With so many shows featuring large casts on expansive sets, it can be easy to forget that some of the best shows feature neither of those. A one-person play can be an incredibly intimate, moving experience, though calling it a one-person or solo work is absolutely misleading as the entire venture requires a multitude of talented artists and craftspeople to execute.
There’s something akin to watching a tightrope walker attempt a solo piece. While many people put in incredible amounts of effort to pull off the production, there is no denying that there is one person on stage. As simple as this sounds, a solo piece can take on a variety of forms. The extended monologue is one of the more popular genres of solo theater. Artists like, , and have all provided amazing contributions to this genre.
The topics of these monologues range from the personal to the political, but tend towards what might be called dramatic non-fiction. They are based on the monologist’s life, but embellished for theatrical purposes, creating an incredibly revealing and vulnerable work of art. This certainly was the case for Daisey who was famously and inappropriately taken to task for his dramatic work The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. There was no problem with Daisey’s monologue in performance, but when he went on This American Life, the work was presented as journalism, even though Mike made no claim to it being such.
Another major sub-genre is the character study where an actor takes on one character through an entire evening. This can be done to astonishing effect whereby an audience can feel as if they are in the room with the actual historical figure. Certainly, watching Holland Taylor portray Texas Governorevokes that sense (Ann is now streaming on BroadwayHD). Hal Holbrook made a similar splash with as did Tovah Feldshuh with . Occasionally, this is also done for comedic effect as with Will Ferrell’s portrayal of .
Finally, there’s a sub-genre that involves one person portraying many different characters. This can be performed to either comedic or dramatic effect. Actors like Lily Tomlin have really paved the way for creating comedic solo works. In her piece, Tomlin portrays a multitude of characters as she explores human nature from their various points of view. Perhaps the most well-known artist to work in this area is Anna Deavere Smith. While having an exceptional career in theater, film, and television, Anna is perhaps best known for her original works. Starting with and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Ms. Smith has created plays about particular topics, in this case the Crown Height Riot and Los Angeles Riots respectively, where she has interviewed a number of people involved and portrays them all on stage, weaving their words into a dramatic presentation.
In all of these works, the common thread is ironically spectacle, but of a different type than we usually think about. When we talk about spectacle, we usually think about the lavish, awe-inspiring sets. With solo theatre, there is a different type of spectacle. Watching these works of art is truly watching courage and vulnerability unfold right before your eyes. There is nothing between the actor, who might be speaking directly to you, and the audience. In their work, these writers and performers often present the most individualized, idiosyncratic worldviews imaginable. To watch one of these shows, whether in person or from the comfort of your living room provides the opportunity to experience theater at its most fundamental and often most powerful.
Check out these amazing one-person shows on BroadwayHD: