Sunday, March 31, 2019

Q-and-A with Timothy Mooney - Part 1

Timothy Mooney

Tim Mooney writes and performs a whole stable of one-man shows. He presents his work at educational institutions and fringe festivals alike. He has written seventeen iambic pentameter verse adaptations of Moliere plays, published through PlayScripts and more recently Stage Rights. These adaptations have been produced both here in the States and internationally. They have, at this point, been produced over 150 times.  He is also the author of an acting text titled Acting At the Speed of Life: Conquering Theatrical Style, on which he also offers workshops to students. 

He has toured with his own solo plays since 2002, covering an estimated 720,000 miles, performed nearly 1000 times for hundreds of thousands of students and enthusiastic festival audiences in nearly every one of the lower 48 states, and some of Canada. Tim has produced ten different one-person plays, self-publishing the scripts of many of them. Since the early 2000s he has also meticulously recorded his adventures and sent out a newsletter called "The View From Here" to nearly 2000 followers. 

Though his not-for-profit theatre company, the Timothy Mooney Repertory Theatre, he has managed to make creating, performing and touring not just his livelihood, but his financial living as well.

In this two part interview, The Solo Performer gets some insight at how Tim got started, how he grew and evolved his operations and what keeps the solo performance veteran of the road at it.

Here is Part One...

The Solo Performer: First, let’s sketch in some background info about you, Tim. What got you interested in the theatre to begin with?

Tim Mooney: I grew up starved for attention, and found that I could get it on the stage. I made half-hearted feints at other things, but seemed to do a little more on stage every year through that critical Junior-in-High-School through Sophomore-in-College period. After that there was no looking back.

TSP:  Sketch out a sort of timeline for us. Where’d you go to undergrad? Did you study theatre there? When and where was grad school? Then you interned a few places? Is that right?

TM: Sure, a rough timeline would look kind of like this…
  • ·       Undergrad (late 70s/early 80s): Southern Illinois University (BA in Acting/Directing)
  • ·       Acting Internship (1981): Alabama Shakespeare Festival
  • ·       Grad School (1982-85): U-Nebraska (MFA in Directing)
  • ·       Directing Internship (1984-85): Milwaukee Repertory Theatre
  • ·       Teaching (Acting/Stage Movement) (1985-87): Northern Illinois University
  • ·       Directing/Literary Management Internship (1987-88): Seattle Repertory Theatre
  • ·       Teaching (Acting/Stage Movement) (1989-90): U-Nebraska
  • ·       Founded and ran The Script Review (1988-1995)
  • ·       Free Lancing (1990-1993)
  • ·       Artistic Director of Stage Two Theatre Company (Waukegan, IL) 1993-1997
  • ·       Writing Moliere Scripts: Mostly 1997-2001
  • ·       Touring around to schools, venues and fringes and presenting my shows: 2002-now

TSP: You ended up as Artistic Director of Stage Two Theatre in Waukegan, IL. What kind of work did that theater do? How do you think being AD prepared you for being the prime mover of your own operation later on?

TM: I think the fact that this was a starving theatre, just barely scraping by, prepared me for doing every damn thing that might need to be done to get the thing on. I expect that many of us one-person shows are iconoclastic visionaries who ultimately fall into the pattern of depending on the one person we know cares enough about the show to have some follow-through and make sure the thing is pulled off. Or maybe we’re just cranky sons-of-bitches

TSP:  You also founded something called The Script Review. What was that? What did you do?

TM: On my Milwaukee and Seattle Rep assignments, I had been the main “reader” of the slush pile of scripts that came in “over the transom,” and found myself frustrated by the fact that when I finally DID find a script that deserved production, the odds were still TOTALLY stacked against the playwright getting a hearing/reading/workshop/production for their play. In almost every instance, the Artistic Director had a relationship with a particular set of playwrights, and those playwrights would gobble up all of the new-play premiere slots in the calendar.

 I decided to create a newsletter that would network my manuscript reports to an audience of directors and literary managers, so that the playwright might have a better chance of reaching someone who would see their script and respond. I reviewed about 700 plays over the course of seven years and about 34 issues.

TSP:  So, according to the Are You Famous, Yet? podcast interview you did (episode 82), you took about four years off after leaving Stage Two in order to focus on writing? Why the redirect? Was this to work on adaptations of Moliere?

TM: After half a decade with Stage Two, I had produced about 50 plays, the great majority of which were original works. I was essentially making no money doing it, at least in part because original works without name recognition are hard to market and don’t bring in masses of audience. We hit upon the idea of doing Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” and I, having been doing a LOT of experimental writing at that time (including a ton of poetry), suggested that I’d like to try my hand at writing a new version of “Tartuffe” in rhymed iambic pentameter.

TSP: Iambic pentameter? Wasn’t Moliere originally written in Alexandrine couplets?

TM: Yes, he was. There has been great precedent for translating Moliere into iambic pentameter, and I kind of took the translator’s word for the suggestion that English doesn’t work in the Alexandrine Hexameter that Moliere sometimes uses as well as it works in iambic pentameter. More importantly, though, I believe the classically-trained modern American actor should have an instinctive understanding of how iambic pentameter ought to be delivered, much in the same way that a musician should immediately see how something in 4/4 time is to be performed. As for myself, it comes so naturally to me that after a night of rehearsing one of my plays, it is hard for me to BREAK OUT of speaking in iambic pentameter.

While I’m at it, one other way in which I violate Moliere’s original is that I put ALL of his plays into rhyme, even when they were originally in prose. It feels more “like Moliere” to me. (I assume that most of Moliere’s prose plays were written on a deadline, and that if he’d had a bit more time, they might have come out in verse). The audience listens to verse in a slightly different way, sitting up, waiting to hear just how that last syllable will magically pay off the minor joke that has been set up with the first line.

TSP: Makes sense. So, you were writing all these Moliere adaptations…

TM: It was one of those really exciting experiences when I found myself writing way “over my head,” pulling rhymes and double entendres out of thin air somehow.

The play got really good reviews, and I realized that my potential for making an impact on the theatrical universe (and/or making a living) was much better in chasing this new adventure of reworking the catalogue of the plays of Moliere. I wrote a dozen new versions of Moliere plays in those four years, and am now up to about 17 of them (as well as a new version of Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters”). A bunch of them have been published, and they’ve been produced over 150 times at last count.

TSP: Now, let’s talk a little about solo work and touring. What drew you to solo performance work?

TM: I didn’t start thinking that I was going into “solo work.” I was doing the luncheon circuit, speaking at the Elks, the Rotary, the Eagles Clubs, mostly promoting upcoming productions of my Moliere plays that were being produced at my old theatre, Stage Two. They had produced five of them in my first four years, and I had performed four of the roles that Moliere himself had actually played.

Somehow the several directors who took on this project each seemed to see me in the most challenging comic role, which was what Moliere had written with himself in mind. (Side note: I’ve spent much of the last 20 years living a parallel existence with Moliere.)

One luncheon gig was to be with the “Canadian Women’s Guild,” but they didn’t want a lecture, they wanted a performance and were willing to pay me $100 for the event. This was substantial at the time. I thought, “A free meal AND a hundred dollars. Awesome!”

So, I found myself thinking, “Well, why would Moliere be performing without his usual troupe?”

“Well… maybe they got sick… and Moliere couldn’t afford to refund the box office money…”

“And… maybe Moliere (like me) still had some of his good monologues memorized, just in case the king demanded one of his favorites from the theatre’s repertory…”

“And maybe Moliere didn’t get sick because he at the chicken, while the rest of the cast ate the fish!”

So… suddenly I found myself to be a solo performer.

TSP: So, your first show was Moliere Than Thou. Were you always a super-fan of Moliere?

TM: Moliere grew on me over the years. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that he was sexy/bawdy/playful/impish… Somehow he had gotten categorized with Shakespeare as one of those dusty old writers from history and a lot of people found him really dull. Over the years, I’ve discovered that your attitude towards Shakespeare or Moliere is highly influenced by your very first exposure to a play of either of them, and if the performance is dull, austere or (as is often the case) incomprehensible, then you will tend to blame the playwright rather than the producer or the director or the actors.

I’ve always felt that I had the “secret decoder” in my ability to see through the complex language and verse to see the raging, passionate, hilarious, sexy, and really exciting action underneath.

(In fact, I think the first rumor that I heard of a Moliere play featured a boob-grabbing scene in “Tartuffe” and my teenage self was astonished that such a thing was possible.)

TSP: Why’d you keep with solo work after that first show?

TM: I don’t know when it became as inevitable as it ultimately did, but the longer you work as a solo performer, and the more solo performances you book, the more that you find yourself alone, on the road, heading off to yet another performance, or series of performances, and the less available you are to some company who might actually want to hire you to perform in their full-cast shows.

In that instance, when I find myself on the road, by myself, with a vision for something that needs to be expressed in front of an audience and the universe-at-large, I mostly look at the tools that I have available to me and think of how I can make sense of it for a modern American audience with the one actor who seems to show up at every rehearsal that I call.

If the only tool that you have is a hammer, everything around you looks like a one-man-show.

TSP:  You didn’t start with touring doing it the way you do now. You used to do what you call “run out” performances. Can you describe what those were?

TM: There was a period, from the premiere of “Moliere than Thou” in March, 2000 to Summer, 2002 when I was still making money at a corporate job (working for a corporation that was the equivalent of Satan in my mind), when I wasn’t able to take long periods away from my desk. I could, however, get away from my desk for a couple of days to drive down to Tennessee for a show, and then back to Chicago, or up to Wisconsin and back to Chicago. I may have done a half-dozen of these shows, making maybe $500 per show (or less). With the travel expenses and time involved, there was no financial up-side to it. I loved the performance, but could not count on these shows to keep me fed.

It wasn’t until after I’d quit my job in 2001 that I lined up a gig that was MORE than a single-day’s drive from Chicago. A friend had convinced me to do the 2002 Seattle Fringe Festival, which forced me to lay out a “tour” that would carry me from Illinois to Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho and Washington State. Since, for all I knew, I might not make more than a couple hundred bucks at the Seattle Fringe (I was right), the only way I could afford the trip was to find bookings along the way, and since I was telling people that I was passing through their state on, say, September 7, when I would be available to perform at a SPECIAL DISCOUNT RATE (the same rate as my one-off performances), suddenly they were NOW checking their calendar to see if their space, or their students were available then.

That was when I discovered that my access to actually making a living was to get in motion and to stay in motion. I proceeded to draw up tours that would take me (potentially) to all 48 contiguous states twice a year.

TSP: You did FringeNYC early on, just a few years after it started. Fringe festivals in larger cities have a different flavor than their smaller, more intimate counterparts in smaller cities. What show did you present at FringeNYC and how’d it go?

TM: I did FringeNYC in 2003. I performed Moliere than Thou. It was miserable.

I warn people away from what I call “urban fringes.” If the fringe you are going to will likely fill up its roster just from the fact that they are in the city in which you want to make a big splash (NYC, Chicago, LA…), then the administration of that Fringe has very little incentive to make you happy. They will very likely provide you with crappy venues and milquetoast publicity. And then make some screamingly outrageous demand that you sign over rights to X% of your royalties over future years of performance.

Also, keep in mind, that the big cities have plenty of theatre that they can go and see any day of the week. YOU being in THEIR town is no big event. But it is those mid-sized cities: Orlando, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Edmonton… that will make a BIG DEAL over you.

For what it’s worth, I had five performances at the 2003 FringeNYC stretched out over 23 days! And my first two performances that looked like they would actually end up selling a few tickets were cancelled because of the Great Blackout of 2003.

And yet, as cynical as I am about this, I did get one of my best reviews from, which probably looks good in my portfolio.

TSP: Nowadays, you seem to alternate between the educational gigs at schools and such with appearances at fringe festivals. When did you start heading off to perform at fringes as a steady thing? What do you get from the festival experiences that you don’t with shows at educational institutions?

TM: I dove in to the fringes fairly fully in the summer of 2003. I seem to alternate years of “fringing” a LOT with years of just, say, three fringes. (Mostly because the fringes don’t pay as well as the bookings and I need to devote more time in the summer to getting bookings.)

At the educational institutions, I usually don’t get reviewed, because I’m just in town for a single day and then racing off. There’s no reason to write a review for an audience that has missed the show already. If they do write a review, it’s usually from a student writer whose skills are of limited scope, for a paper whose name doesn’t strike a bell. But with the fringes, I’m in town for (usually) 10-12 days, performing 5-7 times, and cities that are serious about the performing arts will send out reviewers to cover the shows early in the run. Of course, that helps ticket sales, but it also gives me a portfolio of legit media that I can use to stimulate more bookings.

But also, I have to note, that fringes are like family to me: the people I see at fringes are people I hang out with at the beer tent, we see each other’s shows, commiserate about bad audiences or reviews, and then call it a night.

TSP: Though Moliere Than Thou was your first solo piece (which you are still performing), you have added quite a few more shows to your repertory. Some of them are adaptations of Shakespeare scripts as one-man shows, others are sci-fi, and still another is a collection of famous speeches. Your interests seem pretty wide ranging, yet each show seems to fill a need in some way. Either it has a potential to sell well to institutions that might book you (Lot o’ Shakespeare, The Greatest Speech of All Time), or it expresses something you feel is personally important (Criteria, Man Cave). Can you give us a brief description of a few of these shows and what prompted you to create them?

TM: Lot o’ Shakespeare came from a fantasy I had about auditioning for Shakespeare plays, and showing up at each audition with a monologue ready from any Shakespeare play that they might be producing: 38 monologues and 6 sonnets! Ultimately I added a bingo cage with 44 ping-pong balls, so I could perform them randomly (“Lotto”) while the audience followed along with IAGO (instead of BINGO) cards. The idea was to share the most challenging/exciting and sometimes impenetrable monologues with kids who would be able to listen past the challenging Shakespearean words to feel the passion and hilarity that has kept us loving Shakespeare for almost 500 years.

Amid Lot o’, I discovered that some of my most thrilling reactions were not from the comic monologues (I have always seen myself as a comic actor first, and a dramatic actor under duress), but those monologues that stemmed from actual famous historical speeches: Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” from Julius Caesar and Henry V’s “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech. That got me thinking about history, and making it “live” not despite the clunky archaic rhetoric that infused them, but because of it. I somehow had some kind of answer key that other people didn’t have: to lay out the historical situation that was filled with tension and triumph. And so, I googled “The Greatest Speech of All Time” and picked out favorite historical speeches from Socrates, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill and Martin Luther King. Presented together these speeches begin to trace the arc of human history and the stuff that people would get whipped up into a frenzy about.

At one point I realized that Shakespeare’s History plays started to make a bit more sense if I recited those monologues in chronological order, and so I added more monologues to the ten History monologues I had memorized already, added some snarky narration and introduced people to all ten History plays in just one hour, as Shakespeare’s Histories; Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace. It was my way of waking up a part of Shakespeare’s catalogue to folks who might never otherwise hope to grasp just why those plays were so meaningful.

TSP: So, adding a fair amount of context into the mix.

TM: Yes. Having done the Histories, I did similar treatments to single plays that are major pillars of the canon, with Breakneck Hamlet and Breakneck Julius Caesar.

With Man Cave, I’ve decided that all of my ventures into literature are meaningless unless there’s a planet left which is inhabited with people. As such, I’ve created an end-of-the-world scenario with only one man left, broadcasting for anybody out there who might be left to hear. I’m hoping to, in my own way, help counteract any notion that mankind has “all the time in the world” to adjust its behavior, in order to counter climate change. The full title is Man Cave, a One-Man Sci-Fi Climate Change Tragicomedy.

Tim Mooney in Man Cave promotional photo

TSP:  Since that original “tour” to Seattle from Chicago in 2002, you have kept at it, travelling around the United States, performing your one-man shows at schools and festivals. And you seem to do this most of the year, leaning on the academic gigs during the fall and spring, then doing fringes in the summers. You seem to have worked out a way to do this more or less smoothly over the years. What I mean is, from an outside perspective, you have an operational foundation in place to accommodate you being on the road through the year. What have you learned about setting up these tours?

TM: I laugh at your suggestion that I have “an operational foundation in place” to “smoothly” tour.

The tour that I plot out NEVER ends up as the tour I eventually do. It would be impossible to start with. I never book all 48 contiguous states and my goal is to lay out a path where I’m AVAILABLE to all 48 states, but might well find myself hitting Nebraska, South Dakota or North Dakota on a particular date, or, more likely, find myself driving on through one of those for a show in Montana or Utah. (Wyoming is the only remaining of the 48 contiguous states that has NEVER booked me.)

The ability to make what rare bookings I might well perform happen lies in my flexibility to draw and redraw and then redraw again a path that will take me through, sometimes agonizingly odd detours, crossing hundreds of miles that I just crossed over yesterday because school X somehow had to have me on a Tuesday, while school Y couldn’t have me until Friday.

My willingness to drive that extra 500 or so miles has often meant that I pick up an extra thousand dollars that otherwise would have been left untouched.

Read the rest of this interview with the wonderful Tim Mooney in Part Two... HERE

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