Mike Birbiglia spent 37 years predicting he’d be a lousy dad and 13 months after his daughter’s birth convinced that it was true. Then came an epiphany. Then came a one-man play.
“The New One” nestles into Knight Theater on Oct. 8 on the Broadway Lights tour. You’ll descend into Birbiglia’s pit of pre- and post-natal gloom, then rise up along with the writer-actor as he figures out how to adjust.
Birbiglia has made a living for almost 20 years by being frank about shortcomings and anxieties, whether on public radio (“This American Life”), in books (“Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories”) or in live shows filmed for Netflix (“My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend”).
So he isn’t kidding when he explains why he and Jennifer Stein waited seven years after their wedding to have Oona in 2015.
“We got married about 30, and neither of us thought we wanted a child. We did talk about it, and to this day, we disagree about the details. The first half of the show is my elaborate argument for why no one should ever have a child. Then I talk about how, after we did, I thought I was right. But there’s a redemptive revelation.”
Birbiglia built the first draft from journal entries he’d kept during Stein’s pregnancy and the first year of Oona’s life. He’d never expected to share them with anyone: “They were so hopeless, basically me saying ‘I guess this is my life now, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. It’s so miserable.’ ”
But soon after Oona’s first birthday, “I had an epiphany about her and my wife and me being a family. I realized those journal entries would create dramatic tension. When I showed people early drafts to ask what wasn’t working, they’d tell me, ‘This is too dark. If it’s going to be this dark, the redemption has to be just as hopeful.’ So the whole show has a subtext: How will he eat his words?”
Birbiglia bounced ideas off Stein, who gets a writing credit. (She publishes books of poems, including the Oona-inspired “Little Astronaut,” as J. Hope Stein.) “I would ask, ‘How do you feel about her crawling, walking, talking or whatever, and instead of saying how she felt, she’d show me a poem,” he explained. “I say some of the poems in the show. Her version of this story would be more abstract, not as narratively driven.”
He revised the script right up to its 2018 Broadway run. He remembers “getting responses from mothers who said, ‘I had similar loneliness in my first year, a fear that I’d never connect the way people are supposed to do with children.’ So I eased out the discussions of gender to make it more universal.”
He carefully reworks anything he says publicly, from this show to a New York Times article about making it small in Hollywood (as the actor-director did with “Don’t Think Twice”). He quotes NPR host Ira Glass: “It takes years for your work to catch up with your taste.”
Said Birbiglia, “I think people underestimate — and I did, too — the degree to which writing and performing is as time-intensive as any skill, whether you’re a mechanic or an Olympic figure skater. The reason people don’t think that is the marketing of the product, which is designed to make what I’m doing look effortless. The audience thinks, ‘I could do that.’ But if it were that easy, everyone on Earth would do it.”
He absorbed that lesson unconsciously when he saw Steven Wright at 16: “He’s the master of making it look effortless, like he just ambled onstage and started talking. That’s the magic trick of comedy. But he probably honed those jokes for 10 years.”
Birbiglia didn’t imagine he could earn a living that way until he worked at The Improv in Washington, D.C., fetching chicken fingers and nachos for comedians as a Georgetown University student.
“I saw a headliner’s paycheck. I called my brother and said ‘This guy got $6,000 for one week at a club!’ My brother said, “That’s if you’re the most successful comedian in the business.’ But if you’re going to be a comedian, you have to be a little bit delusional. You have to convince yourself it’s going well when it’s not. You have to believe you’ll make it, not realizing it will take a thousand times more time and effort than you thought.”
Even at 41, Birbiglia thinks about how much time he has left. His father and grandfather had heart attacks at 60. He had bladder cancer at 19 and now gets all-clear results from annual cystoscopies.
“If that happens at 19, you have this uncertainty about your own mortality. It stays with you. When I walk onstage, I have a sense that this could be the last show or the last month of my life. All you can do about that is give everything you have to the audience.”
“The New One”
When: Oct. 8-13 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Tickets: $20-$89.50. “Make a date,” group and student rush offers available.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
More arts coverage
You can find all our arts season preview stories and calendars in one place: charlotteobserver.com/topics/charlotte-arts-guide.
Want to get more arts stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the free “Inside Charlotte Arts” newsletter at charlotteobserver.com/newsletters
You can also join our Facebook group, “Inside Charlotte Arts,” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/