How do you tell the story of a storyteller? How do you document a life devoted to documenting other lives? You could spend years on this puzzle. Or you could collect an assortment of student-performers and Chicago artists and tackle it in ten weeks.
We began with his timeline. We divided him up into rough decades and tried to sketch our way through his life, with an emphasis on exploration and fearlessness. Oh, and this is a circus show, so we have a trapeze artist playing young Studs Terkel on the trapeze (his “room”), we have clowns playing his radio, and a wide range of singers, actors, jugglers and acrobats playing his interviewees. We learned about the man himself and his “American Century,” but mixed in with the invention and discovery were trace amounts of doubt and confusion. What will our Studs look like? Who will he be?
We made our way through his collected works and through his second memoir, Touch and Go. We noticed two things: he cherishes and repeats the stories of his friends and underrates his own. In the final chapter of Touch and Go, the final chapter of his final public thought, he writes about the dignity that humans seek. “…To be remembered, this is what’s more important than anything.” To “count,” is another phrase he’s fond of. What we realized was so special about Studs was that he gave this truth back to the people around him. Rather than seek to be remembered himself, he devoted his work to remembering others. He filled his memory with the people he knew and the things they said that he loved. His chief regrets, the last regrets he publicly admitted, were the moments where his memory for others lapsed.
We started to share our own memories, inspired by his life and work. And we realized we had been given a wonderful opportunity. Our subject was a professional listener, and we have all these stories to tell. The task flipped: Studs became our partner in a search for story as much as the story himself. We can treat his memory as an active presence, still searching for the American Story, still full of interest and insight, and directly involved in our own life onstage.
You ask: what does this mean for real? That all sounds lovely, but what are you going to see? Well we don’t exactly know yet. But we aren’t worried. There’s plenty of time for us and Studs to figure it out.
- Christopher Deakin, a member of the ensemble that is devising “Buried in Bughouse Square: A Studs Terkel Circus” taking place May 1-11 as part of Let’s Get Working.