Stories, Honest and Human

Stories, Honest and Human


An Artist Profile of David Cale

A man wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, sitting on a stool: David Cale.
David Cale by Craig Schwartz

David Cale is a British-American monologist, performance artist, and writer. He is best known for his monologue-based performances, which are personal, reflective, and heartfelt. He has also worked extensively on collaborative pieces in various ways: as an actor, singer, composer, lyricist, and author. His most well-known pieces include The Redthroats (writer and performer, 1986), Smooch Music (writer and performer, 1987), A History of Kisses (writer and performer, 2011), Someone Else’s Home (writer and performer, 1993-94), and most recently, The Total Bent (actor, 2016).1

Raised in England, Cale moved to New York in 1979 to pursue his long-held dream of being a rock singer.2 Finding little success or artistic resonance in this career path, he performed for several years as a piano bar singer before deciding to enforce a deadline on becoming “successful” in that world. He gave himself a month to write three songs, and perform them for an audience at an open mic, after which he would reevaluate his life. After his performance at Folk City, a music venue in the West Village, a friend told him that the lyrics to his songs were better than the music, and that he should read them at a poetry night at the St Mark’s Church, which has in recent decades been a dance and performance space.3  Looking for direction, he took that advice, and delivered an impassioned performance, in part driven by his resistance to performing without music. After seeing him perform what were essentially dramatically read poems, another friend told him to perform at an open mic at the Westbeth Theater, specifically for performance artists trying out new interesting work.4 His success in this performance led him to develop the poems further, combining them into a more long-winded monologue which eventually became his first major piece of work, The Redthroats. The piece became more widely known when he was offered a full night of solo performances at Franklin Furnace, followed by a run at PS122 and then Second Stage. The Redthroats blossomed into an off-Broadway hit which enabled Cale to tour the country and essentially kickstarted his career in writing and performing. The works that followed this one were also monologue-based solo performances, solidifying his move away from musical performances.5

I was fortunate to be put in contact with David through my professor, Lenora Champagne, and we met at a cafe in the Lower East Side to discuss his work. When I asked him how music functions in his text-based performances, he explained that even though he had little fulfillment in his short-lived musical career, he has always felt a pull towards music, and he was at first disappointed when he found his monologue work to be more successful. As he has developed as an artist and writer over time, he has found himself moving back toward music in his own way.6 Deep in a Dream of You was performed with a string quartet, and he has also written many pieces for performing with a live jazz band, such as Smooch Music.7  He found that this new approach to incorporating music into his work is much more successful and honest than his previous attempts, because he’s approaching music on his own terms, within a more authentic genre for his expression.8

Today, Cale works within many different genres. He describes his approach to creation as eclectic, because he’ll be working on many very diverse projects at the same time. For example, he has recently finished workshopping a theater piece, in which he was an actor; he recently appeared a film, which he is going to develop into a musical as a writer; he is adapting previous works into screenplays; he is developing another musical monologue-based piece, which will be performed in early September; and at the same time, he is also beginning a new series of cabaret-style performances where he sings songs he’s written for various shows. He finds that having this kind of variation in his work enables everything to be in dialogue with each other, different areas of his life influence each other.9

His solo performances tend to be small collections of individual narratives, about ten to twelve monologues, which he performs in different characters to form a broader, cohesive idea. He told me that he’s realized over time that these collections form an album-like structure, with each character’s story being a song.10 His work used to be more autobiographical, but he says that now his work is definitely fictional, although it does draw on his emotional experiences and the stories of his life. He seems to gravitate to the stories of ordinary people, full of mistakes and silliness and emotion, and tells them candidly. He embodies all kinds of characters, all genders, accents, and so on, but does so with respect. Even though he puts on voices, they never become farcical because deep in his work is this idea of empathy, of honestly telling the stories of ordinary people.

David Cale on stage, arms outspread singing into a microphone.
David Cale in Songs for Charming Strangers by Paula Court

David’s breakthrough performance piece, The Redthroats, was published as a book with another text piece, Smooch Music, and lands somewhere between poetry, a conversation between two friends, and someone’s inner monologue. I am drawn to his work because he has the wonderful ability to identify everyday experiences, small events, and moments we can all understand and shine a gentle light on them. This is especially true of Smooch Music, a series of vignettes about experiences in love. Even though I have not experienced everything he writes about, I am drawn into the lives of his characters through close-ups on their little moments and feelings. He balances tones of joyfulness, cheekiness, darkness, tenderness, and in doing so creates a sense of realness. His characters are touching, honest, and capture moments of human life we do not necessarily take time to notice.

When I asked how he has developed as an artist over time, Cale spoke about his earlier years, when he was trying to find his feet. He said that Redthroats was a surprising success, as it is generally unusual for a solo performance artist to find success off-Broadway, especially for their first works. As a result of this initial popularity, he quickly gained media attention, and many articles were written about his work in the following years. He had never had formal training in any kind of performance, nor did he have a director to work with, so at first he hungrily read everything written about him to get a sense of how his work was being received, to find a sense of direction in them. The work he produced in response to what he thought reviewers wanted turned out to be his worst, his least authentic, because he was constantly concerned with their opinion. He shared with me that Deep in a Dream of You (Dream) was the turning point for him. When developing Dream, he decided not to pay attention to reviews of any kind. He wrote the piece in isolation, for himself, and over time he has realized it is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt works he’s composed.11 The message to focus on creating from a place of raw honesty is one of the most valuable insights he, as an accomplished artist, could have shared with me, a student aspiring to make work as touching as his.

David Cale wearing a black shirt, looking dramatically into the audience.
David Cale by Carol Pratt

I asked Cale why he writes, what the purpose of creating is for him, and whether there’s anyone in particular he hopes hears his work. He answered with a story. For a while he would perform somewhat regularly in Poughkeepsie, and every year he was there, the same teenager would turn up. He described a weird kid who always carried his skateboard, the last person you’d expect to find meaning in his work. He told me that he would never have expected to affect a boy like that, so if he had written to affect a specific person, he may not have reached this boy, or perhaps many others. Instead, he hopes his characters and the stories they tell will touch the audience in some personal, emotional way.12 His pieces are essentially timeless, because they aren’t tied to any particular social event or time period. Instead he draws on shared aspects of the human experience, and in doing so, reaches everyone. When I asked him if he would draw on today’s political climate in his work, as so many artists do, he said that he would rather not. He sees the world as saturated with reactions to negativity, and he chooses not to contribute to that particular side of art. He would rather create art that serves as a safe space, a return to the humanness of life.

  1. “David Cale Credits and Profile.” AboutTheArtists. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.
  2. Moore, Jim. “David Cale – talks about life, past and present.” 17 Sept 2011. Web. <>.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid. Author’s note: “The information in this paragraph was also shared with me by Cale in interview, Friday, 31 March 2017.”
  6. David Cale, interviewed by Keira Simmons at Cafe Orlin, New York City, Friday, 31 March 2017.
  7. Cale, David. The Redthroats. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.
  8. Cale, interviewed by KS, 31 March 2017.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Cale, interviewed by KS, 31 March 2017.
  12. Ibid.
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