Chicago — As pick-up lines go, “Would you like to be part of a séance to bring my mom back from the dead?” certainly gets points for originality, if not efficacy. But it’s the premise behind John Michael Colgin’s Meatball Séance, which finishes its run at Chicago’s Mary’s Attic on April 6.
Colgin even had business cards made up reading “John Michael needs your help with his mom’s meatball recipe to summon her back from the dead, so that she can meet/approve of his boyfriend.”
In an interview before Meatball Séance opened, Colgin says the idea came about because he realized that people didn’t know how to react when they learned his mom had died. “And then all of a sudden you’re stuck with feeling sorry for people for feeling awkward. So I’m at a bar — a gay bar — and I talk to a cute boy and I say ‘Hey, my name’s John Michael, and I want you to come to my séance.’ And then I flip it over. All of a sudden, they’ve found out my mom is dead, but they’re smiling. So it’s already working, you know?”
Dallas-born Colgin, 27 (who performs under the moniker “John Michael”), made his mark as a queer solo performer in his hometown, but he’s been building a small but loyal following since relocating to the Windy City after his mother’s death in 2014.
Elizabeth Colgin’s meatball recipe does indeed dominate the proceedings in Meatball Séance, just as her death provided the twist and the gut-punch in Colgin’s earlier solo, Dementia Me, presented at Chicago’s Den Theatre last year. That piece — which also traced his two-year stint working at a “memory care center” for adults with dementia — used balloons as stand-ins for the patients and for Colgin’s own imagined future (and churlish) self.
So capturing memories and giving shape to loss provides the subtext for Colgin’s work — but humor is also key. He says of his mother “I miss her so much. But I can’t do a sad play about her because she made so many people happy. She’d go into hospital rooms with her friends who were battling breast cancer and make everyone laugh. There was no setting where she couldn’t find laughter.”
Colgin takes a leap of faith not only in the subject matter of his shows, which mix a potent cocktail of grief and lust, but in his working process. Citing monologist Mike Daisey as his inspiration, Colgin works out his shows in front of the audience, rather than having a finished script before rehearsal begins. “Learning about [Daisey’s] process unlocked something for me,” he says, later adding “The script is like four pages with little bullet points.” For Meatball Séance, he collaborated with director Janet Howe of Chicago’s (re)discover theatre, which specializes in reshaping classic texts for contemporary sensibilities — as with their touring production of Fifty Shades of Shakespeare.
What’s new this time around is that Colgin, who always acknowledges and interacts with his audience (even if they’re in the process of walking out, as happened with some patrons on the opening night of Dementia Me) actually brings the audience into the show to play his various partners and to help make his mom’s meatballs.
In a phone interview a few weeks into the run of Meatball Séance, Colgin says that the show has grown through the audience participation. “One of the spokes to the wheel is meeting people where they’re at, and not trying to change them. In the opening performance, I felt I was giving some ownership to the audience. But now I feel like they have the agency to determine the speed at which they want to drive. How do you make that compelling to the audience, when the speed and tempo changes a bit? You have to commit to that. They are literally seeing me act out the theme of the show, which is relating to someone.”
Colgin also notes that the death of his long-time mentor and collaborator, Matthew Tomlanovich of Dallas’ Margo Jones Theatre, also has colored his work. “I try to still study his philosophy. Some of the notes he gave me — they were about embracing the stumbling. Saying yes to the stumbling. Like acknowledging when audience members walk out.”
At this stage of his career in Chicago, Colgin acknowledges that at least half his audience is friends and friends-of-friends. “I’m not dogging that,” he says with a laugh. “That’s how small potatoes I am. There were only three reviewers there on opening night.” (Part of that may be due to the fact that the show has a one-night-a-week performance schedule, which works against the grain for getting reviewed in a theater-heavy town like Chicago.) He’s been making contacts through going to shows and by taking classes, including with Chicago’s long-running experimental company, the Neo-Futurists.
Colgin also has learned how to work within different venues and their challenges. In particular, Mary’s Attic (located above the popular Hamburger Mary’s restaurant in Chicago’s gay-centric Andersonville neighborhood) has a full bar running during the show. “They are selling alcohol throughout the show and that is why the rent is cheap. There is clinking all throughout the show and I deal with that.” (Audience members who consent to participate also get their drinks comped. On the upside, Colgin says that the production only cost him about $600.)
“What happens after the show is that I try to shake every audience member’s hand and to drink with them,” he says. “I invite everyone to come down and see that what they saw onstage is me. That’s a rewarding thing about the work. They realize that there is no acting. The goal for the piece is to be myself onstage.”
But there is also someone else he wants to be. “At first, I thought I wanted to make something so crazy about my mother’s death that instead of saying ‘Aw,’ or feeling sorry for me, they would laugh. Grief makes you crazy and that is why everyone is scared of it.”
Of his mother, he simply says, “The specific reason I wanted to bring her back was so that my significant others could meet her. It was the last piece of the puzzle. I am my mother’s son. When I describe my mom, I want people to say ‘Sounds like you’re describing yourself.’ Because I miss her so much.”
» Kerry Reid is a Chicago-based freelance writer