Martin Moran is an accomplished actor and a gifted storyteller. His memoir, The Tricky Part: One Boy's Fall from Trespass into Grace, addresses the difficult subject of sexual abuse with candor, sensitivity, and stunning clarity. The book and the play of the same name (which received an Obie award and two Drama Desk nominations) recount his relationship, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, with a much older man.
This year, The Tricky Part was released on audio for the first time, with Moran providing the narration. And in February, he premiered his new one-man show, All the Rage, to acclaim from the New York Times and the New Yorker, among others. In May, the play received the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show. We spoke with Moran via Skype about the enduring life of The Tricky Part (in all its forms) and his new work.
You wrote and performed The Tricky Part as a one-person play, and you've said it took you ten years to write the book. It's a story that deals with uncomfortable and sometimes painful subjects—coming to terms with sexual abuse, growing up Catholic and coming out—but sharing it has been a big part of your professional career. Has the experience of telling and re-telling it changed over time?
This question brings up so many aspects of the endeavor of making a piece of art: the incredible mystery, the endeavor of taking something so personal, which, yes, was difficult to excavate, deeply frightening at first to grapple with. But the act of crafting a book or a play with the intention of offering something to fellow human beings and wanting it to be beautiful, wanting it to be a piece of art—the very act of doing that is transformative. And that transformation continues over time. The work takes on its own agency. It moves in the world with its own separate chakti, it's own separate energy. The sense of personal "ownership" lessens over time. The sense of it being simply human and not "Martin" grows. The paradox is: the more incisively personal you strive to be, the more simply human the work is. It becomes not a personal question but simply a human question. And over time I've moved on; there are other questions that are obsessing me now.
The attempt through The Tricky Part to understand my boyhood and of having been violated and trying to find the path to authentic forgiveness—all of that was arduous and painful in the making of it—at moments a joy as well, but the distance is welcome. It is all less gripping now. Which is probably why we do the work of art in the fist place: to move toward freedom of some sort. This urge to move toward liberation, to not have the past be around our throats, but to release the past and wake up to the present. To be present is to be free, for the most part.
How is performing your story different from the act of writing it?
There are little overlaps, particularly there's a chunk of the play where I say, "Let me read from what I wrote." So there's about a fifteen minute chunk of the play where I read, and that's identical to what's in the book. But I must say the recording of the book was fascinating. Being in a booth with a little microphone, as opposed to an audience of five hundred. But there was a guy, an engineer named Allen. He was such a nice guy—a sweet Jewish dad from Long Island with two kids, who didn't know from Catholicism, didn't know from being abused as a kid. I was very, very conscious of Allen listening. I didn't tell him that, but he became in a sense my audience. So there is always that essential act of communication in the moment with a listener. That act of connection.
I must say I was surprised to come back to my memoir. It came out in 2005) and I recorded this past fall, so that's seven years. This was the first time I was reading it in seven years. Two or three times, I absolutely lost it. Stuff I hadn't really thought about or remembered—there I was just saying I've gained all this distance on it, but it snuck up and just choked me up.
Allen was so great. He'd say, "That's cool man, let's take a minute."
This process of writing and performing for the stage, and writing for the page, is something I've been grappling with all along. I'm in the midst of doing it again. My play All the Rage just closed, and I'm attempting to write a book about the same terrain. The energy of what's written for the page as opposed to the language that's crafted for the stage—it's just different, and it's almost as though I have to take time to tune my ear for the different forms.
It's much more intimate reading a book. It's as though while writing I am thinking of an audience of one. On the stage, there's a responsibility to perform in a way that's extremely clear and animated and in my case a kind of sleight if hand—that sense of the language being made up on the spot. A theatrical event. Your body takes over. You're facing a big room. Sitting and reading the book was more like being in an armchair curled up next to somebody. The recording of it in the booth was this quiet act of intimacy, of sitting down and reading a bedtime story to a loved one. Of offering it up simply and sensing that they perhaps are following along with the pages. It's calibrated much more quietly.
How long did it take to record the audio?
I was doing a play at the time that was so rigorous, down at the Public Theater, and I found that I could do only about five hours max in a day. My voice and my brain were ditzing out—and I'd just gotten over pneumonia. So I was struggling a bit, vocally. But it took, all told, including pickup sessions to fix things, five days on and off in the booth, for about five hours a day. (The completed audio is 9 hours 25 minutes.)
How are you feeling about the reception for All the Rage?
I feel tremendously gratified. I always knew it was very different structurally and energetically from The Tricky Part, because The Tricky Part has a built-in narrative structure that is suspenseful, dramatic. All the Rage is a very fractured piece that tries to parse anger from many different angles, and I never even knew until the moment I was opening in New York City if this would really land or just fall flat. So I'm enormously gratified and relieved that the play was thoughtfully reviewed, particularly by the New York Times and the New Yorker, and then it was embraced by the theatrical community with the Outer Critics Circle nomination and the Lucille Lortel award. As with The Tricky Part getting the Obie, the Lortel is the other big off-Broadway kudo, so I'm really grateful.
In All the Rage, you quote from a review of The Tricky Part that expressed shock at the fact that you didn't "blame or despise" your molester. How does the play address your anger or perceived lack of it?
I find that I'm assailed with a sense of hopelessness when trying to discuss something as bottomless and complicated as anger. Both as a cultural emotion, social emotion, and my personal relationship to anger. It began very personally: Did I miss something? Did I skip a whole gamut of exploring my story? Am I not finished? Damn, after a three hundred page book and a play? Then there was a whole cultural male thing, of what I heard in that review, and of people asking me, "Where is your anger?" What I heard is, "Moran, grow a couple. Where's your testosterone? C'mon, just strangle the motherfucker." I didn't use his real name in the book. I was focused on compassion and forgiveness. And then I thought, "Are you being totally honest? Don't you really just want to strangle the guy who harmed you?" Sometimes I do. So in the piece, there's no one answer. It's like living in the question of anger, and never really quite landing on an answer. The play reaches a place of trying to provoke the dance of human "oneness." That essential reality that we glimpse sometimes? That we are, in fact, one. We are these dancing molecules of consciousness. Is anger an act of living out our separateness? "You have hurt me, and I must hurt you." Is that part of the experience of anger? Revenge? But perhaps the very act of dancing through the agony of separateness brings us once again back to the amazing realization of oneness. At the end of All the Rage I talk about this dream where my 'enemy' says to me, "What we're doing here is rehearsing consciousness."
Martin Moran will be performing both The Tricky Part and All the Rage at the Two River Theater Company this fall.