‘How Do I Become Happy?’ Advice From a Professional Fool

Everyone has a Sept. 11 story. The pages of Stanley Allan Sherman’s, a one-man show called “September,” sat propped on a music stand in ...


Everyone has a Sept. 11 story. The pages of Stanley Allan Sherman’s, a one-man show called “September,” sat propped on a music stand in his apartment the other day, amid a room full of leather masks. Something about the text was vexing him. “I’ve got to find a way to make it funny,” he said.

Mr. Sherman, 70, is an Orthodox Jew, a professional clown and sometime playwright and director. But mainly, he is one of the small army of niche artisans who make New York’s theater world the anything-is-possible place it is. In a city that has everything, he is one of the few makers of custom leather masks of the sort used in commedia dell’arte, a form of theater that uses stock characters denoted by their masks. He also makes them for the occasional pro wrestler or rapper. It’s a living.

He started writing the Sept. 11 monologue several years ago, with interest from Theater for the New City in the East Village. Then the pandemic happened, leaving the show orphaned — a meditation on resilience during one calamity, sidelined by another.

For Mr. Sherman, it was just one more occasion for improv.

Like many artists of his generation, he arrived in New York without a plan, and found a sweet spot in a post-’60s art world that was just taking shape. It was roughly 1973, after he’d spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel and a couple more in Paris, and his intention was to stay a couple of nights on his brother’s couch, in a fifth-floor walk-up on the edge of the Manhattan neighborhood now known as Chelsea.

By then he had studied mime and the use of masks in the fabled Parisian school of Jacques Lecoq. Mr. Sherman’s brother was trying to peddle a documentary about the Cockettes, a San Francisco drag troupe; he was also broke. “Abbie Hoffman took a bath in that tub when he was on the run from the F.B.I.,” Mr. Sherman said, beginning a tour of the apartment, where he has lived ever since.

Instead of leaving town as planned, Mr. Sherman grabbed a set of antique toilet plungers and headed downtown to Wall Street, to pass the hat as a sidewalk juggler and mime. It was a great way to learn about human psychology, he said. It also made him the apartment’s sole breadwinner.

“I picked Wall Street and Nassau for a reason,” he said. “I felt, that’s the center of power, they need the humanity the most. This one fellow stopped me and said: ‘I watch you. I have all the money I want in the world. But I’m not happy. I see you perform, and you’re happy. How do I become happy?’”

Soon his brother took a real job on Wall Street and moved out of the apartment, leaving it to Stanley. The rent, stabilized, was about $350.

Mr. Sherman graduated from the sidewalk gig to performing in the small, adventurous theaters that were beginning to open downtown. “If you stay too long in the street you get mean,” he said. “I was getting mean.” One day, the director of the Perry Street Theater, knowing of his training in commedia dell’arte, asked him to make a mask for the stock character Arlecchino, also called Harlequin.

“The only person I knew who made masks was in Italy, and he had died,” Mr. Sherman said. He called puppeteers he knew for advice about how to mold leather. Finally, through trial and error, he made a mask that looked nothing like Arlecchino, he said.

The director was satisfied. Mr. Sherman had found a niche and a community, the unsung artisans who make or fix things that no one else wants to think about.

“The community of people who do this in New York is very DIY, out of the mainstream, and you get deep collaborations,” said Seth Kane, who designs prostheses for stage and medical use and has worked with Mr. Sherman on masks for dancers, under the name Dr. Adventure.

“The performer says, ‘I studied ballet for 20 years — I don’t know how to make this fire-breathing unicycle I’m about to ride.’” That’s where the artisans come in.

For Mr. Sherman, it has been an odd sort of career. His best-known performing role was as a guest on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” where he appeared more than 40 times in the 1990s, usually in bits calling for a Hasidic Jew, with or without juggling.

But his best-known mask appeared on the professional wrestler Mick Foley, in his character of Mankind, a wounded psychopath.

“They basically wanted Arlecchino but didn’t know it,” Mr. Sherman said. “I knew it.”

It can take Mr. Sherman a few days or as long as a year to make a mask, using the apartment’s back room as a workshop. When he works, he said, he tries to become the character. “When you’re sculpting, you’re moving as the character, you’re joking around as the character, so you’re putting all the energy into it, and that’s transferred to the mold,” he said.

The finished product, he said, should reveal the actor, rather than concealing him or her.

He is now hoping to revive “September,” his one-man show, maybe take it on the road. On that September morning 20 years ago, Mr. Sherman was on his way home after morning prayers at the Chelsea Synagogue when he saw a plane flying low overhead. The horror that ensued is by now achingly familiar. But what stood out for Mr. Sherman was not just the devastation but also the spontaneous camaraderie that drove him and neighbors, who gathered supplies for the emergency medical workers.

“One of the best things we did is we gave people a way to help, to participate,” Mr. Sherman said, dropping his voice to near a whisper. “Someone came with eight supermodels. There was an old couple with a giant pot of chicken soup that fed people for hours. All these beautiful things happened. Then seeing the line of refrigerator trucks on the West Side Highway was just disturbing. People in their 20s have no memory of this. They hear about Sept. 11, but they don’t know how the energy in the city was so amazing. It was a magical time.”

Still, he wondered whether the monologue was missing the element of humor that has connected his work from the Wall Street sidewalks to the present, a pathway for communicating inconvenient truths.

“This is what fools do: They expose truths,” he said. It was an imperative that has guided him for half a century, and a filter through which to see the city he has made his own. “The reason late night comedy talk shows are so popular and so many people get their news from them, is because they’re speaking truth,” he said.

“If it’s a lie, it’s not funny. Lies aren’t funny. Truth is funny.”

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