The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein was, and remains, the favorite book of my youth. Silverstein has an amazing body of work (fun fact: he wrote “A Boy Named Sue”), and his works have inspired hope and tears, laughter and reflection throughout my life. For each of my life’s mile-markers, he has a corresponding text that mirrors it. The Devil and Billy Markham is where I am at mile-marker 0039.
The Devil and Billy Markham was originally published as a poem in Playboy Magazine in 1979, and a stage adaptation of the poem later appeared alongside David Mamet’s short play Bobby Gould in Hell under the title Oh, Hell!.
Upon reading the script, my first thought was “It’s wicked awesome! I must do this show. The story, the characters, the poetry and the humor resonate to my core.” That was eight years ago. The desire to perform this “epic dirty poem” never went away, but how could I stage it effectively? Devil is a one-actor show, in rhyming couplets, in six chapters.
Solo shows are challenging enough when the actor performing wrote the piece — or if it speaks to a political, social, or spiritual issue for the performer, even though someone else wrote it. Devil has none of these elements (on the surface). I was afraid that, if I performed it, it would come off as a “Hey, dig me, look at all these characters I can do” piece. I was afraid of The Devil, I was afraid of feeling like a masturbatory LA actor, and I was afraid that I couldn’t pull it off. For eight years these fears kept me from following through.
And then, in 2011, during the critically acclaimed Pulp Shakespeare, two of my co-stars (Brett Colbeth and Gowrie Hayden) asked me if I wanted to co-found Zenith Ensemble, a production company that would challenge us to push the limits of our “artist comfort zones” and tackle the projects that send chills down our spines. Too often I had found that even though I put 100% into a project, it rarely challenged me to grow as an artist. Brett and Gowrie certainly challenged me, by asking me to direct (for the first time in more than a decade) Zenith’s debut production of Rise, by Cal Barnes for the 2012 Hollywood Fringe Festival.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival is an amazing community, and it has proven to be a safe place to take risks. But the question still remained…did I really want to do a solo piece? Definitely not. Well, maybe. Yes. No, definitely no. But if there was a way….and yet….
On the one hand, like most actors, I love the give and take of performing with others, the feeling of being onstage and getting something new, giving it back, and helping make the moments shine in their immediacy. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to separate the characters and divvy them up among several actors. I wanted to push myself to play all of the characters, from the Narrator, to the “down and out” Billy Markham, the Devil, God, and Scuzzy — an aging hustler. And besides, it is written as a solo show. There had to be a way to do this piece within an ensemble.
Just do it. I’ll find a way to make it work. Hollywood Fringe, here I come.
I asked a trusted friend, Amanda McRaven, to direct. We thought about collaborating with a dance company; they could move around the stage to a instrumental Tom Waits playlist I had compiled years earlier while I told the tale of Billy gambling with the Devil. But none of the companies I approached seemed to gel with the idea. I secretly had another idea of telling the tale of how the “Devil burned Billy’s soul, but Bill singed the Devil’s ass” with aerialists, acrobats, clowns, and fire performers. I even entertained the notion of telling the tale of the good vs. evil within every one of us through the use of puppetry and shadow play.
And then, as if Shel himself whispered in my ear, “live band” rang out. All at once my fear disappeared. I could perform one of my favorite pieces, challenge myself with a scripted solo show, and be able to play with other performers. Amanda loved the idea and assembled an incredibly talented, playful and generous group of musicians and one extremely graceful and sexy dancer. The last elements came into place when we secured the 3 Clubs Cocktail Lounge as our venue, and the amazing Paula Higgins on costumes.
So hear I am, at mile-marker 0039, no longer calling this a “solo show.” It is a true collaboration of rhythm and music, poetry and physicality. I am grateful to have waited eight years to realize this dream. I can’t imagine it any other way.
The Devil and Billy Markham, 3 Clubs Cocktail Lounge, 1123 N. Vine Street, LA 90038. June 16 and 23 6:45 pm, June 19 and 26 8:15 pm. Tickets: $12. www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1227.
**All The Devil and Billy Markham production photos by Wry.
Aaron Lyons is an actor, director, writer, editor, painter, cook, landscaper, handyman, and run-on sentence enthusiast. Being born in Ringling Brothers’ Circus has given him an incredible sense of wanderlust and desire to tell stories; the only place he could find that would satisfy these two soul-satisfying urges was in the theater, where he has been a struggling artist ever since. He has performed in 48 states, nine countries, and four dimensions. The most important lesson he has learned in all of his travels is: “When traveling, ask the locals where their favorite restaurant is, and you can rarely go wrong.”