Theatre of Transformation
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.
“You are, at this moment, standing right in the middle of your own one acre of diamonds.” - Earl Nightingale.
“I want to write a show about it,” Valerie Hager says to me while sitting on the floor in the center of our apartment. It’s late autumn, 2009. For the last couple days, she’s been on the floor, going through bins of old photos and journals. Back in L.A., when she first moved in, we just piled the bins in my bedroom closet and slid the door closed. We had a new life to build. But since arriving in New York, we’ve found no place to hide them. For the first few months they just glared down at her from an overhead cubby every time she walked toward the front door. Finally, she had had enough. “Will you just bring them down?” she asked.
For the past seven years, I’ve worked in solo theatre as a director, producer, and dramaturg. For almost two years of these years, I worked at a solo theatre production company in Times Square called All For One. Eventually my roles grew into serving as its executive director.
When I began to write this article, I asked myself questions—What is solo theatre, or what could it be? What does it offer the artist and audience? How does one build a career in it, or is that even possible? Who pays for it, and how?—and after many hours and much frustration, I had to admit: there are very few definitive answers. Individual circumstances vary widely and the “ache,” as Deb Margolin describes it, to speak calls us forward in different ways. What solo theatre is and offers is whatever you want to do with it. All anyone else can offer are notes from their own experiences. That’s what I and all the contributors in this week’s series endeavor to do.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – The Gospel According to Thomas
“You’re going to write a show about what?” I ask Valerie as she puts one album down on the floor and picks up another. “The show will be about this,” she says, hovering her arms over all the bins around her.
“Solo theatre is about one thing,” Grammy-nominated musician and solo theatre artist René Marie said to her students in an All For One workshop back in 2013. “What do you think that is?” Students began piping in: “Truth,” “Trust,” “Commitment,” “Faith”— the class began to chuckle. “One thing,” she repeated, raising her index finger to the class. “Vulnerability. That’s where your creative heart is. Make a conscious decision to let it out.”
To me, the vulnerability that René is referring to is that particular combination of personal risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure that TED favorite Brené Brown talks about—and it’s the lifeblood of exceptional solo theatre. Alone on stage, the artist wrestles answers from their own hearts. In the audience, I become part of that journey; the solo artist is my mirror. In Every Brilliant Thing, a 2014 Edinburgh Fringe hit now Off-Broadway at The Barrow Street Theatre, the narrator lists every source of joy he experiences in a lifelong effort to stave off first his mother’s and then his own suicidal depression. In him, I see parts—especially those long forgotten, unlived, and childlike parts—of myself. Through the narrator’s vulnerability, I reconnect with my own.
“Never forget the personal nature and vulnerability inherent in your own solo theatre work. There’s a part of you that you are still making whole by following your deepest desire. Notice wherever the ‘cobbler’s children wear no shoes’ in your own approach to your show. It’s much easier to project your focus externally on those around you—than it is to explore your own place of shadow. Just remember your solo show is often a stage for your own inner-turmoil. Especially the case when you’re an artist on a path of freedom and creative expression. Just being aware of this dynamic will make you a more successful artist.” – adapted from a statement Michael Margolis made on finding one’s life mission in “Stop Trying to Change the World: Find a Better Mission”
“You know, I’ve never known what to do with this whole period,” Valerie says as she sifts through journals from Alaska, “except stuff it away in a literal box—just pretend it never happened. People kept telling me it would jeopardize my career. ‘No one’s gonna take you seriously if they know you were a stripper.’” She slams her palms down on the journal in her lap and looks dead straight at me: “I don’t fucking care about that shit anymore. What happened to me in those ten years still affects everything I do—how I think, how I walk down a street in New York, how I am in our relationship. And no one’s talking about these things. I’m going to tell this story.”
Back in L.A., Valerie had gotten cast in bit parts on cable TV and studio film, leads in regional plays, and a smattering of music videos and commercials, yet something was missing. “I can’t believe I had to do that,” she said of a particular commercial audition where she was asked to mime wiping the windows of an imaginary car for thirty seconds. In the end, it wasn’t the rejection that became so wearying—it was the quality of the roles that she was getting rejected for. She knew there was more important work for her to do—the much more personal work that burned in her muscles and bones and kept her up at night. So she began to create solo shows.
I have always thought of solo theatre as an act of defiance—I once heard defiance described as rebellion with a purpose. I like that. Solo theatre artists rebel from traditional entertainment forms in order to give what’s calling inside them a life—an opportunity to become itself and make its impact. Even in the form’s earliest years, the first “solo entertainments” were acts of defiance that happened clandestinely—in unlicensed theatres and pubs—after the Licensing Act of 1737 ruled all performing illegal outside of London’s two licensed theatres, according to Jordan R. Young’s Acting Solo: The Art and Craft of Solo Performance. “Come and drink a dish of chocolate,” one solo theatre rebel, Samuel Foote, improvised as an invite to his latest show, then performed in a pub while he and his audience sat around a single table as if at any friendly gathering. Other solo theatre artists evaded the Act by performing in private drawing rooms or advertising their work as “lectures.” In refusing to kowtow to the vagaries of power these artists ended up creating a new theatrical form.
This spirit of defiance continues to inform some of the most vital solo theatre today, as it confronts and breaks apart our social, racial, and institutional prejudices and leaves us with no pat answers: Roger Guenveur Smith’s Rodney King, Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin’s Confirmation, and Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part, are a few of many such shows.
“Well,” I said, stepping over loose photos of a twenty-one-year-old Valerie dancing on a dirty stage at The Showboat, “I don’t know… who cares?” (Admittedly, not one of my greatest moments—as a lover or a friend. But I’ve got my own shit, too.)
“Who cares?! Women—and men—who have had experiences like these and feel like no one’s talking about them! People who walk around carrying so much shame about things that have happened to them or things that they’ve done and believe that if they talk about it they’ll die. People who feel totally alone, full of regret—and don’t realize how many of us are walking around feeling the exact same way.” She opens the journal back up and begins to go through it again: “I’m doing this whether you’re with me or not.”
The first solo show I saw Valerie perform, back in L.A., was Autumn Leaves, a fictional, one-character short based on dancers from clubs where she had worked. Not yet ready to tell her own story, she had created a composite character and written a fifteen-minute monologue.
A year later, when she told me about her new solo short, Sunshiny Days, I knew a crucial shift had begun to take place. Unlike Autumn Leaves, Sunshiny Days was entirely autobiographical: the unexpected, early death of her stepfather and the devastating aftershocks in her family. For her, the move from a fictional to a true story symbolized an expansion—a new trust—in the type of artist and person she could be. It took many performances of Autumn Leaves and a slew of other acting gigs before she arrived there naturally. “Just promise me,” she said as we started our first rehearsal, “I don’t want this to come across like therapy.”
I’ve noticed that autobiographical solo shows get criticized for being therapy, not theatre, and it’s a concern among solo theatre creators as well. But here’s the thing: Autobiographical solo theatre artists don’t have the opportunities that, for instance, memoirists do. Economic realities and people’s schedules don’t allow an artist to put up their show at key stages for a trusted group of friends. For a memoirist, receiving feedback from this group is much easier: email the new drafts, receive helpful feedback and encouragement over a coffee or phone call. Nice, private, inexpensive—financially and emotionally.
The first opportunity most solo artists get to share their work is in a major festival, such as a Fringe or United Solo. Instead of a trusted group, the solo artist faces a theatre of strangers—or a varied group of friends who may not know this part of their life or care for the theatre. It takes strength of character to step in front of such an audience and perform deeply revealing material—material the artist often knows still has problems and may even doubt works at all—for sixty minutes or more.
When someone criticizes a solo show as “therapy,” they’re saying much more than the show’s still in development; they’re saying the show exists to serve the artist’s own sense of self-importance and as an audience member they felt used and trapped. “Is this character growing in their relationship to their humanity,” audience members will ask themselves, “or, rather, are they desperate to convince me of their idea of who they’re attached to being—and get my tacit validation? What’s the motivation here?” If the heart of solo theatre is an intimate story of someone facing themselves directly and being willing—urgently needing—to see their situation clearly, then the false selves must be revealed for what they are, regardless of the outcome. Shows that come across as therapy simply have yet to find the empathy, urgency, and focus that’s needed to drive down into the narrative’s deeper possibilities. It’s not just about the hero getting (or not getting) what they want; it’s about whether they become a wiser, braver, and more vulnerable person about the things that matter along the way.
If to me a specific performance of a show feels more like therapy than theatre, I accept that’s probably where it is in its development, and hold a space in myself for it to grow into what I imagine it can be—what I know people can be. I’ll imagine I have been invited as the artist’s “Believing Mirror,” as Matt Hoverman calls them, and my job is to reflect back not just what’s resonating, but also the potential I believe is possible and want to encourage. Magically, each time I choose to be on the same side as the artist, being in the theatre metamorphoses into a much more pleasurable experience. I find myself a more generous and nuanced observer, and a person I like much more. As I humble myself to remember that I have many of my own blind spots, I create an environment where I appreciate that the person performing before me is a human being, and is sharing part of their soul in an effort to genuinely connect and be free. It is more than many will ever dare to do.
It’s about letting people see my ugly, and if I can share that, and rise up out of that, they can, too. We’re in it together.” It’s the oldest journey in the book, and I crave to be taken on it. Solo is a theatre of transformation, where a solitary performer stands on stage and pulls the wool from their eyes so we can see ourselves inside.
For Christmas, my father-in-law, solo theatre artist Jerry Hager, gave me Anne Bogart’s new book What’s the Story: Essays About Art, Theater and Storytelling. I opened it on the redeye home. In her chapter “Narrative,” she mentions how telling stories to her students helps her brain synchronize with theirs so they might truly share in and learn from her experiences. Then she introduces the neuroscience of “brain coupling”:
[Brain coupling happens when] the listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s… The greater the coupling, the greater the mutual understanding. Communication between brains is made possible by a shared neural system that links the production of speech to the perception of speech. If receptive and we use our imaginations, the stories that we hear can give us an approximate sensation of undergoing the experience itself.
Solo theatre is uniquely suited for linking audience member to performer by a shared neural system—one-to-one. This kind of relationship is the most powerful we know; it’s the primal relationship. The audience wants it to happen. We want to fully experience the sensations of another’s life and be transported through a dramatic narrative.
I believe solo theatre attracts artists and audiences who are tired of hiding and feeling alone. Exhausted by unexamined and habitual attitudes, behaviors, and reflexes that have limited our personalities and the quality of our lives, we arrive at solo theatre's door searching for something more. In my favorite solo theatre, the characters are on a quest to learn who they truly are and to know what they’re made of—and let the rest go. “It’s about letting people see my ugly,” Valerie once said to me, “and if I can share that, and rise up out of that, they can, too. We’re in it together.” It’s the oldest journey in the book, and I crave to be taken on it. Solo is a theatre of transformation, where a solitary performer stands on stage and pulls the wool from their eyes so we can see ourselves inside.
If we are equal to the task—even for a few moments—we may just do the same.
“Okay,” I tell Valerie, kneeling beside her on the floor, “Do it. Create your show.”
And she did.