One-Person Shows Are Too Stuck in Reality. Sometimes They Should Make Things Up

Roger Guenveur Smith in his show Rodney King
Roger Guenveur Smith in his show Rodney King
Photo by Craig Schwartz

"A solo show's a little show where people talk about their life,

"Like battling the bottle. Or slicing themselves with a knife,

"They tell their tale with wigs or props, with easels to communicate,

"Like being gay or being bi or being trans or being straight!

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"Sometimes they act out other people, even if they cannot act,

"Like family members, former lovers, feisty bosses, when they cracked,

"They change their voice to bring to life, these people who have done them wrong,

"They cry sometimes, and scream sometimes, and dance and burst out into song!

"Sometimes they only last about an hour and they're quite morose,

"Sometimes they last forever and the audience is comatose. . ."

—Peter Michael Marino, from his parody of solo shows, Late With Lance!, at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Fest

The 2015 Hollywood Fringe festival has packed up its tent. Of the 300 or so entries, 73, or close to 25 percent, were solo performances, a greatly and perhaps unjustly maligned genre equated with narcissism and self-importance. Compounding the genre's already sullied reputation, most of these solo shows were also autobiographical.

The uncurated Hollywood Fringe is hardly alone in attracting the solo genre. Back in 2013, Center Theatre Group held a very curated festival of solo performances, also mostly autobiographical. It included Luis Alfaro's memoir, St. Jude, an homage to his dying father that told of his childhood in California's Central Valley; Trieu Tran's Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, about his family's exodus from war-torn Vietnam to Canada and the United States; and Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King, a portrait of the sexually conflicted young man who triggered the 1992 L.A. race riots, written with a smidgen of autobiographical reflection. Tellingly, critics' complaints about these performers' self-absorption were few and far between, probably because of the performers' assertive focus on worlds beyond themselves.

Meanwhile, at L.A. Theatre Center, Sal Lopez just closed his autobiographical memoir about growing up in Mexico and South Central Los Angeles, This Is a Man's World, in which, as in Alfaro's piece, the death of his father is a major incident. Ditto Alina Cenal's Words From a Cuban Father in the Fringe, with her moving explication on having to walk her shamed, cancer-ridden dad to the toilet. However affecting these scenes may be, with the plight of dying fathers depicted by Alfaro, Lopez and Cenal, one might argue that dwelling on the death of parents in solo performances has become something of a trope.

Fathers in full health serve their stories well. Cenal's saga spins on the intriguing relationship between her Cuban dad and his law-school roommate, Fidel Castro — from whose Cuba Cenal's father fled to Miami, followed later by the Cenal family. Meanwhile, Lopez has a scene narrating his family's attempt to pick up a visiting relative from LAX during the 1965 Watts Riots. Such are the exotic-historical backdrops that give these stories their traction.

Unlike in the world of fiction, these earnest shows contain almost no blurring of the line between memoir and fiction, despite all of theater's built-in artifice. They are determined to keep things real, personally and historically — yet another example of how theater lags behind other art forms.

In fiction, the wave of earnest memoir writing through the early '00s (Stephen King's On Writing, Martin Amis' Experience) has yielded to a kind of fiction that blurs the line between the real and the fabricated. Daniel Mendelsohn says in The New York Times Sunday Book Review that the explosion of memoir spiked with invention (Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04) stems from the various alternative realities we confront every day, such as the reality-fantasy blend of network news and social media.

"Fiction has always fed on 'reality,' and today that reality consists increasingly of ... disconcerting oscillations between the true and the fabricated," Mendelsohn explains.

Novelist Leslie Jamison finds those "disconcerting oscillations" a plus, asking, "Why do we like that space of uncertainty in which we don't know what's been invented and what hasn't?" Meanwhile, most solo shows in the theater posit older questions: At what point does autobiography and perpetual self-reference turn from an encumbrance to a revelation? At what point does personal therapy become communal therapy? At what point does "This is my story" become "This is our story?"

Luis Alfaro performing St. JudeEXPAND
Luis Alfaro performing St. Jude
Photo by Craig Schwartz

As beautiful and revelatory as some of these autobiographical confessions in the theater may be, their reliance on reality shows a decided lack of creativity. Journalists get discredited for writing fiction in news stories. Solo performers, however, have full license to tell their truth through artifice — like playwright Tony Kushner's winged phantom crashing through a ceiling in Angels in America — to take us to fourth and fifth dimensions that help frame the three more familiar to us. Why are our solo performers such slaves to their autobiographies? Why this dearth of imagination and poeticism?

There are exceptions, as anyone who's sat through any wildly satirical/imaginative show by John Fleck can attest. And there's Marino's Late With Lance!, a parody of solo shows that's performed by Marino's alter ego, Lance, a would-be talk-show host raised by two gay dads. Their lack of interest in Lance fuels his "crisis." None of this is probably true. Lance exists in a parallel universe, where most theater already exists. His satire of pop culture — i.e., his largely improvised talk show with celebrity guests who fail to show — is deliriously witty and chastening at the same time. The insights he provokes speak to theater's underlying tenet, that what's unreal is sometimes more real than the reality we usually trust to get us through the day.

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