Please, go see “American Tranquility.” I normally try to stay objective when profiling someone, but Daniel Damiano’s one-man show is one of the more poignant gut punches an audience member could have these days in a theatre. And he does this simply on the strength of both his writing and performance. Nothing else. The stage itself is bare, save for 3 chairs and a set of bongos, each serving as the sole set piece for each character. Damiano presents the characters stage right to left, changing his posture and voice enough to help us believe we’re actually meeting four different people, but without sailing his performance over the top like most actors would. (Not that I could act wet in the shower.)
His first character is an elderly man who laments his ever-increasing irrelevance with a sharpness that makes us laugh despite the sad agony of what he’s saying. Next is a busking immigrant, pounding the skins joyously as he recites his poetry, lyrics of wonder for the new world he’s found in America; yet underscored with hurtful confusion over why he’s not completely welcomed here. The third (and most controversial) character is a conservative talk show host, creepy enough to make Alex Jones sound like Obama. The show is finished by the character who shook me up the most somehow. He’s a Gen X’er so defeated by modern life that he moves deep into the woods and befriends a wolf--and now spends his days sarcastically explaining himself to it.
Damiano was nice enough to stop by my apartment and let me interview him for AP. We almost live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood.
How did you write “American Tranquility?
Well, unlike the one previous one-man show that I did (“The Hyenas Got It Down”), this one came together quite quickly. I wrote it all together in the Spring of ‘17. Smoke from the election was still very much still in the air, and still very much with me and the people around me, and it was kind of an inescapable thing. I’d wanted to write a solo show, something new for me to do as a performer because I don’t normally write for myself. But this theme of “division,” and these other themes that I always like to explore as well, such as societal disconnection, ageism, immigration, political extremism, this made it come together quickly. It wrote itself in about two months. Then we did the first workshop performance that September of ’17, then again at the Pit Loft in November, then January ’18, then at the Downton Urban Arts Festival in April of ’18 before its current run at the East Village Playhouse. I haven’t had to change much in that year, which speaks a lot to the times that we live in. And in a sad way, because some of the themes, especially with the political elements of the play, haven’t changed. There’s the character who’s a conservative talk show host who mentions Russian collusion, which is still very much in discussion now, as if it just happened. It’s almost like we’re frozen in time.
So you started writing with these same four characters in mind?
I didn’t necessarily know what four characters I would have right out of the gate. I started first writing what ended up as the last piece of “American Tranquility,” which is the monologue of this character Ronnie, who’s this middle-aged Brooklynite who now lives in the woods, and then I went backwards from there. I didn’t always know what the order would be, but I always knew that Ronnie would be last because he sort of ties things up. The one I wrote next was Morgan Ridge, who’s the radio talk show host, then Achmed, the subway poet. And so I had those three, but then I got stuck a little bit because I didn’t have a good opener. I came up with Stanley, who’s this old, retired Alabaman. Because ageism was a theme that I definitely wanted to get into and I hadn’t touched upon it yet in the piece. Once I had Stanley, then I knew I had the whole piece.
People have been responding to different characters in different ways every night, even outside of the talkbacks. The question that I always try to bring up is, “What’s the theme of the show that connected most with you?” Maybe there will be someone who’s an immigrant who really hooks into Achmed because he has a long poem about immigration in this country and how he’s been perceived and what he’s had to contend with. And there’s people who gravitate more towards the old man if they’re an older crowd and might feel a little obsolete in a younger society, where technology is getting well ahead of us. But it’s different every night. It really is, which is nice. I had someone who I didn’t think would like the conservative talk show host character the best, but they were able to connect with that character on an artistic level, even though they didn’t think the same way as this character. They could still appreciate the artistry and just be entertained by it and still come away with things to think about. So that’s a great thing for me, when you can convey something that might be challenging to an audience and yet the audience can appreciate it. It’s not always easy. Sometimes the choir wants to be preached to.
Why did you decide to have someone else direct it?
Well, you need objectivity, especially when you’re the performer. When doing a solo show, you can just do it yourself. It’s not like this is a very high-tech project. This is as bare bones as you can get. It’s one actor, three chairs, and a set of bongos. But it’s important that you have a director that you trust and Kathy McGowan is not only a good friend of mine, but she’s a director that I emphatically trust. And she’s directed other plays of mine. I trusted her eyes and felt I needed those kinds of eyes to keep me in check and help me, especially with blocking. Just to keep it lively. And I’ll usually agree with her right away and know what she’s talking about.
You’ve been conducting “talkbacks” at the end of some the shows. What character has been getting the strongest response?
What’s the main theme or message that you hope people will come away with?
Just awareness. I’m not trying to give anybody any answers. I’m not an anthropologist or a politician. But what I’m trying to put out there is what I SEE is out there. What art is, at its best, is condensed life. Life is very amorphous. We go outside and we begin our day and anything can happen, and it can be very overwhelming. Art condenses that in a creative way and can make sense of it. What I would like people to have after seeing this play is something to think about. If they’re only viewing the world through the news or through our president, hopefully this show can open up the possibilities for how things could be better. Knowledge doesn’t hurt us. It can give us a different way to frame things. I mean, New York audiences are very smart audiences, so it’s not like you’re going to tell a lot of people here these revelatory things. It’s more about the way you do it. If you do it with humor and intelligence, it can have new meaning and can inspire people. If any variation of those things can come to an audience, that’s wonderful for me.
Performances of "American Tranquility" are running
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