O the simple grandeur of it all! There was Sir John on the podium declaiming the Bard’s greatest lines in mellifluous tones, re-creating worlds with just his voice and hands. But times have changed—the number and complexity of one-man shows have grown exponentially since Gielgud toured Ages of Man 20 years ago; dozens have been popping up on Canada’s stages (Billy Bishop Goes to War, Maggie & Pierre and Turning Thirty are among the best known) and the phenomenon shows no signs of withering away.
The solo show seems particularly well suited to the current Canadian theatrical climate. Traditionally thought of as a vehicle only for stars like Gielgud or Douglas Rain (now appearing in the Stratford Festival’s production of Brief Lives) in this country of the relatively starless, the solo performer need not be a king at all. In fact it can be argued that the genre is an ideal way to make stars out of actors like Linda Griffiths (Maggie & Pierre) who, having not chosen the usual road to fame and been stamped Made in Stratford, deserve more attention than they’re getting.
Of course, there are other advantages to “flying solo” besides potential stardom: the actor is in total control, nobody else is around to mess up a brilliant performance and the show can be-
come a perennial bread-and-butter piece if, as happens often enough for actors, times get rough. Says Michael Glassbourg, who has toured The Petty Bourgeois Revue, an hour of satirical skits and songs, across Canada off and on for over four years: “I started doing it when I had nothing else to do and needed money—I’m always changing it, adding new material.” The Canadian record for solo longevity, however, must go to Viola Léger, who has played Antonine Maillet’s famous Acadian charwoman La Sagouine for 10 years in
700 performances in both French and English.
La Sagouine is a monument to endurance, but solo shows often have long runs that make tremendous physical and emotional demands. Says Cheryl Cashman, soloist in Turning Thirty. “Now I understand why stars drink. Once you’ve given everything in a show you want the whole world back—if you don’t get human contact from the audience or after the performance, you end up taking chances, doing anything to fill that void.”
Common courtesy demands that the audience be far more indulgent toward soloists because they are obviously making exceptional demands on their resources. Comments producer Jonathan Stanley, “I think the one-man show is typically Canadian because Canadians are excellent listeners and very polite—they’ll always give an actor the benefit of the doubt.” As if to illustrate the same point, in Ted Johns’s solo The School Show, one of his seven characters actually harangues a papier-mâché dummy. “The play could be done with two or more actors,” says Johns, “but I got interested in this idea of the missing ‘fourth wall,’ of letting the audience fill in the other characters’ responses.”
The extent of audience engagement in a solo show varies enormously, from the hermetic self-absorption Douglas Rain wraps around his portrayal of John Aubrey in Brief Lives to the vulnerable
importunities of the clown and the stand-up comic. Cashman feels the clown character in her series of vignettes is the touchstone of her performance: “When you actively interact with the audience you take responsibility for people—you’ve got to see them safely home. And once you’ve made yourself vulnerable like that, they want to help.” Audience participation is a way of overcoming a danger common to all solo shows, the absence of incarnated dramatic conflict: Brief Lives, a prolonged narration of dozens of lives both great and small, ultimately succumbs to this inherent flaw. Johns evades it by animating his characters with high passions stirred by an important social issue, a teachers’ strike, but Linda Griffiths simply ignores the problem by leaping in and out of three separate roles within seconds of one another.
Actors and audiences aren’t the only ones pleased with the solo format—theatre managers across the country have been trimming budgets, and an obvious place to start is salaries. Mallory Gilbert, general manager of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, claims the theatre deliberately produces plays with smaller casts because actors’ salaries, which were long overdue for a raise, now comprise a significant proportion of the over-all production costs. “In the 197980 season we did two seven-man shows in which salaries accounted for an average of 50 per cent of the costs, two four-man shows accounting for 40 per cent and two two-man shows at around 27 per cent,” says Gilbert. Percentages for solo shows would clearly be even lower, especially since they cost less to stage, though Gilbert’s figures apply to fiveor six-week runs only; complicated government funding scales and the lack of theatre space to extend the runs of successful productions mean that most Canadian theatres continually budget for losses. Longer runs and possible profits would rationalize initial costs and make smaller casts not so necessary an option.
Some theatres are trying to go commercial and break out of their funded confinement, but the solo show still looks like a sound investment. Enthusiastic though most soloists are about their shows, they recognize that even under optimum circumstances there are long-term economic drawbacks in the genre since it tends to work best in lowcapacity intimate theatres, hence lower returns at the box-office. Says Cashman, “For all kinds of reasons you want to do it for the greatest number of people possible, but when you realize how much energy you’re using up, you can’t help thinking, ‘Why not make a movie of it so I can stop doing it?’ That film could buy you the freedom to move on to something else.” <£>
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