Passed around Twitter feeds, posted on Facebook walls: last week’s Onion joke article. Funny, but with a twinge of ouch—not because I have ever wanted to tell the story of my life onstage, but because at different times I have written, directed, and produced non-confessional one-actor plays. Doing so, if anyone is going to show up, requires distancing the work from exactly the expectations the Onion article describes.
Just by its name, the (usually gender-specific) one-man/one-woman show implies by its very name a stunt, a display of exceptional virtuosity or at least exceptional length, or exceptional entitlement to a captive audience’s attention—in any case, a show, not a performance or a play. If it’s based on a true story, the implication, without further context, can be that the purpose of the show is ego on display, a virtuoso display of craft, or a virtuoso display of confession. The expectations are not inaccurate: an extended performance by one actor is a virtuoso act, though not much more than, say, a full-length two-character play.
My first show in Chicago, as a director and (on a do-it-yourself level) producer, was a staging of Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Heat.” I wrote to Oates for permission to stage the story verbatim, and the show went well. The audience knew that we were staging a piece of fiction by a writer who was not performing—we were dramatizing a short story, verbatim; a dramatic monologue, a one-actor play. Still, when I originally staged the show in Minneapolis, paired with another story, Stephen Dixon’s “Moon,” I had to avoid the description and connotations of “one-person show” and instead prepare the audience for what the show specifically was.
Specifics shape preconceptions. An audience going to see Mike Daisey’s How Theater Failed America might know that it is, yes, a one-man show, and partly an account of his experiences and observations from working in theater for less than minimum wage. But they also know, from its title, that the show is about something other than Daisey’s ego: they know from the title the purpose of the evening.
An audience going to see Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium may know that it is the theatrical equivalent of a personal essay, weaving the lives and ideas of Jean Cocteau and Miles Davis along with an unnamed French Canadian on a transcontinental flight. They also may know that Lepage is a wizard of theatricality, combining never-before-seen technology with the basic wonder and curiosity that comes from playing around with a home-movie camera. They may know that his show Elsinore is a one-actor version of Hamlet—spectacular, but the occasion is clear, and the occasion is not the performer’s ego.
“Solo acoustic” on its own conjures both the best and worst possible images. As does “local jazz”; as does, “poetry reading”; as does, for many, “theatre.” And it is worth embracing what a show actually is—if it’s one actor on a stage, it’s a one-person show; if he’s playing a nylon-stringed Yahama, it is indeed a solo acoustic show. But the specifics of any of those—as well as the context of the venue, the work programmed around it, the environment of the performing space, the validation from critics and other enthusiasts—are what alter expectations.
As I wrote last year, the labels “spoken word” and “performance art” have mostly been laid to rest. Ira Glass and his crew (Sedaris, Vowell, Rakoff) do not have to shoulder the burden of an audience describing their work with either one of those label. Instead, the audience can have a different set of expectations. It might have been Carl Wilson who suggested that singer-songwriters have had a stigma ever since John Belushi smashed that guitar in Animal House. And the Onion now helpfully reminds us what audiences might picture and resist when there’s only one actor on the bill.
Of course I’ve sat through terrible examples of all of these. Anyone going to art shows in Paris in the 1920s would have seen a lot of bad paintings. It doesn’t matter. So much of the best live performance I’ve seen has been solo shows, from Daniel MacIvor to Robert Lepage to Robyn Hitchcock to Nick Lowe to Fiona Shaw to David Cale, not to mention one-actor plays like Adam Rapp’s Nocturne and Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made. As with any kind of show, when the work is good, audiences love them, once they’re in the door—that’s the reward of working in a form that is easy to ridicule and beating that ridicule. That’s the fun of taking a maligned form and making it new, and making it work. That’s the fun of the fight.
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