Interview | Max Garner, playwright of Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story, discusses his inspiration

A new play takes on the life of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, particularly his struggle with mental illness.

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

When Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography of the legendary pianist and composer Thelonious Monk emerged three years ago, critics, musicians and fans breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a myth-busting, definitive work to illuminate one of jazz’s most mystifying iconoclasts. Since the beginning of his career, Monk’s occasionally perplexing social behavior and extempore approach to life were as much a part of his public persona as was his ruggedly distinctive sound at the piano. The perception of him as an unhinged genius was reinforced by facile press releases from his record labels and sensationalizing magazine articles. In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley sifts out fact from fiction, and in the process he does highlight how much Monk’s difficulties with mental stability truly affected the quantity and nature of his work.

Among the book’s many readers was Max Garner, a budding playwright from Baltimore with an interest in both jazz and mental health. Soon after reading the book, he produced a script called Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story. The play, which had a successful three-week run at Baltimore’s Arena Players theater earlier this year, will be at Woolly Mammoth in D.C. this weekend for a brief three-show run as part of the 2012 D.C. Black Theater Festival. (You can buy tickets to Sphere here.) I caught up with Garner last week to discuss his inspiration for writing the script, and his love of Monk.

CapitalBop: How did this project originate?

Max Garner: It evolved. First of all, my interest in Thelonious Monk himself comes from 30 years ago, when he died. I was a jazz DJ on college radio in Ohio; I’ll never forget, it was a Wednesday afternoon and I was doing a three-hour jazz show. I was a teenager who was mostly into Miles Davis and the West Coast cool jazz stuff at the time. I didn’t know Monk very well. But the news came over the teletype that he’d passed away, so I stopped in mid-record – it was almost one of those record-drag kinds of sounds – and broke the news to the Mid-Ohio Valley that Thelonious Monk was dead. I devoted the rest of the show to just playing his stuff, and I really listened to it critically for the first time, and fell in love with it.

I still didn’t know a lot about the man until Robin D.G. Kelley’s book came out, and that fascinated the hell out of me. I just found such incredible parallels between the man and his work … and the areas that his life gets into paralleled a lot of things that I think are really fascinating for discussion regarding mental health issues….

The effect that Monk’s ailments had on his life and his career is just astonishing. Thorazine was popular in the late ’50s; Thorazine has a dulling effect on the mind, and you can look at his discography, right about the time he signed with Columbia, that’s where his compositional powers really started to drop off. They switched him to Lithium, 10 years later, and it managed the symptoms a lot better. But he stopped playing; Lithium is known for having hand tremor as a side effect.

That just fascinated me – what’s going on in his brain chemistry partially enabled what he produced. But it also worked the other way, so it was a real double-edged sword.

CB: What’s your background in theater?

MG: I’ve been involved in theater seriously for 20 years, most of that time as a sound designer. Having done radio as a kid, I have a pretty good knowledge of music and how sounds connect to live theater…. I got into writing about five years ago, with a couple of different theater companies and communities in Baltimore, where I live….

I combined my love of writing and my love of music when I [wrote] this Monk character.… The original piece was a 10-minute play – a small section of what the play is now – that wasn’t even about Monk. It was just a fictional character who was in a psychiatry session with his doctor. They’re talking about his mental challenges, and he has a hallucination right there on stage. The audience sees it, so we’re in it with him, but the doctor doesn’t….

CB: Where did you develop your interest in questions of psychology and mental illness?

MG: A little personal background: My mother and my older sisters – I’m the youngest of four – we’ve got a history of that in our family, mostly bipolar and things like that. So I was around it as a kid.… So it affected me very personally in childhood.

CB: How did you integrate your personal understanding with Monk’s own story?

MG: Actually, I do that through a lot of direct quotes – some were in the Kelley book and I did a whole lot more research elsewhere. There’s an excellent film called Straight, No Chaser; Clint Eastwood executive produced it. It came out in the ‘80s, and it was based around footage from I think a European tour and some other stuff from the late ‘60s. So, besides just reading the book, I had an opportunity from that film and other things I was able to dig up to just witness his behavior. The way he moved.

Some of these things are kind of in the show as well. It isn’t like the actor playing Monk is trying to do an impersonation of him. This is not Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain. This is not a documentary on the stage. This is a piece of theater, so it’s fictional, but I was able to gain a real insight into Monk [through research].… There’s a moment in the Straight, No Chaser documentary when he’s doing this twirling, rotating kind of dance on the sidewalk outside a club, and he stops and he says to no one in particular: “Someone else did that, they’d put him in a straight jacket.” … So I put that line in the show.

Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story appears this weekend as part of the 2012 D.C. Black Theatre Festival. Performances will be at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available here.

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