Tulis McCall is an actor, monologuist, reviewer, and sharp-eyed viewer of the theater scene and more. Her theater review website, The Front Row Center, features 20 writers and covers over 300 shows per year.
Her latest monologue, Are You Serious? A Woman of a Certain Age Inquires, is part of this year’s United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City. Its theme is the stage of life when one is assumed to be “past one’s prime,” but in it she reflects on a person’s whole lifespan, not just the time when what’s ahead of us is shorter than what’s behind us. “We become a teenager, we reach 21, but we hit 30…because we are afraid to admit everything we have not done and might never do. So we hit 30, and let the judging begin.
Older women often talk of being judged, of feeling they become “invisible” after a certain age. Inside Amy Schumer tackled this recently in a raw way in its famous “Last F**kable Day” sketch.
McCall takes a distinctive perspective on the phenomenon of aging into invisibility, noting that a bartender will call her “Ma’am” if she’s alone at a bar, but if she’s with a friend he’ll address them as “Guys,” depriving them entirely of female identity. As she says in the monologue, “Solo, I’m a woman. Plural, I’m invisible.”
Tulis McCall is anything but invisible on stage, and to anyone who knows her. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about her show.
Tulis, you and I first met at Cornelia Street Cafe where I was running a blues night and where you’ve hosted a night of monologues since 2007. Your own latest monologue, Are You Serious? A Woman of a Certain Age Inquires, is a very pointed one. Aside from the obvious advantage of low overhead, what attracts you to the solo genre, both as an impresario and as an artist?
I think the monologue is the heart and soul of theater. I believe it’s where theater and ceremony began – by one person beginning to speak and creating magic out of one voice.
As a college student I was also completely enthralled with James Whitmore who did a one-person show about Will Rogers. A few years later I saw Vivica Lindfors do a one-person show that was so bad I thought: I could do that, and I could do it a lot better.
A monologue distills the magic of theater down to a single point of light that is easily transmitted to the people who are watching.
What does the title question “Are You Serious?” refer to?
It refers to how we view our age, the actual number. It also refers to looking at ourselves as supposed adults when we really feel like we have not grown up that much.
Age is something that we avoid talking about in our Western society. We either ridicule it or try to ignore it, or we box people in by calling them senior citizens. Or we have Millennials or Generation Xers or Baby Boomers. Everyone is in a little box and separated from the other boxes.
So I say let’s bring it out into the open and shine a light on this aging process.
Our parents looked at each other and probably said “Are you serious?” or the equivalent when they discovered they were 30 years old with three or four kids. And so at 65 I’m looking at that and saying, “Are you serious?” Are you serious that I have two-thirds of my life behind me, and that’s if I’m lucky? It’s something sort of like smelling salts. It does snap you to attention and make you look.
So I’m inviting the audience on this journey, and so far everybody’s having a damn good time.
What inspired you to build a one-person show around the figure of “a Woman of a Certain Age,” whom you so archly define as “somewhere between 40 and death”?
See above. Also I became a woman of a certain age. So I am speaking from my particular vantage point. And when I became a woman of a certain age I noticed it was still that sort of shrouded event or part of life. People are not celebrating it on the stage or in movies. Young people don’t want to talk about getting older because they cannot believe it’s going to happen to them.
And those of us who have reached this threshold are thinking a lot about how little time we have left, and is it OK to try something new? and death is coming soon, etc. etc. etc. It gets complicated.
Pretty much the only place we find older people as subjects is in books. But then younger people aren’t necessarily reading those books. I see us everywhere except in the media. So it’s like how every day we go on the streets and see all kinds of people, but most of us return to segregated neighborhoods. And no one ever talks about that.
Michael Kinsley in his book Old Age: A Beginners Guide says that there are over 80 billion baby boomers out there. I see no one addressing them. Us. So why not me? And of course as I do this it does occur to me that I may be too late or that people will say, are you kidding? Are you serious? Mount a one-person show at the ripe age of 66? I have a bajillion friends who tell me it’s probably not going to work. And if I am not a well-known actor at this age, what makes me think I can become one?
So I am left with the dilemma that most people my age face: Meet the challenge, or use age as a way of saying it is probably too late. I do not want to become part of that statistic that says it is too late. I do not want to go gentle into that good night.
I want to become a statistic for the unusual, the positive, the hopeful, the surprising and successful. Because I’ll really be pissed off if I don’t. And that does not suit me.
You’re a theater reviewer and an avid follower of the New York stage. We tend to think of live theater as more highbrow than the mass of youth-oriented popular culture. But do you find the world of live theater youth-oriented too?
Oh, of course! And male-dominated. Although women writers and directors are being brought more to the front. Just about every story is about someone in their 30s, or if you’re a man you could be in your 40s or 50s. There is a dearth of parts for women my age. It is as if we didn’t exist. And we exist in so many places it’s shocking. Judith Light is doing a one-person show by Neil LaBute which I am anxious to see [All the Ways to Say I Love You]. But I cannot think of any other place right now on or off Broadway where there’s a woman in her 60s being featured as a lead in the show.
Ditto minorities of any color. Or disability. Or non-white-ness. It goes to what I said above about how we consider New York a melting pot when we are out on the street. I mean it’s obvious. But go back to your neighborhood and it will be segregated. Go to the theater and not only do you see mostly white people on the stage, you see mostly white people in the audience as well. As a matter of fact if you really want to see white people in New York your best bet is to go to the theater or the opera or any museum or the Philharmonic and it will be white white white white white.
You’ve toured previous shows to colleges and high schools. How have you found young audiences in the past? And what do you think people who still think they’re immortal would, or will, make of this one?
In my old show called What Everywoman Knows I was talking about women in American history, and the people to whom I was speaking were closer to my age then they would be now. But for the most part everybody just got totally captivated by the show.
First of all, I’m a good performer. Second of all, the stories that I was telling most people did not know – stories about people like Sojourner Truth or Victoria Woodhull. And the kids were captivated by these stories, which sounded like they had come from another planet.
As to this show, I wrote it thinking about my peers or my predecessors. Not so much about 20-year-olds. I wrote it thinking about myself, and what I noticed no one was talking about. I wrote it to find out what I was thinking and feeling about aging. And when you go deep into what you’re thinking and feeling, the chances are that other people will respond to that very deep truth.
Which is also pretty damn funny. But not in those stereotypical ways of talking about body parts sagging and how long it takes you to get to the bathroom. I’m talking about that sort of kitchen-table humor. Life humor. Things that happen that when you look at them a certain way, they’re pretty funny.
I’m more focused on just telling the fabulous tale and seeing who it attracts. In other words, like Bob Fosse said, have the audience come to you.
Your press release says you think “the theatre is a temple. Period.” I agree. But everyone has their own experience of that temple. In your conception, who, or what, do we worship there?
I don’t know that I would call it worship. I think I would call it celebrating. It’s a place where we – both artists and audiences – enter hopeful that something extraordinary is going to happen on the stage that touches us and shifts us on a molecular level.
That is a spiritual enlightening. And it’s best if it’s done in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel self-centered or, you know, awkward. I think anyone who has ever gone to the theater can remember a moment where it was almost like an out-of-body experience, transcendent, and that is always the goal – and that is the whole point of ceremony.
Don’t forget the church is based on ceremony and ceremony was secular. Ceremony started as: We’re going to tell the tale of our ancestors tonight, or or we are going to speak to the moon because it’s so full and so beautiful and in our faces that we cannot ignore it so let’s pop outside and say hello to the moon. Then storytelling is invented. Then ceremonies become invented. Religion is exactly that. It’s only in the past few years where people have gotten all tight and regimented and political about it. God wants you to vote Republican and bullshit like that.
So yes I call it a temple. And I believe it’s the responsibility of people who make theatre to be certain that what they’re doing has the highest intention behind it. Especially comedy.
And let me just say that my show is very, very, very funny. In order to be very funny, however, you have to be serious about it. And trust the silences as well as the laughs.
What plans or ambitions to you have for the show after United Solo?
World domination. I will find more venues in New York in which to perform, and trust that because the work is good and I know what I’m doing up there, that will lead to other places to perform which will lead to other places which will lead to other places. The idea is to keep on going with this. It feeds my heart and soul.
Performing is a little bit like flying. Once you realize you can, you want to do it as often as possible. And I know that my audiences like what I’m doing. I understand how to carry an audience through an evening and let them fly with me and then gently put them back in their seats at the end of the night.
I’m investigating festivals out of town as well. Focused on finding the next stage and hopping up on it. Are You Serious? is all about the many passages of life that we take for granted and often times forget to share with one another. The point of performing is to have your audience sitting there and saying “me too.” That unifies us, audience and performers. When that happens it’s all about all of us feeling life in that exact moment.
Tulis McCall will perform Are You Serious? as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival on October 9 at 7:30 PM at The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, New York City.