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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.

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.


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