If you are writing your first solo show, you might be feeling a little lost. I put together this video to help you get started and not make some of the mistakes that many make (including myself!) when embarking on a solo show.
My name is Tanya Taylor Rubinstein and I’m the Global Story Coach. I’m talking to you late at night, as usual when I make these videos in my home outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I actually live in a teeny tiny town about 20 miles north of Santa Fe about a 100 yards from a Pueblo. It’s an incredible place for me to do my work and this is where I invite my solo show clients to come work with me, who come from all over the world. I’ve been really blessed to work with so many incredible people on their one person shows and have them come out and do Solo Performance Bootcamps with me here in rural New Mexico and then take their shows to New York or Edinbough, Toronto, San Francisco – all over the place at theaters and festivals.
What Makes A Great Solo Show
Tonight I want to talk about what makes a great solo show because that’s been a huge part of my business. I also do story coaching with visionary entrepreneurs on brand story, I work with people on their memoirs, and I train other people to sort of become like me, but their own version of a professional story coach, whether they want to do it in theatre, or retirement communities, or corporate settings. My deep, deep root system with story is really with solo shows. I started as a professional actor many years ago and met my mentor, the late Spalding Gray, when I was twenty years old. I was blessed to recognize at that point that I wasn’t as in love with the form of conventional theatre and portraying other characters as I was in love with the form of intimate story. He stood up on that stage and spoke into what I consider at the time was the unspeakable, the taboo, the shadow parts of life, the dark humor, the things that really run through our heads instead of what comes out of our mouth. I did my own solo shows here in New Mexico for many years, I’m working on a new solo show this year, and have been coaching others as a solo performance coach, working with hundreds of people over these last couple of decades. It has been amazing. So I want to talk tonight to those of you out there who want to do a solo show.
So if you’re thinking, I want to do a solo show, but what does it take to make a great solo show? What are some of the elements? How do I get started. I’ll just be improvising as I go and this won’t be everything it takes, but you’ll hear some things to think about, improvise about, and write about.
Setting the Frame For Your Solo Show (Don’t Try to Tell Your Whole Life Story!)
In terms of every solo show, one thing I want to say right off the bat is that a lot of people who come work with me want to do an autobiographical storytelling show with characters dropped in, what’s become the classic autobiographical form, but in a theatrical, embodied way. But a lot of people think that they are going to tell the story of their whole lives, their whole life story in a solo show. They try, but when we work together that’s one of the first things we will shift away from. Very much like successful memoir, a strong memoir and a strong solo show share something in common, which is that they have a thematic focus and a timeline – whether it’s one particular year where life changed forever, or one particular day when life changed forever. It should be a very heightened experience. If it is going to run the length of a lifetime, then it must have a very strong focus.
I can think of one woman who is a very brilliant, very great improvisor and actor. Her show did span her lifetime, but thematically it was very strong. It was focused around her experiences of being diagnosed with bi-polar, then it flashed back to childhood where there were some red flags around that, her putting the pieces together and then her own spiritual and healing journey of how she chose to deal with that.
Another client I worked with with a big overriding theme in his show, and it was an amazingly successful show because he is a very very gifted man and improvisor and the show was about his father’s suicide and how that impacted him through his whole life. There’s so much in that kind of process that is cut away, cut out, that one has to let go of. The tendency when first doing a solo show, and I include myself in this – I was twenty-six when I wrote my first solo show, but ended up performing my fourth solo show that I wrote that was finally strong enough to put up onstage and produce when I was thirty-one. That show was called Honeymoon in India and it all took place in one month in India when I thought I was going to be enlightened and the guru turned out to be kind of crazy and I almost died instead. It was kind of a Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home” story. It was a spiritual wakening but not in the way I had expected and it was very funny but it was in a finite period of time.
The first show I wrote was trying to tell my whole life. We get attached to this and it’s the same thing in memoir. If it’s going to span your whole life, then maybe it’s focused on your sexual awakening and coming out as a lesbian at the age of thirty-five and all of the things that have to thematically do with that go into the book. Or the pivotal experiences that are pointing towards that – then that is the direction of your show. I’ve worked with people who had cancer. Julia Sweeney – who was on Saturday Night Live did the most wonderful monologue/solo show about cancer, “God Said Ha!” many years ago. It was brilliant and it was in a finite period of time even though often things move back and forth in time.
So the first thing you need to know is that you aren’t going to get your whole life in a solo show – and you aren’t going to get it in a memoir either. The difference between a memoir and an autobiography, is that a memoir is very focused, narrative-driven and thematically driven – as opposed to the old-school ego-based autobiography which is usually very boring anyway because it’s people talking about their accomplishments as opposed to the real inner life, hero’s journey/heroine’s journey struggles that are elements of a great solo show if it’s an autobiographical story with than kind of transformational arc.
There are other kinds of solo shows. It could be an all-character solo show for strong actors to really show their acting chops. John Leguizamo’s, “Mambo Mouth” one of my favorite solo shows I ever saw – all the characters were linked because they all lived on John’s block in the Bronx growing up. He played men and women, he played his alcoholic father and the drag queen down the street. He played his 7 year old self and some of his aunties and his mother – but they were linked. I’ve worked with people who have developed strong character-based shows and they need to be linked, again, thematically. Those are really essential things when you’re starting to work on a solo show.
Finding Your Voice in Your Solo Show (Literally)
Also, the voice. For most solo shows you don’t want to just sit down and write them. It’s an oral tradition. It’s the storyteller in you, the characters in you. I think the strongest shows come out of improv, solo improvisation. You can do it on your feet. It’s something I teach in classes and teach my clients. You take a topic, like if you’ve done free writing to get the critic and editor set aside, you focus on just a topic and bam, you keep your hand moving against the page. It’s the same with a solo show – so you have a topic or have someone throw a topic out to you. Just repeat the topic – let’s say my topic is “The Year 1969.” So I say, “1969, 1969” and I’m moving around saying the topic until an image or a feeling arises from my body. “1969 – I’m five years old, standing under my grandparents magnolia tree at their farm in Maryland. There’s a soft wind blowing. I look up to the sky and I start talking to the clouds and asking my real family, who I think are martians from My Favorite Martian, the tv show, and I’m asking them to bring me home.” That’s just something off the top of my head. You take it wherever it takes you. It’s like free-writing, but it’s actually free-speaking through improvisation. I’ve written more about how to do this in “The Art of Solo Improvisation” on the blog.
Another element in a strong solo show is time. People wonder how long it should take to tell the story and really grab the audience – you’re looking at a range of 65-75 minutes.
Point of View in Your Solo Show.
Point of view is everything. It’s everything in writing, it’s everything in storytelling, it’s everything in your solo performance work. It’s not so much the events of the story. This is something for you to chew on – Many people live the same archetypal stories. We’re human beings, we have more in common than we imagine with each other. We often think, “Oh I have such an original story” – And some people do. Some people have lived an experience that is really rare, really unique. One woman I produced here in New Mexico who I met because she won the Fringe in New York had had an experience that was pretty unique as a stripper in Alaska of all places and she had a unique point of view on it. She came out of that experience and had a lot of wisdom and a lot of insight and did a great show called Naked in Alaska.
Point of view is the eyes through which you see the experience and it’s what you offer the audience. This is why you can take the same topic – you know, “My experience of having cancer,” “My experience of having a baby,” “My experience of living in France for a year.” One person can tell the story and it’s okay, it’s their heartfelt story and there’s a place for that, but another person tells it and it’s killer, it’s theatrical. So what are those points of view that make the story pop, that make it come alive, that make it theatrical and get audiences in the seats? Okay – so here are the real kernels of what you’re looking to bring to your story.
One way in is humor.
One was in is direct spiritual insight and wisdom – not in a preachy way, but a way that comes directly from sharing the experience and what one receives and learns from the experience. It’s like Joseph Campbell’s work of bringing the offering back to your tribe.
For musicians, it may be bringing music in. It opens up the point of view and is a way for the audience to absorb some of the deeper, more poignant material.
For strong actors, it’s character work. Even in an autobiographical script where you’ve got a strong narrative and you’re telling a story you want to bring in characters if that’s an option for you.
Four Types of Theatrically Successful Solo Shows
Those are the four main ones and it’s how you frame it in your unique way. But it’s humor, spiritual wisdom and insight, music and/or characters. Otherwise, especially in a solo show, you don’t really have a stage-worthy theatrical show that you can charge an audience for. You might have a story you can go tell at a storytelling event, which is great, that’s the place for that. But to take an audience and ask them to be with you on this very deep journey for 65 – 75 minutes, (maximum 90 minutes, by the way – even with music) you’re going to have to find what makes your point of view on the story something that is new, original and uniquely your own.
So, last time – humor, spiritual wisdom and insight, music and character work, bringing other characters alive through you as a solo artist. Those are the ways in to creating a great theatrical show. And this is just the beginning! Goodnight!
If you are interested in learning more about how I work one-on-one with people who are writing solo shows, check out my Solo Performance Bootcamp.