Essays by Artists
Volume 6, No. 4, Winter 2003/2004
The Challenge of Creating Your Own One-Person Show
by Cheryl King
A good solo show, specifically a show written and performed by the same person (or occasionally by a very in-sync collaborative team, such as Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner) has the same qualities as a good play – plus a special quality produced by a virtuosity of spirit. That powerful force is the only thing that can explain the drive, the perseverance, and the need to express oneself that motivates the solo performer to continue her task.
The lessons learned during the writing – performing – rewriting – re-imagining process are more intimate, more emotionally risky, when the artist is both performer and writer. When the topic and the vehicle are the same, it’s tempting to take it too personally. Add to that the often-necessary job of self-production and the situation is as fraught with complications as the planning of a wedding ceremony. Doubts set in – “My writing is better than my acting,” or “I can’t write a press release,” or “I can’t assemble the support staff or financial wherewithal to make it happen.” These hazards, fears, and conflicted feelings have the power to stop the solo artist in her tracks. It is no small wonder many solo shows never achieve their full expression, and it’s the basis of the success of the New York Solo Play Lab.
The New York Solo Play Lab is the result of my own personal vision, aided and abetted by John Chatterton, producer of the Midtown International Theatre Festival and director of the Where Eagles Dare Theatre. Three months ago, when John offered me a weekly spot to produce standup comedy showcases, I countered with my idea for a solo show showcase. Having worked on my own show for years, and having been exhausted and demoralized by the efforts required to locate theatres in which to polish my work, I believed the time had come for a regular showcase for solo performers. And our experience, in a mere eight evenings of theatre, has borne out my theory. We have presented very exciting performances, and our performers are unanimous in supporting our mission.
The performers at the NY Solo Play Lab are not all engaged in the same part of the process. Some are putting material “on its feet” for the first time in front of an audience. Others have completed the first batch of rewrites and are tweaking the script. Some are making new acting choices, and others have fully developed their shows and are building audiences or maintaining their chops. For all of these artists, the change to engage directly with an audience without having to self-produce is a boon, and it is deeply gratifying to provide this venue to them.
Each Wednesday four to six performers present 15-20 minute segments of their shows. Most evenings we come close to selling out, a level of success that is still somewhat of a surprise. Word is out that it’s a good night of theatre. I have posted our Play Lab on multiple websites, and each week I receive more inquiries from actor/writers. These submissions include spoken word, cabaret, plays, standup comedy, sketches, and performance art.
From time to time we offer some of these artists the opportunity to put up an entire show. So far two have taken this step – Amy Fortoul, in her edgy production of “This is My Body” and Richard Milner in “Charles Darwin: The Musical”.
Soon some of the students in my solo show workshop will begin to put up 5-10 minute bits of material. Each Friday night I work with a small group of artists working their way toward a manifestation of their message. Often they make their first appearance at these weekly workshops with no more than an idea or two and a whole raft of questions – “Should I do characters? What kind of format? Is storytelling OK? Can I tell true stories about my family?”
The challenge in creating the solo show is exactly that sense of formlessness. There is no concrete “how-to” in crafting the solo show.
In the solo show book I’m co-writing with Rod Menzies, director of my solo show, these questions will be examined, but cannot be definitively answered. Rod, in LA, and I, in NYC, teach weekly solo show workshops. And we see our roles not so much as teachers than as midwife-guides.
Good guidance is crucial in the solo show arena. Many years ago, in my life in stand-up comedy, Rob Bartlett, a brilliant comic, told me, “When in doubt, question your delivery.” It was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. The solo artist, creating her own text, can operate at this intersection of writing/acting in a way that is not possible for actors who are doing material written by others, and who must be loyal to the text as written.
In the process of altering delivery, we find ourselves seeing clearly the ways to alter the text. This can be a very long process. It is important to be willing to continue to revise, both text and delivery, until it feels right. We have discovered that coaching an artist in the crafting of a personal vision requires as much intuition as it does experience. I’m struck most particularly by the value of honoring aspects of personhood. When suggesting alternate means of delivering a monologue, it is often my gut, not my head that comes up with the choices. It is as though our two souls are communicating.
These alterations in delivery heighten the value of the material, but even more importantly, they often seem to reveal or confirm some aspect of the performer’s sense of self. In the process of creation, this serves a number of purposes. It reveals the true value of the material, and it sharpens the writer’s ability to write subtle, complex, nuanced text. It supports and nurtures their sense of self-esteem, their belief in their ability to grow and transform along with the material. It recovers lost, atrophied, denied or devalued aspects of the self that are crucial to the full embodiment of the text. This full-out exploration is bound to lead to freedom and satisfaction. In this process, we make room for experimentation, we urge to discovery, we hold up the standards of good writing and stagecraft and, above all, we do our best to feed the flame of that individual voice with its very specific soul’s message.
When I’m on stage, I usually believe my fullest joy is in performance. When I write, I often believe that to be the most satisfying endeavor. But lately I wonder if the greatest joy might not be in supporting others in their process. The satisfaction I get from seeing these artists present their personal vision in its fully realized form is immense.
The personal is the universal – and in the well-written, well-performed solo show, we all have the chance to see ourselves in someone else’s vision.