Paulanne Simmons Unscripted
Why solo shows are attractive to producers is not hard to figure out.. They are inexpensive to put on. Most of the time they require little in the way of costumes or props. By definition, there’s only one performer who gets a paycheck, unless there’s music, which may mean a band and a music director. Best of all, if the producers get a big enough star, they’ll definitely get those seats filled with a minimum of hassle, except for the possible demands and tantrums of that star.
Nor is it hard to see why solo shows are attractive to performers. Often they write their own script. Sometimes they get to play many roles and showcase their abilities. Always they get to command the stage without having to upstage and possibly annoy their fellow actors. Best of all, although directors, stage managers, lighting and sound designers have been involved with the show, when that applause comes at the end of the evening, they’re the only one on stage to receive it.
Of course it’s not all roses and daffodils. Solo shows can be extremely demanding on performers. They have all those lines to remember, and no help from fellow actors. And if the show doesn’t go over that well, there’s no one else to blame, except maybe the playwright ( if the performers have not penned the work) or the director, who can never be more than a straw man, as no one really believes the director has much to do in a one person show.
There are two basic types of solo shows: those in which the performer tells his or her personal story, and those in which the performer tells the story of another person or persons. Mercedes Ruehl playing Peggy Guggenheim or Hal Holbrook playing Mark Twain are examples of the first. Brad Zimmerman recounting his trials as a waiter illustrates the second.
Unfortunately unless (and sometimes even if) these shows are about fascinating people portrayed by talented actors, they get kind of boring. They tend to be one-dimensional and narrow in focus. This is when the writer brings in a slew of people who were important in the life of the main character.
Now the performer must distinguish each of these individuals from each other, perhaps with the aid of a single prop: a hat, a cane, a fur stole. Performers have an ample tool kit to aid them in this task. They change their voice, their accent, their body language. But by the end of the show many people still can’t figure out who is who and who did what.
Some people love solo shows. They get to see a lot of a performer they admire. They generally get to go home early. Other people find it hard to keep awake about midway into the show. As for me, I’d say theater is a like sex. It’s better with someone else.