The solo show is a phenomenon of our time. It seems that just when you think no one could possibly come up with another story to tell alone, some brave performer excavates a new facet of the human experience that mesmerizes audiences.
Solo shows are omnipresent for several reasons. First and foremost, they are cheap to produce. There is only one actor on the payroll and the technical demands of a solo show are often minimal. The solo show is also extremely portable. For the seasoned pro and the novice alike, the relative economical and technical simplicity of putting it on are very attractive.
It might be cheap, but it is not easy. I have performed two solo pieces, Bolivia--a look at my South American father told through the women in his life--and Euripidames--a re-telling of the stories of some of Euripides' more complex heroines. Both were well received and, in hindsight, were extremely gratifying to perform. Yet each night as I stood backstage alone, trembling at the thought of going on stage with nothing to fall back on but myself, I wondered why on God's earth had I chosen this miserable task? What weird train of circumstances had led me to this frightful position? In short, what was I thinking?
For me, like many other solo performers, my journey began with acting. I began writing on the side in between acting jobs, and the first thing I started writing were monologues. Soon the monologues turned in to a story; then several hundred rewrites later, I had a solo show. For Aasaf Mandvi, the writer and performer of Sakina's Restaurant, which ran for over six months at the American Place Theater and went on to play in Toronto, Chicago and most recently Los Angeles, acting also led him to solo work. Mandvi was working in and out of New York as an actor and also tried his hand at stand-up comedy. "I began doing these characters in my stand-up based on my Indian family," says Mandvi, "and it seemed like they had more to say. I never intended to write a solo show. It sort of evolved; it seemed the natural thing to do. The story of these characters sort of took over."
For relative newcomer Jamie Sneider, who just finished a month-long run of her show Circle-O-Wigwam at P.S. 122, the desire to tell a story, or portray a character, is not what compels her to write. "Sometimes I'll be sitting at my temp job, listening to music on my headphones," says Sneider, "and I think of something really naughty and I think, oh I have to put that in a show. What gets me up on stage are things that make me really nervous to do in public. By putting them in front of an audience, I feel a certain freedom."
John Clancy is also looking for some freedom in his current solo piece now playing at the Present Company Theatorium, Notice of Default and Opportunity to Cure--freedom from some very current events in his life. Clancy is an actor, director, playwright, solo performer and the artistic director of the Present Company, as well as the producer of the New York International Fringe Festival. The Present Company, according to New York Magazine, "Has almost single-handedly revived the theatrical tradition on the Lower East Side." All that "reviving" almost came to an end on January 7, when Clancy received a bill from his landlord for $137,000, which had to be paid by January 19, or the Present Company would have to find another home.
"I wrote Notice of Default... because it was easy," says Clancy. "I was telling the story all day to people anyway, to raise money. It was also a good filter to look at larger issues." The larger issue in the show is money and "how money affects every decision, every relationship...how money is as necessary as oxygen," says Clancy. If you don't like Notice of Default... Clancy is offering a money-back guarantee to audience members. He will also commit a federal crime during every show. I don't want to give away too much, but it involves money.
Whatever the specific situations that propel someone toward solo performance, be it characters that need to speak, a desire to do things publicly that one would not do alone, or a specific event or issue that a solo performer is particularly intrigued by, performing alone has its downside. "I miss the camaraderie of doing something with other people. I feel that particularly before I go on stage," says Sneider. "The cast party sucks," notes Mandvi, "and there is no one to save you if you go up on a line." I miss talking about the play with other cast members after the show; when a solo performance is over, it feels over.
In my opinion, however, the good outweighs the bad. The time I actually spend on stage alone flies by, and during the course of the show I have developed a very close relationship with the audience. The big secret about solo performance is that one is not really alone. "The thing I most enjoy is talking to the audience," says Sneider. "The audience really drives my shows. A lot of different things can happen depending on the audience." Mandvi jokingly comments, "The thing I really like is that there is no one to upstage me, to step on my laughs." For Clancy, solo performance is a good place "to deliver rants or thoughts that don't fit in to a play."
What you can see on a New York stage these days performed by one person is as vast and complex as the city itself. Be sure to check out some of the "greats" shopping their wares Off and Off-Off Broadway this spring--Anna Devere Smith, Eric Bogosian, Holly Hughes--and take a look at what is going on at Dixon Place and P.S. 122, where emerging solo artists often perform. The solo show is a unique experience for both the performer and audience alike, and in the words of Mandvi, "It's like a novelist taking you through a novel: it is both metaphysical and literal."