Friday, November 05, 2010

Solo Performance as Song

Around this time last year I was researching a possible one man show featuring the life of Boris Karloff but ran into trouble.  Although Karloff is a genial subject and also seemed a good fit for me, I found myself not interested enough in him or his work to pull off a show about either the man or his work (to do so would have been an exercise in grim careerism.)  I did find themes that interested me but those were not enough.  Not enough, either, were the inherent theatrical elements that would have been required, e.g., donning neck plugs and steel boots and making a do out of putting on and taking off make-up in front of the audience.  I'm not terribly enthralled by elaborate make-up and costumes, though I love the grace notes and efficient storytelling of well-chosen items.  I like when costumes and make up support a performance by making suspending disbelief easier for both audience and actor but my imagination isn't set alive by dressing up per se.  Having eventually rejected Karloff as a subject, then, I found myself at a loss for how to approach a one man show. Yes, autobiography came to mind, but evidently, I'm not ready to go there. I did have in mind a show that would have revolved around my experience with singing lessons with the incomparable Theresa Koon but I'm still too much in the middle of that story to shape it.*

Then, last week, I saw two one-person shows, one at The McCarter Center, in Princeton, and one here in Philly.  The McCarter Center show was The Iliad, performed by Stephen Spinella.  The Philly show was 1812 Productions's Why I'm Scared of Dance by Jen Childs, written and performed by Jen Childs (this show is similar thematically to what I had in mind for my show about learning to sing.)  These shows have helped me (I think) to find a productive and creative approach to a show of my own; or, after having absorbed one-man shows over the years that I've liked, they finally occasioned the penny (or two) to drop:

  • Other one-person shows I've truly enjoyed have been  Hamlet, and Moby Dick, and anything by Spaulding Grey (whom I've seen live both at The Brattle Theatre and Lincoln Center) or Lily Tomlin. These are either first-person rambles, or personalized and essentialized dramatizations of great works of literature not originally meant for dramatic staging, but conducive to it.  
  • One-person shows to which I've never roused myself to see have been those about historical figures, such as Mark Twain or Ray Bradbury--and so, though they've been popular with audiences, that I haven't gone to see them is a big hint:  I shouldn't do what I wouldn't see.  Evidently, I don't care for the constraints of biographical (as opposed to autobiographical) rambles.  I especially don't care for either the hagiography (whorish) or skullduggery (cheap) on which these works feed.
What especially opened my eyes was a leitmotif in The Iliad:  Spinella, in his character as a timeless, modern-ancient Homer, spoke more than once of "my song." The tale he told of us of unending war was his song, his method lyrical, as it was for the 'real' Homer, who must have sung his epics from town to town.  This was my ah ha!  In thinking of solo shows as an individual performer's "song" I find the right aesthetic justification (as opposed to careerist rationalization).  Suddenly, all these one-person shows sprang to life in my mind as a viable theatrical genre, rather than as the mediocre, economical make-shift stripped-down, poor man's version of real theater, as I think I thought of them, until now.  And, I suddenly saw that the right material for this 'genre' is, indeed, large works of 'undramatic' literature and/or personal tales. All this excites me.

And so, yes, I do have something in mind, again, though I'm exploring the possibility of doing a 'one man' version of an-already (lengthily) dramatized version of an originally non-dramatic giant literary work.  I make no apologies for that, since the dramatized version struck me deeply when I saw it, in the late 1980s.  But, if this one doesn't turn out to be right, at least I now have a guiding idea more authentic to my tastes and interests to help me find the right work, as I didn't have a year ago.

*(I also had some worthy ideas of staging a personalized ramble through Shakespeare and the reactions to Shakespeare that many people have, positive and negative, but I'm not so comfortable with Shakespeare, myself, to feel at ease there.  Those ideas need to mature.)


Jon said...

I may be misunderstanding, and I didn't see Spinella's show... but when you said Odysseus, did you mean Homer?

By the way, I was knocked out by Hal Holbook's Mark Twain show, but I think of that as an almost unrepeatable idea, made possible by the variety of Twain's writing. (And it wasn't at all biographically structured or ordered.) Other one-person historical impersonations I've seen -- most recently Simon Callow as Charles Dickens -- haven't had the same spark of life.

David Millstone said...

Yah. That's what Mr. Dopey (me) meant. Fixed.

Signore Direttore said...

I have a strong feeling that the clarity of this post bodes well for you. Inspired.

lindsey said...

Solo playing is often the hardest performance type of all and can occur in many contexts.Congrats!As you will be the only person playing all attention is on you.

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