Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Tomorrow Night: “One Million Elephants,” a Show About Laos

In Laos on April 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Tomorrow night, I perform One Million Elephants. It’s my one-man-show. Just me onstage. Telling a story. Just a backpack, a steamer trunk, some photographs—and an inordinate number of tennis balls.

I have waited two years for this moment. Well, not waited. From the time I learned about the bombing in Laos to this moment, two years have passed, but they’ve been eventful years—the first year, I spent looking for funding. I took every avenue I could think of. I solicited every grant, fellowship program, university, and well-heeled friend I could muster. None of them could help me. “It’s a great idea,” people said. “But it just doesn’t fit our mission.” Or: “It sounds amazing, but you’re not a resident of Minnesota.” Or: “It doesn’t really have any impact on the greater Pittsburgh community, since we don’t have any Laotian people, so your story about a secret bombing campaign that took the lives of tens of thousands of people is basically irrelevant to us.”

(The only reason I went at all: My parents gave me plane-fare to Bangkok as a graduation gift. That, and my grandfather’s watch. Obviously my grandfather’s watch is the more treasured gift, but both were profoundly thoughtful).

The second year I spent (a) plotting my trip to Laos, which most people only half-understood and thought was completely insane, (b) traveling to Laos, and (c) putting together this 90-minute monologue.


Through it all, my friends Don DiGiulio and Tressa Glover have shown unwavering faith in the project. Don recently described the project as “an idea we shared over beers.” That’s about it. We had enjoyed great success with The Archipelago, my first one-man-show, and they basically commissioned One Million Elephants before I’ve even booked my flights.

What has happened in the past week defies description—Don, my director, has taken a loose, somewhat sloppy narrative and boiled it pure. Last night, we rehearsed for several hours, perfecting some of the more meandering scenes. I have always known that the story of Laos is engaging and important. But Don has clipped the dead wood, filled in the blanks, and now, I can say with pride, this show is fucking awesome.

Let me say that again: This show is fucking awesome.

When The Archipelago went up, I described it as “my favorite thing I’ve ever done.” Which is saying a lot. But it’s likely that One Million Elephants will surpass it. Tomorrow, it all comes together—people finally get to see what I’ve been up to all this time. I get to talk about Vong the guide, Thanh the waiter-monk, Chaola the mysterious woman, Ted the ESL teacher, and the indelible “English Frenchman.” I get to describe the medieval city of Luang Prabang, the nightlife of Vientiane, and Phonsavan, the city made of war-scrap.

Tomorrow, at long last, the elephants march.

(One Million Elephants performs April 20 & 21, Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. 8 p.m. both nights. $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Tickets at Showclix).


My Artist’s Statement

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

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Above: Photographs described in artist’s statement (below)

As many know, I am currently enrolled in Flight School, a brilliant program that trains up-and-coming artists (like me) to be better businesspeople. Since right-brained creative types tend to also be flaky, scattered and overwrought (guilty!), Flight School is training me in business models, budgeting, time-management, and proposal-writing. It’s ridiculously fun, and the effects have been immediate and profound.

One of our guest-speakers, Sherrie Flick, assigned us an “artist’s statement” as homework. I’ve known Sherrie, tangentially, for many years, and I’ve always loved her writing, but her assignment gave me pause. An artist’s statement? I’ve written countless bios, proposals, pitches and queries, but I’m almost never asked to write an actual statement describing “my work.” It’s so rare that I think of the phrase “my work” only in quotation marks, because it seems too epic to contemplate. (It’s this kind of false modesty that Flight School is trying to shatter).

Since I work in a variety of media, I figured it was shrewdest to focus on only one—and because artist’s statements are most commonly found in galleries, photography seemed to fit best. I invented, in my mind, a series of large-format street-photography prints, much like my show at ModernFormations last year. (Granted, I wrote the artist’s statement for that as well, but because it was a dual-show, I was really writing it for both of us).

Here’s what I came up with:

Artist’s Statement

Robert Isenberg specializes in street photography, a blend of improvisational travel and photojournalism, which he dubs his “great collaboration with the world.” His photographs are mostly candid, un-posed, and taken in public places.

As a native of rural Vermont and longtime stage performer, Isenberg approaches subjects with both innocence and brash energy. Taken together, his photo essays illustrate people and places most likely unfamiliar to the viewer. Following in the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Charles “Teenie” Harris, Isenberg offers moments that are workaday yet unrepeatable.

In many portraits, such as “Bosnians Are Cute” and “Girl with Bomb,” the scene is both surprising and explicit. His titles are clinically descriptive, allowing the images to speak for themselves. In many photographs, such as “Family, Luxor,” or “Old Woman, Sarajevo,” Isenberg dissolves expectations about a region or culture, documenting instead the mix of traditional lifestyles and globalized influence. Many of his titles tinker with narrative, such as “Secret Agent, Egypt,” giving viewers only a hint of the photograph’s context. Isenberg is magnetized to places that have suffered large-scale trauma, such as war, natural disaster, and economic collapse.