Theater: ‘Tastes Like Chicken’ looks at living, dying
By Lou Fancher
A one-performer theater show is a potent metaphor for living and dying. Alone on stage or in real life, each person embodies one human life’s highest highs, or suffers its deepest loss, depression, powerlessness. Without negating spiritual faith, religious beliefs or supportive families and friends, it’s true that no entity can climb inside another person’s skin or psyche entirely. Life and the end of it are essentially experienced solo, even when witnessed by multitudes.
Berkeley-based Actor/playwright/director Steven Low’s one-performer show, “Tastes Like Chicken,” tackles the topic of living through and beyond loss. With performances at The Monkey House on University Avenue in Berkeley, the 65-minute show presents humorous and serious content (not intended for children) along with post-show panel conversations with mental health experts, academicians and artists. Discussion of loss, depression and elements of performing arts arrive, appropriately, at the end of October, which is Depression Awareness Month.
Low, 42, is the Media and Operations Director at Parallax Press, a publisher of books about mindfulness in daily life. A native of Fremont, Low grew up in Sacramento and Vacaville. He has an undergraduate degree in creative writing and a graduate degree in communications, both from UCSF. His work for Bay Area nonprofits has centered primarily in social and environmental justice sectors. Low is founder and co-organizer since 2015 of East: Solo Performance Laboratory, a venue devoted to producing and presenting solo theater performances.
The play, “Tastes Like Chicken,” Low said in an interview, draws its name from a common idiom or joke. “When you encounter a strange food, you say it tastes like chicken. It’s an expression that means we’re not comfortable with this mystery meat. I chose it to express what I felt when I experienced major loss.”
Through five characters, Low portrays himself, God, a homeless man and two preachers. The main challenge of performing alone, he said, is to stay in the moment. “Juggling the technical side of controlling the body and voice to tell the world you’re a preacher or a god while internally being filled with emotion is a balancing act.”
Balance is achieved through practicing transitions that Low tends to snap, cutting crisp corners, but knows must not be “jerky.” There is grace involved, even when jumping from rage to empathy.
If there are difficulties in crafting a monologue’s momentum and maintaining the show’s overall pacing on his own, Low finds creative rewards as well. “It allows me to fully form my creative vision from the start, all the way to the stage. The play is exactly as it is in my head. Traditional theater, you’re interacting with other actors onstage and the director in staging and that makes it totally different.”
“Tastes Like Chicken” is not simply a rite of passage for Low. It’s true, he hopes the work will help him to accept that the father he once knew, a father who had not yet suffered severe depression, is lost. He and his family learned that despite “untold dollars, hours, effort and energy,” his father’s depression for many years only worsened.
“My hope is that my story also gives voice to other people’s experience of loss,” he said. “That is an inherently empowering act. When they see, feel and hear the play unfolding, they can see their own experience mirrored. Through that dynamic, they can gain a fresh perspective.”
With many people in the Bay Area caught in the housing crisis, loss depicted in the play isn’t just about death or depression. “I reach beyond the stats, the numbers, and through the story, folks have an emotional understanding of the human cost of homelessness.”
David Pepper, MD, has been a family medicine practitioner and academic for 30 years. He and his wife, therapist Christine Benvenuto, recently established the East Bay Center for Living and Dying, while maintaining their private practices. Pepper and Benvenuto appear separately as part of the two performances that include panels.
“Death is difficult to talk about, so if it’s theater, guided psychological experimentation with hallucinogens or by other means, alternative (approaches) give people different windows to look through,” he said. “Theater as a means to open minds and hearts to discussions and ways of glimpsing death holistically and healthily is advantageous.”
Especially, Pepper suggested, in a Western culture that favors high tech medical or pharmaceutical interventions and solutions for depression and end of life treatments. “We have a lot of room to improve how we navigate the medical and psychological situation. We make people’s bodies battlegrounds. No one tells the patient that chemotherapy is experimental, or the difference between doing something and doing nothing. I say Western medicine has high technology and low touch. We base our doctoring on fear: of death, illness, disability.”
Eastern philosophies and practices, whether steeped in Buddhist concepts or lack or resources, he said emphasize acceptance and retain humanity. Hospice programs offer similar, dignified approaches to illness and death. “By examining those approaches, we put the patient and the psyche in a front forward position.”
In addition to resources and information shared by the panel, Low said the top thing he hopes audiences will gain is a feeling of empowerment. “We have the power to create a way through loss. We have the power to find meaning for our lives.”