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A CurtainUp Feature
Solo Play Feature, Part Two: Theater Pros (actors, playwrights, directors and critics) Talk About the Solo
By Elyse Sommer
Actors and Playwrights
The One-Man Band Playwright/Actor/Manager
For all its advantages, the solo play isn't for everyone.
When the British actress Judi Dench was interviewed on 2011 BBC Radio 4's arts Front Row she was asked about her interest in solo performance. For Dame Judi, the answer was a definite NO: "I wouldn't do a one-woman show. It would be death for me. I would not know who to get ready for"it." She went on to explain what working with other actors meant to her. "I suppose it's the support, and what appeals to me is the fact there's a group of people. . .so there's author, director, cast, audience and it's something to do with that process of telling that story that I love. . .but I don't want to do it on my own."
Comments from Actors and Playwrights Who've Done Solo Plays
The prolific playwright Neil LaBute summed up his decidedly pro-solo stance as follows: "I've always loved the monologue form and have worked in it a number of times —both in short plays and full-lengths. I think the monologue is the great 'secret weapon' of the theater; a tool that allows one to get closer to the audience than most other art forms can ever hope to achieve. even an extreme close-up from a movie pales in comparison to a performer breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, ostensibly 'forcing' them to become a silent partner in whatever activities that the speaker is engaging in. This is powerful magic, and to be able to hold a crowd this way and in its purest form —with a single performer out on the stage for the entire evening —is a rare achievement and one that I hope to continue practicing for a long time to come. The one-person play is very elemental theater, the kind of thing that Peter Brook spoke of with a great deal of reverence in his book The Empty Space. A performer, an audience, an empty space: everything one needs to create pure and vital theater.
In 2003 playwright Theresa Rebeck ventured into the solo play territory with Bad Dates. It proved to be not only one of her biggest hits, yielding royalties from many production but a gift to the women playing single mom Haley Walker. For Elizabeth Aspenlieder, a longtime member of Shakespeare & Company's actor-management team, that gift came her way in 2010. Here's how she summed it up: "It was indeed a gift, one that kept on giving as I ended up doing 3 productions of Theresa's beautifully written play. I fell in love with Haley — her trials, her joy, pain and illumination. It was such a great lesson on how to play with the audience, who really are the other character in any play, and in this one in particular. The notion of just me on stage for 90 minutes was terrifying but also exhilarating. Fortunately I had wonderful directors who talked me off the ledge every time I asked them if people would really come to see me in one-person play where I talked the entire time…to them . . .and would they laugh? Would they cry? Would they come back after intermission? Thankfully, they did all of that! And every night was different — so I would feel the audience and I got to = go. It taught me to always, always, always, to play what comes out of the circumstances, not what is expected." ( Review of the 2010 Production
Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout chose the one-person format for his first playwriting venture Satchmo at the Waldorf. As he explains his choice, "I thought that was the best way to say what I wanted to say— though I did realize after I'd written it that it would probably have a better chance of getting produced because of its practicality. But that never occurred to me while I was writing the play, only after the fact. I do want to write more plays, and I'm working on one right now. It's not a solo show, however: it uses four actors. I've noticed that playwrights who hit the bull's-eye with one-character plays about historical figures very often keep on returning to the genre and never write anything else. Since I don't want to get typecast, I probably won't write another play like Satchmo, at least not any time soon."
As Mr. Teachout originally took time off from his critic's beat to explore Louis Armstrong's life in a biography (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong), so playwright Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar had a non-play start. "It came about when a friend, a talent manager, suggested I turn a comic essay I had written into a one-man-show for one of his clients. The minute he said it, I had a vision of the play in my mind and thought it was worth pursuing. I knew it had to be a solo show because I didn't want to see anyone acting the role of Barbra Streisand, and not just for legal reasons. I thought that, for it to work, the script would have to feel like a crazy story told by a close friend. The solo form allows that kind of connection with the audience." But don't expect more Tonins solos. As he told me "I have no plans to write another solo show, mostly because they're hard! I think the pressure on the performer (and on finding the right one to do it!) is intense. There is also even greater scrutiny on the material than in a typical play. With only one person on stage, every word is under the microscope. The audience can turn on you or get bored in a flash — which is why comedy clubs serve alcohol. I'm very proud of having done it once but I will now happily return to bigger casts!"
Of course, a solo play is only as good as its soloist. And Mr. Teachout found a superb Satchmo in Jon Douglas Thompson. When I met Thompson at the Outer Critics Circle Awards Dinner where he collected a Best Solo Performance award, he said he was glad at the opportunity to try this genre. Though he told me "It's lonely up there. . .and if it wasn't a short play, I might find doing it eight times a week too exhausting" he also noted compensating factors. "Albeit that being alone on stage is lonely, it's also very gratifying in that you gain a certain kind of confidence in the physical, emotional and mental rigor required so that you walk away from the experience knowing that you've improved upon your craft." Thompson concluded with "it's also a wonderful joy having the audience as the other character in this very direct kind of performance."
Will Eno's, growing ouevre and reputation now includes a double-premiere season, one a well-received Broadway play ( The Realistic Joneses & The Open House ). But perhaps his most talked about play has been the Pulitzer nominated Thom Pain (based on nothing) . Here's Will's take on the subject:
"By the very nature of the one-person play, in which we're only looking at one person, the body itself and the breathing and the elegance and the frailty of a human being all potentially become themes or sub-themes. There's also a kind of loneliness to the form, potentially, and a subtext of The Individual vs. The Crowd. If some of these themes were your themes to begin with anyway, then a one-person play can be a very dashing and economical way to get them across. I think, without wanting to get too smart about, if a writer is interested in how the mind really works, how it feelingly receives information and constructs a narrative based on words and silence and gesture, then the one-person play can be really well-suited to that pursuit. You never know what someone in the audience is feeling or thinking, but with the solo play it's fun to at least think you're guiding the flow of thoughts and feelings in a very particular way."
About future ventures into the solosphere, Will told me "I don't have a new one I'm working on. It takes a little bit of a toll, so if I wrote one every eight or ten years, that would seem about right."
The One-Man Band Writer-Director-Marketer
Jim Brochu exemplifies the actor who became a multi-tasker to give his career a boost. His agent's advice to do something for himself rather than wait for someone else to do it for him, struck a can-do chord. "After all, an author can write a play that I, along with 200 other great actors, would be right for. If I write a part for myself...well, I don't even have to audition."
The result was Zero Hour inspired by Jim's meeting with Zero Mostel when he was thirteen. "The experience was unforgettable. He was a force of nature and the perfect subject for a play what with all the obstacles he had to overcome professionally and personally. What's more, I'd been compared to Zero my whole life and as I became the right age, I thought I'm going to write the play and cast myself." And so he did — and Zero Hour was indeed a career booster as well as getting Jim hooked on the solo do-it-all experience.
As Jim tells it, "It seeded 658 performances throughout the United Sates and Canada and I ha,d so much fun that I wanted to do another. My mentor for solo #2, Character Man, was Tony winner David Burns and I thought he and the other character men of a lost era would make for a good show. Jim on the satisfaction of being on stage alone: "There is a tremendous energy as well as a gratification when you stand alone in front of hundreds of people telling a story and they respond with laughter and applause.
While he considers himself "a fairly self-directed actor with good instincts for what to do on stage, he credits directors Piper Laurie and Robert Bartley"were enormously helpful in shaping his scripts and helping to propel the story.
As for the marketing and placement of the many productions these plays have enjoyed, wearing the extra hat of marketing director/booking agent hasn't been a big added chore. "Both shows have toured mostly from word of mouth of producer/presenters to other theaters. The theaters usually get in touch directly with me through the website and I contact the original producers to keep them in the loop."
Brochu's response to my question about the financial rewards: "As both author and performer, let's just say I get more than minimum. Zero Hour is published by Samuel French and several other actors have now taken on the Mostel mantle. Character Man is a very persoanl story about my family and mentors and can really only be done by me so productions have been more limited."
Hal Brooks who directed Will Eno's Thom Pain had this to say: "The biggest challenge in directing a solo is to not have it come off as a monologue but as a play. I think of it as a conversation connecting the actor with the audience and making them part of the play. When I directed Nilaja Sun in her multi-character No Child the trick was to find ways to make the transitions from character to character not just fluid but electric. Towards this end Sun and I worked to create a sort of gymnastic choreography.
Sean Daniels who directed Ben Scheuer's one-person musical bio-drama The Lion in New York and London detailed the very special process of bringing this show to fruition as follows:
"The majority of my journey directing this solo piece, was in the developing, coaching, pushing, pulling, gently shaping of the material itself. For example, when we were at the Westin Playhouse developing it, Ben talked about the letter he had written to his Dad and how it haunted it. I suggested, as a way to unlock part of what was going on for him, that he write a letter to his father now and this led to 'Dear Dad' which is the penultimate song in the show."Buyer & Cellar director Stephen Brackett found he play's original home in the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and later at Barrow Street perfect for tapping into giving the audience a chance to feel an intimate connection with the celebrated focal character. The success and its move to the much larger Mark Taper Forum required some adjustments so that the actor's lines were directed to all sections of the audience instead of straight forward as in the smaller theaters.
Do Critics Embrace the Solo?
Some of my colleagues share my tendency to approach one-person plays with cautious interest and willingness to fall in love, others regard all plays, whether with one actor or many, the same. Following some of their opinions.
Les Gutman, who's been with Curtainup since its beginning in 1996, offered these comments: "I usually think of the solo play as a different art form than its more populated cousin, and I have to say my expectations going in tend to be lower. Both the writing and the presentation of a solo work has challenges that are greater: the script has to draw the audience into its world inventively, and it has nowhere to hide its expositional elements; the acting, meanwhile, has a greater risk of becoming nothing more than a 'performance' in which the actor exhibits his or her chops without conveying anything more meaningful. And, obviously, a solo play depends more completely on those chops, although time and again we have seen great actors disprove the merit of the saying 'I would go see [so-and-so] read the telephone book.' For the reviewer, perhaps the greatest challenge of the solo play is in deciphering who did what: where are the dividing lines between the contributions of the script, the director and the performance? As with any play, when everything works perfectly, those lines are invisible, but when the piece falters, it seems it is usually because one (or more) of those responsible were doing too much. So I would say it is not just a different art form, but also a difficult one.
Simon Saltzman Sez: "I am personally not only inclined to be more attentive during a one-person show, whether it's called performance art, monologue, a rant on sexuality, politics, or a personal venting/purging of the self, but also willing and eager to submit to the performer's agenda, or perspective — whether humorous or serious, and regardless of the theme, topic, subject blah, blah. I like feeling close to an artist who is able to make me see characters, experience places and feel emotions (mostly) without scenery, special effects and 'stuff.' I also just like seeing real talent (when it's really extraordinary) as expressed through an individual's own unique and unadulterated prism. I also don't mind being a little jealous and envious of someone who can get up and be terrific without any help from others...on stage that is. Above all, I suspect that I can really admire the pure ego (usually not a good thing to hone) of a solo performer who is up on that stage doing what they are doing better than I ever could.
For Gregory Wilson no matter what the genre, "the test of a really memorable play boils down to feeling immersed in the environment and compelled by the characters interacting with that environment — and while it's usually more likely for that to happen with more than one actor on stage, there are occasions where the person acting in a single show is so compelling that I forget about the absence of anyone else. In such an event, I think the solo show can certainly be as viable as a full-fledged play."
Jacob Horn feels a solo has to work harder to succeed than a "regular" play. "A lot of what makes theater compelling for me is generated by the interactions between individuals, because our lives are shaped by others. If a comical misunderstanding happened, or someone was tragically manipulated by someone they thought was a friend, or so on. I'm hard-pressed to think of any scenario where I wouldn't rather just see it happen with all the actors present. Even when the content is appropriate for a solo performance, the absence of other performers is easily felt. Watching performers support, encourage, challenge, and energize each other can often be my favorite part of a show; when one person is out there alone, it's not impossible to make it work, but I think it's much harder.
Kathryn Osenlund, our Philadelphia critic, commented on her unique experience with I Am My Own wife: "Thirteen years ago I encountered my first exception to my preference for plays with more than one actor. The Wilma, where Doug Wright was artist-in-residence, work shopped his I Am My Own Wife. It culminated in a reading with Wright and director Moisés Kauffman in attendance and Jefferson Mays delivered a magnificent, mind-blowing performance that melded script, characters, and actor. It was the best performance I had ever seen." Kathryn went on to talk about how, after the show's multiple awards and productions it returned to the Wilma where, with Wright's blessing, it was bifurcated, separating out the characters to get at more dynamics through a dual-character production. But gone was the utter precision of the solo performance, along with the intimations of all the facets of the main character's divergent and ambivalent sensibilities. The show had gained pragmatism at the expense of subtlety and power. Experiencing two productions of the same work in solo and two-hander modes was an education. Yes, the single actor show can trump the multi-actor show.( Kathryn's review )
Jon Magaril, our Los Angeles critic, is of two minds about one-person shows. "The good ones are the theatrical equivalent of sitting 'round a campfire under the spell of a master story-teller. They've offered a great platform for introverts like Spalding Gray to share their unique POV. Extroverts likes Eric Bogosian are at their best going solo. I like best the pieces that use the form itself for dramatic ends. The Belle of Amherst and A Room of One's Own work because Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf are poster women for solitude. Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 masterfully undermined her characters' polarizing positions by opening her arms to portray all of them. But TV versions beautifully captured both show's brilliance. For me, ultimately nothing beats theater for exploring the relationships between people. I get a physical response watching actors, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield in the recent Death of a Salesman, affect each other. That's the type of unforgettable, seared-on-the-soul experience that keeps me coming back for more. For The Solo Play Has Given New Meaning to Greta Garbo's "I Want to Be Alone! — Part One Go Here