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A one-person show (one-man show or one-woman show) is a solo performance, featuring a comedian or actor who stands on stage and entertains an audience.
While a one-person show may be the musings of a comedian on a theme, the form can accommodate a wider scope. In the preface of the book Extreme Exposure, editor Jo Bonney uses the term "solo performance" to encompass those performers who do not necessarily have a comedic history. She suggests that "at the most basic level, despite their limitless backgrounds and performance styles, all solo performers are storytellers." This assumption is based on her assertion that a number of solo shows have a storyline or a plot.
Bonney also suggests that a distinctive trait of solo performance resides in its frequent lack of a fourth wall separating the performer from the audience, stating that a "solo show expects and demands the active involvement of the people in the audience". While this is often the case, as in the shows of performers coming directly from the stand-up comedy tradition, it is not a requirement: some solo shows, such as Nemesis by Natyaguru Nurul Momen or Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, are performed without the performer addressing the audience directly.
When creating a show, a solo performer is not limited to creating and performing the show themselves. They can use directors, writers, designers, and composers. An example of how Eric Bogosian builds a character can be found in the published version of his show Wake Up And Smell the Coffee, by Theatre Communications Group, New York City.
We may assume that individuals have told stories in front of other members of their tribe or society for thousands of years. They would have orally passed down many of today's myths and legends in this manner. So it is a style of performance that has been with us for generations developing through theatrical people such as Greek Monologists, the strolling Minstrels of Medieval England and the French Troubadors.
Edgar Allan Poe both lectured and recited poetry as a platform performer between 1843 and 1849; his performances stand as a paradigm of the one-person show hybrid simply called "the lecture-recital." The reading tours of Charles Dickens in Britain and America between 1858 and 1870 created a sensation. His American tour of 1867-68 was unparalleled until the arrival of the Beatles in the early 1960s.
One person shows enjoyed an unprecedented artistic and commercial vogue in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century (John S. Gentile Calls it the golden age of platform performance). Literary historians often associate the Victorian period with the highest development of the dramatic monologue as a poetic form. There were several discussions about the importance and distinction between the literary monologue and the performance monologue during the nineteenth century, however, this discussions confirms a continuous interchange between literature and performance, which may at times appear competitive but is more often productive. By the time the United States entered the 20th century, the number and variety of professional one-person shows presented throughout the country had grown large. This renaissance of solo performance also created ripples in the larger sense of American theatre; after this "boom" of the one man show had passed, the presentational style seeped into popular theatre productions such as Amadeus, Equus, and Evita among others, modeling a combination of representational theatricality and presentational, direct-address style.
By the 1960s, the term performance art became popular and involved any number of performance acts or happenings, as they were known. Many performers, like Laurie Anderson, developed through these happenings and are still performing today.
Categories and performers
Since solo shows have long been the domain of comic performers, it should be no surprise that many American comedians, past and present, have come to prominence through this genre. Performers include Lily Tomlin, Andy Kaufman, Rod Maxwell, Lord Buckley, Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg, Jade Esteban Estrada, Eddie Izzard, John Leguizamo, Anna Deavere Smith, Bill Hicks, Brother Blue and Lenny Bruce.
Several performers have presented solo shows in tribute to famous personalities. The blueprint for this type of show may have been drafted by Hal Holbrook, who has performed as Mark Twain in his solo show, Mark Twain Tonight, more than 2,000 times since 1954. Examples since that time include Julie Harris in the Emily Dickinson biography, The Belle of Amherst; Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony; Frank Gorshin as George Burns in Say Goodnight Gracie by Rupert Holmes; Ed Metzger in his solo show, performing since 1978, Albert Einstein: The Practical Bohemian; Metzger in another one-person show, Hemingway: On the Edge; and Tom Dugan as Simon Wiesenthal in Wiesenthal.
In what was possibly the only instance in which an actor adapted an entire novel for the stage, Patrick Stewart played all 43 parts in his version of A Christmas Carol, which played three times on Broadway and at the Old Vic in London, while the actor Gerald Charles Dickens plays 26 characters in his performances from the same work. Jack Aranson starred in a one-man, 13-character production of Moby Dick.
One-person shows may be personal, autobiographical creations. This ranges from the intensely confessional but comedic work of Spalding Gray, the semi-autobiographical A Bronx Tale by Chaz Palminteri, or Holly Hughes' solo piece World without End, in which she attempts to make sense of her relationship with her mother who had died.
Still other shows may rally around a central theme, such as pop culture in Pat Hazel's The Wonderbread Years, relationships in Robert Dubac's The Male Intellect, the history of the New York City transit system in Mike Daisey's Invincible Summer, or fighting the system in Patrick Combs' Man 1, Bank 0.
Sometimes, solo shows are simply traditional plays written by playwrights for a cast of one. Examples: Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell, I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead by Robert Hewett and Topless by Miles Tredinnick. A performer of shows of this type is Chris Harris, whose performances in the genre include Kemp's Jig, That's The Way To Do It!, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, Beemaster, 'Arris Music 'All and A Night At The Pantomime.
There is also room in this genre for the inclusion of other art forms. Poetry pervades the work of Dael Orlandersmith, sleight-of-hand mastery informs Ricky Jay's self-titled Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, magical and psychic performance skills are part of Neil Tobin's Supernatural Chicago.
There have also been many British comedians who have moved away from performing pure stand-up comedy in recent years. The shows that appear annually at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can involve stories of pathos and the use of technological equipment such as projectors. Examples include Howard Read, who has performed with the animated character Little Howard which was projected with the aid of computers and Dave Gorman, who has performed several shows described as "documentary comedy".
One-man shows of the past centuries
- Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol: Diary of a Madman
- Anton Chekhov: On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco
- Arnold Schoenberg: Erwartung
- Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show
- Performance poetry
- Spoken word
- United Solo Theatre Festival
- All For One Theater
- Bonney, Jo; Anthology (February 1, 1999). "preface xiii". In Jo Bonney. Extreme Exposure: An Anthology of Solo Performance Texts from the Twentieth Century (1st ed.). Theatre Communications Group; 1st edition. p. 450. ISBN 1-55936-155-7. Retrieved 28 December 2008.
- Gentile, John S. (1989). Cast of One. One-Person Shows from the Chautauqua Platform to the Broadway Stage. University of Illinois Press. pp. 10–21. ISBN 978-0252015847.
- Gentile, pages 61–64.
- Gentile, pages 194–195.
- Stoudt, Charlotte (May 26, 2011). "Theater review: 'Nazi Hunter -- Simon Wiesenthal' at Theatre 40". Los Angeles Times.
- "Chris Harris". Chrisharrisproductions.co.uk.