Telling stories through solo performance

TAKE A BREATH, PAUSE, Get Real…

Yikes!  That’s a lot of solo performances! And each and every one of them is telling a different story in a different way, using different strategies and devices.

But what did I learn from all of this?  I learned that all kinds of people from all walks of life and all kinds of performance backgrounds had stories to tell. There were the actors who were not satisfied with the parts they were getting in the traditional theater, who decided to create autobiographical pieces (Colman Domingo, Liza Jessie Peterson, Angelica Page, Christine Renee Miller…). There were comedians who wanted to do something more cohesive than stand-up (Mike Birbiglia, Chris Gethard…). There were musical performers who wanted to incorporate dance and acting and musical composition (Kate Tempest, Cynthia Hopkins, Benjamin Scheuer, Chesney Snow…). There were performance artists (Penny Arcade, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes…), there were monologists (Mike Daisey…), there were taxi cab drivers (John McDonagh). There were poets who wanted to extend their slam or their rap or their poem (Dael Orlandersmith, Sarah Jones, Staceyann Chin, Kate Tempest…)

Ok, clearly I have excelled at tracking down live solo performances! And I can categorize them for you. But until this moment, I have never done anything more with my solo performance experiences than keep the playbill, add it to my dauntingly ever-expanding pile of playbills, and feel slightly more authentic about teaching from the Extreme Exposure solo performance anthology. Occasionally, and only very occasionally, I have attempted to write a conference paper as I did for the 2014 Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore after seeing several – well seven– episodes of Mike Daisey’s All the Faces of the Moon. In that particular production at Joe’s Pub, Daisey performed a different monologue for each of the 29 nights he was performing (a conscious decision since the 29 nights comprised a complete lunar cycle). I went to seven of the 29 performances and each performance was thrillingly different.  If I hadn’t been teaching that semester or if I had been making more money (even though tickets were affordable, even 29 affordable tickets add up), I would have attended all 29 nights. I was so in love with Daisey’s storytelling and so wrapped up in the magic of his storytelling that I wanted to spread the word of All the Faces of the Moon. So I decided I would write a conference paper. In that paper, I wrote: “All the Faces of the Moon…is not just epic in the way that one of its pull-quotes proclaims ‘a breathtakingly epic theatrical event,’ but it is epic in the tradition of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey or the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf or Dante’s The Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost,” I wrote, and then went on to argue how Daisey’s monologues were part solo performance and part epic narrative and that Daisey had reclaimed the thrill that audiences of the ancient, medieval and Renaissance epics had experienced for the contemporary audience. But only 4 people were in my conference audience and while they seemed intrigued by Daisey’s project, I was left feeling highly dissatisfied because Daisey’s project deserved a larger audience.

So. Let’s review. What do we have so far? A stack of playbills (nicely organized and contained in archival playbill binders, of course), a list of performers/performances/theaters, and a feeling that something more needs to be done. Swell. If this blog about monologues is going to be successful, then it’s high time I explain why it needs to exist, why it needs an audience, and why it might even need to be performed.

2 thoughts on “Telling stories through solo performance

  1. One thing that piqued my interest, which you brought up, is how some of these performances pull from the ancient epics. When we have a hulking anthology in front of us with page upon page of onion skin paper, it’s easy to forget that the Iliad or even Beowulf were actually solo performances in their original incarnations. Last week I was telling my freshmen about the history of Western literature and how it relates to history and other disciplines, and when I talk about the epics, I always have to remind myself that Homer performed the epics aloud, which is why they’re in verse.

    Despite thousands of years, very little has changed. I can remember demanding that my aunts perform for me and tell me stories when I was a child, and the memory of those performances is hazy at best. Solo performances feel incredibly tenuous. The moment the words leave their lips, you’re already forgetting what you saw. We grab cameras and record everything, but it isn’t the same as sitting in the audience and seeing it. I get frustrated when I take a picture and it isn’t as beautiful as what my eyes saw, and I think it’s a similar experience with performances. Something is ultimately lost when we remove ourselves from the audience.

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  2. Kara, I love the connection you make between the loss you feel when you see that a picture hasn’t quite captured what you saw and the loss an audience member must inevitably feel as soon as the performance is over. I hadn’t thought of that and you are absolutely right. I also had to smile at your memory of begging your aunts to perform stories because it helps me reinforce my point that we are ALL performers and audiences whether we are near a stage or not.

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