John Donvan’s day job involves the tough realities of serious, hard, and often breaking news. A White House correspondent, a foreign correspondent, and a fixture on Nightline in its heyday, for ABC News he has traveled all over the world—Moscow, London, throughout war zones and other hotspots of the Mideast, and across the US. In addition to war, mayhem, and political strife, he’s also covered some softer news, such as royal weddings. For Donvan, though, the stories he reported on-air aren’t necessarily the whole story. He’s put that other point of view into a one-man show he’ll debut this Saturday at SpeakeasyDC.
The concept is storytelling, a movement that has grown strong through The Moth Radio Hour in New York, which airs on more than 200 stations. SpeakeasyDC started producing story performances even before The Moth, according to Donvan. The organization does monthly shows at Town Danceboutique and also teaches classes. Those monthly shows feature people telling seven-minute stories. Donvan’s performance is a first because he will be onstage for almost a full hour. He’s on a double bill with Anne Thomas, who has been featured on The Moth. Paralyzed below the waist, she structures her performance on the theme, “Living large through the seat of my pants.”
Donvan, who appears second on the bill, calls his show “Lose the Kid.” He and Thomas will perform together each Saturday this month, with a 3 PM curtain time, at the Mead Theater Lab at 916 G Street, Northwest. Tickets are $20.
We phoned Donvan on Thursday morning to learn more about the show, the process, and the storytelling journey he plans for his audience.
What are you working on right now outside of the theater appearance?
My book, which is on the history of autism and will be published in a year. It covers the discovery of the first case up through the present day, and all of its social implications—the battles for treatment, the right to go to school, insurance coverage, the impact on families who fight those battles, and how we perceive people who are different from ourselves.
Do you have a personal connection to autism?
My wife’s brother has autism. My co-author, ABC producer Caren Zucker, has a teenage son with autism.
What is your current role at ABC News?
I’m officially called an essayist. I do essays on events in the news, writerly takes on slices of life. My models are Charles Kuralt and Charles Osgood. I also host and moderate the Intelligence Squared debate series that airs on NPR.
How you find time to do more is a mystery, but what can you share about your one-man show?
It’s a Spaulding Gray kind of thing, a one-man monologue. In 2010 I went to Speakeasy at Town Danceboutique. It’s a gay bar, but they take over the place for an evening. It was standing room only. A few hundred people were packed in. They had some time left at the end of the show for anyone in the audience who wanted to get up and tell a story. A friend elbowed me. I went up and told a three-minute story—about being a little kid and going through my dad’s bureau drawer—and it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. I left there that night buzzing.
And that got the ball rolling?
I looked into it. They have a different theme every month, and you sign up in advance and fit your story to the theme, and they work with you a little bit, too. I was doing seven-minute stories. That’s the typical monthly show. On those nights 10 or 12 people get up and tell seven-minute stories.
But you will be the guinea pig for a show with hourlong stories. What’s the difference between telling a seven-minute story and performing for an hour?
Seven minutes is one story, and an hour is one story with a lot of chapters. The chapters are different stories, and they all have to hold together. One hour is more like doing a book; seven minutes is a magazine article.
What are the challenges of an hour monologue?
You have to worry about the ebb and flow, the highs and lows, making people laugh, making them cry. You might use a phrase in the tenth minute that you use again in the 47th minute, which will then have a whole new meaning because of what you said in between.
Is there a lot of rehearsal involved?
I’ve done it mostly in my head, and I’m working with the director of the show, Stephanie Garibaldi. I have not had time to run it in front of friends. I’ve been my own audience. I have not done it for my family because I want to surprise them.
Can you reveal anything about the stories you will tell?
I’m telling stories I covered as a journalist—the parts I couldn’t put into the journalism, that actually fought against the journalism. They are from when I was quite young and learning about journalism and how storytelling is done. They are about the curveballs reality throws at a young journalist. What you realize is that facts are slippery, that people lie to you, that you have to sort out who you are yourself before you can figure out the world, and that your bosses may never really understand or know about that.
All of this is wrapped around a story of growing up with a father who really didn’t like journalists and didn’t like television, and how that intersected with how I did my job and figured out the world out there.
Who would you like to see in the audience?
It would definitely be young journalists on one side of the room and old journalists on the other side of the room. After it ends I’d love to have the young journalists asking, ‘“Is it that complicated?” and the old journalists saying, “Yes, it’s that complicated.”