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Greg Tavares moves from improv comedy to near-tragedy in his new one-man show

Sea Change

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I Am the Horrible Thing
Thurs. April 18
8 p.m.
$8
Theatre 99
280 Meeting St.
Downtown
Theatre99.com

Greg Tavares is typically onstage two or three times a week as part of the improv group The Have Nots, creating funny characters, coming up with funny lines on the fly, and generally making people laugh. His new one-man show, however, is not really a laughing matter. The basis for I Am the Horrible Thing, which Tavares performs at Theatre 99 this Thursday, is a near-death experience he had recently while on vacation with his wife in Costa Rica.

Tavares loves paddleboarding, and one of the reasons he and his wife chose Costa Rica was that it's famous for its surfing-friendly beaches; but on the day that Tavares headed for the shoreline, he knew immediately that he was in over his head.

"The waves were way bigger than I should've been in, and I knew that," he says. "But I didn't want to go all the way to Costa Rica and not get in those waves. So I had that moment where I was like, 'I came here to do this.'"

Besides, Tavares had a guide to see him through the rough waters. At least he did at first.

"When I got in the water, I got hit by a big giant wave," he says. "My leash (a rope connecting the rider to his or her paddleboard) broke, I got separated from my guide, I was out there right in the middle of the breakers, and I was getting hit by these waves, and I almost drowned."

Tavares didn't drown, but he hasn't really recovered from that day, at least mentally speaking.

"What happened basically is that I had PTSD after the experience," he says. "I had all of the classic responses to a traumatic event. You go over it again and again, thinking about what you did right and what you did wrong; you wake up screaming at night ... it wasn't over when it was over for me. It was like it was still happening."

As a writer and actor with more than two decades of experience onstage, Tavares sought some kind of comfort in what was a familiar outlet for him.

"I would end up talking to myself about the experience in my house," he says, "and pretty soon I realized it needed to be a show. I thought the best thing to do was to write about it and perform about it, and maybe that would help me deal with something painful and traumatic. The experience was telling me that I needed to create something. I don't want to put it in the category of therapy, but it was still therapeutic to make this show."

If you're waiting for the comedy part to come in, simply because that's what most Charleston theater audiences are used to seeing Tavares do, you're in for a long wait. I Am the Horrible Thing has moments of humor in it, but it's largely an intense, dramatic monologue delivered straight to the audience in a bare-bones stage setting. Tavares relives those horrifying moments at sea and pairs that retelling with childhood memories of growing up in Hawaii, those memories having surfaced in the aftermath of his near-death experience. It's a compelling journey through one man's recollections and a harrowing life-and-death moment, for both the audience and Tavares.

"It changes every time I do it because I relive the experience, and you don't really control that," he says. "When I'm doing it well, it's like I'm going through it again, and new feelings come out or I remember something that I didn't before. I'm trying to remember it clearly so I can let it go."

And in order to do that, Tavares knew he would have to face the crowd in a way he'd never done before: As himself.

"This show only works if I'm talking directly to the people in the room," he says. "There's no membrane between me and them. When I'm doing an improv comedy show, I'm an actor, therefore I'm putting on a character. I'm wearing a mask, if you will. When I'm playing a character, I'm not focusing on the fact that I'm doing a performance for people. I'm kind of imagining that it isn't a performance. For this show, I'm walking out onto the stage and looking into the eyes of the people who are actually in the front row, and saying 'Hi, my name is Greg, I almost died on vacation,' and that's a big change for me personally. It's been a big adjustment for me, getting used to talking straight to the people."

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