Theater Around The Bay: What is Solo Performance Exactly…?

Local writer and actress Annette Roman talks about her life in solo performance and her secret (or not-so-secret prejudice against storytellers.

When I tell people I “do” solo performance, they invariably ask me if I’ve heard The Moth on NPR. I grit my teeth like when I’ve just told someone I’ve had chronic migraines since I was a baby and they’ve asked me if I’ve tried “eating breakfast,” after which they have “never had another migraine in my life!”

I occasionally stumble across a broadcast of The Moth [link: http://themoth.org] while driving (the only venue where I listen to the radio, except in bed in the morning in the vain hope that the financial news will jolt me awake so I’ll get to work on time). The Moth stories are compellingly written and delivered, but they are not solo performances.

Storytelling is a story told by one person about themselves and other people. Solo performance is a performance by one person, of themselves and other people. Solo performers seem more likely to work with directors and other performers who help them cut and shape and perform their work. Storytellers seem more likely to wind up on the stage without availing themselves of the tools of theater because their friends and family, tired of hearing the same anecdote for the umpteenth time, suggest they go “share” it with strangers for a change.

Perhaps my prejudice against storytelling stems from the fact that I can always think of ways a storyteller could benefit from the techniques of solo performance, but not vice versa. Solo performance is to storytelling as Ginger Rogers is to Fred Astaire; she does everything he does, plus more (in her case, the same—backwards).

I’ve seen story tellers who do have a great story to tell—and mess it up by explaining their points, repeating themselves as if they have all our time in the world, and the most heinous crime of all: using that weird breathy “I’m sharing something moving and important” voice. Which poets are also guilty of. As well as spoken word artists.

To digress a little further in defining solo performance by what it’s not, spoken word is poetry and storytelling combined with the addition of a driving rhythm and a hostile, or at least petulant, attitude. I applaud the voice spoken word gives to those who might not otherwise write, perform, and be heard. But it isn’t solo performance—so please stop inviting me to poetry slams after serving me a wholesome breakfast and telling me I’m a racist if I don’t want to go. Okay, you don’t actually say that, but I know what you’re thinking…

Now if you’ve seen a bad solo performance, you’ll never reply to my invitations to attend one with me. Solo performers can be narcissistic, self-indulgent attention whores who trick you into paying them to (unsuccessfully) do their therapy on stage. And there aren’t even any elaborate costumes, scenery, or soundtrack to distract you if you’re bored, disgusted, or embarrassed. (This is why I prefer foreign films to American ones; if the movie sucks, at least you get to be in Paris for a couple of hours.)

Solo performance is best when it’s autobiographical. Otherwise it runs the risk of being gimmicky—look at that one person act! The minute I saw a woman slowly pull her hair back into a ponytail and don a baseball cap to transform from an elderly woman into a 10-year-old boy at a solo show about the Australian bush fires…I wondered why the theater was so full. She did all the right things, played clearly distinguished characters, made poignant points. But I left feeling—meh.

One last pet peeve about solo performers… Since they are the only person on stage, they sometimes try to get you to participate in their show. My philosophy is, if I pay the money, you do the work. I feel this way about Peter Pan productions too—quit traumatizing children by making them clap to save Tinkerbell with the result that they’ll never buy theater tickets as adults. We paid for our little darlings to watch you save the smug tranny fairy! (While I’m on the subject of kids theater, please don’t make your little girls wear those nasty wool tights that sag to their knees under their theater formal-wear velvet dresses. Turned me off to the stage for decades.)

For a painfully accurate parody of the pitfalls of solo performance, see this Portlandia episode. [link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcyJW-GeMDc.]

Personally, I love solo performances in which the writers/performers expose themselves—and thus us. Playwrights can hide behind clever writing and other actors delivering their words. Solo performers can’t.

If you’ve seen a good solo performance, it will resonate with you longer than any book, movie, or story. 80-something solo performer Gene Gore’s show Cheesecake and Demerol chronicles the story of her personal journey through the Feminist movement, transitioning from dutiful wife and mother to AIDS activist. [link: http://roguefestival.com/events/2013-03-02-cheesecake-and-demerol-neighborhood-thrift-1730-10-00/]. No fiction on such topics, even by someone who lived through the reality, could be as poignant to me as this first-person live account.

Watching a solo performance is like meeting a distant relative for the first time—a particularly articulate and well (but not overly) rehearsed one—and listen to an hour’s worth of the best stories of their life. In Thao Ngyen’s solo show Fortunate Daughter [link: http://www.thaosolo.com/fortunate-daughter.html], I “met” Thao’s extended Vietnamese family. Through her performance, I had an opportunity to empathize with her family’s culture and experiences they would never have shared so intimately with an outsider and stranger. (Incidentally, this is why one out of four families disown their solo performer relatives.)

Finally, I’ll admit, I did watch a wonderful storytelling performance recently. It was an excerpt from Zahra Noorbakhsh’s show All Atheists Are Muslims [link: http://www.zahracomedy.com], which it turns out she normally presents as solo performance, “acting out all the parts.” I cried, I laughed (loudly, because that’s what you do to encourage a lone actor on stage). Afterwards she told me she was trying it out for the first time in this storytelling format…so she could perform it at The Moth.

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3 comments on “Theater Around The Bay: What is Solo Performance Exactly…?

  1. judymintz says:

    You didn’t mention performers who do monologues, like Spaulding Gray. Where do they fit in? Are they telling stories or performing?

  2. “Storytelling is a story told by one person about themselves and other people.”
    That’s one genre of storytelling, albeit one that is dominating the circuit right now. I share your frustration with the lack of performance technique required for the many venues happy to showcase this genre, but, having been following the storytelling scene in this country for the past 25 years (pre-dating The Moth by a decade), I just think to be fair there’s a distinction to be made between one-off and professional storytellers.

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