We live in an age of increased individualization. "Personal" is the catchword of the day, whether it's personal computers, personal ads, or personal pan pizza. TV commercials sell us a future right around the corner in which all business will be conducted on personal palm pilots from the privacy of our own bedrooms. There are Internet classrooms, Internet clothing stores, and a bevy of Internet bordellos. Even the messy but formerly unavoidable interaction of the supermarket has become obsolete with such services as Pink Dot and HomeGrocer. Of course, in L.A. we've always known that crowds are scary—it just took the rest of the nation awhile to catch up with our obsessive need for privacy (cynics may call it paranoid isolation).
It's no wonder, then, that the Southland is fertile ground for that most common breed of indulgent individual glorification—the solo show. In truth, everyone in Hollywood may not have a screenplay hiding at the bottom of their desk drawers, as the cliché goes, but it seems they do all have an idea for a solo show. From Charles Nelson Reilly to John Astin, Fritz Coleman to Noel Harrison, everyone in Tinseltown seems to have something they just have to get off their chests.
But is that such a bad thing, really? After all, though they have been stigmatized as shameless showcases—living resumés for desperate actors who can't seem to catch a break—solo shows are anti-seclusive in at least one sense: They are all, on some level, about sharing. Even the most megalomaniacal star is in that spotlight because he thinks he has something important to say to an audience. In that sense, solo shows, like all theatrical events, stand athwart our increased modern isolation.
But what about the people behind the mouthpieces, the oft-ignored directors who shape these shows? True, solo-show directors are rarely appreciated by the critics, who seem to think that solo artists are just making it up as they go along. But directing a solo show successfully can be one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs for a theatre director. And it's not surprising to find that some of our best local solo-show directors are some of our best directors, period.
Take David Schweizer, whose deft hand with stylized works and offbeat avant-garde sensibility has made him one of the most sought-after directors in town—particularly if you're doing something "edgy." Schweizer's ability to command large casts in such shows as Peer Gynt, Salome, and Broadway at the Actors' Gang, and, more recently, The Berlin Circle at the Evidence Room, contrasts this director's equally successful work at the helm of such solo shows as Tony Abatemarco's Cologne, Ann Magnuson's You Could Be Home Now, Marga Gomez's Jaywalker, Nora Dunn's Small Prey, and Sandra Tsing Loh's Bad Sex With Bud Kemp and Aliens in America, among others.
"It's kind of ironical that I've ended up doing as many solo shows as I have, because I have no innate interest in them," admitted Schweizer in a recent interview. "It's very hard to get me to go see them. The only reason I ever direct one is because I think the particular person involved is really fascinating and has something really interesting both to project as a performer and to say in the content they've chosen."
Say It Already
Having something to say does, of course, seem to be the dividing line between a good and bad solo show. Randy Brenner, whose direction of acclaimed solo shows includes David Pevsner's current To Bitter and Back and Dan Butler's award-winning The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me…, put it this way: "One-person shows that don't work are usually what I call the 'me' shows. People who just want you to see 'me.' They're about getting an agent and getting casting directors there and using it as a steppingstone to something else. And I can tell you, if that's the goal, it doesn't happen. People will never, ever get that next job from a 'me' show, if that's where they are coming from."
Even Schweizer, one of the founders of Highways performance space, which fosters much of the serious solo performance art in town, admitted that few performers are ideally suited to this medium. "Everybody in the world thinks their story is interesting enough to be told," he said. "I tease Tim Miller [founding director of Highways], an extraordinary teacher who espouses that there is a story inside everyone. Because I'm like, 'I don't know about that—maybe not everyone.'"
At their best though, solo shows have something to say, something that can be very satisfying—emotionally and intellectually—for audiences. As Brenner put it, "A good one-person show takes you on a really intimate journey. You get to know somebody else, and it makes you think about yourself." Brenner, who received raves for his innovative all-male production of Stephen Sondheim's Marry Me a Little last year at Celebration Theatre, is currently developing a solo show with Mariette Hartley based on her autobiography, Breaking the Silence.
Director Michael Michetti also noted that helming a solo show can be very fulfilling. "There are a lot of times when my vision needs to be the thing that carries a show, but there is something rewarding about making myself invisible. I love getting inside of the actor's or creator's head, defining what their impulses are, and finding ways to generate and make them theatrical—to bring someone else's vision to life."
He should know. Michetti has directed such solo shows as Dario Fo and Franca Rama's Orgasmo Adulto Escapes From the Zoo, and Doug Motel's hit Mind Salad and Shiva Arms. More recently, he won acclaim for his direction of the Brecht adaption of Edward II at the Actors' Gang and the current Titanic at the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, with a cast quite a bit larger than one.
Schweizer, who is currently directing Edward Albee's rarely produced The Lady From Dubuque at UCLA, where he teaches, described the best that solo shows can offer in grander terms. "A solo turn on the stage that truly captivates an audience is like the dawn of theatre," he said. "It's like theatre essence. They might as well be on a hillside in Macedonia, singing a ballad with a lyre. There's no more ancient and magically rooted storytelling tradition."
Just You and Me
Of course, getting to that essence can be a chore. One of the most challenging things about directing a solo show is the fact that they are solo shows. "With a large cast, you can divert focus," said Brenner. "In a one-person show, the focus is always on that one person. And usually it's one set and minimal costume changes. So it's more difficult, because you have to hold the audience's interest for a hour and half with just that person."
Not only is it a challenge keeping it interesting for an audience, but also you'd better be sure you're really comfortable working with your performer, because most rehearsals are just you and he.
"It has to be someone I'm interested in hanging out with for a long time," said Schweizer, "because obviously you evolve a very particular relationship, which is different from having a cast of several people. And unless you just really enjoy spending time with that person, you're going to make yourself nuts."
Moreover, if things aren't working with some one person in the cast of a typical show, you move on to something else. Not so with solo work. "Thank God, it doesn't happen much, but there have been those odd moments when you've sort of solved a lot of the problems and now you're into just the drilling," said Schweizer. "Of course, that aspect is part of any directing. Every day isn't some fountain of inspiration. But when it's only just you and one other person, those sections of the work are magnified, because there are fewer distractions."
Another tricky directing problem with solo shows is that many solo artists are performing pieces they've written themselves. "That's the challenge any time you're working on original material," said Michetti. "At what point do you become the advocate of the words that are there? How long do you say, 'Hey, I think we can develop this differently,' before you say, 'Wait a minute; this is the text. Let's make this work.' And if the writer is the performer, you're also dealing with a different kind of vulnerability. It's a different awareness in terms of strengthening confidence. Where I might duke it out with the playwright who wasn't also the performer, there's a different kind of sensitivity required when they need to then get up there and perform the material. I think that's what's unique to solo plays."
Some of this separation between writer and performer can be established during the rehearsal period. "On the simplest level, you make it very clear what you're doing when you are rehearsing," said Schweizer. "And you don't really intrude the one on the other. You work on the writing and then you have acting rehearsals. No matter what, it's going to be a little bit more informal than rehearsals with a cast. But generally, I really try to make it clear what each session is about, so you don't sort of wander off. Then if you spend half the time shooting the shit, you at least know what you were supposed to be doing."
And at some point in the process, the performer has to put the pen away for good. Said Brenner, "Usually about a week and a half before you open, you have to say, 'You're no longer the writer, now you're the actor. Let the writing go.' Because I know that there's always that other person listening as they're talking, thinking, 'Gee, did I write this right? Does this sound as good as it should sound?' That takes you out of the moment. You're not the actor at that point, so that has to change."
Rehearsal periods for solo shows can be shorter—because of an individual's stamina to work every night on the project by himself—or protracted, if text is being developed. "We try to extend the rehearsal period enough where they have digestion time," said Michetti. "So we can work fewer hours over a more extended period."
And often the atmosphere of rehearsals is more clearly dictated by the personality of the performer as opposed to the wishes of the director. Said Schweizer, "I think you have to be open to creating something very specifically for that person, so the schedule is based on the person. Some people really accept the discipline of it seeming like a normal theatre rehearsal period and totally welcome it. For other people, that would make their brains blow up. When I undertake this experience with someone, I have to find the best way to build the piece with them."
Cult of Personality
Another consideration solo-show directors have to keep in mind when developing a piece is the time constraints. "It's more difficult, because you can hold the audience's interest for only about an hour and a half," said Brenner. "And usually, an hour and 20 minutes is better for me. That's a good length for an audience to sit watching one person—unless you're a big star like Lily Tomlin or Whoopi Goldberg or someone, where they can sit for two hours or more."
Which brings up another aspect of successful solo shows that differ slightly from other kinds of theatre. People rarely see a solo work until it gets a lot of press—unless they know the person, that is.
"There is, let's face it, a huge aspect of cult of personality around these things," said Schweizer. "It's a little far-fetched to think that someone is going to see a solo show who doesn't have some innate interest in the person, who just heard it was interesting. Sandra's piece [Aliens in America] has developed quite a successful touring life. She's actually playing at the San José Rep right now, holding down a 550-seat theatre. But it's interesting, the process in some of these communities where the cult of personality has to be created. Some people might have heard about her from her books or her NPR stuff or whatever, but a lot of the people won't have, and they're just coming because they're subscribers. Then, when the word gets out and the reviews are published and the articles are written and she and I sort of beat the drum, there is something much more exciting about the crowd's relationship with her. It's hard to discount."
The exception to this, of course, might be a solo show based on a historic figure rather than personal experiences, which may draw in crowds based solely on the material. "One-person shows tend to all get lumped into the same category, but they are as diverse as any other kind of show," reminded Michetti. "Most of the time when we hear about one-person shows, we think about the autobiographical 'this is my life' sort of thing. Of the five solo shows I've done, only one falls under that category. There are autobiographical shows, biographical shows. There's really a wide variety."
Regardless of the type of solo show you might direct, the fact of the matter is, you won't get famous doing it. Unlike the performers onstage, whose motives may be in question, solo-show directors can typically expect no glory for their efforts.
"People usually think that the actor just went up onstage and is making up where he's going," said Brenner. "I can tell you that literally in every show I've done, there isn't one gesture or one movement that is not set. It's the actor's responsibility to make it seem spontaneous. And that's been the case with the great talent I've worked with so far. But I remember Charles Nelson Reilly telling me—he directed Julie Harris' Belle of Amherst—'You're never going to get mentioned. In New York, I directed her show. We got brilliant reviews. And no one said a thing about me. What—did they think she just decided to sit in that chair by herself?'"
But despite the challenges and the critical anonymity of solo show directing, there are rewards. While you may never get to the essence of theatre that Schweizer speaks of, you may at least create the kind of bond that Brenner described: "More than other shows, there's just a more intimate feeling by the end of the process, because you really get to know the person well. And your job is to make that person look as good as they possibly can. So in that way, when you've accomplished that, you feel, above all, like you did something nice for your friend."
And in an ever more isolated world, friendship is not a bad start. BSW