Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Finding a Director/Coach

OK..right off the top. Full disclosure. I am a director/coach who specializes in solo shows. Yes, I know you know. I just want to put out there that this could just be interpreted as a self promoting discourse so you hire me. Well, maybe that IS partially true. Yes, I am being glib. But here's the deal. You must not do a solo performance without a director.

It takes many people to create an excellent one person show. Almost all the greats develop their material closely with a collaborator/partner/coach (I am thinking Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Mike Daisey...all directed by their partners/wives)

Solo performances are the most likely of ANY forms of theater, in my opinion to fail. That's right, I said it. Why? Because of the self indulgence problem. Because one works in too small a container and one is generally too attached to the story. Because one believes that a story, their story is enough to be art. Because they love their own story.

Please do not, do not, do not fall into this trap. A good story must transcend the storyteller. A story must find the the pathos, the Universality, the belly laughs, the irony, the perspective, the Silver Lining, the loopy characters, the mystery, the poignancy, the connection to the bigger world.

So, who are you searching for when you are on your quest for a director? Traditional theater director? Someone with a back-ground in improvisation? A writer? Another solo performer?

There really is no formula. However, there are things to look for in a person you are considering working with.

#1. Have a conversation with the person. Do you like her energy? Is she a good listener? Most importantly, does she ash you interesting, provocative questions about your story/vision? Do you leave the conversation more inspired? If you do, that is a very good thing.

#2 Talk to other actors he/she has worked with before.

#3 Does she have a script or video of her own work as a solo artist or of another script she has worked on?

It's important that she resonate with your vision. This is about chemistry and synergy and it is an un-predicatable quality. Like a new lover or friend, you need to feel that there is a creative connection between you. I would say avoid anyone who seems rigid, domineering, or controlling. Ultimately, this is your show and it is important that you are working with someone who is there to support you. In other words, avoid big egos.

Some coaches/directors whose work I recommend (besides my own of course) are (in NYC: Cheryl King at Stage Left Studios, Jo Bonney, Jean Michele Gregory, Theresa Giambacorrta)

Remember that unlike a conventional director, you are actually writing and developing a script with someone. This is a much more complex process and in my experience, it is super important that your director both has a good sense as a writer/editor and of compelling storytelling/acting.

It's a big job and the right person can make or break your show. In the end, make sure that they have your back. Then you are safe to go onstage and really SHINE!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Your First Show...Where do I begin?

I get a lot of phone calls from people who want to do their first show. Very frequently, people tell me    "I've wanted to do a show for (ever!) 5 years or 10 years or for as long as I can remember but I have never known where to begin."

Before I did "Honeymoon in India" (Top 10 Shows of the Year, 1995, Santa Fe Reporter) I carried that longing with me for eleven years. From the time I saw my first show, that longing was intense. But, it is such an undertaking. And generally one's first solo show (unless one is already a t.v. star and someone else will do the producing/promoting for you) involves writing, performing and producing/promoting. This can all be overwhelming and daunting.

So where do you begin. Just to get the energy really moving. Well, to begin with I think that on a creative level, writing, writing and more writing is a great place to begin. When I got on that journey toward my first show, I had almost no comfort level as a writer. Especially writing for the stage. I began working with 2 books that shifted the course of my life. One was "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. The other was "The Artists Way" by Julia Cameron. This was 21 years ago and I had just moved to New Mexico. Both of these writers live in Santa Fe, but their work scopes way beyond "local" into the Universal. Basically, Julia gave me permission to claim myself as an artist and Natalie taught me how to write in a way that was true and authentic to me. In a way, her work offered  me my "Voice"

This is essential when working on a show and it must be uncovered/discovered  either before the process or during it to have something that is worthy of being put up onstage. Every artist who is creating original material that involves writing, must come to know and rely upon the voice that is uniquely their own.

Then I would suggest seeing/reading as many solo shows as possible. There are certain structures that "work", certain rules that "work"....just like in any other art form. And one can only be free to break the rules once one knows what works. Specificity works in my experience, both in the writing and performing of a piece. Will you incorporate characters in your show to bring the piece alive? How do you become embodied in the work? What is your point of view overall for the piece. Also, a show must have movement, just like dance or a piece of music to take the audience on a journey. What journey are you taking them on? Is it internal, external or both? What is the moment of reckoning? Is there a transformational element in the individual characters or the overall story.

Once you become comfortable in your voice, these are the kinds of questions you can begin to pose for yourself in your first draft.

After this you will need a coach/director and to put together a production plan. As I am heading out for the evening and I don't want to overwhelm you, I will cover these issues in my next post or two.

In the meantime, write, write, write. On paper, on the computer or by playing around on a tape recorder. But getting the stories out, is the place to begin.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mike Daisey, the clear heir of Spalding Gray...Changing the World with his Solo Show

There is a reason that Mike Daisey has been called heir apparent to the late, great Spalding Gray. He sits at a desk and shares engaging,funny stories of life and the human condition. He has a strong and compelling voice. Both men's voices are/ were unique, ironic and specific. Both came from New England and are/were very smart. Spalding, a Gemini and Mike, an Aquarius are both air signs. O.K, dis-regard the last comment. I've just lived in Santa Fe too long.

I think that both men changed the world in very unique ways through their artistry. For me, Spalding gave many of us permission, through his modeling, to speak intimately onstage of our lives. This was way before The Moth, and monologue slams and Fringe Festivals. He was really a revolutionary,  sharing the details of his life in a way that was "speaking the unspeakable" especially for the culture at the time. This was the Reagan 80's after all and authenticity was not the word of the day. In the society at large or in art. But it was always Spalding's way.

He was also a deeply troubled man. Wounded and neurotic. His shows all were about him, his life, his process. He foreshadowed his death and talked about his suicidal ideations. He struggled with addiction and deep pain from his mother's suicide. In the end, he took his own life on a frigid New York day eight years ago now.

It was a horrible day. He left a legacy in his two sons and of course, in the shows. He also left a different kind of legacy in the theater. He created, almost single handedly, a new kind of storytelling. A breaking of taboos onstage. Not shock value taboos like performance artist Karen Finley who appeared onstage naked around the same time, portraying Eva Braun or having the audience examine her clitoris with a magnifying glass. Or Holly...oh what was her last name? "Dress Suits for Hire" woman. East Village. Challenging Gender stereotypes with feminist theater.

I always found Spalding's work much more intimate. His intimacy came from a deep revelation of emotional truth that ran deeper than the mind. It was edgy, yet warm, something lacking in some of the other solo shows coming forward at that time. He is a legend for a reason.

Mike Daisey is very much his own man and performer, yet building on that legend and this art form. Mike's new show about the horrible conditions in factories that make Apple products in China is taking the form to a higher level. Like Spalding before him, Mike presents as warm, funny and razor smart. He also shares some neurosis pretty freely onstage. But, unlike Spalding, Mike's focus is not just on himself. This is the last in a string of shows including "The Last Cargo Cult" where he uses his art to bring attention to an injustice.  In "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" he calls out one of the most popular and successful corporations in the world. He had his opening at The Public Theater right as the man himself was dying. While most of the world was offering Steve Jobs sainthood, Mike was telling stories of the Apple factories in China that he visited in disguise and the appalling conditions that he found. Mike has been getting a lot of well deserved attention for this show and now, the issues he brought up are being highlighted in the news almost daily.

This is an act of courage and inspiration and this is how Solo Performance at it's best really can change the world. I love how Mike is taking huge issues and making them very accessible and intimate through his gift of embodied storytelling as a monologue. Both these men are inspirations to me and assist me in deepening my understanding of the tru invitation of this work.

FYI: You can listen to a good chunk of "The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs" on This American Life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The "Business" of Acting and Finding YOUR own way..

This week-end my fourteen year old daughter Chloe was in NYC for a teen Broadway Intensive workshop. There were days scheduled with casting directors, acting teachers, vocal coaches, dance instructors and even a Master Class with some of the Broadway cast of "STOMP"She attended with her best friend since kindergarten, who is a singer.

Both girls study at the New Mexico School for the Arts high school. Chloe in acting and Sam in singing. NYC was different. Chloe reported experiences with cutthroat stage mothers, casting directors who were mostly concerned about "type" over originality and that intense vibe that one only gets to experience in NYC studios.

The experience was good for Chloe. She has more information on which to base her choices of what kind of actor she wants to be, what kind of path she wants to forge. And the various costs of various paths...Because we all pay in one way or another for our choices.

Her whole experience made me reflect on my own training, my own dreams of youth and how some of them played and some of them did not. And how some of them changed.

When I saw Meryl Streep in the t.v movie "The Holocaust" when I too was 14, I decided that I wanted to be an actor. Her performance rocked me to the core of my humanity. I asked my mother to sign me up for acting lessons in the DC suburbs which she did.

My first teachers were wonderful. I felt "seen" and "whole" for the first time in my life as I embarked upon the deep emotional journey of an actor. I thrived playing in the deep end of the ocean and my happiest times were spent in rehearsals for shows in a darkened theater. I instantly loved Shakespeare, Albee, Williams, O'Neal..I was cast in show after show and attended a summer camp for the Arts during high school at Goucher Collge where I studied with a truly amazing teacher, Pat Vitalglian.

My experiences in college was mixed in terms of teachers. I had a great one, Matthew Vakey at Carnegie Mellon and another great, Ron Jenkins at Emerson. Both continued to instill my love of the art. Both were deeply supportive in terms of developing my craft.

But the ugly shadow of competitive, one size fits all acting had also begun to creep in. At Carnegie Mellon, I had a female teacher who "went after" all the Freshman and Sophmore girls who were vulnerable in any way. She told one girl, Diana that she couldn't stand the sight of her and to get out of her classroom until she lost some weight. She told another girl that she would never work because of the size of her nose.

And one day, she pulled me aside and said that I was too unattractive to be an ingenue and too pretty to be a character actor. And so that at 18, I might as well give up on a career now. Because there was not a "place" for me. And I did give up for a while. Her words penetrated my deepest fears and deepest wounds. I began to get suicidally depressed. By summer I decided that I wasn't going back to school the next year. I went to NYC for a year and began to study with the late, great Bill Hickey at HB Studios. Bill confided at me that he would never teach at any of "the League' drama schools because they were all this way when I told him the story. I got into an abusive relationship to validate my worth and attractiveness.

I was running my life based on  the thought that I was not good enough to have my dream even though I knew that I was talented as an actor. The "business" of acting already felt brutal to me and I had barely begun.

Then I decided to go back to school in Boston.And I met Spalding Gray...a man who was creating his shows and touring with them. A man who had stepped entirely out of the system. From the moment I walked out of the theater after seeing him, I knew what my new dream was. To create and perform solo shows. In time the dream also included helping others create.

Deb Margolin, an early and well known solo performer who also teaches at Yale called solo performance "Outsiders Theater'. I agree with her wholeheartedly. No matter how the culture sees us, those of us who are drawn to solo theater, in some way, identify as outsiders.

I do not know what my daughter's path will be. An insiders path or an outsiders. Or an in-between. As artists, we all find our own way. And pain and failures along the journey can even lead to our deeper calling. That is what happened with me.

I met some amazing people and just kept following an inner voice over an outer voice. Isn't that what outsiders are here to do?

You can have your art. You can have your career. Do it the way you want to.