Three months ago, 47-year-old Shane McCabe did a monologue for an acting class that knocked the socks off Mark W. Travis, his teacher.
“It was about a young boy who was taken away from home and left in a motel for the entire summer,” Travis said. “There was money allocated for food, but he was basically abandoned. At the end of the summer, his mother came and took him back home. And Shane said, ‘I didn’t understand till much later that she was trying to save my life. Because by the time I was 12 years old, I’d had 14 broken ribs, two broken arms, my father had put out cigarettes on me. . . .’ ”
The story was true.
“After class, Shane started telling me about this idea of a one-man show he was working on,” Travis said. “He told me about spending seven years in a closet--because night after night, after he was beaten, that was where he would be placed. He told me how he taught himself to read, how he’d choreograph dances in his head, how he’d hide food in the closet so he could eat, how he learned to treat his own wounds, set his broken fingers--because no one would ever take him to a hospital.”
Travis sighed. “What I became intrigued with was not the abuse--which one can be attracted to in a grotesque, enticing National Enquirer sort of way--but the child , and what a child under those circumstances would do to survive: not just physically but emotionally, spiritually. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about child abuse because of this, and the biggest thing is, ‘How does the human spirit maintain under these circumstances?’ ”
The answer is on display tonight at the Tiffany Theatre, when McCabe’s piece, “No Place Like Home” (the title recalls Dorothy’s mantra in “The Wizard of Oz”), opens under Travis’ direction for six performances.
“I know it’s theatrically taboo,” said Travis, who also co-created and directed Paul Linke’s continuing one-man show, “Time Flies When You’re Alive” (about the actor’s relationship with his late wife and her battle with breast cancer).
“Even my friends say, ‘Mark, I don’t know if I want to see that.’ I say, ‘Please, you must see it--because it’s life-affirming. It’s about the human spirit and will.’ ”
And, he adds, child abuse is something society must confront.
“No, child abusers won’t come see this. But maybe the neighbors will. People who’ve seen the show in previews say their whole outlook is different. . . .
“Shane was threatened that if he ever told anybody about his abuse he’d be taken to an orphanage, put in an insane asylum; he’d be responsible for his father going to jail--which would mean they’d lose the mortgage on the house and the family would break up.
“So he lived most of his life in fear of ever talking about it. He was in his mid-30s before he ever said anything. Now a part of him is fighting against that--what was drilled into his brain: ‘No, I’ve got to talk about it.’ ”
Travis, 45 and a Yale Drama School graduate, acknowledged that the one-man confessional--what he calls “primitive theater"--fascinates him.
“It’s theater of the storyteller,” he said, “going back to people like Spalding Gray. Not someone saying, ‘I remember Harry Truman'--but a performer telling his own story. It’s an intriguing theatrical form, because the person’s not hiding behind a character or situation. So it becomes not only theater of confrontation but exposure: to be able to sit down with strangers and say, ‘This is my life.’
“Shane and Paul (Linke) feel strongly--not in a self-serving way--that the need to tell their stories is part of the process, the healing. Paul’s been doing it for a year now; he seems to get a lift from it. I don’t know how Shane’s going to handle it: Right now, it’s exciting, cathartic, scary. In a way, his show is more revealing. Paul talks about his adult years. Shane (who has had no contact with his out-of-state parents since 1978) talks about himself from ages 2 to 17--about things that are much more painful and shameful and disturbing.”
Travis’ duties as director/co-creator? “They present me with the material, then I sit there and listen and listen and listen. Basically, the process has been identical with Paul and Shane: taking in all those stories and creating an order.
“A documentary film maker once told me, ‘When you make a documentary, you go out and film reality. Then you take that film and edit it into another reality.’ That’s what we’re doing in these shows.”
Travis wants to be truthful about what audiences can expect from McCabe.
“Sure, it’s painful,” he said. “Theater can’t just be about giving joy and jubilation and making people feel good. That’s only one side of the emotional spectrum. You come out of Shane’s show feeling cleansed and invigorated about the world of the living.
“When I watch him, I’m hearing the story of a young boy’s struggle to survive, to create some purpose in the midst of this holocaust--and then I realize that what I’m looking at on stage is the result of that. A success story.”
“You think, ‘If Shane could teach himself to type 82 words per minute in the dust (on imaginary keys)----when he was tied up in the attic, to keep his mind off the pain in his body. . . .’ It’s not ‘Feel sorry for me’ or ‘Praise me.’ It’s ‘Look at your own life; don’t feel so hidden about it.’
“We’ve all dealt with rough things, accomplishments and defeats. People have been in concentration camps, prison. We can look at those times we’ve been treated unfairly--and not hide them.
“Paul says, ‘You think the worst thing that can happen is losing your mate? Maybe it is. But you’ll survive. And you can turn it around, make it a plus--but only if you’re willing to look at it. If you put it away in a closet, it’s going to eat at you like a cancer.’
“Shane says, ‘It’s OK to look at it, call it what it is. Call abuse what it is. Deal with it.’ There’s nothing wrong with saying to a neighbor, ‘I think the little boy down the street is being abused.’ Don’t hide from it, say it’s not your business. It is your business. We’re all here to take care of each other.”