Sophia Cleary’s “One & Only” at The Kitchen

“I aim to be a balance between a healer, a dictator, and an anarchist” – Sophia Cleary

Sophia Cleary by Paula Court

Sophia Cleary used to be a birth doula and that information is important for understanding One & Only, a comedy performance for a single audience member at a time. It’s an interactive show, an ode to the sacred space of the theater, and a first date rolled into one. The performance is designed to make you—the audience member—feel special, starting with the invite-only ticket policy.

But, exclusive does not mean unique: eight audience members make the list. As an extended, scripted interaction, One & Only plays on an essential fear: that the moments of connection you felt with another person were simply a trick to make you like them. It’s an hour-long case of “you must say that to everyone.” In the weeks before the performance, I waffle between feeling lucky for being chosen, and resenting the attendees seeing the show before me. Two days before I arrive, I find out that another critic was invited to observe the show and feel an outsized pang of jealousy.

To combat my envy, I resolve to be the best, most memorable participant I can be. I prepare by scrolling through Sophia’s Instagram and watching past clips of her work. I find a video of her playing “Fuck, Marry, Kill” with the audience. The twist: she is every candidate. “Who here would fuck me?” she asks, daring the audience to raise their hands. Then, “Who here would marry me?” Watching the clip, I make a mental note to have convincing answers in case she makes me play this game with her one on one. I’m determined to make a good first impression.

On the night of the show, I walk into The Kitchen’s cavernous blackbox theater, which contains risers of empty chairs, a small platform stage, and two mics—one in a stand on stage, and one placed on a seat in the audience. I sit down in the center of the audience section expecting antics, but Sophia begins in a comfortable stand-up format, starting on the stage with a set about dating and vulnerability. She tells me her method for first impressions is oversharing. “I used to think I was really good at vulnerability,” she explains, “until I realized that vulnerability is not a sport.”

And yet, in stand up, vulnerability is the game. With every story, Sophia skillfully shares her personal information to win my validation and praise. Within the set, she points out that this strategy is toxic in relationships—she even acts out an interaction between herself and her partner where her aggressive oversharing heightens a small disagreement into a full blown fight. But on stage, strategic vulnerability is the mark of a successful performer.

The lines between performance and interpersonal relationship begin to blur as the show goes on. Sophia prefaces her next set with the following instructions: “I’m going to share something vulnerable, and I need to know when you see me. So every time you really see me, I want you to clap.” This is already the unspoken contract in full audience stand-up (react when you’re into it), but Sophia lays it out as a way to build a relationship. It’s a little more awkward one-on-one, but she handles it nicely, interrupting her set every once in a while to acknowledge my applause.  The task starts to reveal our common ground—I clap for Sophia’s coming out story, all the absurd responses she encountered, and the weirdness of straight women in groups (i.e. bachelorette parties). I start using my reactions to tell Sophia about myself. She’s still doing stand-up, but I begin believing that we are having a conversation. Instead of a performance, it feels like we are on a date, sharing pre-prepared stories about our lives to relate to each other. And just like any good date, we take turns sharing.

The lights change, Sophia steps off the platform, and gestures for me to take the stage. It’s my turn to say something vulnerable. We carefully circle around each other, switching places in the theatre as I rack my brain for what to say. The initial prompt, “be vulnerable,” is subsumed by the stage lights and the house full of empty seats—I’ve walked into a contradiction. How do I let my guard down without performing for her? In the subtext of this request, Sophia is inviting you to share your trauma with the unspoken expectation that you will also be funny. That’s the real goal—to make a comedian laugh.

I fall right into the trap. I know vulnerability isn’t a sport, I know she knows that, but I do it anyway. I try to one-up her coming out story, and I expose my feelings about covering her show. When I run out of relevant banter, I reach for the most convenient piece of gossip: I tell her a secret about my dating life—one that I have not told my closest friends. I feel successful, maybe even that I’m winning. Sophia is attentive throughout my monologue, smiling and nodding with me. Once I begin to wind down she applauds and stands, signaling that we are taking a break. She laughs, says, “That was a great set,” tosses me a ginger chew, and exits.

Her offhand comment hits me like a brick. In the short moments while Sophia leaves me alone in the theater, I sit with what I have done. Did you learn nothing? Didn’t she just tell you that that’s the game? Neither of us were being vulnerable—we were performing sets. We were oversharing to a stranger to feel like we could love the parts of ourselves we thought were ugly.

Before I can internalize any of these realizations, suddenly, from the side of the theater I hear, “Hey, can I show you something?” Sophia comes back to sit on the risers with me. I nod, and the lights begin to change. We sit in silence as the theater goes dark, gets brighter, then dims again, ending with a spotlight in the upper right corner that slowly fades out. Sophia sits with her back to me for a silent eternity (after the show, I learn that we sat like this for ten minutes). Her legs are crossed, and she’s fidgeting with her pinky along her thigh. What is she trying to show me? I run through possibilities in the changing light. The beauty of a theater, a place where people come to share experiences, asking to be moved and changed? Stage lighting, the script that tells you how to act and where to go? Maybe the prompt is to watch Sophia herself, doing what you’ve been doing for the duration of the show—performing for her as an audience member by sitting silently in your seat.

By minute nine, I lose my train of thought and let my mind wander as the lights fade completely. We settle into comfortable darkness, and I hear Sophia shifting around. I wonder if I’m about to be touched, or ambushed, until I see her face, lit up by her phone screen. She’s sitting in the same spot, turned around in her chair, asking me if I want to do something in the dark. I nod again. She scrolls through her phone and tells me to repeat each phrase: “I am proud of my identity…I am extremely perceptive…I am thorough and clear in my communications…I am a hot new Tinder user.” Starting the affirmations is mortifying. By the time we get to “hot new Tinder user,” I am flushed and laughing.

As it turns out, Sophia’s director Sara Lyons writes each audience member a set of personalized statements for every show. During our ten-minute lighting moment, they distill my stand-up monologue into a few key insecurities and lovingly force me to confront them. This is the unseen emotional labor of One & Only: Sara and Sophia are absorbing and processing your reactions in real time, tweaking the playground of the show to help you feel comfortable taking risks and opening up.

There are many other hilarious, well-crafted parts of this performance—too many to explain in detail. Sophia has three excellent sections of stand-up about being gay and traumatized and in love and selfish. She does an abstract dance sequence in ethereal light to a ghostly laugh track. She goes live on Instagram in the middle of the piece. The material is tight, but bits that would usually steal the show pale in comparison to the instances of personal connection. Sophia ends one set with a punchline—her bluetooth speaker keeps repeating “Ready to Connect,” which is ironic because while lying in bed with her partner, Sophia is not ready to connect. In a regular comedy special this would be the memorable takeaway. Instead, when describing the show to friends, I find myself trying to recount micro-interactions and awkward pauses. The best lines of the show are the inside jokes formed between me and Sophia—punchlines that can never be fully recreated.

These intangible sparks of connection reveal how One & Only is designed to guide the audience member through their own journey of emotional self-discovery. Sophia has transitioned from birth doula to comedy doula. The one-on-one format of the piece is convenient for COVID safety protocols, but Sophia never jokes about the pandemic. In fact, the distinct absence of COVID comedy contributes to the atmosphere of care. One & Only is a reprieve from the outside world. You get to build a relationship without the emotional consequences of everyday life and perform for an audience without fear of public failure. The secret things you do alone—dancing in the mirror, imagining a stand-up set about your life, rehashing your personal insecurities—Sophia invites you to perform them all for her.

And yet, insecurity lingers. I left the theater with my emotions, and an unsolvable puzzle. Was it intimacy? Was it just a show? If it felt real to me, does it matter?

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