By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
At a glance this seems to be true. "With minimal production values, a one-person piece is literally doable wherever you go," insists Kwiat. "You're responsible for yourself and not a full cast." On closer inspection, however, pulling off a solo show is not as facile as it would seem.
First, an actor needs tremendous stamina to single-handedly seize an audience's attention and maintain it for the night. As Caren Rabbino, executive director of the Miami Light Project, points out, "It's one thing for an ensemble of eight to keep an audience interested. A soloist has to be on the money every single minute for 90 or 100 minutes." Kwiat recalls confronting that realization while on-stage at the Guthrie. "I remember thinking, 'If I stop talking right now, everything stops.' The entire evening is on your shoulders."
Second, the solo artist, along with any writing or directing collaborators, must be ruthless about honing his material in a format that sometimes suffers from a lack of structure. Audiences have often been subjected to turgid recitations of biographical facts in overstuffed monodramas. These works succeed only when the sprawling events of a tumultuous life are distilled into a few crystalline episodes. One-person multiple-character shows cohere when an overarching vision links disparate characterizations; without this vision, such pieces are merely uneven progressions of unrelated impersonations. And for an autobiographical monologue to pack a wallop it must transcend the personal; otherwise it becomes a rambling confessional sans shape or purpose. "The story of your life does not an evening of theater make," quips Hoch, regarding the scores of monologues he says he has sat through. "If you are going to tell your story, how are you going to bring it to another place? How are you going to use it to teach a lesson?"
The one-person format seems to touch a nerve in theatergoers. The singular voice of a live solo artist can provide an intimate alternative to mass-produced and impersonal entertainment. Mainstream audiences are introduced to characters they would not usually encounter through the work of actors like Hoch who bring the streetwise rhythms of oral traditions to a public arena. Conversely, audiences who would never connect to the language and situations chronicled in mainstream productions see themselves reflected on-stage for the first time in pieces like Hoch's Some People.
With so many solo pieces cropping up on the landscape, one-person shows seem to be a particularly contemporary form. But solo performances were not immaculately conceived in the postmodern age. The spiritual roots of the format can be traced to ritual storytellers of primitive and ancient cultures, from the shamans of Native American and African tribes to the Homeric bards to the Celtic seanchai, who held people in thrall with legends and folktales. A more recent precursor is the satirical "entertainment," popular in eighteenth-century England, in which a lone actor lampooned the rich and famous through mimicry and jokes.
In the Nineteenth Century, Charles Dickens toured the United States giving dramatic readings of his novels. Almost a century later, British thespian Emlyn Williams impersonated Dickens in a one-man piece that Williams toured with for 35 years. But the biographical monodrama really achieved prominence when Hal Holbrook won a Tony Award for Mark Twain Tonight! in 1966, encouraging scores of writers and solo actors to depict luminaries on-stage. In turn, autobiographical and character-driven monologuists owe a debt to the remarkable Ruth Draper (1884-1956), who trotted out an arsenal of up to 54 different personas in shows that she called "monos." In particular, Draper's work inspired Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, cocreators of the 1985 tour de force The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
Most single-actor offerings do not achieve the success rightfully accorded Tomlin and Wagner's work. Instead, as the format becomes more pervasive, its burgeoning is greeted with skepticism in some quarters. "I'm not sure if there's a demand for one-person shows on the part of audiences," wonders Kwiat, "or if these are just the types of shows producers want to back these days. Wouldn't you rather put up the money for one person than invest in something like The Man Who Came to Dinner with a cast of 24?" And Rafael de Acha turns a critical eye on showcases by comedians like Jackie Mason or Rob Becker, whose popular Defending the Caveman comes to South Florida on national tour this winter. De Acha, artistic director of New Theatre and director of last year's Schweitzer, considers such shows extended stand-up comedy routines. "I have a problem paying top dollar for a lounge act plopped down on Broadway from Las Vegas," he adds.
The one-person show can be the best of forms or the worst of forms. With new offerings seeming to sprout locally and nationally every week, no dignitary -- historical, literary, or political -- is safe from the scrutiny of the biographical drama. No childhood slight or injury remains untapped in the autobiographical monologue. No one an actor encounters is immune from being morphed into a character in a sketch. Yet when it works, when the writing, the performance, and the connection between solo actor and collective audience synthesize in a transcendent evening, the form can be sublime.