Raconteur Edgar Oliver talks about his autobiographical show
The downtown staple and Moth regular weaves more bizarre tales of his Savannah childhood in Helen & Edgar
Thu Jan 9 2014
Photograph: Sara Stacke
Fans of the Moth storytelling series will be familiar with the colorful past and singular speaking voice of Edgar Oliver, who sounds like he emerged from the depths of a haunted Victorian castle (see the video below the interview for a sampling). The downtown writer-performer actually grew up in Savannah, in a life of stark isolation with his sister and their enigmatic mother. Oliver worked with Moth artistic director Catherine Burns to turn the darkly comic—and comically dark—stories of his youth into an evening-length show, Helen & Edgar, which he’s performing as part of the Under the Radar festival at the Public Theater. We caught up with the cult legend to discuss his artistic (or as he would pronounce it, ahhrrrtistic) process.
Did Helen & Edgar come out of the stories you’ve performed at the Moth?
Yes, that’s where it came from, really. I had been telling stories at the Moth for over ten years, and George [Dawes] Green, who founded the Moth, kept saying over and over that he thought that I should do a whole full-length evening of telling stories. We’d been planning to do it for a long time. And finally we did.
It seems like there is a real wealth of stories from your childhood. How did you decide what to include?
A lot of that I did with Catherine Burns, who directed the show. I spent quite a while writing down things that I thought might be good for the show, and I came up with a 76-page manuscript. And then we just went through the whole manuscript trying to decide what to keep and what not to put in the show. It was actually sort of a heartrending process to eliminate things, but Catherine really helped me to sculpt the show and give it a shape, and make it so that it wasn’t too long. [Laughs] A lot of very emotional, personal things to me actually didn’t get put in the show. It’s really just about Mother and Helen and me all together, and it works really well that way.
What makes you want to tell these stories live versus writing them as a memoir?
I certainly would love to make a book out of it all someday, but storytelling and performing is such a direct form of communication. And it seems to be something I can do really well. [Laughs] I’ve been for years and years performing. I wrote a whole series of plays that were fictionalized accounts of my real childhood, and I staged those at different theaters downtown. So this is a continuation of [what] I’ve been doing for many, many years, but this is different in that it’s all completely factual.
What do you hope that people take away from Helen & Edgar?
I guess that a lot of people might find that my childhood was very strange, but I hope that people can identify with it. Strange as it may have been, it wasn’t really that strange. [Laughs] Everybody’s life is strange, you know. I just hope that people have some personal identification with it and I hope that they enjoy it. And I hope that I will be able to convey Mother somehow, and that people will go away with a kind of understanding of her as an artist and an appreciation of her work. I hope it’s moving and funny and strange.
Is tone something you’re conscious of as you’re writing?
I’m sort of conscious of it, yes, although at the same time not ever necessarily trying to be funny. I like very much a mixture of humor and darkness in the things that I do.
You’ve been a part of the downtown performance scene for a long time. How’s it doing these days?
I’m happy to say that theater downtown is still thriving madly, which is great. There’s always just amazing stuff being done. And I’m also happy to say that it seems to me that Off-Off Broadway theater—like, really experimental downtown theater—is getting a lot more attention from the press than it used to get. And I think that’s a great thing.
Helen & Edgar is at the Public Theater through Jan 18. undertheradarfestival.com. $20.
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)