One Isn't the Loneliest Number

One-person shows. Single-character plays. Monodramas. Autobiographical monologues. By whatever term actors, promoters, or critics dub solo performances, the format -- in which one artist attempts to mesmerize an audience throughout an entire evening -- has proliferated on the theater scene in recent years. Just check the listings from London to New York, Edinburgh to Chicago, Berlin to Los Angeles. Or consider the first two months of the 1996-97 season in South Florida.

Since the beginning of September through this week, local stages have hosted four distinct examples of this eclectic genre. In The Other Side of the Rainbow at 3rd Street Black Box, actor-singer Kelly Briscoe combined drama and song in a character study of Judy Garland. Writer-actor Matt Glass premiered his one-character play Help!(The Suicide) at the EDGE/Theatre. Mark Holt translated events and experiences from his own life into two extended monologues, Rant and Death by Cheez Doodle, at Swirl. Last weekend the Miami Light Project presented New York actor Danny Hoch in Some People, his uncanny depiction of urban characters. In the next two weeks, three more one-person events open: Holt will perform Queerbait, a new monologue, at the QueeRoots/QueerSpace Festival; Octavio Campos will present two performances of his one-man dance-theater solo 3-Way Soup at the Next Stage; and the Broadway Series brings Christopher Plummer to town in William Luce's Barrymore. (This drama actually features two actors, but one, a prompter, never appears on-stage.)

While nobody is playing taps for the two- or three-act play in which a pair or an ensemble of performers interact, solo actors occupy a thriving corner of the theater world. Given today's economic and cultural climate, the format is viable for actors for several reasons.

"Actors can't get work," Hoch asserts from New York in a recent telephone interview. Indeed, with 85% of the actors registered in Actors Equity (the stage actors union) unemployed in their field, creating and/or performing in a solo work affords an actor autonomy and the potential for a steady income.

Twenty years before Luce premiered Barrymore, local actor David Kwiat wrote John Barrymore: Confessions of an Actor. In 1977 he performed it at the renowned Edinburgh Festival, followed by a three-week London run. He has mounted the show around the U.S., including stints at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and at 3rd Street Black Box in Miami. "For me, the piece was a vehicle to get my name and my work out there, a way for me to start my career," Kwiat explains.

As a theater professor at New World School of the Arts, Kwiat guides students in developing their own shows during a seminar known as senior project. "Creating, producing, writing, and performing their own work prepares students to be self-reliant," states the actor. "The discipline involved is going to help them in meeting the challenges as performers once they leave school."

Briscoe, who developed The Other Side of the Rainbow in Kwiat's class, agrees. "I grew more as an actress through this process than anything else I've ever done," she claims. She spent nine months on the project, reading books about Garland, watching all of her films, studying tapes of her concerts, and talking with people who knew the chanteuse. "I learned about my own life through her passions."

Local actor Bill Yule premiered his one-man monodrama chronicling the life of Albert Schweitzer, aptly titled Schweitzer, at New Theatre in Coral Gables last spring, having developed the work at the opposite end of his career. The 68-year-old actor notes, "At my age, there's not much left to do that I haven't done. I like to stretch."

Hoch fashioned his anthology of characters after finding himself uninspired by roles he was offered when he went out on auditions. "The characters I wanted to hear about were the people I grew up with in my family, on my block," the actor says. "If I ever saw them portrayed they were on the periphery or [presented as] negative and one-dimensional."

Raised in the projects in Brooklyn and Queens, Hoch says he barely recognized the language on television shows he watched as a kid, from The Dukes of Hazzard to the evening news. "Standard American English was not spoken where I grew up," he says. In fact, no language predominated in a neighborhood that included his half-Israeli, half-Puerto Rican best friend, his Cuban godmother, Soviet Georgians living down the hall, and black American and West Indian neighbors on either side of his apartment. He heard the staccato rhythms and musical cadences of hip-hop influenced speech. Not surprisingly, the voices of the nine characters in Some People, including the smooth DJ Caribbean Tiger, Polish handyman Kazmicrczack, Jewish mother Doris, and the old Hispanic gentleman Cesar incorporate a hip-hop beat. Ultimately, the actor admits, "all these characters are facets of me and all these characters are in what I consider to be my family -- the community in which I grew up."

Mark Holt also draws on personal experience in shaping his edgy, driving monologues. Although he occasionally slips into the voice of another character -- his mother, a psychiatrist, a little girl -- most of his "rants," as he calls them, express his first-person take on the universe at large. He describes his style as Spalding Gray meets Eric Bogosian. Like Gray, he usually sits at a table while performing, yet he trades Gray's ruminative and ingenuous manner for an "angry, blunt, Eric Bogosian tone." While his work is fueled by a need to vent ("If I hadn't gotten it out I probably would have exploded"), Holt also suggests that he and other performers have tried their hands at solo pieces simply because it's easy.

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