The One-Person Show:

The Pandemic and The Resurrection

The one-person play, ranging from one-act to full-length, has a distinguished history, in theatre. It is one of the most cost-effective forms of theatre and a perfect vehicle for an actor, a playwright, and a director–especially when all three are the same person.  For a comprehensive description of the creation and production of this genre, check out Louis Catron’s The Power of One, the most thorough guide I have seen.

Photo Patti Wray
Patti Wray at The Venue on 35th

The Power of One

It was here that I first learned the value of the term monodrama, which allows us to distinguish between two very different kinds of theatrical experience:

  • a monologue, which is a long speech occurring within the body of play, spoken by one actor and is often a kind of internal dialogue and
  • a monodrama, which is a play complete in itself also presented by one actor—who may have more than one voice.

The monodrama (or drama for one person) is coming of age in this pandemic age. It’s a natural! An actor or a theater can observe social distancing among the cast. There is only one cast member!!!!  It gives an actor a chance to really strut their stuff.

And it is an ideal form for ZOOMING!

My sense of the genre among audiences unfamiliar with the form is that it is regarded as dull. How exciting could it be? A whole evening listening to one actor? Visions of religious sermons gone overtime come to mind. Bring in the fans and hit the snooze button.

BUT

These common beliefs are currently being challenged by the need for small cast shows for theatres that want to continue to connect with their audiences and also potentially raise some revenue.

Types of Monodrama

Mark Twain

The history of monodramas in contemporary theatre reveals a number that are centered around a famous figure in history. In other words, a one-character show. Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Julie Harris as The Belle of Amherst, Jordan Rhodes as Ernest Hemingway in Ken Vose and Jordan Rhodes’ Papa: The Man, The Myth, and The Legend. Samuel Beckett wrote several successful monodramas for the stage, the most often produced being Krapps’ Last Tape. There is a marvelous performance by Patrick McGee preserved on film for the BBC by the original stage director, Donald McKinney.

It is easily live-streamed to an audience.

There have been other shows by one actor that displayed a gamut of characters: Lily Tomin in Intelligent Signs of the Universe; Whoopi Goldberg in what was originally titled The Spook Show.  Each consists of characters created by the writer/director.

And there are monodramas that are basically reflections of the life of the writer/performer.  Spalding Gray and Swimming in Cambodia come to mind as well as the funny and ever-popular Mike Birbiglia with My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend at The Barrow Group in NYC. And yet others that are performed by writers to be performed by other single performers. Jan Quackenbush’s A Cold Day in Hell ran for 26 weeks as a home performance in California , winning a 1988 Los Angeles Dramalogue Award in the process.

The current pandemic is certainly an ill wind. But, as rumoured, it has blown some folks some good.

The monodrama is a natural for theatres that want to keep a toe in the production pond. The monodrama is a shoo-in for social distancing. It avoids the problems that syncing actors from different locations on Zoom entails. It invites writers to hone their skills as sonnets and villanelles do for poets. And it is easily live-streamed to an audience.

Zooming the Monodrama

There are some great production options out there that make great streaming experiences. I recently went to a performance of Nat’s Last Struggle by P. A. Wray at the Virginia Stage Company. Specifically, this performance was presented on a Zoom platform which has some unique features for presenting drama.

Nat’s Last Struggle is a monodrama that occurs during the moment after the order to hang is given and before Nat Turner’s neck is snapped; Turner confronts his conscience and his actions as his life unfolds before us and him.

Terrance After-Anderson as Nat Turner livestreamed by the Virginia Stage Company

With the role of Nat played by Terrance Afer-Anderson, the camera was able to focus on his facial and physical changes in a way not possible from the peanut gallery. And, although it was a reading and up close to the actor, it was impossible to tell that the script was being read rather than performed.

Although the “audience” had muted themselves, both picture and mic, I was aware that there were other people in the “theatre” with me. Our pictures were blacked out with our names showing in small letters, but they formed a rectangle around the edge of the “stage.” In my experience, they were invisible but still somehow present. So, when it came time to talk to each other under the direction of Patrick McMullin’s facilitation, we all kind of knew one another.

I can assure you that this experience is far different from watching something a video live stream on your computer when there is no one there with you. Over 60 people attended. The majority stayed for a talkback with the actor, director, and playwright and were overwhelmed with the experience.

We don’t know how long this pandemic will be disrupting our theatre-going lives. However long it may be, this form of experiencing the stage may stay with us long after we are in our usual seats as a new form of entertainment and enlightenment.

Monodramas (and zooming) are here to stay and they offer a great deal to the audience on their own merit. Why create something that has its own virtues only to abandon it when we don’t “need” it anymore?

And we have plenty to choose from.

Dreams of Glass by Margaret McSeveney is a delightful play in one act in which a young Scottish girl, Daisi Dickie is preparing for her exams to become a clairvoyant. In a wonderful blend of naivete and insight, she begins to explore what roles women play and how she might control her own destiny.

Photo from Unsplash/S. Blasso

Dreams of Glass has been performed at several theatres, including the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but I wonder how it would be to experience the explorations of Daisi Dickie up close and personal. This is a monodrama aching to be Zoomed.

Monodramas can also be full evenings. A Cold Day in Hell by Jan Quackenbush, mentioned above, plays out Charlie’s agonizing decision to pull the plug or not on his beloved comatose wife, as he makes a tape to play for his children after he does (or doesn’t?) complete the act. (Just as a side-note: Charlie has a life of his own. Quackenbush was hard at work  on another play when Charlie kept interposing dialogue into what he was trying to write until he dominated Quackenbush’s attention and got a play of his own.)

senior theatre actor d d delaney
Playwright/Acto D. D. Delaney as Scrooge in A Concise Christmas Carol

And monodramas are not only zoomable, they are highly portable. A Concise Christmas Carol by D. D. Delaney has played for thousands of performances, many by the playwright, for Christmas holiday events. A 50-minute, one-person play gives us, in a nutshell, the entire favorite Christmas story. Narrated by Scrooge, it also provides the voices of numerous other characters and has been a favorite for house-parties and yuletide events. Just last year, it ran for 10 performances at a bed-and-breakfast.

Collections of short monodramas can be mixed and matched for an evening’s entertainment. At The American Theatre in Hampton, Virginia, the Virginia Playwrights Forum had a crisis. We were offering a monthly production of staged readings of new plays. With 24 hours’ notice, one of the playwrights abandoned ship. Doris Gwaltney’s collection of short historical monodramas (A Mirror in Time) came to our rescue. We pulled together an evening of 4 of the short 20-minute monodramas:

  • Harriet Tubman (A Suit of His Own);
  • Tsali, a Native American warrior on The Road of Tears);
  • Kate Dickens (lamenting her husband’s rabid fascination with Queen Victoria); and
  • William Shakespeare.

To the surprise of Jeff Stern (the artistic director), we played to standing room only.

For the religious community, Gillette Elvgren has combined many of his Biblical monologues in collections for both men and women. Among others, they include:

  • Voices from the Bible: Monologues for Women – 16 fictional monologues based on women characters from the Bible
  • Monologues for Men: Voices from the Old Testament – perfect for Christian solo drama performances
  • For the Least of These – a compendium of monologues by great Christian women since the 3rd Century A.D.

These also can be mixed and matched for a different kind of evening of spiritual renewal and faith. Individually, they can enliven the traditional Sunday church service.

This pandemic has brought the value of the one-person show to the forefront. Its innate value will continue its prominence in the theatrical community long after the pandemic has passed.

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