The 5-hour, 5-Act play with interludes has long since become a thing of the past. What Shakespeare’s audience could leisurely enjoy all afternoon would in today’s world be an extreme extravagance. The 3-Act play has become as rare as an all night performance of the Javanese Wayang (Shadow Puppets). We have had Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Kenneth Branagh’s 5-hour film of Hamlet, and Druid Murphy’s daylong trilogy of Irish plays. We even had Keegan’s Theatre’s powerful Fall 2012 production of August: Osage County, but that was over before mid-night. In today’s increasingly busy world, it seems even the traditional 2-hour, 2-Act script with intermission is fast being usurped by that newest rage, the 90-minute, feature-film-like full-length one-act with no intermission.
It’s not just the length or act structure of plays that is shrinking, however; so too are the number of actors being employed to convey the dramatic tale. Along with the Shakespearean 5-Act epics came a veritable village of actors ready and able to assume the numerous characters. To make these performances affordable, companies eliminated sets and costumes and produced a new play every week (the absence of copyright restrictions made stealing an art form).
In today’s theatre, on the other hand, a new play with more than five actors frequently can’t get so much as a staged-reading much less a production. With the cost of theatre ever increasing, playwrights have learned that they must rely on double casting if they are to script stories with more than five or six characters. As a result, go to the theatre today and chances are the play you will experience will have two to four actors in a one-act play, between 75 and 90 minutes long.
In fact, in the not-too-distant future, chances are that those 75 minutes of theatrical entertainment will be filled not by an ensemble of any size, but by a solo performer who will then assume all the parts and mime all of the action a la Bottom in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.
Yes, the one-person show is the new hot thing sweeping through Washington theatre. To be sure, the one-person show has been around for a while: immediately, Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain or Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson come to mind. Now, however, we’ve grown accustomed to the dominance of solo shows at recent Capital Fringe Festivals (and other Festivals as well), but I suspect that has as much to do with the Festival’s formatting—quick load ins, quicker load outs, and fierce competition—than with any larger trend in theatre. Their emergence as a presence at mid-sized theatres, however, is most likely a harbinger of things to come.
Already this season, we’ve had seven solo shows: 1) An Iliad (Scott Parkinson), 2) A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas (Paul Morella), 3) Wonderful Life (Jason Lott), 4) I Love To Eat (Nick Olcott), 5) How I Paid For College (Alex Brightman), 6) The Screwtape Letters (Max McLean—and yes, there was Toadpipe but…) and 7) Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-A*s Wit of Molly Ivins (Kathleen Turner).
The degree to which the one-person show comes to dominate the theatrical landscape in the future will determine the degree to which the dramatic, i.e., the tale that develops through conflict, crisis, and climax, continues to define the stage. For the solo performance—however virtuoso it may be—is, almost by definition, not dramatic. It is a narrated tale, which may relate conflict but cannot embody the conflict three-dimensionally, unless of course the actor resorts to that comic schizophrenia one sometimes sees where the single actor argues ferociously with himself, he-said, she-said style.
For the most part, solo performances tell—or at best, recreate—a conflict and tension that happened somewhere else at another time. Take, for example, An Iliad most recently performed at Studio Theatre. Homer’s Iliad, if performed with a cast of thousands, would define drama itself. Achilles versus Agamemnon, Achilles versus Hector, Hector versus his wife—on stage, performed by actors, the tension embedded in his original would burst the fourth wall and flood the streets with gore and awe. In a solo performance, however, even Scott Parkinson, a superb performer to be sure, can only relate those tension-filled scenes. The audience can listen attentively and imagine their significance and what they must have been like, but within the frame of the one-person performance those scenes cannot affect us emotionally the way drama does. We will not sit breathless, in fear for our hero’s life, or his wife’s horrible fate.
If anything, the more skilled the performer is, the more likely our attention will focus on the performer—his marvelous skill or her radiant presence—than on the tale he or she is conveying through word and gesture. That’s because the power and the magic of theatre have always rested in theatre’s physicality and in its lived expression of the human struggle. The solo performance, on the other hand, replies mostly on language. Even when the performer embodies a particularly character, as Kathleen Turner most definitely did with Molly Ivins, the character’s conflict (in this case Ivins’ struggle to deal with her Dad’s death) gets lost in the narration. The same dilemma has faced a whole host of one-person shows I’ve had the privilege of experiencing in recent years: no matter how I might enjoy the show as a whole, the in-the-moment, lived-conflict that so much defines the dramatic or the comic gets swallowed by the language. As a result, we are left with a form that resembles the art of the storyteller or the stand-up comic more than the art of the actor.
It is not that I don’t enjoy the solo performance, for I do. In fact, I have even created my own. It’s just that in this age of ever increasing anxiety about declines in arts funding, which leads to an ever increasing inclination toward money-saving one-person shows, I fear for the dramatic and its dialogues of exploration where communities perform their experience together. I’d hate to see that more collective expression, or even the 2-to-5-character-show, go the way of the cast of thousands, leaving us with that solitary figure on the stage, speaking, however eloquently, about the way the stage used to be.