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The Soup That Swims in Charlie Varon's Head
By Betsy Bannerman
Charlie Varon hears voices. Sometimes up to 20 different personalities live in his head. He often scribbles cryptically on little pieces of paper or breaks into a Studs Terkel accent at odd times of the day.
Has he lost touch with reality? Or is he just a multi-talented man in love with the craft of telling stories? "Human beings tell stories," he says. "We've been endowed with this ability as a species, not just to talk, but to tell stories. It's basic to who we are, it's how we make meaning."
Born in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx in the late '50s, Varon grew up listening to such distinctive radio personalities as Jean Shepherd, Long John Nebel, Paul Harvey, and Malachy McCourt. His favorite comedians were Bob and Ray, who wrote and delivered three hours of original sketches every afternoon on WOR Radio --hilarious takeoffs on soap operas, commercials, sportscasters, even Sesame Street.
"There was an effortless, understated, quiet insanity to their work that has continued to speak to me," Varon chuckles. "They conjured up these worlds that you could imagine yourself in."
Later, in college, he added the satire of Lenny Bruce and Shelley Berman to his list of influences.
In the summer of 1978, Varon visited San Francisco and found, "There was no reason to leave. It was so much more interesting than college. And it was a marvelous city to be a young artist in."
His rent was $70 a month, so he could work part-time and still live adequately, and there was a ton of theater, comedy, art, and music to enjoy. He still appreciates the spirit of adventure and risk-taking among San Franciscans making and watching theater today, and points to the many successes spawned by the local stage scene -- Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin, Josh Kornbluth, Whoopi Goldberg, Marga Gomez, Anna Deavere Smith.
In the early '80s, he and a friend did a traveling two-person comedy show called "The Atomic Comics," which toured the U.S. and Great Britain. The show dealt with nuclear power, the arms race, and other topical issues. Varon says that's where he honed his talents as a performer and learned how to think on his feet. He also discovered that what was funny in Boston might not go over in Bozeman, and that small-town audiences where everyone knew one another reacted differently than anonymous urban audiences. Even the auditoriums in different towns gave off different feelings. He has been fascinated with the interaction between performer and audience ever since.
Over the years, Varon has had his hands in many creative pies. He has written and performed several stage pieces. He has published humorous writings in the New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Atlantic Monthly, and other publications. He has penned sketches for radio, including his famous parodies of the BBC News for KQED in the '80s. He has even narrated museum audio tours, and in 1990 contributed to the April Fool's issue of the Noe Valley Voice.
He also teaches workshops in solo performing and playwriting in association with the Marsh, a small theater on Valencia near 22nd Street. "If you put it all together, it makes a living. I can make ends meet," he says. "So I am blessed that I do not have to have a day job." (Parenthetically he jokes that solo performers have a slightly better chance at economic viability, because they don't have to split the profits with a big cast.)
He is best-known for his successful one-man shows. Rush Limbaugh in Night School (199495) is an extremely funny satire surrounding the downfall of the bombastic, conservative commentator. Added humor comes from the ingenious plot twists, clever dialogue, and exaggerated antics of the 19 other characters in the show -- male and female, old and young -- all played by Varon, with dead-on accents and verbal mannerisms.
If Limbaugh sounds incredibly difficult, it was. Varon had to create and then memorize the entire play, not just certain lines. "But remember, while I was writing it," he explains, "I was hearing in my mind's ear the voices of these characters, so I knew them pretty well by the time I stood up on stage."
One reviewer praised, "The character of Limbaugh is more than a cartoon copy. Varon gives him an imaginative dimension that expands the scope of this wonderfully entertaining evening,...[showing him as] a powerful shaper of public opinion being shaped himself without realizing it."
Varon clearly enjoyed writing about Limbaugh as a pundit who publicly made fun of every "ism" Varon himself believes in -- feminism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, and so on. The show was a hit at the Marsh and around the country, won several local and national theatrical awards, and is now available on audio cassette from the Marsh.
In 1997, Varon wrote and performed in the four-person comedy Ralph Nader Is Missing!, which also had an extended run at the Marsh. Critics called this one "fiendishly well-written, scaldingly funny," and "politically provocative, brilliantly performed." "[The play] skewers every conceivable aspect of our commercial-driven, down-sizing culture," one wrote.
His most recent solo piece received both critical and audience raves during its sellout five-month run at the Marsh in 2000. The People's Violin centers on a 43-year-old documentary filmmaker who gets a grant to make a film about his famous father and discovers in the process his father's secret past.
Although the main narrator, Sol Shank, is a New York Jew with two children, Varon says the story is not autobiographical. However, he does admit that he drew on the emotional barriers often erected by men of his parents' generation, particularly when they are talking about the past. It made him want to explore what was on the other side of those walls.
"Storytelling draws you to extremes, to secrets, to mystery," he says. "We all experience and remember things differently; memory is highly subjective, selective, and it keeps changing and playing tricks on you. That's what makes good storytelling."
The People's Violin also has 20 different parts, and Varon moves quickly back and forth in time, place, and character, as the drama builds and reveals. The play showed three nights a week for five months and was emotionally as well as physically exhausting. "The pacing alone is film pacing," Varon notes, "which is what audiences are accustomed to. But I hadn't realized what this would do to one human being, trying to do a movie on stage."
He confesses that he forgot a line or two during previews, and felt bad about it until his director reassured him, "It's like the audience is watching this amazing juggler. You have to drop a ball once in a while for them to realize how hard what you're doing is."
The production led Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle to wax, "It represents for Varon the kind of leap from talent to fruition that most artists only dream about. The show has implications for the entire field of solo performance."
Varon demurs, "I don't generally read reviews. It's just one man's opinion. And it doesn't help me. The good ones go to your head, the bad ones make you self-conscious." True validation came from a woman who said to him that when she had watched the curtain call for The People's Violin, she had expected to see 20 different people bowing.
For Varon, this kind of connection is the essence of theater. "When I am on stage," he says, "I demand that the audience become my partner in creating this world, through using their imaginations." For this reason he uses no costumes in his act and very few sets or props, making the audience do the work of picturing the story. He also prefers working in intimate, unpretentious theaters like the Marsh, because people come in feeling more open and relaxed, and less like dressed-up, role-playing patrons of the downtown "red-velvet-curtain" scene.
Varon's next project is called "Ten-Day Soup." He and collaborator/director David Ford will lock themselves away and brainstorm creatively for 10 days. Then, Varon will perform whatever ideas the two have come up with.
"I've been working on these long, highly crafted, complex projects," Varon says, "and I just wanted to shake myself up, force myself to work more quickly, more intuitively." The sketches will appear sometime next year.
Even farther in the future is Varon's self-imposed 10-year project on storytelling. It started as a joke, as a way of putting off people who kept asking him at the end of The People's Violin, when he had lost 20 pounds and was in a state of utter physical and mental exhaustion, "So, what are you doing next?" But the more he thought about working on something with no immediate deadline, no clear destination, no tight structure, the more it appealed to him. He is not even writing anything yet, just reading and thinking, maybe jotting down notes on the little pieces of paper that are next to the telephone or listening to audiotapes of a speaker whose voice he loves.
Some of the questions he intends to explore on this storytelling journey are: How are stories that are an integral part of a community remembered differently from stories that circulate outside that community? How can storytelling maintain its magic in the current climate of film and TV, where all the visual work is "done for you" and the audience is swept away not by the power of imagination but by cinematic tricks? How can storytellers hold on to their integrity and individuality and not put out a product that's a carbon copy of everything else? And how many stories do we need anyway?
Meanwhile, Varon continues to live quietly on Chattanooga Street with partner Myra Levy (a former bookkeeper at Cover to Cover), and their two children. In keeping with his belief in the importance of imagination, Varon invents bedtime stories for his kids during "lights-out," so they are free to listen and make their own mental pictures.
Six-year-old Jeremy already has what Varon calls "a very expressive, natural storytelling voice," and fourth-grader Jonah did an impersonation of his teachers calling the kids in from recess that brought down the house at a recent school camping trip.
"I saw him look at the laughing, clapping audience," Varon remembers, "and I saw him get a taste of this thing and I thought...."