Standing on the shoulders of others

Oh no! There’s a picture of books and bookshelves at the start of this post. Does this mean you’re going to talk about reading? Yes, it does. I am, after all, an English teacher so it was probably inevitable that this post would come. But don’t run away! I challenge you to read on.

So what does reading have to do with the solo performance form? A lot really, but the two things I want to focus on are: You have to read the texts of the performances AND you have to read the scholarship (yes, you do).

You have to read the texts of the performances themselves. This is not always easy to do because as I’ve noted before too many remain unpublished. I have still managed to read quite a few of them either in excerpt form or in their published or download-for-free (thank you Mike Daisey) forms. I took advantage of the sabbatical and read several texts of performances I hadn’t read. So I read all of the collected performance texts in Tim Miller’s Body Blows. Thanks to the Performing Arts Library at the New York Public Library, I was also able to read the script of Sarah Jones’ Bridge and Tunnel. I’m not sure why, but it’s fun to hold the script that was used in performance in your hands (although since you have to read it in the special collections room, you’re not allowed to hold it up before you while reading and must leave it lying flat on the table).

You have to read the scholarship (yes, you do). I am not the first person to think or write about the solo performance form. So since I’m taking stock, it feels necessary to devote at least one blog post to crediting those who have thought about this form before me and upon whose shoulders I stand. While, of course, the most important way to learn about the solo performance is at the horse’s mouth, so to speak, which means watching the performer in action, it is also important to think and write and theorize about it. And while there might not be as much scholarship devoted to the solo performance form as there is to say, Shakespeare, there is still enough that it takes time to work your way through. So in addition to attending performances over the past several months, I also reviewed the academic scholarship. The ideas I have been sharing in these blog posts do not come out of the ether nor do they burst from my brain sui generis. My ideas are shaped partly by the practitioners and partly by the theater scholars who have come before me.

In addition to all of the practitioners who have been busy shaping and reshaping the form, and in addition to those who not only perform but also write and talk about the form (Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, Mike Daisey, Deb Margolin, and others), there are the theater scholars who have written about either the solo performance form itself or its near relatives the monologue and the monologue play. Scholars, including Robert Andreach, Jill Dolan, Deborah Geis, John Gentile, Jonathan Kalb, Eddie Paterson, Patrice Pavis (provides a key definition of the term) David Roman, and Clare Wallace (edited a 2006 book of essays exploring the international scope of the solo performance form), have books or chapters of books investigating the solo performance form.

Sampling the Scholars.  Don’t run away! Think of it as a kind of music sampling wherein the most interesting bits of music or placed next to one another. I will stick with my usual semi-neutral alphabetical ordering:

The feminist autobiographical theater of such performers as Holly Hughes, Lily Tomlin, and Deb Margolin models how performance can act as an intervention in the construction of social identity (Jill Dolan in 2005). What the solo performance foments is the “virtuoso demonstration of the monologic voice” as well as the public display of the self thus making the autobiographical more complicated (Deborah Geis in 1993, 15). The solo performance is older than it appears and has its roots not only in the monologues and soliloquys of ancient theater but also in the American 19th century Chautauqua platform performances of readers bringing the words of Charles Dickens, Edgar Alan Poe and Mark Twain to life (John Gentile in 1989). The solo performance form, especially in its documentary mode makes “the unremarkable remarkable” (Jonathan Kalb in 2001, 20). The solo performance form marks the turn away from character and towards self and identity as a study of its development in American theater in particular demonstrates (Eddie Paterson in 2015). Talking about the solo performance form and describing a performance that we have seen is a “restorative act” because it allows us to see the play and think about what it is doing in our mind’s eye, even if we have not or cannot see it live (David Roman in 2005, 25).

These scholars have said many other worthwhile things of course, but that’s material for another kind of format. I singled out the statements above because they seemed particularly accessible and because I want to ponder the possibilities of:  what it means to take the everyday, ordinary occurrence and make it something an audience can and should remark upon, OR what encouraging folks who aren’t able to go to the theater to create a performance in their mind’s eye would look like, OR how the solo performance form can help make us aware of social identity as something that is constructed, OR what would it mean to access the virtuoso in us by doing something as simple as telling a story (doesn’t that sound tempting?).

The written word, in other words, comprises a vital, indispensable archive from which we can draw in order to do incredible things (don’t you want to restore all those performances you never saw?). You have to read, you have to imagine, and you have to give credit (so, yes, there’s a reason we English teachers torture students with learning the MLA-style of documentation). And then you have to think about how to make the archive a living thing that matters.

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