The Intimate World of a Story: Ali Hoefnagel’s “You Can Call Me Al”

By David Bernabo

Recital continues our partnership with the New Hazlett Theater by publishing a preview and an editorially-independent review for the five performances in the 2018–19 CSA Performance Series season.

Throughout the season, Recital is meeting with each of the artists to bring you a brief profile of them and their work in the days before their opening performance. We will publish a considered review or a post-show discussion with the artists for each performance, developed from post-show discussions with a consistent panel of local experts in related disciplines.

The sixth season of the New Hazlett’s Community Supported Arts performance series is filled with ambitious performances, from Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s dance-infused big band jazz opera to Felicia Cooper’s puppetry for children to a contemporary opera from local chamber group Kamratōn. At the center of the season is performer Ali Hoefnagel and the piece You Can Call Me Al. Their performance is not quite the interdisciplinary extravaganza that surrounds it, but that doesn’t make it any less ambitious. It’s a story, a long-form story told by Hoefnagel with original music by Gray Buchanan, that begins with Hoefnagel’s birth — “almost every birth story is unique” — and continues through to the current moment.

“I’ve only written stories that top out at about 15 minutes,” says Hoefnagel. “So, this was a pretty unique challenge to write a 60-minute story.” It’s an equally challenging feat to fit the contents of one’s life into a 60-minute window. Which events do you include? Which do you exclude? In the opening to the piece, Hoefnagel poses these questions to the audience, asking, “Why do we retell our stories? Which ones do we retell?”

Hoefnagel opts to retell the funny stories, the stories that allow a person to feel more represented and seen, and the stories that seem impossible to get out. These stories are personal and, sometimes, universal. These stories include others, opening up questions of responsibility when someone else’s story overlaps with your own. These are stories that justify one’s presence in this world.

Hoefnagel explains that You Can Call Me Al, “focuses mostly on gender identity, transness, and queerness, and how that intersects with parenting and mental health.” Moving to Pittsburgh from Chicago a year and a half ago, Hoefnagel found that queer communities in town wanted to congregate more often, to share space and experiences.

“I’m more interested right now in creating work that is unapologetically queer and for members of communities that I occupy. My job as an arts educator [Hoefnagel is the artistic program director for Dreams of Hope] for the last several years allows me to talk to straight folks about queerness. I do that for a living. This show feels like an opportunity to speak more directly to my community.”

Back in Chicago, writing stories grew out of a necessity. “I started writing stories, largely, because I wasn’t finding a lot of roles for people who looked like me,” says Hoefnagel. This lack of opportunity resulted in more time spent offstage, working behind the scenes. Writing provided Hoefnagel with a voice and a chance to get back in front of people. Audiences responded, thanking them for their vulnerability and relatability as they found similarities in their own experiences.

“I think that we all have this enormous catalog of things to pull from in our own lives to make art around. I don’t know that we allow ourselves to think that those things are important or valuable.”

You Can Call Me Al represents the furthest that Hoefnagel has ventured into personal storytelling — “I’ve never pushed myself this hard to talk about the things that scare me the most.” While there will be no mention of Paul Simon, audiences can expect an intimate, thoughtful, and humorous long-form story rooted in Hoefnagel’s life, but with branches into the larger world. As Hoefnagel says, “the things that we present on stage can reflect the world around us, but can also shape those reflections in the world.”

You Can Call Me Al premieres on Thursday, February 7 with a second performance on Friday, February 8 at 8PM at the New Hazlett Theater. Buy tickets here or at the door. 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.