Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to enjoy two good Fringe shows: TJ Dawe’s “Totem Figures” and Charles Ross’s “Sev” at the Victoria Fringe. Both are ex-classmates of mine from UVic, and both are entertaining one-man shows about, among things, making art. I usually don’t go in for art about art, but these were both engaging shows with none of the wankery and elitism that often accompanies such projects. Vancouverites can see both shows, starting today, at
The next day I had dinner with TJ at the Magnolia Bakery, and interviewed him about his life and work. He’s incredibly well read, and a monologist by trade, so he makes for an excellent conversation partner. I may eventually publish some audio snippets from our chat, but the noisy restaurant plus my crappy little voice recorder makes for a pretty shoddy recording. In the meantime I’ll transcribe some bits as time permits.
TJ is the ÃƒÅ“bermensch of Fringe performers. Over the past decade, he’s written and performed in 10 autobiographical, solo shows, and been involved in some capacity in 12 others. He’ll be in Vancouver this week (as will Charles), and it will be his 82nd fringe festival. He figures he’s performed over 700 shows. His work has also been published. A few years ago he became so popular that he stopped promoting his shows with fliers, posters and so forth.
Though he has occasional gigs and projects in the ‘off-season’, the Fringe Festival circuit is his main source of work and income. It’s a marathon of 10 to 12 festivals from May through September.
TJ’s latest show, ‘Totem Figures’, is a slight departure from his previous work. While it still relies on TJ’s particular fusion of stand-up and theatre, it’s more directly autobiographical and personal than other shows. Here’s the blurb:
Totem Figures is a ninety minute monologue about personal mythology. About the idea that we’re all the main character in our own epic adventure. About having one’s own personal Mt. Rushmore. TJ extrapolates this concept, and exemplifies it with his own mythology. His life story, inner and outer. Including many things heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s never talked about in all of his previous monologuing.
And here’s the first set of excerpts from our conversation over chicken and mushrooms in black bean sauce. Looking at them now, they feel a little random, but I guess they reflect the wide-ranging nature of our chat:
On Identifying Totem Figures
DB: I was thinking about what you said, in your show, about the people who most other people don’t like.
TJ: That really tells you something. You’re not just into it because you want to fit in.
DB: That’s right, because I’ve got Bob Dylan on the list…What is the metric? What is the minimum contribution to your life to get someone on your album cover?
TJ: It’s entirely up to you. The ten-year yard stick is the short way to figure out whether you can trust it as a totem or not. A lot of people are into Bob Dylan for a year or two or three when everybody else is. But if it outlasts that. Or, if you can think of some personal involvement. If you’ve specifically learned some Bob Dylan songs that aren’t the ones that everybody learns. Another thing is something you respond to emotionally. So that it’s a movie that always makes you cry, or if it’s an album that you put on when you’ve had a really bad day.
DB: Speaking of Stephen King, you mentioned him very briefly in the show.
TJ: I was a massive Stephen King fan as a teenager.
DB: Not anymore?
TJ: No. I grew up hating reading. For one thing, it was something my sister did, therefore it was bad. And it was always something certain teachers wanted me to do, and it was always stuff that had been vetted by the Catholic school system, so it was kind of castrated stuff, by and large. So, Stephen King’s was the first writing that I discovered in and of itself, and got addicted to. And then I discovered everything else there was to read. I tried to read “Needful Things” when I was 19, and found myself about 200 pages into it and just thought, ‘I’m not so interested in the sexual fantasies of housewives anymore’.
DB: Speak for yourself.
TJ: But, at the same time, I am absolutely interested and going back and re-reading those books, because it’s a huge window into who I was then and because they had such a huge impact, culturally.
DB: The reason I mention King is because, in your show, you used the metaphor of ‘going into the belly of the whale’ for creativity. In “Lizzy’s Story’, which of course is about a dead writer and his wife, the writer can transport himself to this other dimension, this other world, where he goes for creativity. The metaphor for creativity is this lake, and when he needs a great idea he goes in the deep water.
TJ: One of Stephen King’s totems is Ray Bradbury, and Ray Bradbury’s first great short story was called ‘The Lake’. When he was age twelve, he decided to write a story a week. And he’s still doing it in his eighties. And sometimes he would start with nothing. One example of this was ‘The Lake’, which he wrote from an actual memory of his, of a dead body being exhumed from a lake. I read this from a biography of him–which has a quote from Stephen King–about how it’s kind of an analogy for the artistic process. Digging into your memories and pulling something out.
On Recovering From the Fringe Tour and Next Year’s Idea
DB: Talk me through what happens in the off-season.
TJ: What normally happens after the Fringe tour is I find some way to decompress. So, step one of that is to go to my family’s cabin where there’s no phone and no internet. I have what I call a literary smorgasbord. I have, like, six different books on the table, and a shelf of really good ones on the wall, and I read a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The phone never rings, and nobody I know stops by and I’m in Heaven. For a week. And then I come back to the city and try and preserve that kind of solitude, because I’m the kind of person that can only recharge when they’re by themselves. I get a lot of reading done, watch a lot of movies–all these things I’ve been deprived of while being on the Fringe tour.
DB: And when does the application process for the next year’s Fringes start?
TJ: Orlando’s applications are available now. Edmonton’s deadline is Hallowe’en. The deadline for the CAFF touring lottery, so you can get into as many Fringes as you want, if you’re drawn, is in the fall, too. The rest of them are staggered until mid-January. So already you’ve got to think about next year. And for me it’s like, who am I collaborating with? What stage are they at with their script? Where am I going to work with them? What’s my script?
DB: So, now, at this time of year would you have an idea of what you’re going to do next year? Do ideas accrue?
TJ: Yeah. Charles Bukowski had a poem where he described all these different poems sitting around the kitchen of his head. One’s sitting on the top the fridge flipping beer caps, another one is leaning up against the counter. And they’re kind of bugging him, saying “when’s my turn?” It’s kind of like that for me. Usually there’s something like “how about that, I’ve been thinking about that”. There’s been a lot of work that’s been happening subconciously. So that when it’s time to write the thing, I’ve been doing my homework whether I wanted to or not.
wow, small world. i went to high school with TJ and he had the acting chops back then too. Glad to see he’s doing well, especially with the Fringe.
Better get out there to see the show!
Every girl’s crazy about a well-read man.
I’ve been a fan of TJ’s for a very long time, but he’s so reclusive it’s rare to see an in-depth interview like this. Can’t wait to see the next part!
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