All for One: The Fringe Festival's Solo Performers
It's Fringe time again in New York City, 17 days of nearly round-the-clock theater including everything from multimedia drama to musical satire to puppetry to folkloric dancingall for just $15 a pop. As a celebration of downtown theater, the Fringe Festival has always featured a bumper crop of that staple of downtown theater: the one-person show. But there's plenty of variety within that category: autobiographical pieces, dance shows, monologue compilations, musicals, even clown theater. Some of the Fringe's solo performers shared insights with BroadwayWorld.com about the art of going it alone on stage and how the seed of an idea flowers into a full production.
Several "soloists" in this year's Fringe come to the genre from other careers in the performing arts. Angel Abcede, who's making his New York debut with his first one-man play, has been a dancer and choreographer with Chicago's Joel Hall Dancers since the mid '80s. Eliza Jane Schneider, whose show grew out of her B.F.A. thesis project at UCLA, is the voice of multiple characters on TV's South Park and in the hit movie Finding Nemo. John Kawie and Wendy Spero have been stand-up comedians, Ksenia Vidyaykina is a singer and dancer, while Michael D. Sepesy and Mark Kilmurry are playwrights. (All the solo performers interviewed wrote their own work.)
A number of the performers say they turn to the one-person format to give voice to people or experiences that are underrepresented in theater. "It's the concept of the outsider," says Michael Feldman, who's written three solo plays in addition to the Diagnosis: Jew Pain he's presenting at the Fringe. "One-person shows have always been known as an arena for 'minorities.' It can be looked at as a metaphor, with the outsider being alone [just as] the performer is alone on stage, or because we don't have anywhere else to turn so we need to tell our story and have people sit and listen."
Yet even when they focus on specific facets of society, the "personalness" of solo performances broadens rather than limits their audience appeal. "Everyone has a life story, and everyone can relate at least to some of what others have gone through," says Rob Bronstein, a veteran of famed comedy troupe Second City who is premiering True Stories From the ER That You're Never Gonna See on Television at the Fringe. Abcede, whose show, The Semen Tree, explores his early sexual discoveries, also mentions how the personal translates to the universal: "The gay Asian-American voice is like the little voice in Horton Hears a Who. It may not mean anything until it stands on a lot of other voices, breaking the camel's back as it were."
Solo shows also continue to draw practitioners for purely practical reasons, according to several Fringe performers. "The current state of theater forces writers to whittle down their visions into a more economically feasible, and more producible, size," says Michael D. Sepesy, who performs more than a dozen monologues in Loserville. In addition to the lower expenses, writing yourself a solo show can put an end to unemployment, that constant specter in an actor's life. "You cast yourself in the best possible role, and you don't have to wait for anyone else to hire you," says Hilary Chaplain, who calls her Fringe show, A Life in Her Day, a work of clown theater.
But most of all, creating and starring in a show all by yourself often proves to be an irresistible carrot dangled before all actors. "It has always struck me much like a marathona challenge that's there if and when you're ready for it," says David Matthew Engel, a comedy writer who is premiering his first one-man show, Bad-Ass Clown, at the Fringe.
Engel portrays seven characters (only one is a clown; another is Johnny Cash) in his wordless sketches, which are set to music by artists as diverse as George Gershwin and Radiohead. He relates their stories through mime and physical comedy. Engel says the risks and unconventionality of a production like his are what intrigue audiences about solo performances. He explains with an analogy: "People don't necessarily go and see Cirque [du Soleil] because they like the circus so much as they know it's more difficult than anything imaginable to do what those people do. People want to get their money's worth."
Bad-Ass Clown developed around a theme of "everyday people grappling with extraordinary circumstances and facing the consequences," says Engel. For her show Trapped, Ksenia Vidyaykina also established a commonality among her various characters. Trapped consists of six dances, each depicting a woman caught in onerousand somewhat surrealcircumstances, like a mermaid who gives herself an abortion, a drunk singer who falls from the moon to Earth (repeatedly) and a black widow hanging from an umbilical cord. Vidyaykina cites Japanese butoh dancers as inspiration but has also incorporated a bit of Alice in Wonderland in the work. The six women are observed, she says, by "a lonely girl that is trying to reach out to people. She is trapped in a hallway like Alice and she is looking through the keyholes of those locked doors." Vidyaykina wears elaborate costumes, which differ for each piece and at one point in the show's development took as much as half an hour to change into. Therein she discovered one challenge of a solo show: how to keep the stage occupied during costume changes (video of the girl exploring the hallway was the solution).
Vidyaykina used the theme of "women alone, confined and forced into the most difficult of choices" to connect the stories in Trapped. Likewise, Sepesy's 14 different characters in Loservilleportrayed in comic monologues rather than dancesare united by a theme. They're all "characters who for one reason or another might be considered losers," he says, naming a few in his entourage: New Age devotee, chairwoman of the snowflake committee, urine collection specialist, lovelorn man with cerebral palsy. They're "not necessarily those outside of or victimized by the predominant cultural myths, but are frequently those who remain immersed in those myths without questioning their validity," Sepesy states. He originally conceived the showwhich premiered last winter in his hometown of Clevelandas a collection of loopy, dysfunctional types, with a title like Madhouse, but eventually broadened it to represent underdogs. It turned out to be an appropriate theme for the times. "With the current nationalistic political climate being antithetical to dissent or criticism," Sepesy says, "artists are moved through a sense of social responsibility, or just plain contrariness, to poke around where they're not supposed to."
Alienation from prevailing sociopolitical mores also figured in the creation of Eliza Jane Schneider's Freedom of Speech. Her script is composed of verbatim comments gathered during a decade of crisscrossing the country, interviewing thousands of people in shops, bars, churches, schools and street corners. Schneider was incited to undertake her journey, she says, by "distrust of the American system, along with fear of being permanently jettisoned into the numbing barrage of media hype on which [my] generation was weaned." In the course of her travels, a new attitude overtook her: "I fell in love with the people in this country and felt a need to get their voices heard." Schneider portrays more than 30 of those people, some of them juxtaposed to create a kind of dialogue between seemingly disparate types. Schneider feels transformed by her encounters with the mosaic of Americans who contributed to her "documentary play," which was performed in California in earlier versions titled Road Trip! and USA 911. "I've, hopefully, become less of a self-righteous asshole and more of a human appreciationist," she says.
For John Kawie, a life-altering event led to, rather than resulted from, the creation of his solo show, Brain Freeze. In 1997, at the age of 47, the comedian suffered a stroke (a week after his wedding). With his memory impaired, he abandoned his stand-up act. "I wanted to transcend my post-stroke hell and get back to my real life," Kawie recalls. He started developing the play in acting class, sometimes struggling to remember his lines. The final product focuses on both "the underbelly of rehabilitation," as Kawie labels the behavior of health care attendants he portrays, and the resilience of patients. Among his characters are several "actual stroke survivors or brain injury survivors I met in rehab," Kawie says. Like other solo artists, he relished the opportunity to turn the spotlight on a group of people who've been kept in the dark. "It gave them a voice," he says.
Developing a solo show also helped Michael Feldman through a crucial period in his life. He was still in the closet when he started writing Diagnosis: Jew Pain as an NYU drama student. "Many people in my school didn't know about my sexuality, and this show was basically my way of coming out to everyone the only way I knew howthrough humor," he explains, adding that it also gave him "the courage to come out to my parents and a handful of family members." Feldman's play deals with two issues: bisexuality, and what that means for someone from a Conservative Jewish family.
Coming to terms with homosexuality within a cultural framework is also at the heart of The Semen Tree, a musical by Chicago-based dancer Angel Abcede. "Growing up, I felt as if no one really knew me and what I was going through as a gay Filipino-American. You can grow up feeling like you're less of a person," says Abcede, who cowrote songs for his show. By developing a play that depicts his relationships starting in adolescence, Abcede says he was "trying to get at the roots of my own personal self-hatred . I definitely am not as interested in Asian men. That aversion brings to light many questions, and my attempt to answer raises a sequential set of scenes from my life," which he dramatizes in The Semen Tree.
Other autobiographical solo shows in the Fringe include Who's Your Daddy?, Wendy Spero's comedy about "how my job working as a bad executive assistant for a strict boss ultimately led me to learn about my father, who died when I was a baby"; Love: A Multiple Choice Question, a new musical comedy in which Jamie Jackson portrays a dozen family members along with "an Aussie guy like myself who's looking for love in the chaos of New York and finds himself thinking back on his less complicated life back home" in the Outback; and True Stories From the ER That You're Never Gonna See on Television, which Rob Bronstein describes as "a series of snapshots of my life as viewed through visits to the emergency room."
Some Fringe solo artists start with a basis in real life and run with it in fanciful ways. In his play Berserker, Paul Outlaw intertwines autobiographical monologues with portrayals of Nat Turner, the slave who led a murderous 1831 rebellion, and Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer arrested in 1991, to present a treatise on race, violence and sex in America. The protagonist of Mark Kilmurry's One Shot is obsessed with Robert De Niro and even "converses" with the superstar.
Kilmurry got the idea for the play after seeing Taxi Driver. "It struck me how isolated one could feel being in Travis Bickle's shoes," he recalls. "What if this was all I had, I thoughtno friend, no job, only films " Kilmurry is making his New York debut in the Fringe, though he's been performing One Shot around the world since 1993. It's brought him more than applause: His melding of theatrical and cinematic styles with some naturalistic mime earned the Australian citizen a U.S. green card in the "extraordinary talent category."
Hilary Chaplain displays some out-of-the-ordinary talents of her own in A Life in Her Day, which was produced previously at fringe festivals in Prague and Melbourne. Through clowning, she enacts a woman's experiences with birth, love, marriage, infidelity and domestic violence. The show features music from cartoons and such props as a bowl of marshmallows and a roll of paper towels. Another portrait of a lady is Julie Tortorici's Belly, which deviates from traditional theater through its use of improvisation and interaction with the audience. The main character, an obsessive-compulsive homebound woman named Frannie, is "surprised to find the audience in her living room," Tortorici says about her play. "Frannie entertains them with gifts and dance and riffs on topics like diet aids, past loves and disarmingly honest memories."
"I end up using the audience as the other character," says Tortorici, "which, for me, is ever-changing and always exciting." But even solo actors who don't improvise or converse with the audience say the people in the seats are extra-important when you're on stage alone. "There is more likely a sense of genuine rapport with the performerit's almost like a relationship," says Michael Sepesy. Outlaw feels the audience takes the place of other actors in providing a "dialogue" for the performer. "The audience is my other partner," concurs Chaplain. "I really depend on them being an active part of the show."
The cozy venues where most solo Fringe plays are presented help performers draw energy from the audience, according to Michael Feldman. "In a solo show, it's all about the audience," he says. "For me, performing in a small, intimate space is crucial. I love to be able to see each and every one of their faces, rather than some blinding stage lights in my eyes."
But Kilmurry notes that such intimacy may be intimidating. "A solo show can rely too much on feedback because there is only you and the people in the dark," he says. "Best get on with it and not let anything or anyone worry you." However, solo artistsespecially those whose work is autobiographicalare mindful of a potential pitfall in developing a one-person show: self-indulgence. Michael Feldman stresses that you don't want to put the audience "in the position of a therapist." Chaplain says plays must have "a reason for being there that involves the audience. They're often self-congratulatory and just created to show off."
The rewards are great when an artist meets all the challenges of mounting a solo show. "The audience benefits from the intensity of the performer," says Ksenia Vidyaykina, "because the artist goes through hell to put this together and his performance is enriched with that struggle, which is interesting to watch from the outside."
Jamie Jackson has another theory about why one-person shows intrigue theatergoers. "In this age that worships cutting-edge technology, one actor in a dark space creating other worlds with just the power of his imagination and his skills as an actor remains a compelling, dare I say spiritually satisfying, experience," he says.
For more information (including showtimes and tickets) about all shows in the Fringe Festival, go to www.fringenyc.org.
Photos, from top: Wendy Spero of Who's Your Daddy?, David Matthew Engel in Bad-Ass Clown, Michael D. Sepesy of Loserville, Angel Abcede in The Semen Tree, Hilary Chaplain in A Life in Her Day.