Joe Charnitski Talks His Father, Phillies, and Storytelling

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Photo courtesy of themoth.org

Joe Charnitski’s Funeral is a one-man, hour-long performance in which Charnitski  talks about the two eulogies he’s given in his life – both for previous Joe Charnitski’s – his grandfather and, eight years later, his father.  I got to see the show at Frigid Festival at the Kraine Theatre and talk with Joe about how he got started telling the story, what his father would think, and if he’d think about expanding it.

Charnitski’s story is about the two eulogies and his life between them, but feels more like a homage to his father. Every story is told with care – it’s obvious he’s turning these details over in his head, catching light off every facet of his dad. He gently mocks his father’s all-out love for the Republican Party – “Ronald Reagan was second in our house only to Jesus,” and talks with reverence about his love for his mother: “My dad loved my mom, without question, from that day they met in the bingo hall to his burial. And I know how lucky I am to be able to say that, and to mean it.”

One of his most moving stories would turn out to be a catalyst for the rest of the show: “When I got older, we would start to go to the races. I was too young to place the bets, so my dad would go up to the counter, but I got to pick the horses. And then, on the way home, it would be my father driving us safely home, me fighting off sleep in the passenger seat. The AM radio on, playing a baseball game – Bottom of the fifth, Phillies are down.” When Joe’s father is sick, they go on their final father-son night, again to the races. “This time, my dad was too weak to go up to place his bets, so I did it for him, but he got to pick the horses. And this time, on the way back, it was me driving us safely home, him fighting off sleep in the passenger seat, and the AM radio on with a baseball game playing. Bottom of the fifth, Phillies are down – the Phillies are always down.”

Charnitski said that that moment of role-reversal was a central part of his show: “I want to tell the story of that moment, when I realized we had switched roles – what does the listener need to know? That he’s sick, our history of father and son nights – I built outward from that moment.”

 

How did you get into storytelling? Now you have this kind of normal, marketing job – how do you start doing this on the side?

About 4 years ago at event – a book party for Ophira Eisenberg, a Moth storyteller, some of my friends were gathered together and The Moth came up. In that conversation my friends began to elbow me and egg me on and say ‘You should do The Moth’ – I’m the guy at the bar who always says ‘This one time..’. So I have a friend, Adam Wade, he teaches a class at the Magnet Theater – storytelling as performance. So I went in January 2015, and worked on and polished one story – five minutes, live autobiographical, no notes. About seven seconds in, I thought ‘I want to do this.’

So why did you pick this one to tell?

The way the show came about was that last spring – spring 2016, I saw a post in a facebook group about New York City storytelling, and there was a post about a short story festival entirely about tellers whose parents have passed away. I had already done some short stuff for The Moth, and I knew if I was gonna write about something longer it would be this – it’s rich and robust. I thought ‘OK, I’m gonna email her, and if she says yes great that will be my deadline, it will be good for me. I had the opportunity to do it last June, three days after Father’s Day, for one night in Brooklyn. Now that I’m doing it at Frigid I’m so grateful for that one night in Brooklyn. It has made this version much better.”

 

Why did you decide to tell this story? Do you have a message, or a specific audience, or is this mostly for you?

I don’t think I had a specific audience – I had a hunch that some elements I had gone through were gonna be relatable beyond losing a parent. Times in life we feel lost, and things have gone off the rails. I thought there was something universal. I was choosing material that had to be really emotional, really powerful to me, because otherwise why am I making you spend an hour here? If it matters to me and I can show you how much it matters to me, I can make it matter to you too.

 

Yeah, I really liked when you were talking about being back home in Pennsylvania, and about not having the job you wanted, and your girlfriend maybe breaking up with you, and you said, “When you feel like that, you feel like you’ve never made or been part of a good decision.”

Yeah, that was pulled right from reality – I was driving back from going out to lunch at that job, replaying in my head, quite literally, decisions I had made 15 years earlier and pretending they were all linked and that’s how I ended up here. It’s a torturous thing we put ourselves through, and we feel like we deserve it.

 

What would your father think about you doing this show, and telling these stories? What would he have wanted you to mention?

I think, if I told him I was doing it, he would laugh and say ‘You’re not gonna get an hour out of that, there’s nothing there.” I think he would be flattered, he would be moved. He was sensitive in his own way. My dad was a big personality, if we went to a family wedding, he would arrive, settle in for a minute, and then go table to table, in a very personable way. He wasn’t sitting down with those people and talking about his emotions.  He probably would be uncomfortable, showing all that. But he would have had great pride. There were times in my life where he would say ‘I can’t believe you’re doing the things you’re doing, and it’s amazing. I would never have done that.”

I bet, afterwards we would have sat around and he would have said ‘Why didn’t we talk about this, why didn’t we talk about this?’ My dad loved polka music, like Polish authentic polka music. He would play it on the stereo while he was paying bills. My mom used to say ‘If it makes him happy while paying bills, leave it on. We would go to these polka festivals, you know, that would be at amusement parks, and I would be able to bring a friend, and we would go on rides and he would sit and listen to the music all day. He would have asked why I didn’t even mention polka music.

 

Tell me about your costume choices, and your set design? You start out the show in the Superman t-shirt and the robe, you progress to the button up, and eventually end the show in a full suit.

As I was thinking through taking my short stories and turning them into a show, I was thinking about lighting and staging and wardrobe, because now people are paying money to see a show… I can’t show up in whatever I wanna wear. I’m always building towards that last section, I’m building towards the last time at the podium. I’m at the podium three times, how do I want to present myself there? At my father’s funeral, at my grandfather’s funeral, and when I’m up there talking about my own eulogy. I’m building towards the full suit, but did I want to be in that outfit the whole show?  I wouldn’t be at my mom’s kitchen table the the morning my dad died in a full suit and tie. And I think that creative people put something together, and  it becomes art when an audience sees it and puts their perspective on it. Someone had told me that their interpretation was that going to Superman shirt to a full suit was going from a boy to man. I’m not gonna pretend I came up with that, but I love that it’s out in the world now. The staging – I did want there to be a space for father’s eulogy and grandfather’s eulogy – I wanted to isolate that. When I want to be close to the audience, when I want to be far away – I trusted myself that I would make the right decisions.

 

So what’s your fondest memory of your dad that’s not included in the show?

There are two things just leapt to my mind that aren’t in the show. One is that he was so discouraging of me going to New York City until I got in to NYU, and the financial hardship he took on for me. I pursued a life so different from his and he supported it. It’s a remarkable thing to me and I’ll never get over it, that’s so powerful to me. Another thing is that I never heard him say a mean spirited thing in his life. He would get in a debate, express an opinion – but he was good at going away, into his room, thinking about it for a while and coming out and saying “That thing I said earlier, I shouldn’t have said that, that didn’t make sense.” That impressed me about him. He showed me his wisdom his whole life. He never sat me down and said ‘This is how to be a man, this is how to be a good person’, but he left me the handbook without question.

 

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