Stories from the Stage

S4 E6 | FULL EPISODE

Holiday Spirit

Top storytellers share stories that conjure the holiday spirit. David Dean Bottrell discovers his passion after stealing the school play's spotlight; Andrea Kamens’s bright menorah cuts through the darkness of anti-semitism; and Joe Charnitski tries to break a nightmare-before-Christmas bad luck streak.

AIRED: December 14, 2020 | 0:26:29
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TRANSCRIPT

JOE CHARNITSKI: I woke up on December 21

with a renewed determination.

My slump ends today.

Why? I have no idea. (laughter)

DAVID DEAN BOTRELL: We arrived at the auditorium to find it

quickly filling up with people.

My heart started to pound.

I mean, what if we all forgot our lines?

ANDREA KAMENS: Jewish holidays

don't just have food and traditions.

We have rules and opinions. (laughter)

BOTTRELL: My name is David Dean Bottrell.

I'm a writer and an actor.

I've lived in Los Angeles, worked a lot in TV,

and also done a lot of stage work.

And I do this show called

"David Dean Bottrell Makes Love: A One-Man Show."

That's fantastic, and your acting resume

is very extensive-- you know, Modern Family,

The Blacklist, Law & Order: SVU.

I'm wondering when did you start deciding to tell

your own stories on stage?

Um, there was a show in Los Angeles

that a friend of mine took me to that I loved.

But I was very intimidated because the people were

so good in it.

And I finally took a risk, went in, and did a story.

And then I got kind of hooked after that.

And I started to really become intrigued

with just storytelling as an artform.

Because as an actor, your goal is to disappear,

to become someone else.

And this is really the exact opposite of that.

This is becoming transparent,

becoming honest.

And if you want to be successful at it,

if you really want people to truly trust you,

you have to tell a little more truth

than you were planning on telling.

Once they... once they trust you,

we all laugh, and then once we laugh,

we get over it.

We move through it.

We heal.

Once, when I was about six years old,

I remember this doctor asking me these questions as he peered

into my very stopped-up ears.

At the time I kept wondering, "Why is he asking me

all these dumb things?"

Like did I like football?

No.

Did I like baseball or hockey?

No.

Was I in the Scouts?

Did I like camping, or hunting, or fishing, or BB guns?

Finally, my mother, who was looking a little embarrassed,

chimed in and said,

um, that I was very good at drawing and painting.

She added that I was sort of the artist in the family.

Sadly, that was probably the best explanation

she could come up with for her increasingly weird child.

(sighs) Truthfully,

by that age I already knew that I wasn't really like other kids

and I'd sort of given up on the idea of having friends.

And then, just as I was about to start second grade,

my family moved, yet again,

across the river from our ancestral home in Kentucky

to an exotic new land called "Ohio."

(laughter)

Sensing correctly that my sisters and I

were furious about this,

my mother decided that the best way for us to all make friends

was to get involved in my new school's Christmas pageant.

Now, I came from a very religious family,

so I was very used to being drafted

for our church's annual nativity play.

And I hated it.

Every year, I just played the third shepherd from the left.

I just stood there with a towel on my head.

Now, unlike the little homespun events that we were used to,

these Ohio people took this crap very seriously.

(audience laughter)

This was like a whole big production

with painted cardboard sets, and sewn costumes.

The plot revolved around these toys that came to life

on Christmas Eve.

Now, I was cast as one of six toy soldiers.

And we had a little song

and some choreography that basically amounted

to us walking around the stage marching

while swinging our arms and legs very stiffly

as if we were made out of wood.

Now, because I was tall for my age, I had to stand in

the back row behind this shorter kid named Carl.

Now, I had only been in this school for a few weeks,

but I already hated Carl.

(audience laughter)

He tended to push people on the playground

and he would steal the ball from you in gym class.

And having to spend any extra time with him

made it even less appealing to be in this show.

Now, as we got closer to opening night,

I noticed that my mom was getting very excited about

her contribution to the show, which was sewing my costume.

My mom was always very handy with a needle and thread.

And she was already helping the other moms

with the tricky job

of constructing our tall cardboard hats.

Meanwhile, Carl was really getting on my nerves.

All he did was fidget and fart around during rehearsal,

and he didn't even know the lyrics to the damn song.

(sighs)

I wanted to drop out of the show,

but I knew it was making my mom happy because she thought

it was making me happy, which it wasn't.

The night of the show, we arrived at the auditorium

to find it quickly filling up with people.

My heart started to pound.

I suddenly got very nervous.

All these people were going to be looking at us.

I mean, what if we screwed up?

What if we all forgot our lines?

Before I knew it, the show had started.

Now in the first scene, these two kids dressed

in pajamas talked about what they wanted for Christmas,

and then they wrote a letter to Santa.

All the toys waited breathlessly in the wings.

We knew that when this scene ended they were going

to pull the curtain, and that was our cue

to rush out into our places.

As I listened to the last few lines of the pajama kids,

my mouth went dry.

I felt like I needed to pee, but it was too late.

This was it. (woman laughing)

There was no backing out.

And that's when it hit me:

I was in the back row.

No one would see me.

No one would see this cool costume that

my mom had slaved over.

And suddenly I was consumed by this huge, terrible instinct.

It totally overtook me.

Screw Carl.

(laughter)

Why should he be in the front row?

He didn't even know the lyrics to the stupid song!

Whoosh!

The curtains came closed.

And all the toys charged the stage.

Now, Carl was way more athletic than me,

but I was taller and had longer legs.

So I beat him to our spot at the Christmas tree

and skidded into the front row.

(audience laughter) As expected, he panicked,

and scrambled in the only open position: mine in the back row.

Just before the curtains were about to reopen,

I heard him hiss, "You're not supposed to be there!"

But I didn't respond.

(audience laughter)

I knew Carl could beat the crap out of me

but I doubted he'd do it in front of an auditorium

full of adults.

(laughter)

Whoosh!

The curtains reopened.

And everybody clapped like mad!

One by one, the individual toys began to do their numbers.

And when it became our turn,

a relatively unassuming little seven-year-old boy

suddenly was transformed into

a 75-pound grinning Virginia ham!

(audience laughter)

In hindsight, I may have swung my arms a little higher

than I should have, but nobody seemed to notice.

We finished to a big round of applause.

The second the show was over, I fled the stage

and into the safety of my parents' arms.

Carl never did beat me up.

In fact, he never really seemed

to care about what had happened.

He went right back to pushing people down at recess,

while I opened an office on the top of the jungle gym,

where I suspected our paths would rarely cross.

I don't think I ever exchanged another word with him.

It would be five more years

before I would set foot on a stage again.

But something had happened that night.

I had developed a taste for the dramatic.

Now, when the artist in the family felt like

he'd been punished unjustly for something,

he would take a marker and draw red lines across his wrists.

(audience laughter)

Then he would lay down in the upstairs hallway, on the floor,

and wait for someone to discover his attempted suicide.

(audience laughter)

But mostly people just stepped over him

on their way to the bathroom.

(quietly): Thank you.

(applause)

CHARNITSKI: My name is Joe Charnitski.

I currently live in Ossining, New York,

which is just outside of New York City.

I work for a software company.

I'm not technical in any way.

But I spend a lot of time, not coincidentally,

talking to customers, talking to internal teams.

And storytelling helps.

And so, I'm really curious,

how did you become a storyteller?

So, I have some friends who are

performers, writers, comedians, have encouraged me,

"You should, you should do that."

I'm the guy at the party telling anecdotes, the whole thing.

So I was introduced to someone who teaches a class

in New York City on storytelling as performance.

In that class,

you work on one story, kind of polish it up.

I took that story to a place where I could... an open mic,

and about five seconds into telling that story,

I thought, "This is for me."

It was square peg, square hole.

And I've been doing it ever since.

How have you changed as a storyteller in that time?

Yeah, so, this story I'm telling tonight

is the story I worked on in that class five years ago.

And the funny thing about it is,

it's the story I've told my whole life.

It's one of the most important--

if not the most important--

stories of my life.

It can become easy to just repeat the words,

but at the heart of it

is something incredibly personal and moving to me.

And it is performance in that way,

I do have to sort of remind myself

what's at the core of this story,

and try and summon that and remind the audience

of what this really meant to me back when it took place.

This is the first time they're hearing it,

no matter how many times I've told it.

It was December 21,

four days before Christmas.

I was 15 years old, and living through difficult times.

Maybe every 15-year-old

thinks they're living through difficult times.

But I was so sure that I named it.

I branded it.

I was living through my "slump."

(laughter)

Up to that point, I got pretty good grades

without trying particularly hard.

But at 15, letters were being sent home

from teachers to my parents

warning about a lack of effort on my part.

I was on the high school basketball team...

technically.

I spent so much time on the bench those days,

I didn't bother learning the plays.

I didn't even have a date to the annual Christmas dance.

And I felt low every day.

Except that day.

I woke up on December 21

with a renewed determination.

My slump ends today.

Why? I have no idea.

(laughter)

It was the last day of school before Christmas break,

I'm sure I was excited about that.

I don't know what it was, but I got dressed,

went downstairs for a delicious bowl of Fruity Pebbles,

and off I went to live

the first day of the rest of my life.

A couple of hours later,

I'm in the vice principal's office.

I'm not sure

why I've been called there.

I'm replaying the past couple of weeks of my life.

Did I insult a teacher?

Did I get into it with another student?

And then I remember: my slump is over.

This is going to be good news.

Like, maybe I won an award or something.

There could be a cash prize.

Like, I'm getting excited.

(laughter)

After a few minutes, the door to the office opens,

and in comes Sister Catherine.

She is the vice principal

of my small Catholic high school.

And with her is Father Paul.

Father Paul is the pastor of my family church.

And my family church has no connection to my high school.

There's no reason for Father Paul to be here.

One of the more serious reasons

that I was feeling low every day

was that my mom had just had delicate surgery

to relieve a chronic pain condition in her face.

The surgeons had to go in through the back of her head,

and past her brain, to address the issue.

It was precarious and scary surgery.

And she was home now, and recovering,

but her recovery was also delicate

and precarious and scary for me.

So when Father Paul came into that room,

I no longer thought I won a cash prize.

So Sister Catherine comes over to my left,

and Father Paul kneels to my right,

and he looks at me and he says,

"Joe, your mom and your dad are okay.

But your house is on fire."

And I'm like, "Oh my gosh, is it?"

And Sister Catherine says,

"Joe, you've gone pale,

"do you want a glass of water?

"What do you want, what do you need,

what do you want?"

I said, "I want to go home. Can I go home?"

So Father Paul drove me home.

When we arrived, I remember seeing the news crews

and the fire trucks and the neighbors who had gathered.

And the house was still standing,

so I thought, you know, maybe it's not so bad.

And then I went inside, and it was so bad.

The dining room, where we were supposed to have

Christmas dinner in a couple of days,

well, that was destroyed.

The front room,

where the decorated Christmas tree had been standing,

and the wrapped presents had been set,

well, the fire started in there,

so you can imagine what it looked like.

The kitchen, where I'd just had

that brightly colored bowl of Fruity Pebbles,

now looked like someone had taken a black marker

and scraped it all over the place.

My mom was at the next-door neighbor's, she was fine.

A little shaken up, of course.

I asked Father Paul if the church was unlocked,

he said it was.

I walked the block up the street to my family church.

Inside, it was dark, the lights were out.

And I walked to the altar.

This was not going to be a pew conversation,

this had to go right to the altar.

I didn't shake my fist at God, I didn't scream or yell.

I cried.

And I said, "I woke up knowing

"this was the end of my slump,

"and you burned my house down?

"Like, what's the message you're trying to send me here?

"'Don't get your hopes up, kid'?

"'Things aren't going to get any better'?

'It's not your slump, it's your life.'"

Now I feel the lowest I have felt the whole time,

but that's because I didn't know.

Back at school, Sister Catherine

made an announcement over the intercom,

letting everyone know about the fire.

And spontaneously, every class and club

and organization took up donations, for me.

I didn't know the lead story on the news that night

would be about the Charnitski fund.

See, my grade school and the town bank joined forces

to give folks a place to help,

to donate, for my family.

My grade school principal was on TV

talking about what a great kid I am,

and what a great family I have.

I didn't know strangers would track us down,

offering food and money and toiletries and gifts

and decorated trees, and anything they thought

we might need to have some kind of Christmas.

Now, look, maybe you're not that impressed.

Maybe you think this is exactly what would happen

in a small town a few days before Christmas

when tragedy strikes.

But I had just been crying in a dark church,

thinking my life was never going to get any better.

This outpouring of love and support,

to me, was a big deal.

It was a win.

December 21 was the final day of my slump.

Thanks.

(cheers and applause)

KAMENS: I'm Andrea Kamens,

I've been in Boston longer than anywhere else,

but I was born in Pittsburgh, raised in Cleveland.

Our theme tonight is holidays,

and that means so many, you know,

different things to different people.

Could you just share a little bit

about what that means to you?

How it inspires you?

Well, I think of the word, coming from "holy days,"

that holidays are creating

this sacred space in this sacred time

when we can do things differently.

What do you hope that the audience tonight

gets out of the story that you're going to share with us?

A lot of the Jewish religion is thought of

as being a lot about technicalities and about laws,

and I'm actually really into that,

and I think it's true,

but I think it's also really important,

especially right now, that people understand that

you don't have to shut off your compassion

to follow laws or to have laws.

That law can bring light,

that law can lead us to treating each other the way

we should be treating each other,

and I think that

there's something in a lot of our traditions,

in a lot of our holidays,

that are trying to get at that-- that you do these rituals,

but the goal is not to accomplish the ritual.

The goal is what you're bringing to people

and what you're creating as a community.

Jewish holidays don't just have

food and traditions.

We have rules and opinions.

There's a Jewish joke

that if we had invented Halloween,

y'all would be giving out candy to legal specifications

on what type, what size, to whom, how late,

and which members of your household

may do it, must do it,

or absolutely aren't allowed to do it.

Plus,

a handy chart for your size, shape, and color

for your kosher jack-o'-lanterns.

(laughter)

The most famous of contrary Jewish opinions in the Talmud

comes from Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai.

Hillel got to be popular, became associated with

inclusiveness and love,

and Shammai more with being technical and legal,

high standards.

These guys argued about everything,

and the principle was they were both right,

but that we practiced according to the opinions of Hillel.

What?

Jewish practice is the embodiment of Jewish law

and law is supposed to care about what's right.

And, for me, Shammai was even more often right.

Especially when I was a kid.

Especially for the holiday of Hanukkah.

On Hanukkah, we light candles--

one the first night, two the second night,

all the way up to eight--

to recall a little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days

when we miraculously reclaimed our holy temple

from the Syrian Greeks in ancient Israel.

"No," says Shammai.

"The oil decreased every day.

It should be like a countdown: eight, seven, six."

(laughter) Blast off.

Hillel said, "Yeah, but more light equals more happiness

"and every day should be happier and brighter and more holy

than the day before."

See what I'm talking about? That is not law.

When I first heard this when I was growing up

in Cleveland, Ohio, I told my parents

I was lighting according to sensible Shammai,

and for three years I lit backwards.

First night, eight candles.

It's the last night of Hanukkah

and all our menorahs are set out,

my-my parents', my brother's, my sister's

on the glass-topped coffee table in the living room

by the big front window.

We had sheer white curtains

that we even drew back so passerbys could see

all that light.

They had eight candles in each menorah

and the extra one, the shamash, the helper candle

right in the middle

and there was mine.

I had a helper, and one defiant candle.

One minority report, one dissenting opinion.

(laughter)

This past Shabbas, Saturday morning,

I walked an hour in the rain

to a family friend's bar mitzvah.

As Orthodox Jews, we don't drive or ride

or do electronics on Shabbat.

I was a little late but I got there in time

to hear him read the Torah and give his talk on,

of all things, Hillel and Shammai,

and what it really means to be generous and expansive

with our hospitality and how to meet the other--

13-year-old-kid.

He was called Giggles and Sunshine

and his dad gave him this blessing

from a famous Jewish saying that you should receive every person

with an open face-- a smile.

And he credited the source,

and it was logical Rabbi Shammai.

After Shabbat, we found out

that the largest anti-Semitic massacre in American history

had happened minutes before I arrived at synagogue in Boston.

Eleven Jews were killed in a synagogue less than a mile

from where I was born.

I didn't have my phone, so...

I was still with the bar mitzvah family,

I borrowed a teenager's cell phone to call my mom.

She had been born and raised

in those same inner city neighborhoods of Pittsburgh,

the whole family had been there

and all... a lot of the cousins were still there.

So she was the logical point person.

When I couldn't reach her right away,

I started to run through all the people

and where they might have been

at that time on a Sabbath morning.

All of my cousins who go to synagogue

were in a different synagogue down the street in lockdown,

and one of my cousins had just been walking by

and heard the shots.

So everyone was physically safe

and everyone knew someone.

I couldn't keep scrolling through the news.

All those places... place were...

I visited there all the time, that's where my family lived,

and shopped, and prayed.

So I asked a friend to text me the list when it came out.

And... the ages, the types of people,

they weren't a surprise because they were the stalwarts

of any synagogue.

The ones who come early

were usually older or have special needs.

They greet you at the door and pass out books and lollipops

and sweep up afterwards

and make sure that nobody prays alone.

We call it a shamash, a caretaker,

but also that same word for the helper candle

that we use on Hanukkah.

Those are our armed guards.

Except that means my protection are also my friends.

We forget that it's actually dangerous

to be a helper, to greet everyone with an open face

when some people don't want me to exist.

To make today more holy than the days before, it's audacious.

Hillel and Shammai both,

whether it was the first night or the last,

had that one candle.

Except when I tried to remember my solitary Shammai candle,

reflected in the window, I couldn't see it.

Because it had never been just one.

It was surrounded by the light from all the candles

that my family had lit beside me.

I still like the technicalities

and the details that I got from Shammai.

Law should be about what's right.

But the place where Hillel and Shammai agree

is that what's right is that we take care of each other.

(applause)

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