Check out this terrific blog about solo-performance: Solo Performance to Change the World
Why, you might ask?
Because I’m an artist living in a small town with no one to talk to about my craft, my art, my life.
It’s been said that if you associate with people who have what you want it allows you to copy at an unconscious level how to be that kind of person. It creates new neural pathways in the brain. And it’s called unconscious competence.
That’s in part why I am compelled to read autobios and bios: to copy from the masters. To learn what they accomplished and thereby suffer less and prosper more.
For example, Mozart was said to have died from Consumption. From that I learn that too much creative drive overwhelms the body. Everyone needs to relax and play and look at the stars once in awhile. James Hillman, in “The Soul’s Calling”, writes that the Daemon—the creative power of the soul in our bodies—doesn’t care what we want or how we act… it only wants to fulfill it’s impulses; to complete it’s drives. Therefore, if we’re not careful, we’ll be out on stage without a proverbial net.
What’s a poor, lonely actor to do? Take care of oneself.
Recently, I’ve been booked in a hundred seat proscenium stage to do a solo-performance that I’ve been doing in smaller, more intimate settings and I’m felling like this is all wrong for the play, for the audience, and for me.
What to do? Tickets are being sold, posters have been put up, and I’m trying to respect the needs of the theatre and the needs of the other elements involved: moi!
So here’s my plan: I talk to the artistic director and let her know what this play’s about and how I see it working at it’s best. Then I see if I can build a small raised platform and get close to the audience, i.e. off-stage and intimate. Baring that, I give it my all and focus on the people in the back row and chalk it up to bad planning and move on!
In an ideal world, I’d be as close to the front row as my breath could be smelled and the play would sing!
But this is the real world and I’m not about to do what Kenneth Branaugh did in grade school to get a day off… according to Hillman… throw myself down the stairs to try and break a leg—a dramatic plot indeed! —to try and get the producers to see the error of their ways.
Nope. I’m going to show up and see what happens.
Why? Because making a mistake is just as good at teaching me what’s working as being great! And I’m willing to be just good. As Steve Martin wrote—and I’m editing a bit for the sake of coherency— “It’s easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What’s hard is to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”
Wish me luck! I’ll let you know how it goes…
Most people think of actors as extroverts, socially adept and confident in every public situation. The life of the party. They think of Robin Williams or Jack Black: chewing up the scenery, the sofa, the restaurant at a moment’s notice round-the-clock.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Simply put, most of the actors I know are artists. That’s what they have in common. Everything else about them is unique, varied and distinct.
As for me, I’m painfully shy in public, often breaking out in a sweat when I have to speak in the checkout line of the local supermarket. I’ve never been completely relaxed around people. And parties? I hate them. I’d rather face a root canal than even just ten minutes of standing around with a drink in my hand in a roomful of strangers.
Why, then, do we become actors? For lots of reasons. And not all of them good or healthy reasons, either. But the most compelling reasons, the ones that give you staying power in the course of your career as an actor, are artistic or spiritual in nature. You act because you have to. Because if you didn’t your life would be missing something fundamental and essential: you.
I can’t describe well enough the sensation I feel in my body just watching two people on a coach lit with a single spotlight surrounded by darkness talking. That’s all it takes, that simple a scene and I’m hooked. I want to listen, watch and learn.
Learn? Yes! I want to learn how to be a human being. I think that’s why we do it. Present theatre. Act. Write plays. Because we want to understand ourselves as people.
I go out on stage and talk to strangers even though I’m terrified, sweating profusely, because I’m trying to learn some things about human beings. And in the process, I slowly ease into being human. I relax. Become aware of everything possible in the present moment. And feel absolutely alive.
That feeling of aliveness is what gives me the courage to face my fear of speaking in public and do it anyway. Isn’t it strange, though, that people choose to do the very thing they’re most afraid of?
When we were kids and fought with our brother or sister or school friend and our parents said, “You’ve got to learn to get along”, they were right.
But what does “get along” mean? Tonight, you saw a play about a man who thought he could “get along” as a priest, but found out that the thing he was missing wasn’t possible as a priest. He was, sadly, unable to “get along”. It was the tragedy of his life—a life spent unaware of that most basic of human needs—intimacy.
That’s what “get along” means, doesn’t it? To connect with and relate to others in such a way that all concerned meet their basic needs for intimacy. It means helping one another, loving one another, touching one another, and so forth.
We can survive without meeting this elementary need, but that is all we will be doing—surviving. Not really living, thriving, or realizing our full potential as human beings.
Tonight, you’ve sat in a theatre—in this case someone’s living room—and for an hour you’ve “got along” with all the other people in the room. You’ve felt and witnessed the tragedy of a man who simply wanted to but couldn’t find a way to “get along” You’ve had this experience. It’s yours and you can remember it, always.
What will you do now? How will you take that out into your life outside the theatre? What will you create with it?
Because, you see, this is why we invited you here tonight. This is why we’ve presented this particular play: because we want to inspire you to do something wonderful, daring, creative with what you’ve given yourself through your own experience. Through coming here tonight. We set this up so that you could see and experience yourself and share in this collective experience of “getting along”. And our hope, our wish, our intention is to inspire you to go out and do something that helps everyone “get along”. Because when we all do that, think of the world we can create together.
One of the biggest challenges in doing a solo-show, particularly one that doesn’t have multiple characters, some of whom talk to each other, is understanding why this person is talking and to whom. Acting 101 might dictate that every character needs something from someone and is willing to go to great lengths to get that something from someone, but when you’re on stage by yourself whom can you get something from?
And why are you talking out loud? Most of us talk to ourselves but it’s usually in our own minds. We go over grocery lists to make sure we’ve gotten everything before we leave the store. We check off items on our travel list before we lock up the house and drive away so that we don’t find ourselves halfway there and realize we forgot the summer cottage key. But we usually do this kind of thing internally. And if we mutter a few words aloud, we don’t go on and on for 90 minutes.
So it’s an odd experience to be standing on a stage vocalizing all our thoughts and feelings for any length of time to a roomful of strangers who just happen to be listening. But hey! That’s theatre, isn’t it? We expect suspension of disbelief. The whole situation is artificially constructed. Yet our job is to make it seem normal, real, human.
An actor faces two important choices in a solo-performance: 1) Don’t look at or engage the audience, rather, talk to an imaginary “other”. That’s the “Don’t break the fourth wall” approach. And it works for some plays, while not at all for others. 2) Look directly at the audience and engage them as if your character must talk to them. Which leads to another conundrum: a) Who are the audience members in relation to the character and what does the character want from them? b) Does the character really care who these people are and does the character want anything from them?
In Beckett’s play, “Krapp’s Last Tape”, I don’t think Krapp wants anything from the audience even though he looks straight out at them. He’s so involved in his solitary reverie about his past that the audience is just there to observe this voyeuristically.Think of a portrait in a museum, the kind where the eyes seem to follow you, and make it three-dimensional and you begin to understand Beckett’s intention.
Some will argue that there isn’t anything dynamic about a character that’s got nothing at stake. But there’s plenty at stake when a character needs to understand or gain control over their feelings or the consequences of their actions— consequences like loss and remorse and grief. Sometimes, on the verge of falling apart, a character’s only need might be to hold it together for just one more minute. And that pressure can be extremely dynamic.