Christian Shaboo had ventured deep into the territory of “The Laughing Man.” Already he had relayed to the audience the man’s repeated triumphs against the nefarious Marcel Dufarge and his evil daughter; his cunning ways with the Paris sewer system; his facility in talking to animals. With one free hand, the actor wove The Laughing Man’s mask through the air, a layering of red poppy petals, waxy and pungent, appearing before the rapt audience as his fingers flitted to and fro.
But this wasn’t just another run through for the New Haven Theater Company actor (pictured below). Shaboo looked up from his script—one of J.D. Salinger’s celebrated short stories—and motioned quickly to the small group before him. Then he looked back to the page.
Shaboo’s performance was part of November’s “Listen Here!” series at the Institute Library on Chapel Street, held Monday evening in the IL’s quiet, cozy back room. Spearheaded by New Haven Review publisher Bennett Lovett-Graff, the series is a reworked version of the Listen Here! storytelling events held at coffee shops and bookstores in years prior, and offers a dynamic collaboration between the New Haven Review, New Haven Theater Company, and Institute Library. Monday, a small but devoted audience shook off the rain and chill to hear the stories, which ran about 30 minutes each and were followed by a talkback and Q&A with the actors.
“NPR’s Selected Shorts is our template ... but we’re so much better,” Lovett-Graff said to chuckles as he introduced the actors.
The series is one part acting, one part storytelling, and one part magic—at least one part magic. This month’s session, entitled “Bitter Sweet,” featured Salinger’s story alongside Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” read by NHTC actors Shaboo and Megan Chenot. Both had been featured in the old Listen Here! series, but not together. That decision came from Lovett-Graff’s interest in exploring how stories change thematically and contextually when placed alongside each other. The two-story result, quite different from the actors’ recent performance in Our Town, was intended to expose audiences to new literature while giving them a chance to hear it aloud, picking up nuances and new narrative threads in the work.
“The title of this is ‘Bitter Sweet,’ as two words, and I think you can see that in both stories.” Lovett-Graff said of the pairing.
The concentration on a theme, especially in the salon-style talkback, makes Listen Here! much more than a story time or book club for adults. A prime example of the collaborative arts scene in New Haven, it stretches the boundaries of audience participation—and requires the actors to work outside their comfort zones. As Chenot described her part-pathos, part-podcast-inspired approach to Hempel’s story, the setting of which alternates between the belly of a cancer ward and the narrator’s young, freedom-driven imagination, she noted that “it was driving me nuts not to be able to walk around…. I don’t like standing still, yet it’s a wonderful thing to kind of just let your body be quiet and have the words. It’s a wonderful challenge.”
“Midway through I got the feeling of ‘man, I wish I had this memorized!’ because I would be able to put the action in. I think every writer gives you little clues.” added Shaboo.
His reservations that the acting had somehow fallen short were unwarranted. During the talkback, attendees shared their enthusiasm for the material, put into a new light as it transitioned from polished page to makeshift stage.
“I loved how you brought the Hempel to life,” noted one attendee from the back of the library.
Lovett-Graff pushed it a step further. “I think if we looked around at a party, we would be the most interesting people there,” he said as the actors finished their comments and the evening wound down.
A steady rain pounded on the roof of the library. The audience’s laughter drowned it out.
For more about Listen Here! and other events at the Institute Library, visit their events page.