Among the three dozen multi-character plays and 30-actor musicals that opened in the 2012-2013 Broadway season, six shows only featured a single performer. Solo shows are nothing new to the world of theater, but six in a season? Performed by the likes of Bette Midler, Alan Cumming, and Mike Tyson? That's as rare as spotting a leprechaun riding a unicorn.
This season, there are no solo shows preparing themselves for Broadway fame. However, there are a myriad off-Broadway, delighting and challenging audiences all over Manhattan. "Eight shows a week, man," says John Douglas Thompson, who plays trumpeter Louis Armstrong, his manager Joe Glaser, and musician Miles Davis in Terry Teachout's Satchmo at the Waldorf at the Westside Theatre. "It's kind of an hour and a half of concentrated energy. It's like going to the gym every day. I keep it in that perspective. That allows me to mentally and physically keep through."
Satchmo is the first one-man show that Thompson, widely regarded as one of the greatest living classical actors, has ever performed. "I wanted to do it just to have one under my belt," he says. "I find it improves my craft. It becomes this athletic event that requires a great deal of intellectual, physical, and emotional stamina and rigor. You don't have another actor coming onstage."
Being alone onstage and tasked with the responsibility of talking to the audience is what Alexandra Silber finds most challenging and interesting about performing in Polly Pen and Victor Lodato's musical Arlington at the Vineyard Theatre. "It's not just the solo aspect," she says. "It's the direct address. Direct address is tricky. If this were simply a solo piece where I didn't break the fourth wall, I wouldn't have any scene partners at all. My scene partners are the audience."
Peter Michael Marino, the writer and performer of Desperately Seeking the Exit, a piece about his own experiences writing the flop West End musical Desperately Seeking Susan, echoes that sentiment. "I really do feel like the audience is the other performers," he says. "The way my director and I structured our show, it very much uses the audience. I am speaking directly to them."
More often than not, audiences are very encouraging. Thompson, for example, received a hearty round of applause on a night when he had to stop the show because he forgot a line and wanted to restart a particular scene. "The thing that's going through the actor's mind is, Oh my God, my career is over. I started circling the story trying to find my way back but I just couldn't. I said I'm not gonna call line, I'm just going to tell the audience what happened and I'm going to start all over again. I was surprised they were so receptive. It made me feel really wonderful."
Alternatively, a few bad apples can spoil the entire show, not just for their fellow audience members, but for the performers onstage, who are, believe it or not, live. "There were two couples," Silber recalls. "They didn't belong in the theater; they thought they were at the movies. They were openly mocking me [and the character] Sara Jane simultaneously. We can see you. We have feelings. It went in and it hurt." In that moment, being alone onstage, despite her pianist (and occasional actor) Ben Moss sitting upstage at the piano, behind a scrim, she realized how alone she was. "Ben was looking at the music and didn't know that was happening. He couldn't help. There was no moment to bond over it."
For Marino, that loneliness is hardest before the show even starts. "I'd rather just wake up at 8am and do the show at nine," he says. "Once I start talking, I feel great. But the time leading up to it is pretty grueling." Thompson noticed the loneliness of a one-person show midway through the rehearsal process. "That was the thing I wasn't really aware of," he notes. "I thought it would be similar to working in a cast of four or five people. You're starving for conversation during your breaks. And then, just doing the process onstage, you really have to rely on yourself."
But that, as Silber points out, is also the "ultimate joy." "The service to the story that evening is entirely in your hands, and when that is achieved, it is a sense of simultaneous humility and accomplishment at its very best," she says. "You go to bed knowing that you have used all of yourself; every shadowy corner of your physical body, and every last scrap of your mental and spiritual will got you to the end of the evening. Thus far, it is the most gratifying work I've yet experienced."