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November 2, 2006

Stage Matters

It's A Funny Art
Jeff DeMark Prepares His Latest


It's a funny art, Jeff DeMark says. It doesn't even have a name -- is it comedy? Monologue? Storytelling? It's usually just called a one-person show, although in his upcoming performance, there will be a band (The Tiny Tims) performing live music and sound effects on stage with him. But even when he's the only one up there, other characters appear. By the second half of his first show, Writing My Way Through Adolescence, which he recently performed at Muddy's Hot Cup, audiences could all but see the stage crowded with a dozen people.

DeMark's new show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots, debuts at a KHSU fundraiser on Nov. 11 at the Bayside Grange. When we talked last week, he was frantically putting together the entire event (his day job is as KHSU Underwriting Coordinator), which meant lining up the food and drink, dealing with the logistics of his show and the appearance of the Delta Nationals to cap the evening, among other things. As well as writing his show.

Two weeks before its scheduled premiere, the show was about three-quarters written. "To a Dell'Arte person, that's plenty of time," Jeff quipped. "To anybody else it's: 'Are you out of your mind?'

"I have to write it all down, to get the details I need, the finer images, the sharper colors," he explained. "I write way too much, and then I have to boil it down to the essentials."

This new show is about the process of buying a house in Humboldt County and remodeling it. "But it goes beyond that -- what is home? What is home to you? I did a lot of drifting before I ended up here."

Apart from a lot of jobs in a lot of places (including a stint in the original In-Sink-erator garbage disposal factory in his hometown of Racine, Wisc.), DeMark's journey to this show began with poetry readings in Madison in 1974. His poems tended toward the narrative, and the more he told stories, the more comfortable he felt.

"Telling stories was a natural part of life where I grew up," he recalled. "Maybe it was the long winters, but people would drink beer and play cards and tell stories. My father was a great storyteller."

But it wasn't until somebody from Dell'Arte heard him at a Jambalaya poetry reading that he got the opportunity to write a whole show. It wasn't so rushed that time -- he had six weeks to write the second half -- but when he performed that first show at the 1993 Mad River Festival to a sellout crowd, he knew he found something. "I'd been kicking around for 19 years -- I just wanted to finish something -- I wanted to make something I could stand behind and say, this is a completed work. So then I had one. Now, do I have two? Maybe I could do another one."

But besides creating, there was performing -- and that was another home he had to find. Fortunately, he got some very good advice.

"A friend of mine was in the music business -- Danny Kahn, he manages Rosanne Cash now. He said, 'You've got to go out there like a band and play. Do everything you can until you're comfortable, so when someone asks you what you do, you can say, 'I do these shows.' You don't say, 'Well, I'm trying to do them' or 'I'm hoping to do them.' Not that you're going to be famous or make money, but when you can just say you do them, then you're there.'"

So he performed in bars, folk clubs, coffee shops and a combination theatre and bowling alley in Minnesota. "I played places no other theatre artist does, because if I waited for a theatre to book me, I would never get enough experience. I had to do 25 shows a year rather than four."

Since 1993, DeMark has created and performed five shows to general acclaim in Humboldt, but this will be his first new one since 2002. Like the others, it's autobiographically based, which is a tricky form, because it has to have room for invention and craft but it has to be true, at least emotionally. Though DeMark has changed some facts and included stories that happened to other people, he knows there's a line he can't cross. "If the audience thinks you're lying up there, you're done for. If they think you're just making this up to be cute, then you're in trouble."

As for finishing this show, "Fortunately I have a lot of people helping me." As seems typical for DeMark, that includes a dramatics teacher, Cathy Butler, and his old friend Larry in Madison. Then on show day, another friend told him, "All you have to do is prepare your heart for great joy."

So, will Jeff DeMark pull together his show in time? Come out to the Bayside Grange on Nov. 11 and find out, and I'll meet you back here after.

Coming Up: Jeff's twin brother Paul DeMark (who does PR for CR) wants you to know that College of the Redwoods will present a female version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple this weekend (Nov.2-5), Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., repeating next Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. Then it gender-bends to the male version next Saturday (Nov. 11) at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. That version also plays the following weekend.

Sanctuary Stage will perform the commedia classic, Love is a Drug at Mazzotti's on the Plaza in Arcata on Nov. 5. Billed as the restaurant's first Dinner Theatre event, it's actually at the more Sunday Brunch time of 12:30 ... Next Sunday (Nov. 12), Dell' Arte Youth Academy's Circo Stupendo takes center ring at the Arcata Community Center. As always, it's a family show with special guests.


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