‘Prostate Dialogues’ storyteller John Spelman gets personal — but not in a ‘TMI’ kind of way

Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post - Jon Spelman, who wrote "The Prostate Dialogues" from personal experience, recites his lines, which he says have elicited more laughs than expected.

May 23, 2014
By Roger Catlin, for The Washington Post

Jon Spelman has a thing or two to say about his prostate. Going through a cancer scare four years ago that focused on a body part he didn’t know much about gave the longtime storyteller and performer plenty of material for his one-man show “The Prostate Dialogues,” which has its world premiere at Theater J on Friday.

Spelman, 71, has been developing “The Prostate Dialogues” since he first introduced it in Theater J’s Locally Grown series two years ago. He spoke from the Baltimore home he shares with his wife, choreographer Liz Lerman, about the show and reactions to it.

Are there more people doing one-person performances now than when you started [in 1979]?

Oh, yeah, because when I was doing it, I loved performing to all different kinds of audiences, from preschools to parties to art centers to theaters. The bread-and-butter money of a lot of those smaller performances was really good, because I was the only one in the Baltimore-Washington area — the only sort of professional storyteller or narrative performer. Though I suppose now there are 35 of them. It’s grown exponentially and not only in this region, but all around the country.

How did you find out about your cancer?

Well, that takes up the first 12 or 15 minutes of the piece. Because a part of the piece is about my own ignorance, and I think a lot of men’s own ignorance about their own bodies.

When did you start learning about your own body?

I got hit in the testicles as a kid. I was in pain and so forth. Thinking about that made me realize I can now say this is all about my own ignorance about my own body. I was young enough I didn’t even know I had testicles, essentially. Then you discover at some point you have a penis and then you discover you can do things with it. I never knew what the prostate actually did until I asked a medical student on my block after my biopsy.

How did you decide what to do when you got your biopsy results?

I was on this journey of trying to get information about surgery and, “was I making the right choice?”

And I started going to these men’s groups and medical seminar sessions and talking with people. I started to get confused and scared and weird, because [people said], “Nobody told me about this: that you could possibly lose erections and ejaculations and your sex life might be lost and it will still affect the way you urinate.”

What have you learned from the readings of the play you have done so far?

It has more laughs in it than I thought it did.

Is it nervous laughter?

Some of it is nervous laughter, some of it is like watching a man slip on the banana peel.

What other reaction do you receive from audiences?

I think a real appreciation for directness and honesty, a real fascination with all the medical processes. A feeling that almost everybody, no matter their age ... something happens for men that a lot of women don’t really know at all.

Why don’t they know about it?

They don’t want to talk about it. They never talk with their families about it. I’ve heard from young women who say, “I didn’t even know my boyfriend had a prostate.” Or, “Now I know what my dad went through, I wish he’d been able to talk to us about it.” Or someone said, “I do have to tell you that I texted someone during your performance. I texted to my dad to get his prostate checked.”

What else have you learned from those talk-back sessions?

You can talk a lot, pretty frankly, about sexual stuff that happens to people, ... and you can use words that just might seem smart-ass. ...

I’m not trying to do anything salacious, or to make funny jokes about sex. Or use words that might shock people. But we’re all interested in that kind of stuff, you know, whether we’re gay or straight, old or young or whatever.

It seems like “The Vagina Monologues” opened the door for plays like this about body parts.

Vagina was a word we could barely say in public, except among friends, when that piece first came out.

I think of prostate cancer being a kind of men’s breast cancer. I know most certainly my mother’s generation, but even women my age and younger, didn’t want to talk about breast cancer, because you had to talk about breasts. And that was something we didn’t do. So for a long time it was a hidden disease. And I think the same is true for prostate cancer. ...

And what fun to be able to do a piece about it that’s funny, that people can relate to in a lot of different ways and learn something specific about how medicine works and what the medical establishment is like. I’m very grateful to a number of medical people, but I’m also hard on them in this piece. ...

One of the things I love about this personal writing is that the more personal you allow yourself to get, the more universal it becomes ... because what you’re doing is exploring the limits of the human body. That’s a point we all come to at some point. I came to mine at 10, when I got hit in the testicles.

The Prostate Dialogues Written and performed by Jon Spelman, directed by Jerry Whiddon, runs May 30 through June 29 at Theatre J in the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St NW. Call 202-777-3210 or visit www.theaterj.org. $15-$30.


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