Friday, 7 December 2007

One's Company

Natasha Tripney has a pop at the monologue over at the Guardian blog, and it's true that such shows can make for rather anaemic theatrical experiences. But not always.

The key to Tripney's argument is that in monologue "the writing is inevitably foregrounded" and that in the end this can make the whole process "a bit anti-theatre". This is possibly true. So let's consider the distinction between "monologue" and "solo show".

A monologue implies an actor talking some words and not much else going on. My heart stops, bored, at the thought of this, although I suppose it's probably salvageable as a form. Maybe we'll even get to some examples.

A solo show is a lone performer in front of an audience, doing their thing. This includes stand-up, violin recitals and the Vin Garbutt gig I went to on Tuesday (of which, more in the next couple of days). It also includes, for example, the solo work of Chris Goode which, though scripted, does not foreground the writing so much as the performance. This is what should happen in a solo show.

As soon as there's a second performer on-stage, the actors can engage in the collective delusion that there's no audience present. This is foolish, but comprehensible, and it's possible to rehearse their interactions in such a way as to make them credible.

A solo performer has no-one to talk to but the audience and no possibility of hiding from them. For interactions with that audience to be credible, they have to be real. If you, up there on stage, pretend I'm reacting in a certain way, or just pretend you're making eye contact with me when you're not, then I quickly start to lose interest in you. You're lying to me. The more contact you make and the more that contact is genuine, the more live your show is.

It's true that there is little more exposing than the solo show, but not because weaknesses in the text are more likely to be exposed. A weak text is weak however you say it. No, a solo show is exposing for the performer. It's exposing because you can't hide from the audience. And if you try to, you might get a bit of a safety net from a strong text, but ultimately you're going to hit the floor, hard. In our theatre, where so much futile sweat is put into trying to pretend the audience isn't there, this is peculiarly difficult to get hold of. So many actors pretend to be talking to the audience when they're not. We can tell. Don't pretend I'm not here. I haven't paid ten pounds to be sat in the dark and ignored for an hour. That's just rude.

A couple of examples from recent memory. I saw Limbo, which Natasha mentions, here in York. It's an extraordinary, fully-realised example of the sort of theatre I'm mostly not particularly interested in: the level of naturalistic detail is so overwhelming I even almost suspended my disbelief for possibly the first time in my life. Director Dan Sherer teaches at the Strasberg Centre in New York, and you can tell. Everything is subjugated to verisimilitude: rhythm, tempo, nailing the laughs. Nothing is more important in this production than truth. Nothing is important in this production but truth.

I really enjoyed it. It was fascinating to watch a show in which almost every single decision taken was different to the equivalent decision I'd have taken, and to see a really convincing case made for each of those decisions. If you're interested in finding truth in theatre, you have to go this far or not bother, otherwise you're just saying it. And the one decision I'd have shared was that the performer spoke to the audience throughout. She didn't fake it one iota. A bit neglectful of the crap seats, maybe, but it was real communication between performer and audience. The company would perhaps prefer me to say real communication between character and audience, but I'm not going to. Oh, and the declaration of interest: Dan's a mate. You should meet him. He's top.

Limbo possibly comes under the category "monologue", but I'd say that because it's theatrically so interesting it's more of a solo show. I think I've just realised that I'm simply going to call bad solo shows monologues as a term of abuse from now on. Oh well.

Another reason solo performances are tough is because the introduction of a second and a third voice make it much easier to vary the music of the piece. Finding a high rhythm is incredibly difficult when you've only got one performer, and finding a new note is, too. You need to be a virtuoso, otherwise listening to your voice all evening is going to become tiresome for us. There was a solo show in Edinburgh a few years ago called Basic Training, in which the performer played about seven different characters and flipped between them with bewildering pace and dexterity. It was quite a flimsy piece of gusty All-Americanism, but as an example of solo performance it was sensational. Your man on stage Khalil Ashanti was a virtuoso.

Chris Goode's solo work slips this leash a bit, though. I hope he'd forgive me for describing him as not a virtuoso actor. Nonetheless, his solo shows really work, because he has a very simple and honest way of being with an audience, in this room, today. His relationship with his material is not that of an actor relating to a character by attempting to convince us that he is that character, rather that of a performer presenting a story, or some websites, that he reckons we might find as amazing as he does. He finds them amazing, and he hopes we will too. And the honesty of his amazement, coupled with the fact that he's got a lovely, idiosyncratic way with words and a magical ability to weave together images, communicates to us, directly, and this roomful of people shares something, now.

Tripney's right that solo shows are rarely seen beyond the Fringe. So it's difficult to resist the idea that economics is the driver behind their being put on. Thus as the economy tightens, perhaps we can expect to see an awful lot more of them over the next few years. All the more important then that we pay some proper attention to what makes them work.


After all of the above, it now seems to me particularly foolish that I'm about to embark on making my own solo show, an adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I make no claim to being a virtuoso performer, either. Hey ho. I'm young, I'll learn. It'll be finished around March/April. Anyone want to book it?


Andrew Haydon said...

What I always find most curious is that way that Krapp's Lasat Tape, for example, is just never thought of as either a "one-man show" or a "monologue". It is theatre, pure and simple. A play, if you like. It seems to me to absolutely transcend the counting of its cast. Ditto - more so - Not I.

Interval Drinks said...

I greatly enjoyed your thoughtful response to the guardian blog, Dan - especially your thoughts on Limbo.

Am still grumbling at that sub-editor imposed header though, it wasn't meant to be a moan, merely a musing.

danbye said...

Yes, sub-editors are the devil, aren't they?