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John Kevin Boggs was not famous, even to the minor degree of fame one can potentially acquire as a spoken-word storyteller. He wasn’t famous like Spalding Gray was, or Mike Daisey is. He never earned his livelihood from telling stories. He worked in restaurants the whole time I knew him—-from 2005 until his death on March 13—-and for more than a decade prior to that, as he’d related in many stories from the stage.
But his gift for yarn-spinning was top-notch. He was funny and he was fearless. He took some of the most painful experiences of his life—-confronting homophobia and cruelty and dealing with depression, among other trials—-and massaged them into tales that always rippled with little pools of insight without ever seeming didactic. He would stop just short of verbalizing the moral, and his refusal to break the spell by being too pat or obvious made his tales echo in your mind.
That takes talent, but also practice. In the videos of his performances from the last few years that you can find on YouTube and Vimeo, you can, in some cases, watch two or three different iterations of the same story. That’s a revealing exercise, because it lets you see how a tale might’ve evolved as Boggs learned through experimentation how best to tell it, or what adjustments to make based on what venue he was performing in, in front of how many and what sort of people, and to what extent they were drunk or sober—-skills you can only pick up by spending a lot of time on stage in front of crowds, trying not to get crushed. (Well, “crushed.” Although Boggs’ stories often concerned his attempts to deal gracefully with hostile people, audiences in D.C.’s story scene tend to be friendly, or at the very worst, polite.)
Anyway, that’s the performance part. The story-making part, the arrangement and mastery of stakes and rising action and resolution, is something one can be taught. Boggs taught it to hundreds of people during his seven years as an instructor for SpeakeasyDC. He knew it was something I was interested in learning to do—-I tried it once, three years ago; it went okay but not great—-and he offered, on many occasions, to give me a free lesson. Selfishly, I now regret I never cleared a evening, or just 90 minutes, to take this opportunity to learn from a raconteur talented enough to make it look easy, but hardworking enough to remind you it’s a craft, as essential to our evolution as the discovery of fire.
Boggs was one of the first people I met when I moved to D.C. from Los Angeles in 2005. Actually, I met him a few months before I moved here. He was rehearsing a play called Terrorism at Studio Theatre’s top-floor black-box venue, Stage 4, when I arrived at Studio as the assistant to a visiting artist performing a solo show in the Metheny Theatre downstairs. I would see other people who’d been part of Terrorism—-actor Catherine Deadman, co-director Amy Couchoud—-a decade later at Boggs’ bedside at Capital Caring hospice in Arlington, where he spent the last few days of his life after learning, with awful suddenness, that he had terminal liver cancer. He was only 51 years old.
He’d trained in the acting conservatory at Studio, and he appeared in a handful of plays there circa 2004-2008, including Anton Chekov’s Ivanov, Dan Dietz’s tempOdyssey, and All That I Will Ever Be, from American Beauty screenwriter and True Blood creator Alan Ball. Kevin and I were never close, but we were always friendly. He knew how to make whomever he was talking to, no matter how brief or trivial the conversation, feel like they were important to him. A cynic might chalk it up to all those years of working for tips. But kindness had the effortlessness of habit, coming from him.
My first month in D.C., working at Studio, I was usually harried and anxious when we’d run into each other. I found my job stressful, if only because I wasn’t especially good at it, but Kevin always found a few pleasant words that invariably left me feeling a little calmer.
At a hastily convened gathering of perhaps 100 of his friends at a Mexican restaurant in Columbia Heights the night of March 16, three days after his passing, Dustin Fisher, another veteran storyteller, told me how he’d met Kevin in at a story show in November 2009. Only 18 months later, he and his fiancée asked him to officiate their wedding. Boggs dutifully got himself ordained on the Internet so he could accept the honor. “My wife is a very shy person,” Fisher said. “He got through to her.” Given the chance to choose an ecumenical title, Boggs christened himself Elder Boggs.
Dan Via, who appeared with Boggs in Theater Alliance’s 2005 production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, told me he and Boggs were charged with giving the audience some historical context for the play as they found their seats. (The play, by Moises Kaufman, is assembled from various nonfiction source documents with some artistic license stirred in.) “We were each supposed to give five facts about Oscar Wilde,” Via said. “I would do my five and get off. Kevin would just keep going, and we would have to make him stop so we could start the show. He loved that direct connection with the audience.”
It was less than a year after that production that Kevin became a habitual solo storyteller. In 2008 he joined SpeakeasyDC as an instructor. Among the city’s smallish, close-knit community of storytellers and comics—-a group in which he found some of his closest confederates, including Amy Saidman and Joseph Price—-he was as respected for his yarn-spinning acumen as he was beloved for his generosity.
SM Shrake, who runs the rival D.C. story organization, Story League DC, was there, too. He called Boggs “a pro’s pro.” “He got all the hard things right,” Shrake said. “But he got all the easy things right, too, which almost no one that talented does—-like just showing up.”
In a fairer world, Boggs would’ve had the kind of career where your talent buys you the freedom to flake on a commitment once in a while. A fairer world would’ve had him for longer than 51 years.
In 2012, when I wanted to expand City Paper’s Capital Fringe Festival coverage with a nightly podcast from Fort Fringe, I had to find a way to keep the show – tipsy theatre nerds tipsily, nerdily, talking theatre – from being as stultifying as it sounds. Spotting Kevin in the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar, where most of our conversations over the last five or six years took place, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to sit in. Tedium averted, at least for one episode.
In the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival, he performed a solo show called & Afterwards, based on his experiences working at Kramerbooks & Afterwords—-Dupont Circle’s open-all-night bookshop and café—-in the ’90s. He’d told shorter versions of the vignettes that comprised the show before, but this was a huge step forward for him, a cohesive 75-minute piece from a performer who’d previously worked in seven-to-10-minute bytes.
One of my favorites was his story about the night in 1997 when Bono stopped in and ended up in an earnest confab with a Bosnian waitress, Edina Eleskovic—-a real-life character who showed up in at least one other oft-told selection from his notebook—-who was about go home and see her family for the first time since the war had broken out in 1993. Kevin, who was Edina’s manager, eavesdropped as Bono clasped her hands in his and told her, “You go home large. You let your family know they are not defeated; that a generation has survived.” I was a total sucker for it, because it reinforced what I wanted to believe about an oft-derided famous person I’ve long admired.
John Kevin Boggs was not famous. But when it came to inspiring and consoling and enlarging people, from the stage or one-on-one, he held his own against one of the most famous men in the world.
A memorial service for John Kevin Boggs will take place Saturday, April 11 at All Souls Unitarian Church, 1500 Harvard St. NW, at 11 a.m. That evening, “Afterwards: An Evening of John Kevin Boggs,” at the Human Rights Campaign, 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW, will feature videos of Boggs’ stories as well as remembrances of him shared by his friends. Doors are at 7 p.m.; the show is at 8. Tickets are required and available here; they’re free, but event organizers are asking for donations via the website to help cover the beer, wine, and snacks they’re providing.
Photo courtesy of Amy Saidman