Baltimore storyteller Jon Spelman makes debut performance of 'Prostate Dialogues'

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After Jon Spelman got the bad news, he found himself thinking often and at odd moments about "Moby-Dick."

Perhaps that's because the behemoth that was attacking the Baltimore storyteller was as submerged, unreasoning and unpredictable as any great white whale, and every bit as ferocious.

Spelman knew that like Captain Ahab, the anti-hero of Herman Melville's novel, he would have to hunt his hunter.

He armed himself not just with doctors and surgery and cancer-fighting drugs, but with wit, bravery and a determination to look straight at his own death — whenever it might come.

The result is a monologue called "The Prostate Dialogues and Tales of the Tellywacker," which the 70-year-old Spelman not only wrote but also performs. The play is receiving its world premiere March 22 at the Creative Alliance.

"This was a piece that I might never have done if I still lived in Washington," says Spelman, who moved to Fells Point five years ago with his wife, choreographer Liz Lerman.

"I might not have done it if I'd lived in any other neighborhood. I've heard Baltimore described as more 'real' than Washington in some ways. It's maybe less sophisticated, but rawer and more intimate."

Spelman has been working on the monologue off and on since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009. A staged reading was held last year at Washington's Theatre J.

Ari Roth, the troupe's artistic director, describes the show as "a truly important exploration of masculinity, mortality, dying and the age-old battle with disease."

"And," Roth adds, "it's very funny."

The first act tracks the disease's progress and Spelman's successful surgery; his doctors now believe he is cancer-free. Audience members eavesdrop on the members of a cancer support group. They also meet the author's neighbors, with whom he discusses his illness while sitting on his front steps.

In the second act, the storyteller explores what literally and figuratively is foreign terrain. A memorable hike with his grown daughter across Spain's El Camino de Santiago sparks the author's recollections of a passage from "Moby-Dick," his encounter with a recalcitrant bull, and what both came to symbolize for Spelman about his male identity.

Washington-area director Jerry Whiddon was so intrigued by "The Prostate Dialogues" that he's donating his services to get the monologue in shape for public performances.

"I thought his play was gutsy," Whiddon says. "I'd never read anything like it. How often do you hear people talk — really talk — about their prostates?"

That kind of frankness isn't uncommon among women. Way back in 1996, Eve Ensler wrote "The Vagina Monologues" (Spelman's play is a riff off that title). Five years later, Jeanie Linders staged "Menopause: the Musical." Both works combine humor with social commentary, are performed today and continue to draw audiences.

But plays about male reproductive health? Not so much.

"If anyone other than Jon has written one," Whiddon says, "I've never heard of it."

He acknowledges that the subject could be discomfiting.

"I assume the topic could be a turnoff for some people," Whiddon says.

"But once you get past that, his play is surprising and touching and funny and ultimately celebratory. It's about the awareness of being alive and all that entails. I think it connects to everyone — men and women — who've ever thought about their own mortality."

Spelman takes pains to introduce the more graphic material gradually.

"I ease into it in a way that makes people feel safe," he says.

"I start out by talking about a familiar experience that most men have had, of getting hit in the testicles with a baseball when I was 9 years old."

He then reveals his family's word — "tellywacker" — for the male sex organ, and muses humorously about the term's linguistic origins.

"By that time," Spelman says, "I've sort of established that I have that equipment, everybody knows that I have that equipment, and we can face it together as adults."

Susan Gordon is a psychiatric social worker by profession and a storyteller by avocation who has seen two workshop performances of "The Prostate Dialogues."

"I was amazed and touched at Jon's bravery, honesty and his willingness to laugh while exploring a topic so sensitive that few men or women are comfortable discussing it," Gordon says. "I wanted to say to my women friends, 'Pull up a chair; listen to what happens to our men. Understand.' "

Given that kind of response, it's possible to imagine the playwright as a true "Spell Man." For more than three decades, the performer has been the go-to tale-teller in the Baltimore and Washington area.

Spelman's skill has been noted by the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. The latter praised him in a 1995 review as "a superb storyteller" with "presence, wit, timing and narrative creativity."

"Three Stories Tall," a children's television program that ran from 1985 to 1990 on the Washington NBC affiliate, received three local Emmy Awards.

His monologues have been commissioned by such venues as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian Institution. He has performed on National Public Radio and with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Perhaps it's fair to point out that if Spelman is one of the premier professional storytellers in the area, he's one of only a very few who make their living from such a solitary craft. Storytelling is, if possible, even more on the fringe of mainstream society than modern dance — his wife's profession.

But from his earliest days, he has listened to people use words to give shape to their lives. His parents' favorite entertainment on fine Cincinnati evenings was chatting with friends on their veranda.

"I remember hiding under our front porch when I was 7 or 8 years old and listening to the adults talk," Spelman says.

When he was in high school and visiting a friend on vacation, the young people in the home became his first audience — unbeknownst to the budding performer.

"I have no recollection of this," he says, "But my friend told me recently that he and his brothers and sisters and cousins would gather every night outside my bedroom door and listen to the stories that I was telling myself out loud."

After earning a master's degree in theater from Purdue University, Spelman took a job in 1968 as an assistant theater professor at Florida State University in Sarasota. Five years later, he founded his own company, Florida Studio Theatre, which was dedicated to performing new and original work.

But by 1980, he'd had enough. He'd fallen in love with a dancer who lived in Washington. And he was tired of spending all his time raising money for his troupe instead of creating art, tired of pouring all his energy into creating a play that would exist for, at most, 50 performances before evaporating.

Spelman was driving through rural Virginia later that year to visit Lerman when his car broke down. While waiting for his vehicle to be repaired, Spelman took a walk down an alley — and stumbled upon an epiphany.

Perhaps four or five local people were sitting on stools in a circle around a man telling a story. They moved over and made room for Spelman to join them. When the first man finished his tale, someone else told a joke. After the laughter had subsided, a third person jumped in. Around and around the circle it went.

"I was transfixed," he says.

"I found what I'd been looking for in that alley. I realized that people without any particular skills and with no lights and scenery had transported me to three or four different places. They'd made me laugh and cry. And, they did it just with their voices."

For Spelman, the stories he tells — folk tales as well as those based on personal experience — are a continual process of self-discovery.

"Storytelling brings up stuff that I don't even know is there," he says.

"I'm always tinkering. I'm always finding and re-finding what really is the core of the piece. I'll add new material or rewrite what I already have to make my story more honest or to give it more depth."

That's particularly useful for a piece like "The Prostate Dialogues," which for Spelman is still very much a work in progress. He's 70 now and in good health. But he's fully aware that the final acts of this particular monologue have yet to be written.

Like the rest of us, he wakes up every morning and puts one foot in front of the other. And for now, that daily act of courage and faith feels pretty good.

"You go on," Spelman says.

"You go on a hike in a swampy wilderness, and night comes, and you say, 'Oh God, I'm lost.' The hope is that the sun is going to come up tomorrow, and you'll find your way out."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Prostate Dialogues and Tales of the Tellywacker" will be performed at 8 p.m. March 22 at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Tickets cost $20 for the general public and $15 for members and students. Call 410/276-1651 or go to http://www.creativealliance.org.

Jon Spelman

Age: 70

Profession: Storyteller

Residence: Fells Point

Birthplace: Kansas City, but raised in Cincinnati

Education: Bachelor's degree in history and theater in 1964 from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.; master's degree in theater in 1966 from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Awards: Three local Emmys for "Three Stories Tall," a children's program that was broadcast on Washington's NBC affiliate from 1985-90.

Personal: Married to choreographer Liz Lerman. The couple has one daughter, Anna, 24.

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