“Somebody once said, ‘There are just two stories in the world: A stranger comes to town, and someone takes a journey,’” says Jon Spelman, sitting in the living room of his comfy Silver Spring, Md., home.
It’s the morning after Spelman’s first presentation of Off the Map, a solo narrative piece he’s performing at Silver Spring’s Round House Theatre. Despite his disheveled hair and his head cold, the 61-year-old Spelman commands attention. Maybe it’s the teal dress shirt; maybe it’s the deep voice or the impeccable diction.
Off the Map, he explains, “is the someone-takes-a-journey story.” And not a namby-pamby metaphorical journey, either, but a real labor of muscle and sweat. “My character is an office-bound, multitasking, overly worked, freaked-out-professional type of Washington person. [He] goes from being that to ending up solo in the wilderness.”
Spelman has been a professional storyteller for 20-odd years. (What separates a professional from some grizzled barroom raconteur, he says, is that “I get paid for it.”) He’s recounted the experiences of soldiers in Vietnam, of children living through the Holocaust, of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
That last one, he says, kills his audiences at universities, playhouses, and art centers throughout the States and abroad: “It’s an amazing story…that touches everybody, because everybody feels ugly and rejected and out of step at certain times. I think everybody feels the level of violence that creature feels.”
Off the Map, while it also tells the tale of a guy who’s out of step, is by no means as dark as Spelman’s take on Frankenstein. Aside from a few bloodsucking insects and a scary off-the-leash dog, it’s a relatively peaceful tale of a three-dimensional Dilbert finding rejuvenation for his soul (along with the odd bearded man in a party dress) under the dappled boughs of various national parks. It’s almost as if the story were based on the frustration of a Washington writer who had developed a severe case of chair-butt.
Spelman, invoking “the writer’s code,” shies away from discussing the precise autobiographical content of his stories, but he does say a lot of his recent life went into Off the Map.
In the ’90s, Spelman was a freewheeling man of the world, touring Sweden, Israel, and Japan to perform. Then, about five years ago, after concluding that he spent too much time away from his wife and daughter, he ended extended traveling in lieu of transcribing interviews and editing yarns at home.
But that move also took a toll, he says. “You can’t run a one-person business—which is essentially what I was doing—without working in an office, without making a lot of phone calls and doing a lot of e-mail.” Spelman, desperate for fresh air and open space, started taking breaks in Rock Creek Park. “When you’re walking, the only thing to worry about is walking,” he says. “And eating, and excreting.”
This is not to say he didn’t take work with him: He carried a digital audio recorder to record random thoughts, impressions of the scenery, and interviews with fellow trail walkers. As it turned out, Spelman’s Thoreau-esque fugue unearthed shovelfuls of story material.
“I talked to a fair number of people, because they’re fairly friendly in the park: real nature freaks, recreation freaks, the occasional homeless person,” he says. When his growing rambling fixation took him to the Rockies and the Adirondacks, the storyteller encountered other intriguing subjects: moose, poisonous snakes, and Barry, a jogger featured in Off the Map who is convinced that aliens visit him regularly to milk his “seed wand.”
Spelman, who now regularly spends four or five days at a time in one federal wilderness or another, says he still hasn’t lived out his ultimate “journey” story: spending a night in Rock Creek Park.
“The fear level would be really interesting,” he says. Of course, he adds, “I would have my automatic pistol.”
Off the Map runs to Sunday, Feb. 1, at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Md. For more information, call (240) 644-1100.