A solo performance, sometimes referred to as a one-man show or one-woman show, features a single person telling a story for an audience, typically for the purpose of entertainment. This type of performance comes in many varieties, including autobiographical creations, comedy acts, novel adaptations, vaudeville, poetry, music, and dance. In 1996, Rob Becker's Defending The Caveman became the longest running solo (one man) play in the history of Broadway.
Traits of solo performance
Solo performance is used to encompass the broad term of a single person performing for an audience. Some key traits of solo performance can include the lack of the fourth wall and audience participation or involvement. Solo performance does not need to be written, performed, and produced by a single person-- a solo performance production may utilize directors, writers, designers, and composers to bring the piece to life on a stage. An example of this collaboration is Eric Bogosian in the published version of his show Wake Up And Smell the Coffee, by Theatre Communications Group, New York City.
It is assumed 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 solo performance 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.
Solo performance 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 solo performances 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.
Types and examples of solo performances
Solo performers include Rob Becker, Lily Tomlin, Andy Kaufman, Rod Maxwell, Lord Buckley, Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg, Jade Esteban Estrada, Eddie Izzard, John Leguizamo, Marga Gomez, 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 solo performance, Hemingway: On the Edge; Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow in Darrow, Ronald Rand as Harold Clurman in Let It Be Art! since 2001 in 26 countries, and Tom Dugan as Simon Wiesenthal in Wiesenthal.
A few actors adapted entire novels for the stage including Patrick Stewart who played all 43 parts in his version of A Christmas Carol, which played three times on Broadway and at The Old Vic in London; actor Gerald Charles Dickens played 26 characters in his performances from the same work; and Jack Aranson starred in a solo, 13-character production of Moby Dick.
Solo performance 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. Another example of this is In The Body of the World, written and performed by Eve Ensler in 2018.
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. these themes could also be centered around a certain topic such as a political or social issue. Tim Miller explores the topic of gay culture and society surrounding the LGBTQ community in his production of My Queer Body. Karen Finley expressed her frustration with the standards women are held to and the issues surrounding them such as rape and abortion in her solo piece titled We Keep Our Victims Ready.
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 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".
Solo performance in film
The first full-length talking film which showed only a single character was Sofi, a 1968 film starring Tom Troupe. The film was based on "Diary of a Madman" by Gogol. In the 21st century the "solo performance" had a rejuvenation period. with films like Locke, All Is Lost and Buried. The characteristics were different from the previous one-character films that were made – mainly by location and style. Sofi and works like Give 'em Hell, Harry!, were still studio-filmed theater pieces. The 21st-century films were mostly shot on location and were much more stylized with their cinematic expression and camera usage. Most recently films by Marcus Tell showed ongoing characteristics of one-character films.
Productions and solo performers/writers
- Chazz Palminteri: A Bronx Tale
- Rob Becker: Defending the Caveman
- Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol: Diary of a Madman
- Anton Chekhov: On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco
- Rebecca Clarke: Unspoken
- Arnold Schoenberg: Erwartung
- John Leguizamo: Freak; Latin History for Morons
- Eve Ensler: In the Body of the World
- Daniel Beaty: Emergency
- Ronald Rand: Let It Be Art!
- The Marsh
- Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show
- Performance poetry
- Spoken word
- United Solo Theatre Festival
- All For One Theater
- Bonney, Jo; Anthology (1 February 1999). "preface xiii". In Jo Bonney (ed.). 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.
- Bonney, Jo. Extreme Exposure: an Anthology of Solo Performance Texts from the Twentieth Century. Theatre Communications Group, 2008.
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