Solo Performer Nation

Walt Whitman predicted a future in which every American would be their own priest, their own poet. Jack Kerouac had a similar vision, “the strange future when it will be realized that everyone is an artist, naturally. And each good or bad according to his openness!”

And look what has happened! We have become a nation awash with solo performers! Who doesn’t have a friend or two who has told a story in a café or at The Moth? A cousin or co-worker enrolled in a stand-up comedy class? If you’re reading this post there’s a good chance that you have stood on a stage alone, or are thinking about it. But what if everyone had a one-person show? Wouldn’t that be kind of weird?

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(What a world full of solo performers might look like.  That’s me with clients Howard Petrick and David Kleinberg at The Marsh 25th Anniversary Gala)

 

Well, first off, there will always be people who choose to climb Mount Everest or run for city council or take up painting. And secondly, writing and performing your own work—when done so with a commitment to craft and soul—is a powerful practice that makes the world a better place. Almost every day one or two people come to The High Dive to work with me on their show—and I learn so much from each and every one of them. Many of them are professionally trained performers (standup comedians, second generation jugglers, storytellers & musicians). And others are nurses, housepainters, cab drivers, retired newspaper editors and airplane mechanics. Solo performance is a democratic form. Each person just needs to find their unique way of shining on stage, and find an audience that resonates with their work. I’d like to highlight four of my clients. These are people who have worked full careers outside of the arts, and yet have created beautifully crafted & meaningful pieces.

Charlie Hinton is a printing estimator and customer service rep. He is also a deeply committed human rights activist who often travels around the world to support strikers, observe elections, and otherwise advocate for justice and equality. About a year ago he received an action alert to support hunger strikers at Pelican Bay State Prison. Charlie sent letters to the striking prisoners, and a number of them wrote back. From these letters and subsequent visits with prisoners Charlie has crafted Hell in Paradise, a harrowing yet moving performance piece that takes the audience inside the walls of Pelican Bay State Prison. Charlie says, “my goal is that Hell in Paradise can become one more voice calling for the end of mass incarceration and solitary confinement, which literally causes prisoners to lose their eyesight and their minds. The world is such a cold and cruel place these days, I hope Hell in Paradise can add a drop of humanity.”

Charlie debuted Hell in Paradise in September at The Monday Night Marsh for an audience that included several of his activist friends. This led to invitations to perform at several community-sponsored events. I attended one such event sponsored by Californians for a Responsible Budget (CURB) at the La Commune Bookstore. The audience was a mix of students, activists, and people affected by incarceration. Charlie’s performance was followed by a panel discussion that included a former Pelican Bay solitary confinement prisoner. The following day Charlie received this email: “I just wanted to say that I attended this Play, and I can’t find the words to express how it changed my life. I’m a mother of a son that has been in the prison system now 10 yrs. And to hear Charlie put a voice to my silent pain, lifted me. It gave me hope, and strength that I need to finish this journey with my son…thank you for all your efforts to make a difference in lives that most people feel are worthless.”

David Kleinberg was the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Datebook for 14 years during a 34-year editing/writing career at the newspaper. As part of his job he had the opportunity to interview many of his comedic heroes, people like Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, and Mort Sahl. When he retired in 1998 he decided to try his own hand at standup comedy, eventually appearing on stage with people like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, and Sinbad. Like many stand up comedians, David found himself wanting to give voice to a greater range of experiences and emotions than is generally allowed in stand up comedy. And so he took his first class at The Marsh in 2008, which led to the development of his first solo show The Voice: One Man’s Journey Into Sex Addiction and Recovery. He has followed that up with another powerful show about his experience as a combat correspondent for the army in Vietnam. Solo performer Charlie Varon happened to be in the audience for a performance of Hey, Hey, LBJ! in Washington, DC, and he sent the following report: “The stories, the details of the relationships among the military folks, the testimony of what he lived through…all strong, all demanding our witness, all reminding us of that war we’d rather forget. And its consequences…After the show a Vietnam veteran in the audience told David about a trip to Vietnam he made recently, and veterans’ efforts to follow through with help for Agent Orange victims. . . witnessing the show and the reaction of the veterans in the audience was extraordinary. Wars never end in the hearts and minds of those who lived through them. This show makes that palpable.”

Liz Macera works as an outpatient palliative care nurse practitioner for Kaiser Permanente. She primarily works with nursing facility residents, and often has to counsel families as they make medical decisions about whether or not to prolong the lives (and suffering) of their loved ones. Needless to say, this is emotionally demanding work with all sorts of moral complexities. Liz is also an aspiring solo performer who, quite naturally, has been drawn to create pieces about her patients and their families. Even though she has been performing for only one year she has already been invited to perform for a medical ethics class at Dominican University and at a senior adult community in Walnut Creek. At a recent rehearsal she told me she wants to perform at ‘death cafes’, of which I had never heard, but the first thing that comes up on Google is this: At Death Cafes people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives. Liz says that she “would like to help people understand the difficulties and intricacies of being very ill and having to make decisions that effect whether you live or die. And what it is like to make these decision for another person.” Even though Liz is early in her career as a solo performer there is no doubt in my mind that her stories will make a difference in the lives (and deaths) of many patients and their families.

I don’t want to given the impression that all solo performance pieces must tackle a subject like incarceration, war, or dying. We need to enjoy and celebrate all the outrageous details of our human lives. And this makes me think of one of my favorite new performers. Houston Robertson is 78 years old and kick ass funny! She opens her show Victory for the Recycled Virgin with these lines: “I’m here to tell the truth. Seventy-eight is not the new fifty-seven. It’s not even the new sixty-five. I’m the new seventy-eight—a smart, adorable, take-charge bitch.” And from there she goes on to tell her tale of being a naïve, divorced virgin bride of the 1950’s romping through the captivating and sometimes painful episodes of her midlife madness. Her show includes the best on stage orgasm ever, which at a recent performance at The High Dive had our friends and neighbors howling with laughter. A number of people said they were inspired by Houston’s entertaining freedom and energy. My wife Megan said “Houston’s piece – and Houston, herself – inspire me to think and feel differently about aging. Who says I can’t have a raucous sense of humor and a booming laugh when I’m 78? Houston is a force of nature, and her tale is about resilience: reclaiming joy and power after being dealt a major disappointment.”

Charlie, David, Liz, and Houston are not career performers. Before taking classes at The Marsh and/or working with me they had no training as solo performers. But because they were willing to share deeply and learn acting & storytelling techniques, and because they are performing for audiences that resonate with their work, they are now making a meaningful difference. All solo performers have the ability to do so as long as they commit to this art form as a soul-expanding yet rigorous craft.   And that’s why if some day in the future everyone were to have his or her own solo show, well, would that be such a bad thing?

 

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I’d like to thank the following people for inviting me to direct their shows in 2014. Each of these talented & dedicated artists has made me laugh and sometimes cry, shared with me an experience or perspective different from my own, inspired me in my own work as a solo performer, and in general made my life a bit more full of joy.

 

Kurt Bodden. Steve Seabrook: Better Than You

Gloria Bromberg. This is My Brain on Drugs

David Caggiano. Dream Jockeys

Shelley Campbell. The Center of the Labyrinth

Joe Cole. The Shadow’s Whistle

Kathleen Denny. Nice is Not What We Do (tales of death and family)

Steven Emerson. 100 Days

Jeremy Greco. With Held

Charlie Hinton. Hell in Paradise

Aaron Jessup. Flying Dreams

David Kleinberg. Hey, Hey, LBJ!

Erica Lann-Clark. Still Shopping for God

Liz Macera. Everyone Gets It

Garen Patterson. Back at the Cult

Howard Petrick. Never Own Anything You Have to Paint or Feed

Houston Robertson. Victory for the Recycled Virgin