"My husband’s father was a genius,” the woman told artist David Greenberger. “He had 16 patents in his own name and he was a brain. But he had no feeling, just all brains. My husband, he did as little as possible. He didn’t like to work.”
Greenberger liked the woman’s story. He kept listening.
“I don’t remember how long we were married, but it seemed like a long time,” continued the storyteller. “He was a lot of fun to start with, he just got a little sober when he got older, not much fun. And you’ve got to keep me laughing if want to make me happy. Anyway, he died.”
People can hear the story and 131 other short pieces this winter and spring at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery — the Tang — on the campus of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. The stories will be played in a continuous sound loop during the museum’s “Elevator Music 26 — David Greenberger: one updown.” Folks will board the museum’s expansive elevator and listen to Greenberger’s one- and two-minute stories.
The words come from seniors, but Greenberger will be reading them. Music from a team of collaborators will set moods for each piece.
The “one updown” sound exhibit is one of two ways art fans can experience Greenberger, a Chicago-born 59-year-old musician, writer and National Public Radio contributor who lives in Greenwich. The “One Upon” companion exhibit is planned as a novel way to listen to Greenberger live.
A miniature theater
Part of the Tang’s mezzanine has been transformed into a miniature theater. Greenberger’s group, A Strong Dog — which features Kevin Maul on lap steel, dobro and guitar and Mitch Throop on guitar, bass and drums — will perform for an audience of one. Greenberger will deliver monologues about older people in a black box space that measures about 7 feet high, wide and deep. People in the single red-cushioned theater chair will be in the front row — the only row, actually.
“It will just be a two-minute piece,” Greenberger said. “Somebody will come in and sit down. The lights will come down on them, they’ll go up on us. I’ll be at a podium near the center with the two musicians. We’ll do the two-minute piece, the lights will come down on us, the lights will come back on them and somebody else will come in.”
David Greenberg exhibits
WHERE: Tang Teaching Museum, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Through April 15. Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Closed Mondays.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 580-8080, www.skidmore.edu/tang
“One Upon” begins Saturday and will be held from 3 until 6 p.m. The miniature theater experience also will be held Wednesday, Feb. 19, from 4 to 7 p.m.; Sunday, March 9, from 2 until 5 p.m.; Tuesday, March 18, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.; and Thursday, April 3, from 6 until 9 p.m.
Rachel Seligman, the Tang’s assistant director for curatorial affairs, believes visitors will learn something from Greenberger’s subjects. “I think and hope they will take away from it sort of a renewed interest, respect and connectedness with our elderly, with our aging population,” she said.
Unsure of reactions
Greenberger is not sure what kind of reactions he and his musicians will receive. He wants to try performance style because it will bookend his experiences of talking to elderly people and asking them often quirky questions.
The process began 35 years ago when Greenberger began working at a Boston nursing home. He engaged his subjects with one-on-one conversations. “Now it’s ending with me presenting to just one person,” he said.
The monologues will be conversational in tone.
“I like things that are kind of rich with a voice of character but are vividly in the moment,” Greenberger said. “So it’s not based on somebody telling a set piece of what they used to do. Instead, it’s finding the vibrancy of whatever smaller orbits somebody might be in. By that, I mean somebody that’s toward the end of their life. You’re less mobile, you’re taking in less information. I like finding the vitality in that rather than looking at them as a less or broken version of their more robust selves. People spend decades in decline, in getting smaller. That shouldn’t be viewed as youth gone wrong. It’s just what is.”
Really small setting
The idea for a small theater setting — a really small theater setting — originally started as a suggestion that Greenberger and company perform inside the Tang elevator. Greenberger preferred the more theatrical approach.
And while the arrangement will be intimate, Greenberger will not be calling visitors by their first names.
“I want to give the one person the same consideration they’d have in a larger, more anonymous setting, that they’re in the dark,” he said. “I think looking right in their eyes would give a measure of discomfort that I don’t want them to have. They’ll be in the dark and we’ll be in the light and that will reverse when it’s over and they’ll exit.”
Greenberger is careful to avoid sentimentality and nostalgia in his word portraits. He believes it’s a mistake to put elderly, life-experienced people on pedestals and expect wisdom.
“As soon as put somebody on a pedestal, you’re not eye-to-eye with them,” he said. “I think the key thing is to keep everything human scale and conversational. And treat them just like you would treat anybody that you’re meeting.”
Mimicking real life
People in the “Elevator Music” exhibit will hear random ramblings from senior subjects, all of them in Greenberger’s voice. The whole set-up is designed to mimic real life encounters.
“It’s the way you would accidentally bump into somebody in the market or anywhere,” Greenberger said. “That’s meant to be in contrast with the theater, which is only done at certain times. To partake of that, you’ve got to say, ‘I’m going to put the effort in, I’m going to go there and be there at that time and do that.’”
Greenberger said he’s heard some people keep riding the elevator to hear the pieces. Variety comes with the subjects, which have titles such as “Cheese and Crackers,” “Global Trends in Shaving” and “Four in One Year.”
“We weren’t a rich family,” Greenberger reads, with mournful guitar notes and a funeral march style of percussion for accompaniment. “You know, we were a poor family, an Italian family. We all worked hard and everything else. In one year, I lost three brothers and a father in one year. One brother, Bill, he died. He was only 24 and he died. About a month later, my brother Joe, he had a little saloon in Yorkville, in Manhattan, in New York. He got held up and robbed and he was shot and killed. About a month later, my brother Fred, he was 38, he drove the hook and ladder at 125th street, going to a fire. This guy in a cab, drunk, runs into him, he got killed. A couple weeks later my dad died, a heart attack. Four in one year. I’ll never forget that.”
Greenberger said his stories do not contain a traditional narrative arc.
“It’s not a grand tale of saving a puppy from a burning building,” he said. “Instead, it might just be somebody talking the way they would in a conversation. Saying, ‘Geez, where did you get that shoe? I wish I had a shoe like that. I had a shoe that was coming apart, I put some tape on it.’ That sort of thing. And that might be a beginning of a piece ... it’s rich with a kind of sense of character.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.