The Stories He Could Tell . . . and Does : Performance art: David Cale’s literary monologues range from protagonists searching to uncover their true selves to sensual stories about the darker aspects of love.
Consistently hailed for his literary character monologues and luminous stories of anomie, David Cale has long eschewed the identity politics that continue to dominate performance art.
And so it’s somewhat ironic that Cale is returning to Los Angeles--after a seven-year absence--on a bill called “Identities: An Evening of Solo Performance,” at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex Friday and Saturday. The evening also also features Jude Narita, Blondell Cummings and Ruben Sierra.
More a surreal storyteller than many of his politicized colleagues, Cale will perform two of the 12 monologues that comprise his latest work, “Illuminated.” In “This Jimmy Thing,” a married woman has an affair with a younger man, whom she sees as the epitome of everything she wanted when she was younger. “A Trace of Panic” is an absurdist piece about a man who co-opts bits and pieces of other people’s personalities because he hasn’t got one.
Both stories have protagonists searching to uncover their true selves, although not merely in the sense of ethnic or sexual identity. “I guess the notion of people figuring out who they are resonates right now,” says the soft-spoken Cale, speaking by phone from his New York home.
Yet he resists reducing such questions to matters of community allegiance. “I’ve never felt part of any particular group,” Cale says. “It’s constantly shifting identity which really suits me. I’m on my own little dirt track on the side of things.”
Who Cale is has certainly changed over the years, especially since he emigrated from his native England in 1979. “I can’t write from an Englishman’s point of view anymore,” says Cale. “I’m not really English and not really American, but in a no-man’s-land between the two. I can draw on both.”
Half of the characters in “Illuminated,” for example, are American, and even the English ones are people who reside in the United States. In previous pieces, Cale included only a handful of Yankee personas.
An ex-rock musician turned monologuist and actor, Cale has performed in New York and other cities around the country, including frequent engagements in San Diego and San Francisco, since the mid-'80s. Yet he hasn’t graced an L.A. stage since 1988, when he brought his solo “Redthroats” to the Taper, Too as part of the UK/LA ’88 Festival.
In “Redthroats,” the young protagonist Steven, like Cale, makes the leap from England to America. The monologue was well-received on both coasts.
It was a success born of innocence, the performer recalls. “ ‘Redthroats’ was written very privately,” Cale says. “I had no sense of the business part of what I was doing and I just started touring.”
He continued the streak with “Smooch Music,” a words-and-jazz piece about various permutations of romance that he wrote with saxophonist Roy Nathanson in 1987.
But after those two shows, Cale hit a slump. “I was getting a lot of attention and I became fearful and self-conscious,” he says. “Expectations came into play and it crippled me.”
Cale hardly performed at all during 1989-90 and didn’t, by his own estimation, really get going again until 1991’s “Deep in a Dream of You.” “I wrote it quickly for myself, and it became the most successful show that I’d done,” he says.
“Deep in a Dream of You"--which featured a dozen of Cale’s sensual stories about the darker aspects of love--also marked a change in content. “Before ‘Deep in a Dream of You,’ I did shows that were really autobiographical,” Cale says. “With ‘Deep in a Dream of You’ I made an effort to write from a point of view that was not directly my own.” The problem Cale faced with the show--which was commissioned by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and featured three musicians in addition to Cale--is that it was tough to tour. “I’ve got to bring the musicians, so I’ve been handicapped by the cost,” he says.
The difficulty in touring may also be why Cale has never had his shows transfer to other mediums, as have other prominent solo performers like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian. “Fewer people see the music shows,” Cale says.
Although he performs excerpts from his musical shows on tour, “Illuminated” is actually the first work that Cale has written expressly as a solo since “Redthroats.” He hopes to bring the full version of the piece to Los Angeles later this year, although nothing’s definite at this point.
Lately, Cale has been branching out. He’s written song lyrics for five cuts on a recent Jazz Passengers album--one of which was featured on the soundtrack to the Robert Altman film “Short Cuts"--and a play called “Nightwear,” which was staged at New York’s Downtown Art Company last year.
Yet no matter what medium he’s working in, Cale feels that he, like so many of his characters, never really escapes himself. “However far from myself I get, there’s still some emotional autobiography going on,” he says. “I can’t get too far from myself. I don’t think anybody can.”
* “Identities: An Evening of Solo Performances,” Luckman Theatre, Cal State L.A., Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., $24-$26, (213) 466-1767.