I’m genetically predisposed to be a storyteller. No one in my family can respond to a simple question with a simple answer. A colorful narrative, complete with flourishing hand gestures, and maybe even vocal impressions, is created instead.
My inclination to tell a tale has manifested over the years in writing screenplays and short stories, and contributing film and theater reviews to online magazines. I’ve taken acting classes, writing workshops, and then in 2014, a class at the Magnet Theater in New York City on storytelling as performance taught by Adam Wade. I took a five-minute autobiographical story that I had crafted in that class to a Moth StorySlam. My name was picked at random from a bagful of hopefuls.
I ascended to the stage at Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo. I shared about the time my family home was destroyed in a fire when I was 15. I was in the midst of a slump, a losing streak, at that time in my life. Then came the fire on top of it all. The story can provoke tears, of course, although it does have it’s share of humor and earned a few raucous laughs that night at The Moth. It ends with a reminder to never overlook an opportunity at kindness, generosity or mercy. The boisterous applause was warm and welcoming. I was in love. This was the perfect mix of word craft, performance and my hereditary role as raconteur.
I continued telling short autobiographical stories at Moth StorySlams and open mics. Soon I was being invited to participate in curated shows, I won my first Moth Slam, and appeared on The Moth podcast. Crafting a longer piece to be told on its own as a complete show was the next challenge I wanted to attempt, and I knew just the story to tell. I’ve given two eulogies in my life, and both were for men named Joe Charnitski, my father and grandfather. I wanted to craft a story around those two eulogies and my relationships with the men who inspired them.
I started by going back to some shorter pieces I had done about my dad, his death in 2003, and the struggles I was going through at that time in my life. I built around those stories to add context and color. What would an audience need to be told to understand my relationship to my Dad? What would they need to hear to understand my Dad the man, the person, the son of a coal miner who simply dreamed of a good job, a good wife, and the peaceful life that comes with both? How can I help them understand his relationship to his father? What parts of me would be essential to reveal? Which fulfilled dreams, dashed hopes, arrogant missteps and humbling realizations should I share? How can I make sure that a story about two eulogies is still pulsing with the humor and joy I associate with my Dad? Soon came the editing, the polishing, the fine-tuning. Should I keep the part about the cathartic experience of seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert for the first time just weeks before my father would die? How much really needs to be said about the girlfriend I had back then?
Writing the show was just one part, of course. Soon I turned my attention to wardrobe. The show opens on the morning of my father’s death so I wore a robe and a Superman t-shirt, as if I just woke up (although I prefer to think that the “S” on the shirt stands for “Storyteller”). I considered sets (one table, one chair, one music stand) and blocking, lighting and music (Springsteen, please). Solo performers like me are often a production company of one, so all of this, along with marketing and promotion of your show, can overwhelm.
The performances themselves felt great. Much like my first night at The Moth, there’s a mix of emotions in the crowd. Sure, the word “funeral” is in the title. Still, my marketing pitch to fill seats was, “I’m guaranteeing laughs, with the possibility of tears and an outside chance at personal reflection.” Based on audience feedback, that was a fair description. Easily my favorite anecdote from the run was the young woman who came to see the show early in the festival, and then came back on the final night, this time bringing her dad. He told me that she had texted him, “Love you,” as she sat in the audience of my show the first time. What an amazing compliment.
Joe Charnitski is a 2-time Moth Slam winning storyteller who had his story Haunted, Abandoned, Insane featured on The Moth podcast in October 2016. He has appeared at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Magnet Theater and other venues and shows throughout the country. He was the Associate Producer of the short film anthology show Exposure on Syfy. Joe Charnitski’s Funeral is his first long form storytelling show. It was named a festival “Best Bet” in the 2017 FRIGID Festival in NYC.