I need to begin by being transparent about my general apathy for one-person shows. Maybe I owe it to the spectacle seeker in me that favors group dance numbers or crowd scenes of bedraggled French prisoners. Or, I owe it to my hyperactive secondhand embarrassment for a single person who has decided to be a sacrificial lamb: AKA, Chosen One who must shoulder an entire room’s hunger for entertainment.
I realize solo theater poses exciting challenges for the performer. Without the possibility for dialogue between two actors on stage, artists working as a soloist must reframe how they divulge multiple perspectives to an audience with style and plasticity.
My own aversion aside, the solo play doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. So, I wonder how contemporary solo theater performance tackles opposing viewpoints within a work, whether we are being as impactful as possible in the realm of solo theater performance, and what solo playmakers can learn from other types of solo performers.
Here, I want to initiate that conversation by investigating how two plays engage multiple perspectives onstage with only one body. Those shows are: AMP by Jody Christopherson, which continues its run at HERE Arts Center (December 13, 15, and 19 @ 8:30 pm, and 16, 17 @ 4pm), and Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sakata, which continues its run at The Sheen Center (December 15, 18, 19, and 20 @ 7:30pm, and 16, 17 @ 2pm and 7:30pm).
AMP, which Christopherson describes as “a 60 minute multi-media solo horror play,” features the solo writer-performer as both Mary Shelley and as a female cellist who auditions for the Boston Symphony during their first ever “blind auditions” in 1952. Christopherson plays Shelley on stage, and her monologues are stitched together with projected films about the cellist character, who has been put in an asylum for a reason that unfolds later in the play. Christopherson’s playing one character on stage and one on screen is an interesting performative experiment, though the characters are hardly in conversation with each other. The use of live and recorded performance is a device that attempts to show two perspectives emanating from two cleanly divided worlds, but the narrative lines aren’t intentionally braided into a meaningful dialectic.
The piece’s attempt to engage two feminist perspectives in a single performer’s body is a worthy one. But, the play is a venture that ultimately doesn’t turn up the heat on a more complex and specific conversation dormant in the piece: how feminist perspectives have diverged and contradicted over time. Furthermore, the use of video media to cover the asylum cellist character puts a juicy piece of live performance fodder in the backseat. We don’t see the actor’s full virtuosity living in the room with us.
Hold These Truths, on the other hand, relies on showcasing every fiber of actor Joel de la Fuente’s charismatic versatility. He plays protagonist Gordon Hirabayashi, a first generation Japanese-American. He also plays a slew of government officials and Hirabayashi’s ageing immigrant parents. Joel’s agility and precision, in combination with the text’s subtle narrative power, feels closer to a more vital version of contemporary solo theater performance. But even though the production showcases a rigorous take on Pearl Harbor, there is an undeniable lack of vitality in the room. Somehow, we feel left out. Who is he talking to? Why? The actor begins in the audience, but our existence is never acknowledged again.
In addition to including film and double casting, both AMP and Hold These Truths also use voiceover to introduce tertiary characters and scaled-up lighting designs to indicate different environments within sparse scenic designs. Even so, all these conventions remain static on stage, and don’t actually foster theatrical dialogue between the performer and the guests.
Beyond the pre-scripted moments of direct address, neither piece incorporates its audience in a meaningful way.
I suggest that solo theater becomes less stale when it pays homage to the rich histories of communal storytelling. Solo storytelling is a history, and an ongoing discourse, that features performances reliant on audience members. The vitality of these events lies in the robust symbiosis of the entire room, not necessarily in the attractiveness of the script as it plays onstage alone.
Those working in the medium of the solo play might learn a great deal from other types of solo performers. For example, how comedians adapt and barrel forward must be in a direct, vital relationship with their audiences. Laughter is gasoline for them, and it’s obvious when a comic has lost their source of fuel. Hecklers must be managed via improvisation, and won’t back down unless sharply and cleverly countered.
Cabaret artists, similarly, must hold our drunken attentions with rapturous commixtures of storytelling and musical virtuosity. They rely on crowd interaction to stoke the synergistic fire between spectators and solo performer.
Drag performers keep hoards of clubbers agog by exercising not only their individual aesthetic talents, but also their crowd engagement skills. Burlesque artists’ and drag performers’ livelihoods are dependent on how many spectators they can move to reach for their wallets and finger some cash.
Why is it the case, then, that when the form of a solo performance moves out of a bar and into a theater, the pieces become irrevocably sterile, sonorous, and even selfish?
Audiences in the contemporary digital media context are clearly hungry for theater and storytelling events that are meant to be profound points of social contact for people. Yet, the prevalent models for theatrical storytelling, especially as evident in the form of the solo theater show, envelop little practical interest in creating a tangible community in the room.
We must move to make performance from a place of togetherness. And, solo performers might be important catalysts in that journey, as the lone performer is never really alone.
Solo storytellers must boldly jump off their high dives and fall into their public swimming pools. It’s a risk, but to swim with the whole neighborhood feels so much better than shouting poetry at the masses from fifty feet in the air.