event musings: solo actor / writer roundtable

Dramatists Guild Academy presents:
Solo Actor / Writer Roundtable
Moderated by Gary Garrison
Monday, January 2, 2012 at 5:30pm
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street

(L-R) Anna Deavere Smith, Lisa Kron, Sarah Jones, Mike Daisey, 2 January 2012 at Playwrights Horizons. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

  • “Theatre is a vocation. It chooses you.” (Lisa Kron)
  • “A journey to absorb America through its sounds.” (Anna Deavere Smith)
  • “Getting audiences to the spot where they don’t know what the fuck is going to happen.” (Mike Daisey)
  • “In an organic, urgent kind of way … cathartic and inevitable.” (Sarah Jones)

The Dramatist Guild holds readings, panels, and other events for its members in many areas of the United States. As a member and now a resident of New York City, I frequently take advantage of these benefits of membership. When I received notice of the planned Smith-Kron-Jones-Daisy discussion about developing and performing solo work, I immediately reserved a seat. All of these performers have entranced me on stage or on film on represented by scripts they have written for others, so my fandom was invoked. In addition, the topic of the one person play (multiple character or not) with its special challenges of crafting dramatic situation and arc and drive has long fascinated me personally and professionally. A 2010 blog post reflecting some of these ruminations during (still ongoing) collaborative work on a one woman show about makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel provides some of professional connection that merges with personal interest.

So this evening, I settle into the comfortable 2nd floor main performance space at Playwrights Horizons surrounded by DG members and their guests, am welcomed by Gary Garrison of the Guild (who provides short questions to mark chapters in our journey), and these brilliant invested theatre artists take us on a ride.  I’ll provide some themes and rich quotations.

Q: What draws you to the solo actor format, this particular form of expression?  What excites, inspires, engages you?

Sarah Jones (SJ): comes from a “multi-character world that is multi-cultural.” When she begins her response to this question, she takes on the voice of a Jewish grandmother (or auntie), quite delightfully.  “Can you hear me in the back?” she queries in character. “If not, too bad, you should have chosen a seat down front.”  Later she takes on the voice of a woman from Delhi — with melodious clipped delivery.  She enchants everyone in the room, including her panel-mates.  “My relatives unwittingly gave me material.”  She states she did not formally train as an actor or writer but developed the skills she needed to tell the tales she had to tell.  She describes herself as “stumbling quite inelegantly” and as being “quite untrained” yet does not at any point demean her skills or her art.

Lisa Kron (LK): As a kid she describes herself not being drawn to theatre (seeing her first theatre performance at 16) but gravitating toward theatre classes in college. She didn’t know how to make a show, she described, but she knew how to tell funny stories.  So by traveling from one East Village club to another and telling her stories in various ways, “moving forward whenever there were open doors.”  She was on a quest to answer for herself: what is dramatic action in a solo show?

Mike Daisey (MD): He trained traditionally as an actor and has always written (insert obligatory yet enjoyable joke about actors having the best parties), and traveled from his home in Maine to Seattle after graduating when his bifurcated (writing/acting) life collapsed. Then he was drawn to Seattle garage theatre (tiny audiences, earnest conceptions, no pay), auditioning for less and less, revisiting his own writing, then visiting the very structure of his performances and the “tyranny of the written word.”  He realized that he wanted to make theatre that wasn’t scripted and rather was “built from the bones of people who were there” in the room. Now he hopes that everyone experiences this same epiphany: “actually figure out something that will take you the rest of your life to complete.”

Anna Deavere Smith (ADS): She describes herself as a student of expression, first through languages, then through the theatre companies in which she has worked, and students she has taught. She moved from thinking she wanted to change the world (but found people doing political action work to have no sense of humor), found theatre where “people are changing in front of me.”   From the experience of teaching at Carnegie Mellon, where she observed students with distinctive regional accents being trained to sound identical, she resolved to develop a company of actors who would “express American through its sounds.” Reflecting on the challenge of finding dramatic structure in a piece of many voices and a single actor, she began to realize that “you don’t really need an event to make something move.”

Q: What theatre excites you?

LK: Has a particular interest in Anne Deavere Smith’s ideas about form.  She reflects on the question of dramatic action in solo shows continually — answering the questions of what you’re telling, and why your telling, and what the audience and characters know.  She summarizes this as storytelling in context — we can’t deal with the past or the future but need to talk about the present.

ADS: It has to be present to be theatre.  She admits that “we’re trying to do a trick”, to bring people into a present together.

LK: Theatre is about the coming of order, creating a theatrical present, “and the present is terrifying” because we don’t know what is going to happen next.

SJ: She references her own tall black woman’s body and the theoretical challenge of embodying some of her voices such as (and as she tells us she becomes her) a 5 foot 3 inch woman from Delhi. In order to transform you “need to transcend … to have a real regard for oneself … to become a loving present.”

MD: His show (in this case he is talking about his current show at the Public The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) is not scripted but it is “built, constructed” using outlines.  The trick for him is “getting audiences to the spot where they don’t know what the fuck is going to happen.”  And that is for him that theatrical present.

Q: What are some of your individual tools and strategies for writing and performing solo?  What are some of the special challenges?

SJ: “I needed to get over myself, to get permission from these people to embody them.”  Her internal process for writing, crafting, becoming these multiple characters involves, then, a letting go in preparation for delivering her characters.

ADS: The question is addressed from both the physical and business dimensions of the challenge of one person shows.  For her the hardest part is how she needs to live to carry off the athletic feat of performing the show — the stamina, the voice saving (she muses on the challenge of staying in touch with people by phone in the days before email).  And the business.  “I end up being a one person show in how I deliver the business of it” too.  [At this point she muses on the cultural fear of the "diva" stemming from historical traveling bands of performers who relied on a single female singer and proposes that the "diva" female archetype may come from the fear of the woman leaving.  I find this fascinating and provocative as a frame for the "diva".]

LK: Take up the theme of managing her performances and her business as a business and learning to fight for what she needs and what has been agreed.  There is no “next time” promise acceptable for missed cues or unsupplied resources.  “When you’re on stage, every time is the time.”

ADS: A diva joke (via Jessye Norman) make her point on this tenacity — “What’s the difference between a diva and a pit bull?  Jewelry.”  She respects and feels a great responsibility to her audiences and feels an obligation to “never leave an audience unattended.”

MD: Finds loneliness hard in one man shows.  He recalls the collective energy of ensemble shows and, while everyone was doing their own thing out there, everyone lived through and can afterwards process the jointly experienced performance immediately afterward.

Q: [to Sarah Jones] How do you balance the range of characters you portray?

SJ: She balances through the numbers of characters she includes in her shows. And, she admits, some characters are more difficult for her to get into initially.  She provides the example of a white racist male cop who is featured in one of her shows (and gets into his voice while discussing him).  She could even love him.  “I had to get inside his experience to love him.”

Q: How can the Dramatists Guild support the solo performer?

MD: There is an economic reality that needs to be addressed.  Theatres across the country are including solo performers within their seasons to balance budgets, yet pay is unevenly assessed.  The solo performer is “an art form within theatre that is self-controlled and self-directed”, with some opportunities for individuals that can be exploited.

Q: How do you interact with your directors?

LK: Always work with a director as an actor in shows I have written.  She wants the director’s perspective.  “I want it to be bigger than I can see.”

ADS: She frames her comments within the idea of theatre as a political organization.  In her case producers come directly to her with the expectation that she will be in her show.  As she has proceeded in her career she has had to assume an extraordinary amount of responsibly and authority for her shows.  A director has to meet her in all her roles and respect the property and the organization that has been built around it (and all the voices who have already contributed to the work). The DG could have a conference on new forms and new models of creating this work. She “uses people, as researchers, who, for lack of a better word, I call dramaturgs.”  What she has to do with each project is to create a “culture of work” in which no one person has the last word.

Q: How do you organize the business end of doing solo performance?

ADS: She is paid as a playwright and an actor when performing her shows.

LK: If she made the whole show, those two minimum rates (union rates) may not adequately compensate for the effort and costs.

ADS: In independent film she has observed a specialty emerge in lawyers serving the industry.  Perhaps the same legal specialization will emerge for the solo performer and the special legal and professional questions in these multiple roles played by a single artist.  The good news, she notes is that “you may get to make your own model.”

MD: Reflects on the various ways he has approached a theatre or producing company for the budget for his show.  He has added up the costs of himself as writer and performer (and other costs).  And he has just asked for a set sum. He notes with a laugh:  “Just asking for a box of money works out a lot better.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 4, 2012)

3 responses to “event musings: solo actor / writer roundtable

  1. Thanks for posting this! I was there that night but I’ve been wanting to share something of the experience with friends. I’ve passed this on.

  2. Pingback: Smith-Kron-Jones-Daisey On Going Solo « Poor Lessing's Theatre Almanack·

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