Spoleto 2012 » Theater

Jack Hitt steps into the spotlight

Truth or Consequences

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When writing a preview story about a theatrical show, it is not customary to begin an interview with the performer in question by discussing an entirely different star from an entirely different show.

But these are special circumstances.

Because it's not often that a man, a teller of tales that were never supposed to be tall, goes on one of the most popular public radio programs dedicated to the art of the narrative and purposely lies. And it's an even rarer coincidence that that same man would perform at a Charleston arts festival, in the same theater where another storyteller, this one a legitimate journalist with a different set of ethics, who's woven his own yarns on that very same radio program, would be performing his own show. A show that happens to go by the name Making Up the Truth.

So we just had to ask Jack Hitt about the Mike Daisey incident.

"I was pretty sad," Hitt says about his reaction to the fiasco. The This American Life contributing editor and Charleston native has performed with Daisey at The Moth, a storytelling venue in New York, and he got to see the now infamously fabricated The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater. Hitt says he found it powerful, if a bit too self-righteous. "Daisey can take over a story like no one I've ever seen and he tells it with his entire being — not in the kind of mealy or saccharin way of those hideous storytellers at storytelling conventions, but with this all-out magnificence that can just fill up a room with hilarity," he says. "But, with the Steve Jobs piece, he did a bad thing. He appropriated someone else's experience as his own and then as he prepared the radio piece, he lied directly to individuals on the show, to their face. It was a conscious thing."

And despite having the name Making Up the Truth, Jack Hitt's one-man show is not about what Mike Daisey did. As he says, what Daisey did is very, very old — what Hitt will talk about in his performance is brand new science. Looking internally and externally, Hitt will use his life's experiences to study reality, or what we perceive reality to be. Apparently, our noggins have a lot to do with it. Making Up the Truth fuses brain science with intimate anecdotes, some that are already familiar to Hitt or This American Life fans. And yes, you'll hear about famed Charleston transvestite Dawn Pepita Langley Hall, who was famed for her writing, her interracial marriage (hers was the first legal one in the state), and her sex reassignment surgery, among other things. (Hitt grew up down the street from her.)

Working with visual artist Aaron Harrow and director Jessica Bauman, Making Up the Truth was developed out of stories that Hitt worked through on stage, on the radio, or around the dinner table. It evolved its way through the New York Theater Workshop and the Huntington Theater in Boston, where it was completed over the course of a year. A lot got cut along the way. "I recently came upon one of my original drafts of this piece, and I barely recognized it," Hitt says. An earlier version of the show was eventually workshopped in front of a New York City audience last April; he describes the result as "not a total turd, but very turd-esque." "And that includes the look and the direction," he says. "So it turns out workshopping is not just for the writing. Getting all the moving parts of this show to line up right is really what any theater is."

There is some flexibility to the piece, but for the most part, the subject, timing, and visuals are all set. While the unplanned inevitabilities of the live show are possible, there's fortunately still a concrete difference between human error and deliberate fabrication. "Every journalist is terrified of making mistakes and getting something wrong," Hitt admits. "It's why journals like the [New York] Times Magazine and the New Yorker and radio shows like This American Life have exacting fact-checking procedures. But these systems are all designed to catch mistakes. What Mike did was not a mistake."

Another thing that's true about journalists (and the City Paper can back this up with substantial examples): The profession is packed with awkward, stage-frightened weirdos, which is why many of us keep to the written word and avoid a spotlit stage at all costs. Hitt, a seasoned writer with five books to his name and pieces published everywhere from Harper's to Rolling Stone, has crossed over to the dark side with his radio work and this public performance. He confirms it's a brutal transition.

"The first few times I performed this piece, I possessed all the panache of a fifth grade bed-wetter doing Shakespeare in front of his homeroom," he says. So he took Propranolol, the stage-fright drug. That meant dry palms, a steady voice, a no-longer-throbbing heart. "But it felt weird out there in this other way. I still had stage fright. I just didn't feel like I did," he continues. "It was as if I were performing inside a droid of myself. So I quit that."

Hitt now finds that by subduing his internal misfit, another version of himself appears. "And it's that guy I try to conjure and then present on stage now," he says. And 10 or 15 minutes into his show, he'll realize that the new guy has taken over and is the one performing on stage. "And my inner weirdo is like, 'Oh, you again, good to see you, go ahead, take over and run with it. Break a leg.' "

Spoleto Festival USA. Jack Hitt: Making Up the Truth. May 25 at 8 p.m. May 26 at 9 p.m. May 27 at 12 p.m. May 28 at 8 p.m. $32. Emmett Robinson Theatre

Conversations With... May 28 at 3 p.m. Free. Recital Hall, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. (843) 579-3100

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