Working in the Theatre: Solo Performance

“One, two, one, two. One, two, three, four,
five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,
ten. One, two…. One, two. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
Okay.” When I was very much younger I saw Spalding
Gray sit behind a table and just tell stories, and that was a fantastic thing. And I thought
oh yeah, maybe one day I’ll try to make a show like that. “Climbed into his hammock feeling particularly
alone because he was in the middle of a busy human community unable to communicate, and
then…” It’s kind of a painstaking process, I mean
I make it in the same way as I make any show, I build it up in bits. A fragment here, and
a fragment there, and then I go to the next bit, and the next bit, and I try to tell the
story and then I try to stage the story. So it’s a process of deconstructing and reconstructing
and trying and failing. “This good, good, good…”
“Good morning!” “Ah, good morning Mrs. Applebaum, I’m
on the phone with ConEd.” “Oi ConEd, no no no I just want to see my
little girl.” “Little? she’s 15. Yes yes yes I’m still
here.” There’s a lot of preparation when you do
solo pieces because not only do you have to prepare like a regular actor prepares – vocally
and physically – but you also have to prepare emotionally, you are the only one on that
stage, and in a way the energy of the audience is directed towards you, so you have to be
grounded enough to be able to accept that energy and reflect it back to them Doing a solo piece is really daunting. I’m
a person who likes to work in a team, and I happen to have a really great team on this,
but when I’m up there, I’m up there by myself, and there’s no place else to go,
but I do rely on the audience. The audience becomes the other character in the piece for
me, and so whatever I’m getting from the audience I’m able to take and incorporate
and find a way to take it in and give it back and give back to them, so there’s this constant
exchange of energy. But to have nobody else up there, it’s really, it’s frightening,
there’s no net. The way that I tell the story is with microphones
so that I can get a more intimate, closer relationship with the audience, and to take
that even a step further, I ask every member of the audience to wear a set of headphones.
You say well why are we wearing headphones, we’re coming into a theatre we all want
to be together we want to hear each other? Well, the piece is partly about what happens
inside your head as well as inside the head of Loren McIntyre. In other words, it is about
solitude. It’s also about somebody who feels cut off. And I was trying to think how can
we make people feel cut off from one another even though they’re in a big audience? And
there, the headphones are extraordinary, because everybody in the audience feels that they’re
having their own individual relationship with the piece. “Advertising’s main functions are to inform,
persuade, and influence…” I also use a microphone, which is called a
binaural head. You have a pair of headphones and you’re listening to this head, it can
seem as though you’re literally there in the position of the head. It has been called
three-dimensional hearing. I can whisper something, and it can feel as if I’m very very close
to you, and so you get in the intimacy of the emotional life of people in a very very
powerful way. “There’s gonna be a hurricane today, Mrs.
Applebaum, do you have your D batteries?” “Hurricane, oi, I lived through the Depression.
We had nothing barely but the shoes on our feet, and we did it without the help of double
D’s.” “D batteries, Mrs. Applebaum.” What happens in that you’re on stage and
it’s you and 100 people, 200 people. I know that those 200 hearts that are staring at
that one heart of yours, they just really want to see an open heart. Human beings, they
can feel when you’re just acting, and what happens is that you start to lose them, and
when you start to lose them, that’s pretty challenging because you need to, like, get
them back. “Gandhi, Gandhi Gandhi Gandhi Gandhi Gandhi.
Remember when you were ten and had dance, karate, theatre, student government, SAT classes?
Who goes to SAT classes at ten?” Pike Street is a play about a family in the
Lower East Side, during a day when a hurricane is coming to New York City. Evelyn is Candace’s
mother, and about four years ago when Evelyn was working for the MTA, Candace had a brain
aneurysm, and she was rendered speechless and unable to move. What we see in Pike Street
is a mother who is trying her best to, with the kind of new age techniques, trying to
heal her daughter emotionally and physically, while also healing her family. “No no no no no we’re not going to a shelter.
Why? Well we went to the one at Seward Park the last time it was the storm of the century,
and all the generators were old and tapped out, and by the third day all of the hipsters
wanted to charge their phones and laptops on the same outlet as my daughter’s dialysis.
And then we gotta deal with all the kids screaming ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy, what’s the matter
with that girl, what’s the matter with that girl?’” Having been from the Lower East Side, where
in the 70s and the 80s it was definitely not known for its chic folks as it is now, I always
felt in a way that I was living in an invisible community, an invisible neighborhood. But
one thing I loved about living in the Lower East Side was that the neighbors really looked
out for one another, and so Pike Street is kind of an honoring of those neighbors, the
community, who really not only look out for one another but can rise when things like
hurricane Sandy happen, and they’re forgotten. Mrs. Johnson is a school-teacher, and she
had an affair with one of her students. She has kept this story a secret for forever and
has not talked to anyone else about this, and you watch this woman come to grips with
and at the same time lose all of her bearings as the process of the play goes on, as she
reveals this story. The first person you see on the stage in The
Encounter is me. I am a creator of the piece. I let the audience into the process of writing
it. “He slipped out of his hammock, out of his
hut and it came right down. All of the huts were coming down. People were standing around
in the clearing…” The second character that you see on the stage
is also me, and this is the character of a father. Why should I distinguish between these
two things? Because I believe fundamentally that nobody is one single person. The narrator
gets to introduce another character, who is this man called Loren McIntyre. “He lay back and tried to think his way
into his unconscious. ⅕ of the world’s freshwater is
in the Amazon basin, where does it begin?” *echoing* By the end of the 1960s he was perhaps the
principal photographer for the National Geographic in South America, photographing the Amazon
Basin. They said, we have heard that there are people coming out of the forest who are
uncontacted, so he was dropped in, and quite quickly, because he knew how to do this, he
made contact. “God it seems so unlike these people, they
never think of the future, they don’t whore or store up belongings. Time for them feels
like an invisible companion, something comfortable unseen like the air. Yeah but for [unintelligible] time is a possession, it’s an increasingly more efficient machine.” We live in a moment in which the world is
in great distress of one sort or another. We have overused our natural resources, the
climate is changing, the planet is heating up, the ice is melting, the seas are rising,
the animals are dying, the deserts are becoming evermore arid, people are migrating. So, thinking
about these issues has become very urgent to me, because I have small children and I’m
thinking about the planet that we are leaving behind for them. And what are we trying to
do? How are we trying to help them, or how are we trying to draw attention to the fact
that we need to act and react to what’s going on around us? “It felt like a message, that the headman
had not spoken. McIntyre spoke no [unintelligible] and the headman spoke no English, so he looked directly at him. But the headman did not return his gaze…” Right at the end I give a message, that was
given to Loren McIntyre by the headman, and the phrase is very simple: some of us are
friends, and in this moment of extreme division between us all in the world, perhaps we should
all be friends, we should all be communicating and trying to think of what we’re doing
with this very beautiful world. Bernie Telsey, the casting agent, wrote to
me and he said hey, I know Neil wrote this piece, what do you think? What do you think
of solo shows? And I said well, I think they can be boring, and vanity productions, unless
you have a really great director with a really great concept. And he said, well we got Leigh
Silverman. Now I’ve always wanted to work with Leigh Silverman, and I said, oh my god
I can’t believe you’re saying this. Because I really I was very nervous about doing it,
I didn’t want to take it on. I knew how daunting it would be to learn it. I knew how
hard it would be with everything else I had going on to really be able to give it the
time that I wanted to give it, and it really scared me, it really did. I just, I guess
it still scares me, in a way, and I suppose in a way that’s good, because it’s keeping
me alive to the process of it. Neil LaBute is an extraordinary writer. I
mean he is so very specific. There’s language that is so tight and taut and so much gives
the emotional movement forward of the story, and every single moment as I was learning
it, I had to fill in a backstory on every single line. That’s why it took me so long
to learn it, is because if everything is not filled in, you’re skipping over things that
carry great emotional weight. What Leigh Silverman did with me was she had
me, as we rehearsed it, she had me go through the entire play. And then she would give me
notes, and then we’d go back and work on the specific notes that she had. And what
she kept talking about all the time was that underneath this story is this third rail,
this emotional third rail that’s going on all the time, and you have to have the alacrity
and the emotional capability to move from one piece to another within the space of seconds,
because that’s what’s happening to this woman as she’s telling this story. She also talked to me about something else
that I thought was really extraordinary. She said, you’re wearing this other skin, and
at certain points just look for the zipper to sort of take that skin off, but you know
where the zipper is and everything’s gonna be fine. And then, she said there are places
where what will start to happen is you can’t find that zipper, and when you can’t find
that zipper, things start to escalate and then pieces of you start to fall off of you.
And I just thought those were such extraordinary directions because they’re very, they’re
emotional directions, they’re not just what you think about, it’s what you feel. When you are performing and you’re directing
yourself, it’s a great freedom because it means you can change something if you want
to change it. But also at the same time, it’s an enormous challenge because I’m so used
to being on the outside and watching that. Not being able to do that sometimes feels
terrifyingly restrictive and I’m not sure whether it’s any good or not. The first thing I tell a director is I say
okay, there is the solo performer/actor?, and then there is the writer ?. So if you
have questions for the writer, if you could direct it to the writer and say hey writer
?. I’ve got a dramaturgical question, and if you have notes or questions for the actor,
speak to me as an actor because I don’t, they’re not together. Yes there is only
one body, but when I am rehearsing I’m trying not to edit, because I feel like that writing
is not coming from a genuine place, it’s coming from a place of ‘I need to change
this.’ “Is she gone?”
“Yes, Papi, she’s gone.” “Oh, my god es a ?”
“Papi, is it possible to not start every morning with racism?”
“You think they see me and they say that’s a man? No, they say that’s a spick!”
“Good morning, I don’t want Gandhi to hear your negativity, good morning, good morning
to you.” “Negativity, psh!” If you have characters who are talking to
one another, maybe a fun thing to do, and this is really just one technique, would be
to kind of like snap into them instead of morphing into them. Like for instance, in
No Child I have a character named Jerome and he’s you know out, he’s out a lot, and
then I have a character named Shondrika, and she’s up in here. So instead of kind of
morphing from Jerome to Shondrika, maybe there was a kind of snapping from one kind of like
you know from Jerome, Shondrika, Shondrika, Jerome. “I don’t let it bother me it’s just,
she, she feels the feelings of others and it swallows her so it’s just less stress
for everyone if we stay home. Besides we can’t bring her chair down five flights” — “Tell
‘em the elevator’s broke” — “The elevator’s broke – en, broken. Yes, I’ll
hold.” When I think of solo performance and I’m
trying to teach a class I say, have you ever just come home and told your parents about
the wacky thing that happened in school? That’s what solo performance is. Or if you think
about being at a bar and telling a story to five of your friends at a bar and everyone’s
listening, that’s all that solo performance is. Solo performance is nothing new, this
has been happening since the dawn of man, and it’ll continue to happen.


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