If I close my eyes right now, I can see Tony.
If you were in my mind, you might think I was looking at a short Italian guy in an orange jumpsuit. But I’m seeing a stadium of improbable beings, huge and tiny. When I imagine Tony Montanaro I see everything his mind invented, and all the things his body described. He was the most physically creative person I’ve ever known, and he could transform in a split second from a giant to dancing flea.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah … so the guy’s a mime,” you say. “The silent type with the white-face.” But Tony spoke a lot and he didn’t paint his face. Sure – he could mime – he and Marcel Marceau studied with the same teacher. But he went beyond mime to a form he called “Physical Eloquence” – the art of physical story-telling, with voice, body – and everything.
Tony moved to Maine in the early 70’s, bought an old barn in South Paris Maine and turned it into a theater he called the “Celebration Barn.” He taught and performed there. He became known as the “Guru of Street Performers.” Sooner or later every non-traditional performer on the Eastern Seaboard made their way up to Tony’s barn to study with him. You know the host of “America’s Funniest Video’s” – Tom Bergeron? He studied with Tony. You know the “Mentos Guys” from the TV commercial? They came to the Barn, too. And, along with actors, jesters, jugglers, puppeteers, storytellers and dancers, I also found my way to the Barn.
Did I rush up there the minute I heard about him? No! I didn’t have the guts! It took me 3 years to get up the courage to actually call and ask if he’d take me for a student. I was afraid he wouldn’t accept me, afraid I wouldn’t fit in, because his workshops were for — well, for other people. People who could do things I couldn’t do. People more able than me, solo performers (which I wasn’t yet), people with exotic skills and street-smart courage. He was “the guy” and I was some weird little harp player! When I finally got the courage to call and stuttered out a request to study with him, he said, “Sure!” — and that began a relationship that changed my life.
As I watched Tony use his body like an instrument — I learned how to make my own awkward instrument into a part of my body. And when I whined about the prejudices and stereotypes people have about the harp, Tony just looked at me and said, “The harp is the instrument of the storyteller. Tell your stories.”
And to this day, the shows I do at the Barn, are like creative cosmic gushers. At the Barn splendid, I am the freest I ever am – and I do things in there, completely spontaneously, that I struggle to reconnect with anywhere else. Why am I telling you this? I’m starting to prepare for the Barn again, my pilgrimage, where on June 20th I’ll perform at the place where Tony taught me to be free. But I know many of you live thousands of miles from the Celebration Barn. You just might not make it there this year.
So why do I want you do know about it? Well, my theory is that knowing about things is a step towards experiencing them. I want you to know about Tony.
Even if you never get to the Barn, I want you to know that one little Italian guy with a vision and a passion could create a PLACE. A place where his vision continues, even after his death. I want you to know you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg creating “Skywalker Ranch” or Robert Redford, creating “Sundance” to create a place that can change people’s lives, even after you’re gone.
And I want you to know that you don’t have to have the resume of a genius to be invited into that place, to belong there. You can just call and ask to come. Well, now, you can email, too.
And if you can get to the Barn on July 27th for my concert, I hope you’ll stand for a moment in the middle of the floor, and let the spirit Tony brought there change your life, too.
WHAT: Deborah Henson-Conant LIVE!
WHEN: July 27th, 2019 at 7:30 pm
WHERE: The Celebration Barn Theater, 190 Stock Farm Road, South Paris, ME
TIX: $26, $23