Going it alone: Solo actors find power and fear in one-person shows

| Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

“Terrifying,” “empowering,” “a marathon,” “a great experiment,” “a pleasure” — those are just some of the terms local actors use to describe their experiences in single-performer plays.

Whether it's just a fluke of scheduling, an indicator of theater economics or a cultural trend, single-performer shows appear to be increasingly common on local stages.

A pair of one-woman shows — “Sister's Christmas Catechism” and “South Side Stories” — occupies the two stages at City Theatre on the South Side.

Off the Wall Theatre in Carnegie recently hosted “The Speed Queen,” a single-performer show from Manhattan.

The Smithfield Street Theatre, Downtown, on Friday will open a one-week run of the one-man comedy “The SantaLand Diaries.”

Rehearsals are about to get underway for Tom Atkins' return Jan. 3 to 12 in the Pittsburgh Public Theater's “The Chief,” the one-man show about longtime Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr., at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

Earlier this year, there were two solo shows at City Theatre — Jen Childs' “Why I'm Scared of Dance” and Daniel Beatty's “Through the Night” — and Kris Andersson, a Los Angeles actor, created the character Dixie Longate for CLO Cabaret's “Dixie's Tupperware Party.”

The reasons for doing one-person shows often are as varied as the shows themselves.

Economics does play a part, says Virginia Greener, artistic director of Off The Wall Theatre in Carnegie. She has written and performed single-performer shows and hosted them.

“It's a lot cheaper to do a one-person show, and it's so much more flexible (arranging) rehearsal times,” says Greener, pointing out the obvious — it's easier to schedule and cheaper to pay and costume one actor rather than six.

But artistic considerations are equally or more important, she says. “What compels people to do this is … they invest more into it and feel compelled to perform it.”

“It was one of the hills I had to climb to find I had a holistic life in the theater,” says Tami Dixon, who wrote and performs “South Side Stories.”

“I was grateful to be able to do something that was a great experiment for me.”

Others, like actress and Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos, say it's an experience they're not eager to repeat.

It's been 12 years since Boos played the sole character in Quantum Theatre's “La Voix Humaine” at The Andy Warhol Museum, an event she calls “a terrifying experience.”

The play was organized around phone calls between an abandoned woman (Boos) and her former lover, whom Boos had to imagine was on the other end of the line. “Your memory is not cued by the person you are playing with, and your instinct (as an actress) is that you want the attention to be on the other person. It was very lonely onstage.”

For Tom Atkins, who is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of “The Chief” with an eighth production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, it's an opportunity to connect with an audience in a different way.

Atkins, and many other actors, will tell you that a solo performance doesn't mean you're alone onstage. The audience serves as a scene partner who shares the experience and gives them someone to bounce their performance off.

“It doesn't get lonely. I've got 600 people with me,” Atkins says. “What's satisfying to me is to mine every giggle and laugh I can get one on one. The audience seems to delight in it. … Being onstage with an audience is the best part of the whole day.”

For Tyler Anthony Smith, who is making his first foray as a solo stage actor in “The SantaLand Diaries” at Smithfield Street Theatre, Downtown, it's a journey into new territory.

Smith had done a dozen shows with the company when its artistic director Sean O'Donnell, suggested Smith do the role of a disillusioned, cynical man working at Macy's as Santa's assistant, Crumpet the Elf.

Smith was unfamiliar with David Sedaris' story-turned-stage-play or the fact that it was written for one performer.

“When I got the script, it sounded like fun. When I got to rehearsal (I began thinking) where's everybody else? It's fun to have someone to play off of and someone else to blame,” he jokes.

Atkins admits having the responsibility as the sole speaker was initially terrifying.

His closest previous experience had been when he performed in the two-man show “A Walk in the Woods.”

“I knew when (the other performer) quit talking it was my turn,” Atkins says. “For ‘The Chief,' I have nobody out there.”

His safety net is a desk phone that he uses to make calls to his wife and a few others. If he forgets his lines, someone following the script from the light booth rings his phone. “I pick up and he tells me where I'm lost,” Atkins explains.

It's not just someone to share the lines with, Dixon says. “I miss having someone to look at, rest my head on or clear the way that I totally miss.”

Rehearsals prepare actors for being alone onstage. But what often surprises them is that they're also on their own backstage before the show begins. The crew is too busy to chat, there's no one sharing the dressing room or hanging out in the green room, and the performer is left to their own resources.

“Usually, I distract myself by making jokes with the other actors,” Boos says. “Before the show (at the Warhol) was lonely. You realize how much camaraderie there is in a company (of actors).”

Some actors like Dixon and Atkins pass the hour between arriving at the theater and the start of performance by going over their scripts. Atkins runs the lines in his head. Dixon writes out the lines on paper, picking up where she left off the night before.

“I just honor it and want to make sure (I get it right), because I'm playing these real people. I want to honor the words they told me in interviews,” Dixon says.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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