The ability to stand alone in a spotlight and hold an audience’s attention – that seems a basic requirement for any performer. But more than basic, it can make a performer memorable, vivid. The second Dallas Solo Fest opens this week with eight performers who have very different ways to try to keep us watching — and there’s no one else to blame if they fail. KERA’s Jerome Weeks looks into the fine art of flying solo onstage.
Think of solo performance artists, and you’re likely to think of Mike Daisey or the late Spalding Gray delivering their monologues seated at a table. Or perhaps a stand-up comic like Lily Tomlin with the one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. These are what might be called “minimalist” solo theater: The artists can play ‘themselves’ or they can portray multiple selves, but it’s one person, one format, one story. This is the theater of talk, albeit often funny talk, compelling talk, full-of-character talk. (And yes, there can even be the ultimate minimalist solo — ‘no talk’ — as in Marina Abramovic’s infamous, seven hundred hours of silence, sitting in the Guggenheim lobby.)
Then there’s the opera-trained singer Bremner Duthie. He’s performing his show, ’33: A Kabarett, at this year’s Dallas Solo Fest. Duthie is more a maximalist performer: he sings, he dances, he clowns, he performs in drag.
“Solo performance comes in a lot of forms,” the New Orleans-based theater artist says. “There’s storytelling, there’s dance, there’s movement. There are solo operas. With every show, I just keep adding things. I’m like, ‘Maybe I could do that and I could also, y’know, juggle.’”
That wide range of solo styles was one thing Brad McEntire wanted when he created the first Dallas Solo Fest last year. McEntire came up through improv and sketch comedy (the Fun Grip duo) and regular theater (Our Endeavors and Plano Rep). But in 2010, he developed his own macabre-comic solo show, Chop (it’s about amputation enthusiasts — “needless to say,” McEntire adds needlessly, “it’s a dark comedy”). And he began performing it on the fringe festival circuit – at places like WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Festival, where he originated Chop.
But there’s fewer than a dozen outlets in America dedicated solely to the solo artist: the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York, for instance, or the Solo Collective in LA or the Women’s Solo Performance Festival in Pennsylvania.
“So I decided,” McEntire says, “to just put together the kind of festival that I’d want to go to. And I had met a bunch of solo performers around the country and kind of tapped into that network. Because there’s a lot of us,” he adds with a laugh.
Actually, solo performance in different formats has obsessed McEntire for years — long before Chop. He created the Dribble Funk Solo Improv in 2005 and developed the “Monologue Jam” (in which solo improvisers use audience suggestions to “jam” on a storyline). In addition to writing ‘regular’ plays, he hires out, creating “hand-crafted” monologues for people. He’s a tireless founder of things – like the Audacity Theatre Lab, which is officially presenting the solo fest.
What was different about Chop is that it gained a degree of popularity — McEntire’s still performing it at fringe festivals. So given all this mono-theatermania, it’s not surprising McEntire created the Dallas Solo Fest — and launched a website as well, one dedicated to the art form: thesoloperformer.com. He even wrote an e-book, Seven Considerations for the Solo Performer (although, he confesses, the book’s mostly a come-on to get people to sign up for his email newsletter).
Long before McEntire was setting up shop as a one-man solo-theater factory and before he created his carry-on-in-a-duffle-bag show, North Texas was the home of a godfather of solo theater: UTD professor Fred Curchack (who will play the title role of King Lear this fall for Shakespeare Dallas). Although Curchack has created many more ensemble pieces than solo works, he first gained international acclaim in the ’80s and ’90s for his magical, one-man, performance-art adaptations of William Shakespeare: Stuff as Dreams Are Made On (aka The Tempest) and What Fools These Mortals Be (aka A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Curchack’s cross-cultural, Jungian-mythological, self-referential mash-ups take the solo show about as far as it can go as a “world art,” a world-encompassing art form. This is theater with an almost Joycean density of wordplay and ritual — if James Joyce ever managed to work Balinese masks and dance moves into Finnegans Wake. Head down that particular rabbit hole, and you’ll find exotic, younger, maximal soloists like Taylor Mac, who sees no ‘purity’ in the theater arts, he mixes them all. Nor does he see any divisions between self and stage character — they’re just larger or smaller versions of his same, sweet, gay flamboyance.
Like Mac, Curchack, even in his most maximalist shows, will sometimes touchingly, sometimes self-indulgently, bring everything back to just himself, the poor forked creature onstage. Come for the magic, stay for the all-too-human — yet a human who can still, somehow, hold a spotlight.
Solo artists may have an ancient pedigree going back to preachers, medieval minstrels and shamans around the fire, but the current ones are more likely to draw on Grotowski’s theory of ‘poor theater,’ Debord’s ideas on the ‘spectacle,’ vaudeville, post-structuralism — or just their professional need for making-do and getting-paid.
McEntire certainly embodies that last, the all-American, self-reliant, DIY impulse. It can be found in his welter of websites, labs, formats and the solo fest itself. “I’m not averse to collaboration and doing traditional ensemble theater,” he says. “But I firmly believe in self-instigating theater artists. Which is not how we are trained as theater artists. We’re trained to play our roles. And I think there’s a place for that. But I think in contemporary times, the artist is more entrepreneurial.”
For his part, Duthie followed the familiar path of frustration — exiting a typical stage career and entering solo entrepreneurship. He started performing his “one-man musicals,” he says, after years of trying to make it as an opera singer. He performed in the kinds of “really terrible productions” that make a performer happy simply because he got cast. “And I was doing the rounds auditioning as a working actor doing commercial stuff.” He sighs. “And I just wasn’t enjoying it. But I had this little idea for a show about Kurt Weill and the Weimar.”
And it became a hit — he’s toured ’33: A Kabarett around the country, to London, Scotland and Canada, in addition to performing concerts.
This is the performing artist as independent contractor — a popular notion these days derived from libertarian-free-market ideas, but for performing artists, having to do-it-all-yourself is as old as busking. Or perhaps, this is simply the performing artist as obsessive-compulsive, the narcissist who must control everything, every detail. And who isn’t about to share the spotlight.
But, strictly speaking, Duthie is not a “solo artist” — as if he were the lone creative agent here, like a painter or sculptor. Instead, as with many solo artists, he publicly credits the directors, choreographers and researchers who helped him shape the works he writes and performs. This is still theater — somebody’s gotta take the tickets, operate the lights and sound. It’s always a cooperative venture, somewhere, somehow.
So how do we distinguish these new sorts of entrepreneurial or subversive soloists from traditional magicians and singers? Or the guy who twirls plates?
Both McEntire and Duthie say it’s the narrative. Amid all the singing and joking, solo artists must tell a tale. The story in Duthie’s show ’33 is in the title. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933.
“When Hitler took power in 1933,” Duthie says, “he didn’t have the power yet to attack the homosexuals, the Jews, the Gypsies and all the people he wanted to get. But he did have enough power to close down and censor the theaters and the cabarets.”
That’s why 1933-’34 saw the great exodus of Germany’s experimental artists: Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Heinrich Mann, George Grosz. They fled because some of the first people sent to what the Nazis then called “re-education” camps were theater performers and satirists.
The Weimar Republic’s angry, enthusiastic burst of unconventional sexuality, social unease, economic privation and confrontational art was over. Of course, all of this sounds perfectly familiar to us because of the Kander-and-Ebb musical, Cabaret. But remember, that was a Broadway show. The era — and the art of that era — have a lot more bitterness, more pathos, to explore than Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.
In Duthie’s performance, an actor comes to his now-ravaged cabaret, only to find his fellow performers have all been dragged off. “But he decides to stick around and do a tribute to his disappeared friends – the singer and dancer, the comedian and the showgirl – and do their acts as best he can,” says Duthie.
So it’s a retrospective, a farewell to what the Weimar once was. But Duthie’s performer decides to stick around to sing and dance only because we’re here — his audience. The audience is one of the seven considerations McEntire writes about for solo performers. The audience “frames” the performance: Where is this little chat taking place? Who is listening and why? The performer has to decide who the audience is to tell the story she wants to tell. Is she pleading her case to a judge and jury? Is this a lecture? Perhaps the audience is essentially a therapist or a fellow barstool-warmer, which is why we’re listening to the actor’s life story. If the audience is “just” another theater audience, then that’s a choice the performer makes — and that will dictate how (and even if) the performer can interact with theatergoers.
“Most solo performers speak directly to the audience in some way,” says McEntire. “So the audience is your partner. Not somebody else on the stage. The audience.”
Which would seem to mean no solo artist is ever truly alone.
The Dallas Solo Fest runs June 4-14th at the Margo Jones Theatre in the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park.