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True Stories

by David New

"Besides which, all that I could have said of the Story to any purpose, I had endeavored to say in it."David Copperfield Speaking to ensemble member Jim True-Frost about the recent productions he has appeared in at Steppenwolf, as well as his upcoming appearance in The Pillowman, distinct themes begin to emerge: the actor as storyteller and the awesome power of creating and communicating stories. When True-Frost appeared as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, he portrayed a man narrating the story of his life. Stepping in and out of the narrative voice, he also filled the double role of narrator and actor. “In that type of role, it’s a question of defining yourself and telling your own story,” the actor noted. “David, through rehearsing his childhood and past loves, is painting a picture of what constitutes who he is. It’s a series of situations, relationships and attachments that begin with the type of childish and very sentimental attachments to his nanny and then his boyhood school chum, proceeding then to his series of romantic partners, culminating in a very deep and true romantic love.” In this case, it is through the re-living of his story that the character rehearses, becomes an actor in, and narrates his experience. The resultant story is ultimately a definition of self. “It’s a long story; you’d be destroyed listening.” The Playboy of the Western World In J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, True-Frost played Christy Mahon, another man who tells the story of his past, this time to the strangers whose town he visits. "Christy thinks to himself, ‘drawing on a clean slate, can I use my imagination to show the heroic and powerful and romantic hero that I think I can be?'” explains True-Frost. “And when he’s presented with an audience who’s hungry for a person that embodies those qualities, he quickly becomes exactly who he says he is and who he wants to be. He grabs hold of his experience and his identity and forms it to his will instead of being a victim or just somebody beaten around by the cruelty and unfairness of life.” The defining of self occurs not through a recollection of what happened in the past, but rather through a willful act of imagination, an original creation, the result lying in stark contrast to reality. “This is just like storytelling.” The Pillowman In The Pillowman, the actor portrays yet another breed of storyteller. Katurian is the author of over 400 short stories, some of which depict horrific acts of violence being visited upon children. The authorities bring him in for questioning when local incidents bear an uncanny resemblance to the plots of his stories. “With Katurian,” True-Frost says, “there’s this very deliberate act of saying ‘my background is dark and violent and I want somehow to redeem it. I want to create stories that will somehow rise above my past and bring light into the world.’” Katurian is forced to defend himself and the stories he has authored, and in doing so he reveals to us the trauma of his own childhood. And it is childhood trauma that seems to lie at the center of the deep need to create and relate stories in all three of these characters. David Copperfield is beaten viciously by his stepfather Mr. Murdstone, and the schoolmaster Mr. Creakle. Subsequently, his mother dies and he is sorely neglected through the rest of his childhood. So too, in The Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon, motherless, is subjected to brutal physical abuse at the hands of his father. Katurian, however, sustains a different kind of abuse at the hands of his parents, abuse which scars the psyche rather than the body and unleashes true terror through the power of imagination. It is the revelation of the experienced horror of his childhood trauma that allows us to begin to understand the disturbing nature of the stories he has authored.