An excerpt from my book-in-progress on solo performance:
So, you want to write and perform a solo show. It’s an amazing process and journey that will change your creative and professional life forever. When you stand up on a stage alone, and claim your story, your voice, your power, your characters, your passions, and fully embody that in front of an audience, your life will get bigger than you previously ever imagined.
I was 19 years old and enrolled in a traditional theater department at Emerson College in Boston. I had been studying acting professionally since I was 14 years old, and had already been in training programs at Carnegie Mellon University and Emerson College. My acting teacher, Ron Jenkins, invited our acting class to come see a performance that evening, at the Brattle Street Playhouse in Cambridge. The Brattle Street Playhouse is a small, intimate theater, seating about 100 people.
When the lights went down that night, one man walked on stage, and when the lights came up, he was sitting at a desk, with a notebook with his story in front of him, wearing a plaid shirt. I’m sure many of you may recognize whom I’m speaking of. It was the late, great monologist, Spalding Gray.
That night, in the theater, Spalding, in his customary style, I would later find out, was funny, poignant, and, above all, intimate in his storytelling style and delivery. It was like being with an old friend, but a very interesting old friend, and a very transparent old friend who was really willing to speak about his experiences and what was most deeply embedded in his consciousness. That night, in one of his early performances, before the famous Swimming to Cambodia, there were only about 25 of us in the audience, and Spalding spoke about his mother’s suicide, and his quest for the perfect moment, themes that would reoccur in later pieces.
After the lights went down, I sat there stunned, truly stunned. I realized that this is what I had actually been seeking in my relationship to the theater, and yet I wasn’t finding it, even though I had a natural ability and understanding of creating other people’s characters and performing them. That night, the fire was lit in me to create my own work, and even though I would go on and continue to be an actress in conventional theater for the next 11 years, the vision that Spalding gave me stayed with me, and, as a matter of fact, I thought about it every day. In a sense, it was haunting, and I couldn’t rest until I finally created my first one-woman show at the age of 30.
My first one-woman show, Honeymoon in India, was created after two other attempts at creating my first solo show. I spent about four years in New Mexico while I was continuing to act in other people’s shows, learning how to write. Really, it was not so much learning how to write as finding my own authentic writing voice. What were the themes I wanted to explore? How could I create rich and vibrant detailed writing and characters?
For four years, I did daily writing practice. I explored writing stories about my childhood, about themes that were reoccurring, being an only child, looking for creative individuation in my family, early experiences with death and loss. From that, I began to play with creating original characters. At first I used people in my family who I was very intimately connected to – my conservative Republican grandmother, and others.
By the time I created Honeymoon in India, I was ready to let go of my perfectionism about presenting a perfect script, and put something out there to the public and see what the response was. The response was very strong and very powerful from the audience members, and I received excellent local reviews and standing ovations. But for me, standing on stage that first night, walking through my terror of revealing who I was in front of an audience, as opposed to just hiding behind other people’s characters was one of the bravest things I did in my life. It was terrifying, it was exhilarating, and it was incredibly powerful, and after that first night, I knew I’d crossed an invisible line within myself, and I could never go back to conventional acting again. The draw to create and present my own stories, my own characters, and what mattered to me in the most essential way was simply too powerful.