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Going It Alone Writing, Performing, and Marketing Your Own One-Person Show

By Paul Harris

"You must be mad!" That is the usual reaction when performers announce they intend to write, and ultimately perform, their own one-person shows. Yet in recent years more and more actors have ventured into that crazy territory by putting together one-person entertainments to take "on the road." Some, like Lily Tomlin and Alec McCowen, are already established performers with highly successful careers behind them, but many others are just ordinary actors and actresses who have decided it was time to end the talking and get on with their careers.

One-person shows have been around for a long time. Historians tell us the English actor Samuel Foote delighted London audiences in the middle of the 18th century with his show "The Diversions of the Morning." In 19th century America, particularly after the expansion of the railways, platform performances enjoyed considerable success with patrons who were prejudiced against the perceived low morals of conventional theatre. (Lectures and solo readings of literature were thought to be genteel and dignified areas of entertainment-as opposed to the popular theatre, which in some minds was associated with prostitution and lasciviousness.)

Perhaps the greatest solo performer of the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic was the novelist Charles Dickens, who in his youth had aspired to be an actor. He delighted audiences with his highly dramatic (and, some would say, histrionic) readings from his own novels. One historian has claimed that Dickens' tour of America in 1866-7 was unparalleled until the Beatles toured the USA in the early 1960s!

Although one motivation for one-person shows is economic, it is not the only reason. Established performers from Charles Laughton to Gail Sondergaard have used solo shows to revitalize flagging careers, and beginning performers sometimes turn to the form to reduce the sense of powerlessness and frustration that comes from waiting for the telephone to ring. In recent years several American and British actors have sought to assert themselves and take over the reins of their careers, rather than passively waiting for their agents to tell them that some casting director somewhere wants to see them or that a director might offer them work. Solo performances also give actors a far greater degree of artistic control over their work and allow them to pursue their careers without having to depend upon other actors.

For some others, performing alone is the ultimate challenge-can they, alone, hold an audience for an entire evening?-and the experience helps satisfy their egos. When McCowen was asked what motivated him to attempt a one-person show, he immediately answered, "Vanity." Roy Dotrice, who scored an enormous success with "Brief Lives," has admitted of acting solo, "There's nothing I know more satisfying."

The one-person show also allows some to cash in on their celebrity status, and lets members of the public indulge their hunger for contact with such people. The late Quentin Crisp created a one-man show in the mid-1970s, building on the publicity he received from the film "The Naked Civil Servant," and toured it literally up to the week of his death at the age of 90.

Many performers treat one-person shows as an opportunity to show off their particular talents in a very personal way. Miriam Margolyes created a show called "Dickens' Women" in which she played a wide variety of the novelist's female creations. The classical actor Sir Ian McKellen toured all over the world, including Broadway, in his one-man show "Acting Shakespeare," a highly personal selection of pieces (including Mistress Quickly!) that he performed and discussed with his audiences. He followed the success of "Acting Shakespeare" with "A Knight Out," which played on Broadway during the summer of 1994 as part of the celebrations surrounding the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion and the birth of the gay liberation movement. The title, a double entendre, referred to his "coming out" as a gay man.

Other actors feel none of the roles that they had been offered had really done justice to their talents, and set out to write a one-person show that did. Pat Carroll, who played Gertrude Stein, admitted that she had "built a role for myself at exactly the right time." The young African-American actor Anthony Sparks, who will perform his show "Ghetto Punch" Fridays through Sundays from March 17th to April 2nd at HERE, told Back Stage that he "wrote it because I was blessed to be in a successful show for a while and I wanted to stay as creative as possible. I wrote it because I'm not sure I could wait for the "perfect role" that encompasses a significant portion of who I am as a young black male and as an actor. I wrote it because I love language and the classics, and my experience is that folks aren't hiring that many black actors to do them-even in this day and age-plus the fact that I am young and look younger wasn't helping. I wrote it because even though I am a young actor and writer I have a vision, damn it!"

Other performers and writers of one-person shows have used them as a unique opportunity to talk about issues of importance to them. Whoopi Goldberg's solo show talks about the plight of the black urban proletariat in her view of life. Recently in New York City the irrepressible actor Bill Tallen has created the Reverend Billy, who rails against the crasser aspects of commercialization (saving his special wrath for the Disney Empire).

Still, it is undoubtedly economic factors that have had the most to do with the current popularity of one-person shows. Apart from actors seeking to create work for themselves, theater companies have increasingly found that they can only afford fewer plays each year, using smaller casts. You can't get a much smaller cast than one!

It is not surprising, then, that theatre and college administrators and festival directors appreciate one-person plays, often with very minimal sets and props, when compared with the sometimes astronomical production costs of more conventional productions of plays. The one-person show also tends to be more flexible, and can play a wider range of venues. And, because many one-person shows are about historical or literary figures, they often appeal to schools and colleges-many of which have halls with the necessary technical facilities.

One Person; Three Types

One-person shows generally fall into one of three categories. First, there are biographical shows that tell the audience about the life of a particular person; second, there are a growing number of autobiographical plays where performers discuss their own lives; and third, there are shows where a performer plays a variety of roles in a series of related or unrelated vignettes, sometimes seeking to dramatize a story or event.

The biographical one-person show is probably the most popular form. The most important thing for the performers is to find a subject they feel passionate about, and one who will interest an audience. Many actors have a problem picking suitable subjects, and do not start with their reality. Unless you are out to show enormous versatility, you should pick a subject close to your own physical attributes. I always felt that I was short at 5'6", so I chose John Keats, who also felt he was short. (Indeed, I would have towered over him, as he was only 5'(Thorn)".) Perhaps someone once remarked that you looked like some historical or literary figure. If so, that is an obvious place to start.

Be advised, the audience will be attracted to the show by one of two things-the reputation of the performer, or the name of the subject. In a perfect world the show will have both. When Sir John Gielgud decided to appear in "The Seven Ages of Man," a compilation of some of Shakespeare's best-known speeches, it is difficult to see how that show could have been anything other than the commercial success that it was. For performers without Gielgud's star name-in other words, for the majority of actors who work wherever the work takes them and may go through their whole careers without ever having played a single leading role on stage, still less a starring role in a TV series or movie-the subject matter will be the key to whether the show finds an audience. (A very minor poet that no one has heard of, who published one slim pamphlet of 10 poems in the 1920s, is probably not going to cut it, no matter how worthy the potential performer thinks the poet was.)

The second key factor, after ascertaining whether the subject is of sufficient appeal to a potential audience, is whether information sources about the person are available. If the subject has been dead for 100 years but his or her novels still sell in vast quantities, are studied in schools and colleges, and have been turned into feature films, you are on to a hot trail. The next obvious question is whether anyone else is currently performing a show about the subject. If not, thank your lucky stars, and get to work.

If your potential subject was a writer, you are lucky. Writers write, and therefore you will probably have piles of material available to you. Go to a good library and get a complete list of his or her works, together with a good biography of the person. If the writer was very well known there may also be books of literary criticism available, and possibly collections of the writer's letters to friends and colleagues. Letters are an extremely valuable source: very often people write in the idiom in which they speak. The words they use and their sense of humor in everyday speech is reflected in their correspondence.

Start by reading the biography cover to cover. It is your map, and gives you an overview of the person's life. It is important to find a precise time in the subject's life to set your play, even if you intend to use flashbacks to cover earlier periods. Many writers of one-man shows opt to set their plays towards the end of the person's life and to reveal their character's story in a series of flashbacks or remembrances.

Alternatively, you can set the first half of the play before the intermission at one time, and the second half at another. (Many solo performers seem to prefer to not have an intermission, preferring to create a seamless 75-90 minute show and not take the "pot off the heat." If you do have a break, you need to make sure that you leave your audience wanting to come back to find out the answers to their unanswered questions.) Bob Kingdom, who earlier played Dylan Thomas and Truman Capote in one-person shows in New York, most recently played in "Elsa/Edgar" at Primary Stages. For that show he expanded the frontiers of solo performance by playing Elsa Maxwell before a brief "pause," and J. Edgar Hoover after.

While most solo performers who play historical characters love, or at the very least admire, the person they portray it is important to show his or her weaknesses in creating a rounded portrait. Even saints weren't always saints! A person's foibles and weaknesses make them more vulnerable and human and thus easier for your audience to relate to. Stephen Mo Hannen's portrayal of Al Jolson in a one-person show about the entertainer left us in no doubt about the subject's arrogance.

If you are playing a historical character your job as an actor is not to "impersonate" the subject, but rather to give the audience a three-dimensional portrait and the essence of the person. While physical resemblance and make-up will help, you have to make the person "breathe" just as you would any fictional character you might play. Be specific in your picture of the person just like any good portrait painter would be. Julie Halpern uses music in the show she created about the famous operatic soprano Galli-Curci, "Singing in My Sleep." In her portrayal, she performs some of the Donizetti, Mozart, Bellini, and Verdi arias that made the diva famous.

Riding Along in My Auto (Biography)

The autobiographical one-person show has become very popular lately. Whether it is a reflection of 12-step programs where people tell their own stories, or the increasing use of therapy, more performers than ever before have felt moved to want to tell the world about what they have been through. This has its dangers. Your show must not become a glorified form of therapy. As Greg Walloch says, "Instead of the audience worrying about me, it is my job as the performer to take care of my audience."

This is the key question: "Is what I have to say theatrical?" It may be that your experiences belong in an article or book, rather than onstage. Although no reviewer of David Hare's "Via Dolorosa," about the writer's journey to the Middle East, found the material uninteresting, many questioned whether it belonged on the stage. This is where a good director will help guide you. It may be that while a part of your story is interesting and important to you, it doesn't belong in your solo stage show. Having said that, many actors have mined their personal lives and created terrific one-person shows that are truly theatrical.

In "Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother," Deborah Swisher tells us what it was like being brought up in and getting away from a cult. Walloch, in "White Disabled Talent," tells his audience about trying to make it in show business while living with cerebral palsy, while in perhaps one of the most successful autobiographical shows in the last decade, "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," David Drake takes us on a journey from growing up in Baltimore to moving to New York and getting involved in the bar and gym scene. (The night Drake saw Larry Kramer's play "The Normal Heart" and received his wake-up call as a gay man provides the play with its title.) In a similar vein, Dan Butler, the actor best known as Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe on "Frasier," provided us with a number of different characters (all but one of them gay) as well as a number of "thought pieces" about gay life and politics. One of the more astonishing solo performances I have ever seen was Brian Belovitch's "Boys Don't Wear Lipstick," in which he told the story of his life: he started as a male, became a transvestite, went through gender-reassignment surgery on the upper part of his body to become a woman, then got married and ultimately reversed the operation and became a man again.

Some people write shows about things that affected their health. Scott Carter, who wears the hat of TV producer most of the time, wrote "Heavy Breathing" to talk about living with asthma, while Susan Miller's "My Left Breast" is about her battle with breast cancer, and Nick Ullett's "Laughing Matters" took us through his battle with cancer.

Others, including Claudia Shear, Jono Mainelli, and Mark Setlock have focused on their working lives as a topic. Shear wrote "Blown Sideways Through Life" about the vast number of jobs she took while not working as an actress, while Mainelli, an actor/musical director, created the very funny show "Sixteen Bars," (currently running Monday evenings at the Duplex in Greenwich Village), based on his experiences of accompanying people at their auditions. Setlock worked as a reseverations-taker at a trendy restaurant while going on acting auditions. His friend Becky Mode who also worked at the same establishment wrote a solo piece based on Setlock's imitations of their co-workers and various individuals vying for a coveted spot at the eatery's tables. The result, directed by Nicholas Martin, is "Fully Committed," now playing a commercial run at the Cherry Lane after a successful engagement at the Vineyard Theatre. Kathryn Grody created "A Mom's Life" about the most important of jobs-being a mother. Last year even Alexander Cohen, the veteran theatre producer, decided it was time that he too trod the boards in "Star Billing" to tell us about his life in the theatre.

The best solo shows are those written with passion. The story simply has to be told. Tim Miller, one of the "NEA Four" whose work upset some in Congress, leaves you in no doubt in "Glory Box" about how he feels about immigration laws that discriminate against gay couples when one of them is not an American citizen.

Similarly, Marc Wolff researched, wrote, and performed "Another American Asking and Telling" because he felt strongly about the gays in the military issue. He interviewed 150 people before distilling the interviews down to the 18 characters he presents to the audience. Anna Deveare Smith works in a similar way, taping all her interviews. As a result she has created terrific solo pieces about the Crown Heights riots, as well as similar events in Los Angeles. Eve Ensler's show "The Vagina Monologues," which is still playing Off-Broadway (but without her), was based upon her interviews with 200 women. While some of the material is very funny, her interviews with women who have been raped are harrowing.

Multiple Personality Order

Some use one-person shows to tell a story. Sherry Glaser created "Family Secrets" (with Greg Howells) in which she played five members (including a man) from the same family. The British actor John Tordorff created a very simple one-man show based upon Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"-interestingly, the same source material for the film epic, "Apocalypse Now"! More recently, Patrick Stewart converted Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" into a solo piece that he performed on Broadway.

Many of the most successful solo performers such as James Lecesne ("Word of Mouth") or Eric Bogosian ("Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll," "Drinking in America," "Talk Radio") or John Leguizamo ("Freak," "Mambo Mouth," "Spic O-Rama") utilize multiple characterizations as much as possible. They go seamlessly from one character to another bringing the story to life as well as offering greater opportunity for vocal variety, which helps to hold the audience. It also creates an opportunity for humor where your central character impersonates or lampoons someone else who is involved with the plot.

If you are going to try to convert a novel into a solo performance piece (or any other type of play, for that matter) make sure that the original work is either out of copyright or that you can obtain the rights to do it. You don't want to invest months of your life in adapting a novel to find that you are unable to perform it.

Shaping Your Material

In creating a solo piece, whether it is autobiographical, a portrait of a real person, or a dramatization of a story, similar rules apply. First, know where you are in time in the story and who your audience is. Eileen Atkins' "A Room of One's Own," about Virginia Woolf, establishes her audience members as students in a lecture theater; Kingdom, in "Elsa/Edgar," treated his audience as a radio show audience. Other solo performers treat their audience as if they were confidantes.

One-person shows are typically a collection of anecdotes joined (artfully, one hopes) with segues so that the performance appears seamless. Some people feel they must follow the subject's life chronologically, but that's a mistake. There is nothing so boring or inevitable as to hear a character tell a story sequentially. Plays that begin with "I was born..." show a lack of imagination.

The element of surprise will help. Who did your character meet? Famous people in one field have a habit of meeting other famous people from totally different areas of life-just look at any late night TV talk show! We know, for example, that Thomas Edison met Sarah Bernhardt. The quick way to access this material is to quickly check out the index of the best biography of the character that you are writing about.

Of the very few books that will tell you how to create a monologue, the best is "Creating Your Own Monologue" by Glenn Alterman (published by Allworth Press). In addition to describing the process of writing, he has interviewed a variety of solo performers about how they have created their work.

For "Ghetto Punch," Anthony Sparks says, "For research I looked at and read a bunch of people's solo shows and I thought, "If I were to write a show, what would it be about?' I knew what thoughts were rambling around in my noggin, and I just sat down to try to write what I might like to see. I would get an idea for something, an image, a line of dialogue, write it down and then I'd finish it later, either in a blaze of inspiration or by methodically, laboriously at times, shaping it and, well, "working' on it. Rhythm was and is very important to me. I'm still working on it."

Putting the Production Up

During the writing process, many performers try out pieces of their shows at open-mike nights, or in front of small groups of friends. Although that may provide feedback as to which parts work, and which don't, it ultimately becomes necessary to perform the piece in its entirety. There are the normal venues where Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway plays are performed, as well as other venues that welcome solo performers. Lecesne and Ensler were both able to develop their work at HERE. Dixon Place is another venue that encourages people to try out and work on their material, while Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre has recently hosted people like Alec Mapa.

The consensus of the many solo performers who spoke with Back Stage is that self-indulgence is one of the greatest dangers in one-person shows, but good directors-who will also act as an editor-will help you to avoid it. An outside "pair of eyes" will help to tell you what works and what doesn't. It is also important to find someone with whom you can work well: in a normal theatrical production with a cast of five or six, only a percentage of any "notes" will be directed at you, but when you are both solo-performer and writer all the notes come to you.

Most solo performers tour their work to as many venues as they can. It is therefore important to keep the show as technically simple as possible, and not rely too much on special sound or lighting effects that may not be available "on the road." Many performers who tour ask the venues they play to provide any furniture they need, while they "tour" all the hand props and costumes they use. It is also important to make sure that you are very "secure" in your show, so it doesn't matter whether you are playing to a venue that seats 50 or 500.

It is important to be kind to yourself during the rehearsal process. Most people find that three hours is the maximum useful rehearsal period, simply because of fatigue. Try to find friends to whom you can delegate tasks. Writing and rehearsing a show is hard work. Can your partner/spouse take some of the weight off your shoulders? Can you ask a couple of friends to spend an evening dropping off postcards at 15 venues downtown, so you can spend some time at home working on your lines? There is little point putting yourself through the hard work of creating and mounting a solo show if you drive yourself into the ground doing it and your performance suffers as a result. Without wanting to sound like your mother, remember to eat! It is amazing how much more energy you will have if you remember to eat two or three times a day.

Marketing Your Show

The solo performer can create a wonderful work that it is perfect in every detail, yet it doesn't have a life without bookings and an audience. The first run of your show has to be seen as an investment. You are almost certainly going to lose money. However, if you get some good reviews that you can photocopy, a well made video of at least an excerpt of the piece, and decent production photographs, you are well on the way to making it as a solo performer. Like most self-managing performers, Walloch suggests creating a presentation pack including a couple of photographs and copies of reviews to send out with "spec" letters to potential venues. It was such an inquiry to the Mardi Gras Festival in Sydney, Australia that led to him taking his show "Down Under!"

Some performers find making a video valuable. It is normally a mistake to rely upon the friend of a friend to tape your show from a hand-held video camera at the back of the venue that you are playing. The results, both in terms of sound and picture quality, are normally disappointing and do little justice to the work onstage. If you want to create a video, you are better off taping a short piece of the show in close-up with someone behind the camera who knows what he or she is doing. Like an audition piece, make the five to seven minutes you tape so compelling that the venue reviewing the piece feels they have to book you!

Given that most solo-performers are working with very limited budgets, it is important that every dollar spent on publicity is well spent. If you can afford it, get a professional publicist. They aren't cheap, but they can open doors. If not, at the very least make sure that you get in all the free listings and that you have invited every drama critic you can think of. While it may be optimistic to expect to get The New York Times to come along in a week when there are few openings, it may be possible to get one of the other publications to see you. You might want to check out the article "Producing Your Own Showcase" published in Back Stage last year, (and available online at ) for more on that subject).

Is it hard work? Undoubtedly. Nevertheless, most of the performers who spoke with Back Stage about their one-person shows said they regard them as some of the more satisfying and worthwhile experiences in their working lives. Good luck.

"I wrote it because I'm not sure I could wait for the "perfect role' "

--Anthony Sparks

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