7 CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE SOLO PERFORMER

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A free gift from Brad McEntire. An eBook introduction to solo theatre performance and several tips, thoughts and techniques to consider. All the best with putting together your own solo show.

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7 CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE SOLO PERFORMER An ebook by Brad McEntire of www.TheSoloPerformer.com 2011. 2014. Brad McEntire, Dribble Funk Books All Rights Reserved. The content contained in this document is for informational purposes only. Readers of this publication are advised to do their own due diligence when it comes to applying any advice or information provided in this document. No part of this publication shall be reproduced, transmitted or sold in whole or in part in any form, without prior written consent of the author.www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 1 INTRO The lights dim. In the darkness a lone performer steps upon the stage. The show begins and a spell is cast. A story unfolds over the next 60 to 75 minutes as multiple characters interact, various locations are presented and a universal, but novel, narrative unfolds. Through it all, the audience is held in the spell by that one actor. I have been exploring solo performance for the last several years, as an extension to my traditional theatre projects. This exploration has offered heaps of creative challenge and onstage exhilaration. The form is multi-layered and leaves lots of room for further investigation. Thats a big reason why I started the blog www.TheSoloPerformer.com. I consider the solo performer a creator. An artist who writes/devises then performs his or her own work, expressing his or her own message, undiluted and self-instigated, is more than an interpretive artist. He or she is a creative in the original, literal sense of the word. He or she is a generative artist. Let me splain Most roles in the theatre, from director to actor to designers and producers are interpretive. After the playwright (the primary instigating artist in the traditional theatre) finishes a script he or she passes it on and then others bring it to life. A solo performer who thinks up and then executes a piece of theatre is genuinely creative, not merely interpretive. The solo performer is active in his, or her, own creative process. The creative artist takes responsibility from the initial idea or concept and sees it through until it is on its feet and put before audiences. There is no passing it off for others to interpret. Besides breaking a theatre artist out of the traditional role of interpretation, solo performance serves, culturally, in various ways. For example, solo performance gives expression, in a very idiosyncratic way, to those who may be marginalized in our society. Solo performance offers a means of exploration, reflection and expression whatever an artists background, lifestyle choices, sexual preference, religious views, political affiliations, or any other specific take on the world. Solo performance also offers an opportunity for an artist to examine his or her family, town, culture and history as well as other personal stories through the characters he or she chooses to create. Both the process of www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 2 creating a piece as well as the piece itself is an opportunity to take a "Hero's Journey" in the Joseph Campbell sense. Ones own struggles and obstacles are revealed and utilized as a path to transformation. Solo performance is a unique way to express human intimacy and connection. It is a way to "claim oneself" with a depth rarely available onstage through traditional theatre or even in life. If one has the courage to stand on a stage, alone, and claim their life, their creativity, their characters, and their stories their life will never be the same. In a way, one will become BIGGER than he or she may previously have been. Solo performance has no less possibility that the awakening of the soul to itself. This short overview of tips, thoughts and techniques is aimed at the reader of www.TheSoloPerfomer.com as well as any theatre artist eager to tackle the one-person show format. www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 3 1. THE WHY I feel it is important, as an artist, to be clear about the purpose behind any work one puts out into the world. The why precedes the what. The why leads the whole process. Everything must spring from the why. Why is it we do what we do? Nothing should be created unless there is a need for it to be. If it needs to be, then what is the reason? The artist must understand what he or she is trying to express. Only then will others eventually understand as well. Doing something for no concrete reason - simply for the sake of doing it - is not a valid motivation for the solo artist. The solo performer looks beyond mere execution. Understanding leads to reason. Reason leads to creation. As he or she works on a piece there is a philosophical duty just as great as - if not greater than - the practical duty during the development process. WHY are YOU doing THIS show? Besides giving you a distinct reason for going about all the hard work, labor and concentration required to bring your creation into the world, the true importance of addressing the why is that it can lead to a clearer understanding of the work itself for you the creator. The why becomes the mission statement for the show. Once it is established and understood, the why acts as the true compass. Heres what I wrote in my journal as I was struggling with the why of one of my own solo shows, CHOP: I dig just a little and I find all roads lead to love. Glory? Money? Recognition? Intellectual curiosity? Appreciation? Everything eventually boils down to our need for receiving, and giving, Love. I do theatre because I love it and because it is a vehicle for connecting us (the artists, the audience, all of us), first to a common event, then to ourselves, and then to those around us. And when the vehicle works like it should, we develop deeper human connection, and that makes us happier and the world goes around much smoother. From this basis of joy comes love and then the domino effect of understanding, education, illumination. I love what I do and the sharing of it is an act of love. That love magnifies in the world through connection. What else is there? www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 4 I should ground this line of thinking with this: the "how" is the meat and bones, the practical part of this vehicle, Theatre. CHOP is presented as one man (and by only one man onstage) trying to figure out his place in a world he feels very distant from. He floats along the surface of it, observing, but not participating. He lacks connection. Therefore, the play is the story of him finding connection (Love... of himself, for another and for a greater group outside of himself). In the story he finds his own unique vehicle for making connections happen. As I begin to work on the piece once again in preparation for the November performances, I hold close the "why" behind CHOP. I do it out of love. A note about contemplating your why. It might change. At best it offers a distinct direction to head with a piece. You may wander into the unknown and find a different path than the one you started on. Thats okay. Let it be an adventure. If the reason behind the piece changes, then, hey, the show changes. Nothing wrong with that. Heck, you might find you have more than one reason to say what you need to say. If the why keeps changing, then you may have more than one show in your brain. Make a note and move on. As long as you stay true to the why, then the show will have the possibility of relevance and importance. www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 5 2. DIFFERENT KINDS OF SOLO PERFORMANCE Solo performance as a term is a huge umbrella, encompassing pretty much any performance by a single performer for an audience of people (this includes physical/clown acts, variety/juggling, fire acts, improvisation, cabaret and on and on). For the sake of this ebook, Ill deal primarily with the two kinds that are practiced most often as distinct contemporary solo theatre performances Solo shows basically fall - and I remind you, this is a huge generalization - into two kinds: the actors tour de force and the dynamic lecture. The first tradition of one-playing-many has included Anna Deavere Smith, Chazz Palminteri, Sarah Jones, John Leguizamo, Dawson Nichols, Tracey Ullman, Eric Bogosian, Dan Hoyle, the incomparable Ruth Draper and countless other talented writer/actors. The artists who generate shows are then required to become all (or many) of the characters in the piece, even at times performing both sides of multi-sided dialogue. This kind of solo performance offers an explicit acting challenge to the performer. Sometimes the different characters in the piece interact, as embodied by the sole performer, and sometimes they are presented one after another in a sort of character parade. The lecturer kind of solo show runs the gamut from Spalding Gray, Mike Daisey, David Mogolov, Martin Dockery to Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and right on up to David Sedaris, Malcolm Gladwell and Sarah Vowell. This kind of show employs a more direct address, a less actorly technique. Instead of primarily portraying other characters, the lecturers own personality ties the evening together. As different as these two kinds of solo shows are the character parade and the lecture format - they both represent variations of the much older, and highly honorable tradition of story-telling. I personally have tackled both kinds and find a hybrid of the two can also work extremely well. After deciding the kind of story you want to tell and why you want to tell it, you can think about how you want to present it. www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 6 3. FRAMING DEVICE Unlike traditional theatre, with multiple actors on the stage, interacting with one another while the audience simply peeps in on the goings-on from behind a fourth wall, the solo performance uses the audience as an integral part of the performance. The audience is not just a passive spectator. The audience is an active part of the piece. The audience becomes not just who the soloist acts for but with. Many times the solo performer establishes a framing device in their play for the purpose of engaging the audience in a novel fashion. The framing device basically sets up the role of the audience will be expected to play and also answers basic questions about the performance such as, why is this one person talking to a group of people? It is taken for granted in traditional theatre that the audience is there and they can be acknowledged or not by the actors, but 9 times out of 10, the solo performer must acknowledge the audience. The way this acknowledgement happens is the frame. The frame can take the form of an interrogation where the audience is the silent interrogator, or as a lesson a teacher is presenting to the class (the audience), or a small child talking to an invisible friend (the audience). Really, the audience can be any character or group of characters that the performers character(s) would communicate with for a specific purpose. The framing device lets the audience know what part they are playing in the performance. In my own solo play CHOP, for example, the audience gets hints at the beginning and then finds out more fully near the end that they are at a sort of underground meeting and they are a group of amputation fetishists that the main character has been addressing. Remember, the audience is not there just to witness the story, but to experience it. www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 7 4. USE THE LANGUAGE OF THEATRE In the world of the theatre a suitcase is not just a prop. It also can be a symbol of universal emotions, says Enoch Brater, the Kenneth T. Rowe Collegiate Professor of Dramatic Literature and professor of English and Theatre. The suitcase carried by Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's renowned play DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a symbol of arrivals and departures, the sense of impermanence and dislocation that can touch us all, states Brater. "This is how the theatre uses its own language to make us recognize something about ourselves," Brater continues. I have encountered solo performers who begin with a worthy story to tell, but upon constructing their piece, fall far short of theatrical potential. Telling a simple story is one thing (and difficult in its own right), but this ebook is addressing the one-person show as an act of theatre. Theatre uses certain elements that it shares in common with all the arts. These are often called elements of form: space, movement, color, silhouette, line, sound/silence, rhythm, shape, and texture. In addition to these, the theatre itself has a particular set of elements. According to Aristotle's seminal theatrical critique Poetics, there are six elements necessary for theatre: Plot, Character, Idea, Language, Music, and Spectacle. It is worth becoming familiar with the elements listed above, even if your piece doesnt use all of them (i.e. in a silent movement piece, obviously the element of music and language will not be prominent). It is sometimes argued that solo performance is not theatre in a strictly technical sense (sometimes having no dialogue), but it is my belief that the one-person show is actually a very refined and daring form of theatre. I submit as my most basic definition of theatre the first lines of director Peter Brooks seminal book The Empty Space: I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged. www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 8 The barest of necessities for an act of theatre is someone doing something, someone watching and a place for all this to happen. That said, its a good idea to make use of the language of theatre while developing your solo piece. Leaning into the theatricality more often helps the piece, whereas the opposite often diminishes the piece. I will not go into details about the elements listed above since there are a wide variety of resources elsewhere for exploring them. I bring up the above-listed elements in this section primarily as a reminder that the solo show, at its best, is a shining form of theatre distilled down to a single actor presenting a story. At its not-so-best it can be a boring, self-indulgent showcase of a single talking head. www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 9 5. RISK AND SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF In this section, let me touch on two intangible factors beyond the elements of form and theatre listed above, that, if kept in mind and applied, can greatly aide a performer developing a solo show: Risk and Suspension of Disbelief. Risk is going out onto the stage completely unaided by other actors. A solo performer must drive the whole show. This requires amazing reserves of ability, courage and energy. It is not for the weak of heart. Risk is presenting, and perhaps bringing, unpopular or even taboo content onto the stage and owning it. Then, artfully bringing the audience along with you as you explore this content. Many solo performers improvise and edit in the moment based on audience reactions and that is certainly a risky act. In solo theatre the audience is the solo performers scene partner and the rhythm that he or she builds with them informs, changes and can motivate the performance in real time. As a performer one can feel when an audience is with you or not and that relationship instructs and enlivens the whole experience. It even gives the solo performer the opportunity to risk. Remember, risk is not just a by-product of drama. It is a main ingredient. Theatre involves the willing suspension of disbelief. Wikipedia defines this notion as the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is a quid pro quo: the audience tacitly agrees to provisionally suspend their judgment in exchange for the promise of entertainment. In traditional theatre this suspension of disbelief is important, but I will argue that it is more so in a solo show. The solo performer asks more from the audience and the audience will give it. The audience willingly goes along with the performer playing multiple characters or creating strange environments. www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 10 6. PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS Solo performer Dawson Nichols says, You get to play to your strengths when going solo, so figure out what those are and exploit them. I totally agree. If you are creating a piece for yourself, take the wonderful opportunity to not just write something you can pull off, but something you can excel in. If you sing well, use it. If you are a physically gifted comedian, use it. If you can do a variety of accents, use it. If you excel a satire, use it. If you can creep people out, use it. Basically, do not ignore your strengths, but use them. Use the tools in your own personal arsenal. Instead of waiting for someone else to notice what you can do and cast you in something, then maybe push you to your full potential, play to your own best potential. Sometimes, artists try to balance out their personal skill sets by working on where they are weaker. While I believe it is good to stretch ones comfort zone, a solo show can be whatever you want it to be. Express yourself. Use your strengths! www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 11 7. KEEPING DOCUMENTATION As you develop your piece from idea on to actual performance, I would urge you to keep notes. Get a journal of some sort and document your process. A journal or notebook is great when you are brainstorming ideas, for collecting images and themes, for mind-mapping storylines and for recording the practical sides of creating a show (a prop list or notes on music selection, for example). If you have a development binder, its a good place to keep each successive drafts of the script as you go along. Since you may not have a director and you most certainly will not have other performers to bounce reactions off of during rehearsals or actual performances, it is hugely important to write down your own thoughts, to form a sort of critical dialogue with yourself. What went right? Wrong? Wasnt clear? Did the audience follow? Did things go slow? Too fast? And so on. This can only help in the long run. A note here. Your journal need not be on paper. I have known solo performers to keep Tumblr blogs, Pinterest boards and all manner of online records. This is a valid approach, too, as long as you tag entries so you can go back and find what you put up. In fact, having your process on the internet, where it is findable to others (while not for every solo performer), has another benefit besides self-growth. Having a public notebook in this way allows others to find you and engage your process. Ultimately, youll need an audience for your work, in order for it to reach fruition. Having an online presence is good for this. After all, one doesnt find audiences, they find you. The more findable you are, the better. For more on this line of thinking, I encourage you to pick up the book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. IN CONCLUSION Solo performance is a wonderfully personal kind of theatre, filled with challenge and artistic potential. I wish you the best on your own road to solo theatre creation. # # # www.TheSoloPerformer.com p. 12 SPECIAL THANKS It is with gratutide and appreciation I want to thank primarily the readers and contributors of www.theSoloPerformer.com blog as well as the colleagues and audiences, friends and family who have supported my own work these many years. Id especially like to thank my beautiful wife Ruth Engel-McEntire for her help in preparing this little ebook and for always being there to keep me moving forward. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Brad McEntire is a visual artist and theatre practitioner based in Dallas, Texas. He works predominantly as a playwright, director, solo performer and improviser. He is the founding Artistic Director of Audacity Theatre Lab. In 2014, he founded the first Dallas Solo Fest at the historic Margo Jones Theatre in Dallas, Texas. His solo plays include CHOP, ROBERTS ETERNAL GOLDFISH, I BROUGHT HOME A CHUPACABRA and CYRANO A-GO-GO. McEntire is also the creator of the original solo improvisational story format Dribble Funk as well as the webcartoonist behind the webcomic Donnie Rocket Toaster-Face. For more information visit: www.BradMcEntire.com

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