Even though I’ve known about this assignment since before I started the BFA Acting program, I’m still losing sleep over it; Like as in many conservatory-style acting programs, UBC’s final year class is instructed to create and perform a solo show to be presented in the final term. Normally they are presented in April – this year we’ll be performing them in mid-February. No pressure.
I’ve seen so many solo shows over the years and have fallen in and out of love with the form over and over. I remember being absolutely floored by Caroline Cave in The Syringa Tree at the Playhouse. After a few Fringe seasons I swore up and down this year that I would avoid solo shows at all costs, then had my mind absolutely changed by Jeff McMahan of Asylum Theatre in The Boy Who Had a Mother and Chris Craddock in Moving Along. I’ve had the chance to perform in one (Spunk’d by Ella Simon in the Walking Fish Festival) and write one (Our Time at the Ignite Youth Week Festival) but I’ve never done both at once. Scary stuff.
In trying to write my own solo show I am haunted by two beautiful performances that have stayed with me long after I left the theatre. I had the pleasure of seeing Daniel MacIvor perform Cul-de-Sac at the Vancouver East Cultural Center. It was such a tour-de-force performance with rapid-fire conversations between characters, gorgeous synthesis of design and delivery and a compelling story. The audience brought him out for two encores at curtain call and remained in their seats afterwards, totally floored. Years later back at the Cultch I was lucky enough to catch Joey Tremblay’s Elephant Wake. I’ve never been to a show like that before, one that made me laugh out loud as if I were in the company of a good friend and sob like a child in the space of an evening. Tender, funny and extraordinarily beautiful, I left wondering if I’d ever see a show that moving again.
So with these experiences behind me and a 15 minute long self-penned solo show in front of me, I’m wondering what elements of those memorable shows I can find in my own work. Ultimately all the performer has is the audience, and all they have is the performer – there’s no room for indulgence on the part of the performer or lack of clarity in the storytelling. The most successful solo shows I’ve seen had a generous, charismatic performer (like Cave, MacIvor, and Tremblay) reaching out to the audience to share a story worth telling. Which is, ultimately, the name of the game if you’ve got a cast of 100 or just 1. The 15 of us have the task of taking our own story and heading out there alone to tell it (and fill the rather formidable Telus Studio Theatre while we do so).
So I’d like to know: what elements do you think are key to a great solo show? Have you seen a show that made the most of the form and if so, what made it great?