Best known for his one-person plays, writer Willard Simms reminds actors that solo shows
are not done alone.
Born in Denver, Colo. to a family of professional cowboys, Willard Simms started out as a writer and went to college to pursue journalism, but caught the acting bug instead. Eventually, his work in theatre led him to playwriting, and later to a job as a literary critic for The Los Angeles Times.
Since then, Simms has become best known for writing one-person shows, typically about historical figures. His best known plays are Einstein, a Stage Portrait, which was first done in Los Angeles at the Odyssey Theatre and then moved to the Westwood Playhouse (now the Geffen); the play is now in several languages and played all over the world. Others include Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, a commission for the Denver Center Theatre, Leonardo!, and Bye Bye Blackbird (a play about Zelda Fitzgerald that ran in L.A. as Only a Broken Strings of Pearls).
Back Stage West: What interests you about one-person pieces?
Willard Simms: Two things: One is the intimacy. I love actors talking directly to an audience. It's what we have in live theatre that film and television don't have--that personal immediacy. We have the presence where an actor can look at someone in the third row, look him in the eye, and tell a joke or insult them, or involve that person in a variety of ways. I love breaking the fourth wall. In my newest piece, Jeff Trachta picks out an audience member and asks if they've been circumsized! I always want to take advantage of the beauty and the personal magic and immediacy that doesn't exist anywhere else but in the theatre.
The second thing is cost-related. Costs are so high now in theatre. It's absolutely ridiculous. My play on Edgar Allan Poe has gotten tremendous reviews all over the United States, but it's an 11-character play with a complicated set and a child actor in the cast. It doesn't get a lot of productions. The one-person shows do. They're inexpensive to mount and easy to tour. It's a way I can work in the theatre and make money, and I always like to make money at what I love doing.
BSW: Let's talk about packaging. How would an actor who isn't necessarily a star get their one-person show packaged?
Willard Simms: I've taught many seminars on this here, in New York, at UCLA, and elsewhere. The first point I always make to actors is that before they start to write, they need to determine whether or not their piece is going to have commercial possibilities. A lot of people think that all they have to do is write about their own experiences and get up on a stage and tell. That's the worst way to begin. What you need to do is think about what's unique about your own experiences and how others are going to relate to them. Claudia Shear's show, Blown Sideways Through Life, and Dan Butler's The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me are good examples. They were incredibly popular because, while they were autobiographical, they had very personal themes that everyone could relate to. It's not enough to just write about you. You need to tap into what is universal about your own experience, what will connect with others.
BSW: So once you've got a focused, well-themed show, what do you do with it?
Willard Simms: As an actor, my first step would be to contact a theatre. There are theatres in Los Angeles that are interested in developing new works. The Zephyr, for example, has a program where they workshop things on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. There are a lot of theatres that do that. You can approach theatres and ask about using their space on off nights and see if they'll allow you to work something out. You can do a box-office split or something where you can keep your expenses to a minimum. Theatre Geo was my favorite, but it's gone now.
BSW: What are the costs of that kind of arrangement?
Willard Simms: Between five and 10 thousand dollars, mainly because you have to do mailings and run good ads that grab people and make them aware that you're there. You need to generate a public consciousness. There are other, less costly things you can do. You can call up the editors of the different calendar sections of the newspapers and make sure that you're listed. If you're running in a theatre, they're obliged to list you. You can call radio stations. They're always looking for people to interview. You can do all of this on your own, but it might be helpful to have a publicist. They can help you with catchy blurbs for your listing, and are usually better connected than you are.
And you must have the critics come. The only reason not to is because you're still developing and you don't want them yet. I mean, the very first time out, you don't want critics. I don't have critics the first time my plays are produced.
BSW: You can control that?
Willard Simms: Yes. It makes it harder to get your work produced by someone else, because all of the theatre owners and producers want critics to come. It's hard to sell tickets without a review. The danger is that if it's your first time out and you just want to see what works and what doesn't, though the concept might be wonderful and the characters might be wonderful, there may be some flaws or problems that need extra work and extra time. Once a thing is in print and reviewed, it's very hard to change people's minds. I'm always very careful about not having reviews before the piece is ready. If you've got to get it out there, read it in living rooms, read it in churches, read it for invited audiences. The actor has to get comfortable and develop a relationship with the audience. Every actor needs to develop strong muscles before they get reviewed.
BSW: O.K., so once I've opened and I've gotten good reviews, what's my next step?
Willard Simms: The second step would be to try to get into festivals. In the Dramatist's Source Book there's a list of theatre festivals. You can send them your reviews and a tape of the show. You should always tape the show. And don't have your cousin Harry who wants to try out his video camera do the taping. If the tape is bad and looks unprofessional, you look unprofessional. So get good tape and send that with your reviews. Or you could edit the best sections from your play, put them together, and make a promotional tape.
BSW: How can people take their shows on tour?
Willard Simms: Through booking agents. And you market to them the same way you market to theatres: You send your tape and reviews. You can also hit the colleges and high schools.
BSW: How do you find these booking agents?
Willard Simms: Ask people you know who've toured or who are touring. The names always change. It's like studio executives--hot this year, gone the next. So ask around. You can also find them at the festivals. If you get into a festival and do well there, you'll get bookings, because people from all over the country come to those festivals to fill out their seasons.
BSW: What about Europe?
Willard Simms: A lot of American companies go to Scotland to the Edinburgh Festival each summer (Aug. 19-31 this year). I was over there vacationing and so I just dropped off some material on my Einstein play. A particular company said they wanted to do it, and after that, once I had established a reputation, it wasn't too difficult to get the top theatres to do my work at the festival. There are basically two ways to go: You can put up all of the money yourself and then you'll get all of the box office, or you can pay no money up front and do a 50/50 box-office split with the theatre owner. Which is better depends on whether you think your play is really going to draw audiences or not.
BSW: Approximately how much would it cost to produce at the Edinburgh Festival yourself?
Willard Simms: The biggest expense is getting over there and lodging, not the venue. The lesser-known theatres are less money. You might wind up doing a week for only $500. You have to start planning in January or February, because by now, all of the decisions and bookings have been made.
BSW: What exactly is the Fringe festival?
Willard Simms: The Edinburgh Festival originally began with very big, Broadway-style shows. People wanted to see other kinds of things, as well, so various little pubs and theatres and churches decided to allow people to come and put on plays. There were more than 1,300 productions there last year. Anyone who wants to can put on a play there, but there are only seven or eight top theatre venues. Audiences look for those and go to whatever's playing there. If you're performing in the Assembly Rooms or the Travers Theatre, for example, you'll have a guaranteed audience, because people know that it's difficult for plays to get into those spaces. The screening process has already been done for them.
BSW: Do you have any other advice about packaging?
Willard Simms: Once you've opened your show, it's too late to start thinking about packaging. You need to have a list, before you open, of everyone important that you're going to invite. They probably won't come based on a single invitation, but if you send a second one with your press clippings after you've opened, they might come and you'll get offers from them. When my piece on Poe opened, we got a terrific review in Variety, so I ran ads in Variety and wound up getting calls from European producers interested in the show. But you need the money for ads set aside in advance, so that if your play works, you can advertise. That's very important. If it works, you need to make people aware of it.
BSW: Can an acting agent be helpful?
Willard Simms: Not with bookings, but an actor's agent can help make people aware of the show, invite people, and get you other work from there. You should bug your agent to do that. That's their job. If they don't, the actor should question their representation.
BSW: Any final tips?
Willard Simms: Don't expect this kind of work to necessarily succeed the first time you do it. Go into it knowing that you're going to rewrite it, probably several times. What you're doing is entering into a dialogue with the audience. It's not a monologue, it's a dialogue, and you don't know exactly how it's going to go until you've had many, many weeks of that dialogue. After the dialogue has gotten to the point where you're comfortable with it, that's the point in time when you should get it out into the world.
Don't think of it as just you up there talking. It's not. It's an interpersonal relationship where you invite the audience up onto the stage to share your world. There are two characters in a one-person play: the actor and the audience. You have to allow the audience to know who you are so that they're comfortable with you and allow them to know why they're here to see you. They like that. They like being part of your life. In Einstein, the audience is there to have cake and fruit with Albert while he tells them he's not really as crazy as the newspapers make him out to be. Even in supposedly staid London, audience members would invariably call out, "You're not crazy, they are!" Audiences love that kind of thing; they love participating in your life. Let them. BSW
The Edinburgh Festival may be reached by e-mail at enquiries edinfringe.com