Playwright Slash Coleman chose to deal with death in an unconventional way after best friend and neon artist Mark Jamison was electrocuted while hanging a neon sign in 2004. Jamison began to write a care package for Jamison’s newborn son, which eventually turned into the stage production of “The Neon Man and Me.” The one-man comedy, with Coleman as its sole actor, was about his friendship with Jamison.
The following year, Coleman recruited Shanea N. Taylor, who received her MFA in theatre pedagogy from VCU to direct the stage production. The show went on to enjoy three national tours, and is making its local PBS debut this month, with VCU movement program graduate student Becca Bernard directing the television version.
Amidst a cramped coffee shop, Bernard, Coleman and Jamison sat down with the Commonwealth Times to discuss their involvement in “The Neon Man and Me.”
The Commonwealth Times: Why did you decide to write a tribute to your friendship with Mark?
Slash Coleman: The main reason is because I think with friends, especially old friends, they carry a part of us that lives like stories. When he died, he took a huge chunk of my history with him. I guess I wasn’t done with our friendship. I kind of wrote it, I think, as a way to bring back some of that. The show isn’t so much about death as it is about the magic of friendship and the things that make us happy and the things that we really connect with-our best friends-rather than the dark phases of death. A lot of people, when they hear about the show, are like, “I don’t want to see that show. It must be a journal about death.” It’s actually a comedy, so a lot of people are surprised by it.
CT: Becca, how did you get involved in the show?
Becca Bernard: Well, we had collaborated on other projects and I have a movement background and he needed . a (movement) coach to work on the show before it went on TV. So, we were friends and partners before-artistically. He asked me to look at a piece, so we went into a coaching session to get it prepared for PBS.
CT: Shanea, why were you interested in directing “The Neon Man and Me”?
Shanea N. Taylor: Well, quite honestly, it was my first directing project. I had never directed anything. I had coached a lot of people through many years in the theatre department in different roles. So, this seemed a little less intimidating. I was like, “I just have to deal with one person and everything is set and done with some of the preliminary work.” (It was) the first time I read the script and talked to Slash and saw how excited and invested he was – that, in turn, got me excited.
In a weird way, I saw this guy (Slash) who had never done anything like this before and (he was) taking this huge leap and doing something he wasn’t sure about. So, that came at a point that I was thinking about directing so he gave me the big ol’ mazzo balls to go into directing and to try my hand at that.
CT: Since “Neon Man” was originally written for the stage, how did it translate to television?
Coleman: I think it tightened up the show and in a sense-made it better. Shanea helped me create a show that would work in any venue. A lot of the venues I worked in were really big, so I’d be running across the stage in certain places, and with TV, I had to run in place. So, it really contained my energy and it translated better to that audience. There were places in the script where sometimes I would look at audience members while (the producers) looked right into the TV monitor. The producer said those were just really winning moments because it was almost like I was talking to the viewer.
CT: What aspect of your relationship with Mark did you bring to “The Neon Man”?
Coleman: I think the parts that were the glue were our friendship. It started with just a care package I wanted to give to his kid. It started as 300 pages of memories that I just wrote down.
To shape it into a show, it had to go from 300 pages down to 30 for the stage. Anything between Mark and I that didn’t reveal something about our connection kind of went out the window. All those profound things reveal our connection to each other.
I think that’s why a lot of people have felt that it’s really rare to see a man onstage talking about a friendship with another man who’s straight, you know? It got booked up in Provincetown, Mass., because it got the review it was a “Brokeback Mountain” between two straight guys that don’t have sex. Romantic love is emphasized, love between a parent and a son and daughters and such but never just friendship. I think a lot of that glue is what helped promote it as a thing between friends. A lot of people leave my show and say they go home and call their friends they haven’t talked to in a while.
CT: Slash, why was it so important to make the PBS show a reality?
Coleman: After every show that I did, an invisible door opened. I’d walk through that door and it would take me somewhere else.
In the show I talk about a prophecy (Mark) left with me and said that from his church that he and I would play in front of millions of people one day. I had to show up and see if that prophecy was true. I’m still doing that. It frees me up to make mistakes and not do anything wrong and hide from the world.
With other projects, I had this pressure of, “Oh, I have to send this stuff for the press by then.” If it’s meant to be, it doesn’t matter if I do everything right or wrong . if the prophecy is true. So, I’m showing up for the prophecy and I’m stepping on some feet now that it’s gotten bigger along the way.
A lot of people in the theater especially in the last year and a half, don’t think I have the right to be where I am. I’ve started to feel that.
Taylor: I was going to ask you about that. A lot of people feel they are owed something because they’ve been practicing something for a certain amount of time. So, to have somebody who went around some of the schooling and traditional training, I think they are kind of threatened by that instead of seeing it as an opportunity.
Coleman: I’ve waited three years to get a real review of the show, meaning someone who would touch it and tell me what they really thought. For three years, the press wrote the same story, “Isn’t it great he’s raising money for (Mark’s) son?” I was like, “Well tell me how it is besides this other (expletive). No one would because they were afraid.
So, year number three and a half, people finally did it and they started telling me they were not happy because I had gone the shortest route.
The thing is . I’ve been on stage as a musician since fifth grade. I have as much stage time as a theatre person. Granted, it was much more unorthodox. I feel in the last four years I probably got eight years of grad school experience on stage.
CT: Shanea and Becca, the show is very intimate. How did you achieve that as directors?
Taylor: I don’t know that I had anything to do with that. I think it’s Slash’s presence and the way that his story was written.
I had a thing against one-man shows prior to working on this show, just because they felt very narcissistic. So, I worried about that a little bit. But . it was told in this way that there was somewhere for everyone to fit into from word one. I don’t know how he did it, but it was never anything I was worried about as a director-how he’s going to keep everybody.
Bernard: In terms of how it’s written . there are sections that it’s celebrating a story and there’s a switch where Slash is pointing these 30 characters but then you know the characters personally. He switches from playing Gustav, to his mother, to him saying, “I don’t know what to do here. I’m lost. I’m thinking of my friend.” So (there’s) that concept between the outlandish characters and the true feelings that he has as a person.
Coleman: I always say that’s Shanea’s famous answer, which she always deflects it back on to me. But really, I wouldn’t have taken the first steps to bring it on the stage without having a director because she had space for me to channel those characters naturally. If she had been like, “Do this or that,” I would have done it because I’m like a sponge where I don’t have traditional training. It would have turned out different, the fact that she held that space and gentle direction.
It was very spiritual in the way she directed. I think that helped bring about that intimacy. If I would have had (Becca) come in, eventually it would have been a very different four years. It was a very different style at a different time. Having a director gave me the confidence to take it to the next step and do that first show and just take off.
CT: What different aspects did Becca and Shannea bring to “The Neon Man” show?
Coleman: The spiritual side in Shanea was essential in the beginning when the show was just an infant. You don’t have to do much with an infant. You don’t have to take it to the zoo and show it the museum. You just hold it a little bit. Whereas, Becca came on where it’s already four years old and she got to treat it a little bit different.
CT: How will college students be able to connect to “The Neon Man” show?
Coleman: I feel people in college don’t know what they want to do with their life. They have really connected with the story because here is this guy who’s really lost his whole life and here is his friend who owns a neon shop and isn’t lost. This guy wanders all around the world after college not knowing what he wants to do. He’s doing everything. I feel like most young people can relate to that.
Taylor: Hope, really. Hope in the belief that you can do anything, you have the right to tell your own story. I think after my first year of grad school, I didn’t know what (I was going) to write a thesis about and then meeting up with Slash and him telling that story – those two things kind of melt together — the importance of owning your life and telling your own story and taking the necessary steps.
Bernard: From a personal standpoint, I’m just finishing my masters at VCU and I’m ready to take that next step. For the last two years, I’ve been like “I want to get out of Richmond,” and it’s that same voice in the show-that, “I’m never going to come back to Richmond.” But really (it’s) just making you slow down and appreciate where you are. The fact (is) it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s what you’re doing where you are.
“The Neon Man and Me,” will air on PBS the following days: 11/17/08, WCVE & WHTS, 10 p.m.; 11/20/08, WCVE & WHTS, 1 a.m.; 11/22/08, WCVW, 11 p.m.; 11/24/08, WCVE & WHTS, 11 p.m.; 11/26/08, WCVW 10 p.m.