Turning solo performance into collaboration

What?! You mean after all of the posts describing the solo performance as an art form that uses only one body, you’re now going to say that solo performances can also be collaborative?! Yes, I am. Prior to the workshop, I had begun coming across solo performances that utilized more than one performer’s body. Though friends would point out to me that, strictly speaking, what I was describing or what they were seeing with me was not a solo performance, since several bodies were on the stage, something made me want to disagree. Because I saw too many of the elements of solo performance. Elements like the integration of autobiography and rant and commentary all of which are channeled primarily through one central performer. But sometimes that performer has accompaniment in the form of a dancer and musician as was the case for Chesney Snow, and sometimes that performer has accompaniment in the form of three musicians and an ever-helpful stage hand as was the case for Diana Oh. This didn’t surprise me all that much since throughout the form’s existence, solo performers have incorporated a variety of mediums. Some include recorded music (Penny Arcade or Tim Miller, for example), or visual images, both moving and static (Anna Deavere Smith or Angelica Page, for example), and some include puppets (John Fleck or Soomi Kim, for example). It made sense to me, then, that it was only a matter of time before solo performers started experimenting by bringing other bodies onto the stage with them.

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Tim Miller told us that our monologues would also be collaborative. In part, it was necessary to do this since we only had six days to create an hour-long performance, and no one had an hour-long monologue at their fingertips, much less an hour-long monologue that they had memorized. But even though necessity dictated collaboration, I quickly learned that it was one of the coolest things of all about the performance.

While we would be the one speaking the text we had created, we had to come up with a way to integrate the other performers into our monologue. So that’s how I created my Hair Chorus Line. I arrayed them on, what I had learned the day before was known as the “power diagonal” in stage-blocking parlance, and asked them to pull and pick and twirl and stroke various hairy places on their body from their head to their toes. Other monologists asked us to run back and forth between wall and audience, or to stand as if on a subway train, or to hold out our arms as if we were holding rifles in hand.

The collaboration went further because rather than each of us performing our monologue in some random order, Tim pieced them together with intention. We would open the performance by coming onto the stage one at a time saying “My body was…” (I said, “My Body Was Yearning to Be Heard”). Then the monologues would begin and I would get to deliver my monologue first (thank the heavens for small miracles). After several monologues, the stage would clear and one at a time we would come back on saying “My Body Is…” (I said, “My Body Is Really Talky”) which would be followed by the performances of the remaining monologues.

Our finale, created by one of the participants, required each of us to come on stage, one at a time, holding a bright light emanating from a smartphone (there’s a funny story-within-a-story here because there was one workshop member—guess who—who doesn’t own a smart phone (and probably never will) and who had to use the antediluvian light source of the flashlight for this piece). We held that light source over a particular body part, and because there was no stage lighting at this point and we were in the dark except for the individual light sources, it cast a vast shadow on the back wall of various commingling body parts. It began with a nose and then a mouth joined in and then an arm and so on. When we walked onto the stage, we recited the following lines: “When I think of inheritance I think of my (fill in the blank…I filled in “freckled skin”), and what it has taught me about (fill in the blank…I filled in “the grace of imperfection”) I got it from (fill in the blank…I filled in “my mother”), I carry her/him on my body, I carry her into the world.” After we finished those lines, we repeated in chant-like whispers, “mother’s, mother’s..or father’s, father’s…” to really fill the room with that feeling of inheritance. When the last person finished, we then turned the lights outward into the space of the audience and then made our way into a tight circle, cupping the light source to our chests so that everything became still and dark.

So that is how our individual, 5-minute monologues became one cohesive, collaborative performance. The only thing left to do was to memorize our parts (trickier than you might think since we didn’t have a lot of time) and to shoo away our stage fright. In the dress rehearsal on the day of performance, I discovered that you can be as confident as you like, but stage fright might still sneak up on you and is trickier to shoo away than you might think. Because when I delivered my monologue to the same people I had been working with all week, my mouth dried up like the Sahara desert, making it really, really difficult to enunciate the last lines. This had never, ever, ever happened to me ever before and I have been talking to groups of people (in the form of teaching) for a long time! Thank goodness for dress rehearsals because that taught me that I needed to drink a lot of fluids and keep that mouth of mine moist so that when the actual performance occurred, I would be fine (and I was).

2 thoughts on “Turning solo performance into collaboration

  1. I’m thinking now of the profound and awesomely courageous role a performer takes on by willing to be a voice, a body, a gesture, a sound for the collective. I love the use of light, emanating from the individual, then creating cohesion with the group, then reflected out onto the audience. Inheritance, what a profoundly connective word. Our link to the past as well as what gets carried into the future. I feel as if I was there, watching all of you imaginative, open and highly attuned individuals create a oneness of some sort. And Who knows, perhaps in some kind of consciousness I was.

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    1. And speaking of light, thank you so much for such a luminously crafted comment. Your thoughtful insights about the interplay between individual, group, and audience kind of rock.

      Like

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