Do One Person Shows Suck?

I was going to write this post a month ago, but procrastination got the better of me.  I’m glad it did because the Hamilton Fringe Festival happened and I got to see quite a few one person shows.  It gave me empirical evidence for the conclusion I had already reached.

I’m working on my one person show called Cast Away and I was angsting about one person shows in general.  Are they effective, I wondered?  And then Brad Fraser, a playwright I respect and admire, posted this on Facebook:

Honestly, the majority of one person shows (and there are excellent exceptions) are like being masturbated on by someone you’re not particularly attracted to.

It was followed by many people concurring.  Not exactly the inspiration I was looking for.  😦

I think I know where Brad is coming from (but without the graphic metaphor).  Drama is about conflict and it’s hard to have conflict when there’s only one person on stage.  Even when there’s two people onstage, sometimes.  Put three or more people on a stage and someone’s going to cause problems.  Someone’s going to gang up on someone else.

A one person show is basically one honking long monologue.  Some people hate monologues.  They see them as boring, static or even self-indulgent.  But others love monologues.  They can be honest, intimate and revealing.

Judith Thompson, another playwright I admire, likes to start from monologues to discover her characters.  Ironically, I took workshops with both Brad and Judith in the same 12 month period.  Judith had us starting from the monologue and Brad wanted us writing scenes right away.  You say potato…

We listen to comedians do their monologues and make us laugh.  It’s essentially a one person show.  Usually in smaller doses than a theatrical show, but the concept is the same.

And really there are a couple of forms of the one person show: lecture and dramatic.  The lecture show is basically a performer telling the audience about something that happened to them.  At the Hamilton Fringe there were a few shows that fell into this category: An Inconvenient Truthiness, A Different Woman: A True Story of a Texas Child, Bookworm, and Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter.  All of these shows were interesting and compelling in their own right, but I could see how they might not appeal to a hard core Theatre Person.

However, there were some dramatic one person shows such as Roller Derby Saved My Soul and When Harry Met Harry.  In each show, a single actor played a main character and some secondary characters, as well.  Both of these shows were dramatic and funny.  And I can honestly say that they were more entertaining and polished than some multiple performer plays that I saw.  And they were some of the best shows at this year’s Fringe.  Both of these shows have done well in other Fringes as well, so it’s not just a small audience that is appreciating them.

In the end, it probably boils down to a matter of taste, but I wouldn’t dismiss one person shows outright.  For one thing, they are cheaper to do than multiple actor shows.  And in the hands of a talented performer, they can be absolutely mesmerizing.  I feel a little better about one person shows myself, having seen so many wonderful shows at the Fringe. 

Now, we’ll just have to see how my one person show fares…

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