Letters to a Young Solo Show Artist
What makes solo theatre unique? How might artists approach and create a solo play? And how might we get audiences to embrace this form? In this series on solo theatre, Scott Wesley Slavin asked six highly accomplished solo theatre practitioners to share their wisdom from working around the world on one-person shows.
I’m excited to hear that you’re creating a solo show about your own life!
It’s true. Contrary to popular belief, writing and performing a one-person autobiographical play can have a powerful effect on your life and career (and might even nab you that new big-time agent you’ve been chasing). Just ask John Leguizamo (Freak), Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), or my student Valerie Hager (Naked in Alaska).
About the “first draft” you sent me. I hit a wall on page 356, by which you hadn’t yet graduated elementary school. Here’s a thought:
A solo show about your life… doesn’t have to be about your whole life.
I suggest you focus on a part of your life… a life-changing part. For example, you could limit your piece to a particular time period that had a concrete beginning, middle, and end. For example, that momentous summer vacation when your mother passed away and you lost your virginity at her funeral.
Alternatively, you could focus on a particular passion you’ve returned to again and again throughout the years. I skimmed ahead and enjoyed reading about your love of barbershop singing. I’d love to hear the major moments in your barbershop singing career, and how they affected you personally.
Writing a great autobiographical solo show isn’t about all you can wedge in. It’s about what you leave out. Otherwise, the audience gets overloaded.
Looking forward to draft two.
Nice work! Your second draft—How I Didn’t Make It As An Actor— was indeed about one of your life’s great passions. And I think you’ve really hit upon a great persona for your piece, by which I mean the “character of you.” You wrote:
You could say I had an inferiority complex—except it wasn’t that complex. I was inferior.
I really “got” who you are. You’re a fumbling, insecure—but earnest—young man. Stick with that persona!
I do suggest, however, picking a different topic. Why? The ups and downs of an actor’s life is a story many solo show performers have told. Some succeed by putting a unique spin on it—Camyrn Mannheim talked about being a heavy actress in Wake Up, I’m Fat! —but I sense you’ve got more interesting, risky, personal stories in your heart.
What about that barbershop singing, and how your Dad always missed your concerts?
I loved your third draft: Barbershop Boy! You painted a beautiful picture of harmonizing with your college friends. I especially liked the line:
And rounding out the group was a guy with the best name ever for a bass singer… Big Bobby Higgenbotham.
Real names are always the best, aren’t they?
Now let’s dig a little deeper. Why did you want to sing barbershop? You’re the hero in this story, and every hero has a goal that they actively pursue. What was yours?
In the theatre (and high school English classes), we tend to talk about 'theme' in all kinds of vague ways, but I’m going to use it very specifically. The theme is the decision the hero makes at the climax of his story. It also winds up being the message of your show. What did you decide at your 'do or die' moment…What is the takeaway for the audience?
You’re on a roll! You stated your goal simply and clearly in draft four:
I sang a cappella for one reason: to get girls.
Now expand on that even more. At the start of most traditional musicals, the hero sings an “I Want” song, to get the audience on board with her adventure. You can do the same. You don’t have to sing it; just wax rhapsodic about what you want, why you want it, and how you think it’ll change your life for the better. Go!
Wow. Your “I Want” song was genius. I quote from draft five:
As I left the cafeteria after another failed attempt at vibing with Bianca (the hot junior in my Japanese Cinema class), I stopped in shock. Ahead of me, under the archway, stood a ragtag collection of male students dressed in denim, head to toe. They were the school’s most ridiculous a cappella group… The Jean Suits! Arrayed in a semi-circle, they launched into a doo-wop version of a Milli Vanilli song… and to my surprise, people listened! And not just any people… female people! Sorority girls, grad student girls… even Bianca. They stood and stared at these guys—guys too scrawny and too earnest to ever be picked for the football squad—and they smiled at them! Real smiles. Interested smiles. “I hope we meet at a frat party and you talk to me at the keg” smiles. I wanted to be smiled at like that! God, did I want it! It made me think back to all those times my Dad shut me up on long car rides by sticking in a Rockapella CD. Maybe he hadn’t been ignoring me! Maybe he’d been training me all along! This was what he wanted for me… to prove myself as the kind of Lothario he’d been in his youth. My fate was decided in that day under the arch. I would do whatever it took to join this group—to win a smile like that from Bianca and my father’s respect. Come hell or high notes, I would become… a Jean Suit!
We’re hooked! The audience is now dying to know: Did you become a Jean Suit? How? Did it lead you to win Bianca’s hand? Your Dad’s respect? The stakes are clear. And so, I hope, is your next step. Just write about everything that got in your way—and how you overcame those obstacles. Now that you’ve decided on a clear goal for your hero (you), it’ll be easier to figure out which parts of your life to put in and which to leave out!
Thanks for your sixth draft, now retitled Beltway Barbershop. I appreciated learning so much about the Singing Senators and their voting records, but I couldn’t help but notice you’ve written out your father and yourself completely.
Don’t worry; many solo show artists hit stumbling blocks. Especially when they write something personal and painful… and then show it to their friend at work… who is a critical, stuck artist himself.
I disagree with him. Writing about your father does not automatically make your show self-indulgent, boring or “therapeutic.” It isn’t automatically better to write about something political—or to replace your heartfelt story with a ton of video projections and sound cues. In fact, it’s often the most personal stuff that makes a show the most universal.
What keeps you from falling into the “self-indulgent” trap is the structure of your show, not the content. So far, you’ve got two of the three structural elements of a great autobiographical solo show: a clear persona (fumbling, insecure, and earnest) and a clear story (Act One: you listen to a cappella records with your Dad, fail with women and realize your goal—to earn Bianca’s attention and your Dad’s approval through barbershop singing; Act Two: you get into the Jean Suits and win Bianca, but your Dad misses the big concert; Act Three: you get the Jean Suits back together to serenade your Dad on his deathbed). All you need now is the third element: a clearly stated theme.
In the theatre (and high school English classes), we tend to talk about “theme” in all kinds of vague ways, but I’m going to use it very specifically. The theme is the decision the hero makes at the climax of his story. It also winds up being the message of your show. What did you decide at your “do or die” moment—the moment you sang to your father on his deathbed, and once and for all tried to win his respect? What is the takeaway for the audience?
It’s kind of like where you are at this moment with your solo show. You’re either going to take the leap and dare to write this climax from your soul (and then submit it to that festival you dreamed of), or not.
I believe in you. Go for it!
I’m so proud of you! Just wanted to send along this review of Barbershop Boy you may have missed. I love it because the reviewer quotes your touching climax.
After a hilarious series of misadventures in the world of collegiate a cappella singing groups, Barbershop Boy takes a heartbreaking turn. Our hero, now an adult, learns of his estranged father’s illness and flies to his side in the hospital. As he relates in the show:
‘I stood in the doorway to his double room. My father lay behind the curtain, which separated the two beds. How many curtains had I faced as a Jean Suit, hoping he’d be on the other side? This was a mistake, I suddenly thought. I’ve blown it again. Why do I keep trying, hoping, yearning? I’m just gonna be disappointed.
I looked at my wife Bianca, who held our baby boy—who was, of course, singing gleefully in gibberish. And I looked at my buddies (who I had assembled from the far corners of the world)—a bit paunchy in their denim outfits, but eager as ever to harmonize. And I realized in that moment, my fear was gone. My self-doubt was gone. It didn’t matter what was on the other side of that curtain. Love wasn’t something I was missing. It was something I made. Like music. That’s when Big Bobby Higgenbotham started up his bass riff. And before I could utter a word, a weak voice—high and clear—wafted from the other side of the curtain. It was my Dad, and he sang in perfect pitch, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby…’
Love isn’t something we’re missing. It’s something we make. Like music. A beautiful theme, beautifully evoked. And while this reviewer never sang barbershop, that message is something I—and the audience—connected to, deep in our hearts. Go see this show.
Congratulations! You did it, superstar!
(And good luck with that agent interview! The fact that he was weeping too much to talk after your show is probably a good sign).
And when you’re ready, let’s talk about writing another solo show about losing your virginity at that funeral… I’ve got a feeling it’s solo show gold! :)
1. Stacey Sargeant workshops her solo show Buh Wha’ Trouble Is Dis? (about living up to her West Indian father’s high expectations and society’s biases against full-figured women) in Matt Hoverman’s GO-SOLO class, with Keith Freer, Jessica Elkin, Natalie Kim, and Jasmine Pittenger.
2. Matt coaches Keith Freer on his solo show about growing up angry in a musical family, Violent Violins.
3. A serious work session featuring Matt and GO-SOLO students Jasmine Pittenger, Stacey Sargeant, Natalie Kim, and Keith Freer.