At 25, monologuist John Michael discovered himself by serving old folks
John Michael has always burned to express himself creatively. He tried acting, but he was not good at it. “I can’t impersonate other people, which is what actors do,” he says in frank self-reflection. So he did the next best thing: He took to the stage as a monologuist (preferable to the dreaded portmanteau term “performance artist”) and put his life up for all to see. Every. Awful. Detail.
How awful? Well, working in fast-food to start. Then talking about what a slob he is, and how it got him kicked out of his parents’ house (twice) and even a commune of hippies. (Note: If hippies think you’re sloppy, you should probably have your own reality TV series.) Then about how he contracted syphilis. Then his fantasies about giving Harry Potter (“the defining character of my generation,” he says) AIDS.
But all that was just him. It changed when he looked outside himself. That seemed too personal.
John Michael’s new solo performance piece, Crossing Your I’s, was already in the works and once again, it was being directed by John Michael’s former collaborator and mentor Matt Tomlanovich. Then earlier this spring, Tomlanovich contracted a debilitating illness — a MERSA infection that attacked his spine, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down and on a respirator to breathe. John Michael riffed freely about his own tragedies, but incorporating someone else’s seemed grotesque.
But then the unexpected happened: Tomlanovich gave him his approval. It was OK to mention the paralysis — that’s what artists do.
“I didn’t want to talk about him, but I realized that what I do the most — I talk about my life,” John Michael says. “Then Matt said it was OK … just don’t ask my wife for permission first.”
Perhaps ironically, exploring Tomlanovich’s illness segued into the theme of Crossing Your I’s: How John Michael, at 25, is ready to grow up.
It’s something neither he, his family nor close friends thought would ever happen. And it started with a job.
About 15 months ago, after a series of jobs that lasted no more than four months, John Michael went on Craiglist and typed in the qualities he felt he best embodied: “Clever,” “creative,” “out-of-the-box.” (Phrases he didn’t use? “Professional,” “on time,” “clean.”) And what came back was a job working with elderly dementia patients in a Dallas nursing home.
It seemed at first an odd fit. Indeed, it was. Early on, he was constantly on the brink of being fired, criticized constantly for what he did wrong. But he also knew his traits should work in this setting.
“I had to break out of my selfish shell and being me at work,” he says. “Now, I do things I couldn’t see myself doing two years ago. And I get comments about being a better friend, a better person.”
All of this led him to think, what would it be like if his future self visited his present-day self … and he had gotten dementia? What would that experience be like?
It would be a lot like — no, exactly like — Crossing Your I’s.
The piece would not have been possible without channeling at that he has learned about older people and more importantly, himself, by hanging with the residents of his facility. (“I’m not doing impersonation of the residents,” John Michael stresses. “It’s one thing doing an impersonation of a one-night; it’s another to do it with someone suffering from dementia.”)
Some of the lessons he’s gleaned from his role with the residents is how not to make every moment of every day about him; patients with encroaching senility have a world view that has shrunk, with their oldest memories usually the easiest ones to remember (and the last to fade). Sometimes, that means they make racist comments that would not have raised an eyebrow 50 years ago; sometimes it means being annoying as a mechanism for asserting their presence in a situation. And what John Michael does is help them maintain their dignity.
“A lot of my day is figuring out how I can get them to do things,” he says. “Some dementia patients don’t even know they are hungry, and you want to get them to eat. Some do things like this one woman who started to brush her hair with a knife. I didn’t say, ‘Put that down! That’s a knife, it can hurt you!’ I say, ‘I love that brush — can I borrow it and give you another one?’”
Recently, he offered one female patient a bowl of popcorn (“we make a lot of popcorn there — because of the smell and how easy it is to do, and everybody likes popcorn!”), and she proceeded to take off her shoe and pour the popcorn into it and offered it to him. Rather than correct her, he just rolled with it. “But I didn’t bring anything for you!” he said, accepting the offer.
He was recently given a promotion and a new job title: To help devise activities for the lower-functioning residents — a job he’s embraced with gusto. And perhaps that’s the most surprising development in his life so far.
“It’s not about me” is a lesson everyone needs to learn, and one that John Michael has turned into his latest stab at art. (He’s performing as part of the Dallas Solo Fest, a week-long one-person play which features eight performers, including local actor-playwrights Danny O’Connor and Elaine Liner.) At work, he dresses in loud colors and funky shoes and puts a bounce in his step to make himself easy to spot and remember. And he would never tell the residents he’s gay — many wouldn’t know how to process it. (When one resident did say he seemed gay, he was initially taken aback … until he realized she meant it in the old-school “happy” definition.)
And John Michael has learned that even dementia patients can have a sense of humor.
“There’s this one resident who thinks I’m a playboy and have tons of girlfriends,” which he never disabuses him of. Recently, John Michael told the resident he was so tired, on his day off, “I slept for 15 hours. And he said, ‘Was she pretty?’” John Michael smiled. “Yes, she was,” he responded. He … she … what difference does it make?
Just another good story for his next monologue.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 9, 2014.