It was his first week of Grade 4, and already Ryan Gladstone was in serious trouble. He couldn't remember what he had done to raise the teacher's ire, but it was egregious enough to elicit the line that can strike fear into the tiny heart of any student: "Do you think you can do a better job? Would you like to try teaching the class?"
Where most other kids would shrink into their seats, Gladstone said yes. Soon he was at the blackboard making fun of the material while the teacher sat in Gladstone's seat, heckling and rolling her eyes in an attempt to show the student how difficult her job really was. Still acting the teacher, Gladstone expressed his deep displeasure with his student's unruly behaviour and ordered her out into the hall as the other students-amazed at his chutzpah-laughed out loud. The joke was over, and Gladstone soon found himself behind a room divider, separated from his peers for the rest of the day. But Gladstone had discovered what it was like to have the other kids' undivided attention. He had become the Class Clown.
Now a 28-year-old writer and actor, Gladstone has transformed his school experiences into a hit play on the Fringe festival circuit, Confessions of a Class Clown, and it's part of an ever-growing trend toward humorous one-person shows that are rooted in real life. Writers and performers such as David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim) and Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, McSweeney's) have moved out of their cult-favourite corners and into the spotlight, popularizing the form. On Fringe stages everywhere, actors are mining their own lives for material while eschewing the veil of fiction. At this year's Vancouver Fringe Festival (Thursday [September 8] to September 18) there are comedic first-person stories about everything from a mixed-religion wedding (Jew! [A Musical]) to life's fleetingness (PAIN: So Funny It Hurts) to work as a New York dominatrix (Girl's Guide), to name just a few.
"I think life can be as spectacularly fantastic as anything that we can imagine, and sometimes the real stories just capture people more because they're true. They know that this really happened," says Gladstone, who is in the process of relocating from Toronto to Vancouver but is speaking on the phone from his family home in Calgary. "They put themselves right there, back in Grade 4, and there's that kid, and he's misbehaving again, and the teacher has put him behind the wall or dragged his desk to the back of the class and he's still spitting spitballs. People want to see the truth, because it has that kind of resonance."
But according to Sara Bynoe, the Vancouver writer and actor who created Sparkle Bunny: The Last Raver Dancing from her experience of the mid-1990s rave scene for this year's Fringe, telling the truth can also be risky if it's not engagingly told. If you've ever endured a story that ends with "I guess you had to be there," you know that what's immensely interesting to the storyteller can be brain-numbingly boring to the audience.
"If it's about your own gratification, then it's just masturbating on-stage," says Bynoe, on the phone from a Fringe stop in Victoria. (She also hosts "Teen Angst Poetry" nights in Vancouver and gathered the horrible poems into an anthology called Teen Angst: A Celebration of REALLY BAD Poetry.) "You need to have an arc in mind. What's the greater story you're trying to tell? What is the character's journey or want? If you find that, then the story can be really beautiful. Because you know the performer is so close to the heart of the performance, it's always really raw. They might not be the most brilliant performer, but no matter what, there's that connection. Sometimes in fictional shows, if the acting isn't totally on, it just doesn't have that. There's a vulnerability in putting yourself out there. And that's always what I find so attractive about these kinds of shows. It's in the performer."
One especially tricky aspect of working with first-person material, says Vancouver-based writer and actor Cara Yeates, is deciding what to keep and what to cut. For her show, Knee Deep in Muck, Yeates drew from her real-life experiences of tree-planting-she even subjected herself to more planting this summer in order to flesh out her script-and had reams of material to pull from.
"When I came to my director this year, we sat down and we talked for three hours. She said, 'Okay, that's great. You have lots of ideas, but this isn't a six-hour show.' So over the course of about a month, we figured out what we could fit in and what we couldn't. And sometimes you have to learn to just let things go," Yeates says on the phone from Victoria, where she has been garnering rave reviews for the show at the festival there. Because it is her own story, she adds, getting up on-stage and performing it can be especially terrifying.
"My first night of doing the show was probably the scariest thing I have ever done, because it's me out there, 120 percent. But at the same time, it's the most rewarding thing because it is just you. It's all your work. And when you get people laughing or you can just tell the audience is listening to every word you're saying, it's just amazing," says Yeates, who also does puppeteering work for the B.C. Coalition of People With Disabilities and helps to run the Butcher Shop art gallery and music venue on Main Street. "I spent so much time struggling through Shakespeare in university and enjoying it but never really truly connecting to it. But at the moments when I'm relaying something that I have experienced or my friends have experienced, it's unlike anything else, because it's the truth."