from his life, punctuated with a little music: Writing My Way Out of Adolescence, Went to Lunch, Never Returned;  Hard As the Diamond, Soft as the Dirt; They Ate Everything But Their Boots. He still does these from time to time.

 In recent years however he's increased the musical component, working with  established bands or a band he organized.  Sometimes there's been a theme, titled That Train Has Sailed, or The Thong Remains the Same.

At times he's put together an evening that I once referred to as tending towards something like a North Coast Home Companion. That came to a kind of fruition this past summer, when he played to a large, enthusiastic crowd in the Big Hammer Tent at Dell'Arte as part of the 2014 Mad River Festival. He hosted various musicians and other storytellers, with a house band and his own stories as well, with the general theme of summer.  They repeated the show at the Arcata Playhouse.

The Jeff DeMark label in the list over there to the right leads to mentions that suggest the range of venues and configurations of these shows over the years.  I was inspired to write at length about memories inspired by one performance of the baseball show at Ferndale Rep.  I mention that the shows are worth seeing more than once since new things jump out of you.  And that did happen when I saw this show again at the Arcata Theatre.  But there's also the pleasure of hearing again a story you really liked the first time.

Plus, as Jeff will tell you, every show is a little different.  Maybe he'll try something new, the musicians involved change things, but often it's the audience, and the interchange with them that makes a difference.  Most often (when I've been there) that's been a big positive, and Jeff has told me of other shows that were even better.  Sometimes it's mixed, as in this case which I wrote about briefly, and Jeff added a comment.

Of a 2008 appearance I wrote:  On a recent Saturday night, Jeff DeMark brought his particular brand of storytelling to an overflow crowd at the Muddy Cup in Arcata. He told some new stories along with selections from his fully-formed shows, accompanied by the UKExperience ukulele band. The combination was often magical.

DeMark’s stories are funny and sometimes poignant, and they seem to touch a chord with the local audience as shared experience and nostalgia. But they also penetrate with a poetic humanity, and this versatile ensemble of two ukes, electric bass and drums added to all these effects, but particularly the warmth. Some of the stories were a little rough in presentation but the final one perfectly summed up the potential of this combination.

 DeMark’s story about giving his mother her first marijuana high (at her request) was hilarious, backed at one point by the marching chords of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Then the images of his mother the day after, relaxed and liberated into a youthful freedom, dancing to her favorite recording of Patsy Cline, got just the right accent from the band playing "I Fall To Pieces" as DeMark remarked that he never saw her happier than on that day. 

Somewhere I wrote about a re-telling of his first show: By turns broadly comedic and then quite serious, Writing My Way Out of Adolescence tells stories of growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, including surreal encounters with a one-eyed nun, stealing a car and sneaking into a nudist camp, and a long psychedelic journey that is filled with humor and some real danger. 

 “When I wrote this show it was like a band making their first album---I packed in every thing I could, all these wild, funny and disturbing events from adolescence and interlaced them with as much passion and humor as I could summon, “ DeMark said. “At the end I realized I was so lucky to grow up in a close family. I might not have survived without that love and I mean that quite literally.” 

At another point I noted: There's really nobody like Jeff anywhere, every show is a new experience, even for his devoted fans who never miss him. There's no doubt however that Jeff is a popular and maybe even legendary figure on the North Coast, and doubtless back on his home grounds of Wisconsin as well.  It's a truism in writing that the more specific you are, the more universal the effect. Unlike a lot of truisms, this is often true.  It's true in Jeff's case.  It's fun to be in an audience that laughs at the humor but also smiles when an experience Jeff describes reminds them of something, perhaps long forgotten, in their own lives. (The music cues help, too.)

Jeff premiered one of his formal solo shows on my reviewing watch, in 2006, before I started writing on this blog.  What follows is a preview and interview, followed by the review afterwards.  It's still hard to describe in a label what his "funny art" is, but one key to the differences might be that his performances evolved not from comedy clubs or open stages but from poetry readings.

It's A Funny Art   Oct. 30, 2006

It’s a funny art, Jeff Demark says. It doesn’t even have a name—is it comedy? Monologue? Storytelling? It’s usually just called a one-person show, although in his upcoming performance, there will be a band (tiny tim) performing live music and sound effects on stage with him.

 But even when he’s the only one up there, other characters appear. By the second half of his first show, Writing My Way Through Adolescence, which he recently performed at the Muddy Cup, audiences can all but see the stage crowded with a dozen people.

 DeMark’s new show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots will debut at a KHSU fundraiser on November 11 at the Bayside Grange. When we talked last week, he was frantically putting together the entire event (his day job is as KHSU Underwriting Coordinator), which meant lining up the food and drink, dealing with the logistics of his show and the appearance of the Delta Nationals to cap the evening, among other things. As well as writing his show.

 Two weeks before its scheduled premiere, the show was about three-quarters written. “To a Dell’Arte person, that’s plenty of time,” Jeff quipped. “To anybody else it’s, are you out of your mind?”

 “I have to write it all down, to get the details I need, the finer images, the sharper colors,” he explained. “I write way too much, and then I have to boil it down to the essentials.”

This new show is about the process of buying a house in Humboldt County and remodeling it. “But it goes beyond that—what is home? What is home to you? I did a lot of drifting before I ended up here.”

 Apart from a lot of jobs in a lot of places (including a stint in the original In-Sink-erator factory in his hometown of Racine, Wisconsin), DeMark’s journey to this show began with poetry readings in Madison in 1974. His poems tended towards the narrative, and the more he told stories, the more comfortable he felt.

 “Telling stories was a natural part of life where I grew up,” he recalled. “Maybe it was the long winters, but people would drink beer and play cards and tell stories. My father was a great storyteller.”

 But it wasn’t until somebody from Dell’Arte heard him at a Jambalaya poetry reading that he got the opportunity to write a whole show. It wasn’t so rushed that time—he had six weeks to write the second half—but when he performed that first show at the 1993 Mad River Festival to a sellout crowd, he knew he found something.

“I’d been kicking around for 19 years—I just wanted to finish something—I wanted to make something I could stand behind and say, this is a completed work. So then I had one. Now, do I have two? Maybe I could do another one.”

 But besides creating, there was performing—and that was another home he had to find. Fortunately, he got some very good advice. “A friend of mine was in the music business—Danny Kahn, he manages Roseanne Cash now. He said, ‘you’ve got to go out there like a band and play. Do everything you can until you’re comfortable, so when someone asks you what you do, you can say, ’I do these shows.’ You don’t say, ‘Well, I’m trying to do them’ or ‘I’m hoping to do them.’ Not that you’re going to be famous or make money, but when you can just say you do them, then you’re there.’”

So he performed in bars, folk clubs, coffee shops and a combination theatre and bowling alley in Minnesota. “I played places no other theatre artist does, because if I waited for a theatre to book me, I would never get enough experience. I had to do 25 shows a year rather than four.”

 Since 1993, DeMark has created and performed five shows to general acclaim in Humboldt, but this will be his first new one since 2002. Like the others, it’s autobiographically-based, which is a tricky form, because it has to have room for invention and craft but it has to be true, at least emotionally.

 Though DeMark has changed some facts and included stories that happened to other people, he knows there’s a line he can’t cross. “If the audience thinks you’re lying up there, you’re done for. If they think you’re just making this up to be cute, then you’re in trouble.”

As for finishing this show, “Fortunately I have a lot of people helping me.” As seems typical for DeMark, that includes a dramatics teacher, Cathy Butler, and his old friend Larry in Madison. Then on show day, another friend told him, “all you have to do is prepare your heart for great joy.” So will Jeff DeMark pull together his show in time? Come out to the Bayside Grange on November 11 and find out, and I’ll meet you back here after.

"Did I Finish It?" November 2006

Orion's Belt seemed bolted atop the dark trees along Jacoby Creek Road on Saturday's clear, crisp night, as an exhausted Jeff DeMark asked me, "Did I finish it?"

That was essentially the question this column ended with last time, as DeMark  was working on his latest one-person show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots, for its first-ever performance at the Bayside Grange Saturday evening.

What helped get it done, he said after the performance, was rehearsing with what he referred to as "the band," which was mostly two guys with ukuleles (Tom Chan and Matt Knight) who nevertheless pulled off a credible version of the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic guitar classic, "The Wind Cried Mary." They also doubled as sound effects technicians.

 Music punctuated the show at the break and at the end (when DeMark joined in on guitar for a bit of Dylan's "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest") and provided an extra dimension to his tale of working construction on Fred Flintstone's house in an Arizona theme park, with a parody of a tune his building crew rewrote from its incessant radio play (America's "A Horse With No Name.")

Afterwards DeMark mentioned the struggle to get the details right, and this -- the song on the radio, the kind of candy bar -- is a key to bringing the stories to life.

 One of DeMark's goals for this show was to tell favorite stories he hadn't told before, and the capacity crowd at the Bayside Grange was with him for every word, not only laughing but shrieking and sighing.

 It helped that his main subject, the process of buying and remodeling a house in Humboldt, was an experience much of the audience seemed to have in common. But by now it's also a personal relationship -- the audience knows him, and was willing to follow him almost anywhere.

Partly that seems to be because, in one way or another, he speaks for them: His stories are variations of their stories. They responded not only to the ruefully comic but to the emotional and even mystical meaning of home.

DeMark moved around and used the stage well (with hanging doors and windows on a set created by artist Michelle McCall-Wallace), though transitions were rough -- clearly this was a first presentation. With its responses, the audience on Saturday suggested areas where it wanted to go, which should help DeMark as he hones this show. Some of the stories he told may not remain in it, so the Grange audience heard what other audiences may not. Which also means that as the show changes even people who were there will be eager to see it again.

Afterword: In fact this show did change. After several more performances, he went back to it in 2010 and told me, “I’ve edited parts of it, I wrote a new ending and generally just tried to find the truth and humor in it. I’ve realized it’s really about things other than the search for a house, though that is certainly in it, and the whole process and madness of rehabilitating a 100-year-old Victorian. It’s about the journey of trying to find a place to fit in, to feel home, and with that comes a lot of feeling of destiny, luck or lack of luck. There are thoughts about synchronicity and how little logic has to do with our lives as compared to chance and fortune.”

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