The Power of One
The Solo Play for Playwrights, Actors, and Directors
Louis E. Catron is the author of Writing, Producing, and Selling Your Play (Prentice-Hall), The Director's Vision (Mayfield), Playwriting (Waveland Press), and The Elements of Playwriting (Macmillan). He has also published in periodicals, especially Writer's Digest and Dramatics. His latest book, just published in February, is The Power of One: The Solo Play for Playwrights, Actors, and Directors (Heinneman).
He teaches playwriting, play direction, and acting at the College of William and Mary, where he is Professor of Theatre. He has considerable experience as actor, playwright, and theatrical director, and he has supervised over 200 productions, many of them the solo play.
The Power of One contains specific advice for playwrights, actors, and directors to help create solo plays. It also includes a number of solo plays that demonstrate techniques in creating them.
Talkin' Broadway: Lou, you've already published several books which deal with the classic, multi-character play. Now, with your latest book, The Power of One, you're looking at how to develop a "one man (or woman) play." Is there any difference in how a playwright would approach writing a play for one character instead of several characters?
Louis Catron: In some respects, the similarities are striking. Characterization is, of course, essential for multiple-character scripts as well as for solo plays, although the latter certainly can't have lapses. Structure is important for both, but some solo plays seem to be looser (think of Jane Martin's strong solo plays, for example) and succeed. The one-person play has more room to experiment than we see in standard multi-character plays. For one example, it can range in length from perhaps 10 minutes to a full evening's entertainment. But it can explore writing techniques and styles, too.
The playwright knows that standard multiple character plays can use stimulus-response tactics with one character prompting another to react.
The trick for the monodramatist is to find a way for one character to provoke that character to develop, react, grow. That also is important for the actor. Many like to think that theatre exists with character-to-character interplay. For the solo performer who can't rely on that, there can be more importance on the character making discoveries about self. Spontaneity takes on added significance.
It can help to remember that while only one actor is one stage, there can be other characters. Ruth Draper, who surely was an outstanding writer-actor and probably deserves more credit for the today's monodrama than any other single person, would play multiple characters in a given short solo play. Anna Devere Smith does that today. And dramatist-actors like Draper also could evoke the presence of [unseen] other characters. Lanford Wilson's solo play, A Poster of the Cosmos, has other characters we never actually see.
That technique gives the solo play one of theatre's most powerful techniques: it awakens the audience's imagination. What better way is there to draw the audience into the play than to make it "see" and "hear" the invisible and inaudible?
A friend who is a solo playwright-actor says she believes monodramas depend more on language - they are "dramas of language" - than do multi-character plays. It is a good point.
For the audience, the solo play awakens a sense of admiration for the actor. It can be a full-fledged tour de force. That gives the actor an immediate built-in respect - "Hey, he/she did that play all alone!" While that is especially true of the full-length one-person plays, it also applies to shorter works.
One of the greatest powers the solo play has is its ability to remove the "mask." In life, we all wear masks according to the situation and environment we're in. The diligent employee mask. The social creature mask. The earnest young actor mask. In multiple character plays, all wear masks according to the situation. But in a solo play, we see the character without the mask, and that's a deep look into the real human, just as we see Hamlet without a mask when he says "To be or not to be," something he cannot say when others are present. For the audience, seeing the genuine human is an exciting journey. For the actor, it means showing vulnerability. I think that can be a magnificent experience.
T.B.: Certainly the "solo play" seems to be getting more popular lately, especially Off Broadway. For a young playwright/actor, what are the advantages of creating a solo play?
L.C.: The cynic would say that solo plays are popular because they cost far less to produce than a multi-character play. And it is true that there's only one character to costume, only one actor to pay, and usually the plays are presented with minimalist scenic effects. (Simon Callow says that the advantage for the director is that when you take the cast out to lunch the bill is smaller!) They can be presented in libraries, church basements, meeting halls, lobbies, lofts. Colleges often provide space and support.
There are logistical conveniences, too. For example, rehearsals don't necessarily tie up stage space. One doesn't have to be concerned about cast dynamics or the divas who can create havoc among the multi-character company. And they can - in some instances - be a source of income. Even several centuries ago an actor wrote that one could "replenish a thin wallet" by presenting a solo play. The solo play can create a theatrical career. For example, Hal Holbrook was a college student when he began developing one of the most popular solo plays: MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! He won major awards, had successful Broadway runs, made recordings, and started a successful stage, film, and TV career.
While I wouldn't deny those reasons, it seems to me that the monodrama also offers the writer-actor a marvelous challenge that can be quite rewarding. Doing a solo play gives the actor the same thrill as being able to play a character with great soliloquies like "To be or not to be." Like sailors who single-hand their boats around the world or athletes who prefer the solo responsibility of running the mile instead of being a member of a relay team, the one-person play is a great test. I think for some monodramatists there's also a rebellion against a society that has so much group-think, group-activity. Perhaps some solo actors would echo Ayn Rand's anger at collectivism.
If I can be permitted to quote my book's title, I think that "the power of one" is a primary reason. For the playwright, developing only one character - instead of being distracted by others - can be advantageous. Patrick Stewart says he found relief from "Star Trek" by packing up his car and visiting colleges to do a one-man show, another evidence of the artistic advantages of the solo play.
Also helping the popularity are those extremely powerful productions by those who write plays for themselves to perform, such as Anna Devere Smith, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Grey, and others. They open new doors, suggest directions to follow.
Let me add one more thing, if I may. If I were in charge of an acting program, I'd require the actors to write a solo play designed for themselves to perform. Why? A number of reasons. First, actors ought put themselves in the role of a playwright so they'll treat a script with insight and respect. Secondly, the actor should create a solo play that uses their strengths and avoids weaknesses, and identifying those can be damned educational. Third, they can more easily find ways to produce their solo play than a multi-character script. Fourth, the solo play can lend itself to an audition passage (after all, there's no need to edit out other characters). Fifth, any actor who can succeed with a solo play has a distinct advantage in playing classical characters with soliloquies. Finally, doing a solo play forces the actor to develop vocal techniques, physicalization, characterization. In this "ideal" acting program, I'd also require each actor to serve as a director for someone's solo play. There are more reasons, but I'm going on too long here.
I think a package of this nature could be remarkably helpful for actor growth. I'd love to work with an outstanding actor-training group to help them learn the solo play's advantages.
T.B.: What topics or subjects do you think are most suitable for a solo play?
L.C.: Something that the playwright cares about. Deeply. A gut issue. Something about which the writer has a point of view . . . and feels compelled to share. A fascinating character.
I imagine there probably are subjects that may not lend themselves to a solo play, but I don't know what they are. I suspect that as soon as one lists a subject that won't work, someone can point to a solo play that is remarkably potent.
T.B.: Writing on "something that the playwright cares about" was a strong emphasis in your earlier books on how to write a play. Do you feel that a playwright must care deeply about the subject of his play?
L.C.: I've been around the track too many times to use the word "must." We're talking about an art, and absolute rules are absolutely close to a major chasm.
Each playwright has to find his or her own path in a search-and-find series of experiments. I think all of us involved in the art need to develop our personal standards, preferably by using that same empirical observation system that Aristotle used. It is pretty simple and remarkably effective. (1) See plays. (2) Judge what "worked." (3) Determine why it worked. Luckily, we'll each come to different conclusions, and that variety is what helps keep theatre alive.
But my personal view is that I find that I certainly am more impressed with plays that show the playwright's deep involvement in the subject, versus the plays that may be better written, better crafted.
I imagine my best example is a play everyone knows - or should know: Arthur Miller's The Crucible. A careful analysis of the play will uncover some unfortunate errors in craft. The trial scene, for one example, brings virtually all the townspeople on stage, and every now and then one pops up to say something that could just as well be said by any other character. That scene is a directorial test. Necessarily the director places those characters somewhere upstage out of the way, but all at once one of them expresses an opinion, which demands that the director be sure they aren't covered and can be seen and heard. It also is an actor's test. "Why am I saying this?" an actor must ask. I sure don't have an answer. "Just do it" is about all a director can reply. (Or more flippantly, "Because you want that paycheck.")
But we don't notice those craft problems in Crucible. Why? Because Miller is deeply involved with the witch hunt analog. The playwright cares. Intensely. Because he cares so much, we in the audience are swept along.
To cite another example, I think Anna Devere Smith's has craft problems. Could the scenes be in a different order? Perhaps. Is it constructed to build, build, build? Oh, I think not. But it is nitpicking to raise those questions. She plunges her heart and soul into that play, both as the playwright and as the performer. That investment of self makes Fires in the Mirror an intensely theatrical experience, and when I saw it I noticed that the play hit the audience in the gut. Not unimportantly, Smith opens the door to new forms of the solo play.
Contrast The Crucible and Fires with any daytime soap and the point is made.
All that said, let me return to that word "must."
No, I see no mandate here. I'm also a big fan of Broadway musicals. And how many of them show a writer's investment of self? Equally, Rob Becker's solo play, Defending the Caveman, is highly entertaining but I didn't find that gut involvement. Does that invalidate Caveman? Absolutely not.
Still . . . if the playwright doesn't care about the subject, how involved can the actor get? How will we in the audience feel?
T.B.: How does a playwright discover what these "gut issues" are, things that he cares deeply enough about to have his or her emotions drive the creation of a play?
L.C.: I'm a believer in the power of the "credo," and I describe it in detail in Playwriting: Writing, Producing, and Selling Your Play. (I'd like to revise that book and weave "the credo" throughout other chapters because so many readers found that discussion of the credo so helpful.)
A credo is one's belief structure, a statement of "This I believe."
I think most humans would benefit from following a technique of an annual self-examination of beliefs like Samuel Becket dramatizes in his Krapp's Last Tape. (This is an example relevant to our chat about solo plays because it is a one-man show.) Each birthday Krapp has a ceremony involving making a new tape recording of who he is, aided by listening to past tapes from earlier birthdays. It is a theatrical version of the "credo."
For playwrights - who are writers, after all - it ought be a written credo. But any theatre artist will find that writing the credo forces careful thought, unlike those windy bull sessions we remember in the dorm rooms. They were fun, sure, but not awfully enlightening. Writing provokes thinking.
What goes into the credo? Whatever one most strongly believes. We'll each have a different set of values.
One then writes one's play about one of the points in the credo, preferably the most important one.
But one borrows the advice given to the agit-prop (agitation-propaganda) playwrights of the 1930s. "Be sure no character knows what the issue is. That'll stop the playwright from having heavy-handed speeches that tell the point and instead create action that shows the issue." The writer develops a character who is now living the issue.
I recently saw a powerful solo play I'd like to mention here. The character is backstage in a strip joint. She'll soon go out and strip. It's her first time. Why is she going to do that? We discover she is a rape victim. She was controlled by the rapist, "Mr. You Know You Want This, Baby." Now she will go out and control those men. She'll tease them, tempt them, arouse them. And then she'll demand that the club's lights go on so she can look at the men in the eyes. At this point the theatre's house lights went on and the actress made eye contact with each of us. Damn, what a moment! I would imagine every male shrunk from her eyes. "And then I'll grab my self respect and leave," she says as a curtain line.
This wasn't a dull essay about rape. It was written from the gut about a girl we watch living the issue.
Writing from a credo doesn't necessarily mean heavy drama. Some playwrights can flip the subject into a marvelous comedy.
Many books on writing say, "Write what you know best." Well, okay, that makes sense. But to me, far better advise to the writer is, "Write what you care most about." That's a major reason I think the credo seems so important.
T.B.: I've seen quite a few very bad solo plays. Where do playwrights/actors typically "go wrong" when they are creating this type of theatrical work?
L.C.: Oh, lord, yes. I've seen the bad solo plays, too. At those times I think that a bad monodrama can be worse than a bad multi-character play.
It seems to me that one problem starts when the playwright feels mistreated by society and writes a whine. "Poor me." And "The world is full of inequities but I suffer them the most." Awful. I think of those as "diary entries" - okay for one's private diary, but I don't want to see it on stage! The result is a protagonist without an objective, a play without action, and a whimpering character that makes the audience feel, "Awww, come on, grow up!" Boring. That's quite different from a writer who turns the vague social force into a concrete, specific illustration, an actual living character.
A second problem is when the playwright and actor don't answer the question, "Why is this character speaking out loud?" If the audience has that question, I think it means that there's a major credibility problem. It seems to me we can think of it this way. We don't wonder why Hamlet is speaking out loud when he says "To be or not to be" or when Macbeth says "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." Nor do we wonder why a character in a musical has a solo song - say, for example, Billy Bigelow from Carousel singing "My Boy Bill." Hamlet, Macbeth, and Billy are absolutely compelled to express themselves because of an immense emotion.
So, too, the solo play. I think it works best when the character has such a strong objective and emotional context that he or she must speak. Some monodramas have the character speaking to a teddy bear or on a telephone or the like. Well . . . okay, but . . . .
T.B.: Anyone who has ever seriously tried to write a play knows that it can take months, if not years, to get a reasonably good first draft. During this creative period the playwright will become prey to enormous self-doubts about the quality of what he or she is writing, sometimes to the point of paralysis. What advice do you give playwrights who are facing this sort of writers block?
L.C.: I'm tempted to give a one-word answer. Write.
I know, I know, that sounds flippant, and it seems to make light of the problems of those with a genuine block (in contrast to those who hit a wall when they find out that their idea wasn't strong enough or thought-out well enough to sustain the play).
But writing really does make sense. It certainly beats the hell out of sitting around and moaning about having a block, a process which feeds on itself so the problem grows.
One way to get oneself back to writing is to use the actor's improv exercise. An improv can be based on a speech or two. It takes the character out of the story line and goes somewhere else, adding dialogue, building conflict, playing "what if" games with the character. The playwright can adapt the actor's improv.
Let's look at, say, a scene with two characters. Take two of their speeches, move them to a different context that may seem to have nothing to do with the play itself, and make them - force them - address different matters. You might put them in a restaurant with a surly waiter . . . at a bus station filled with unsavory types . . . at a party that is so dull they decide to play a game on the other people by pretending to be meeting for the first time . . . in an elevator with other people and one of your characters says, in a quietly contemplative way, "Who'd've thought she would have so much blood in her?" The other replies, mock-nervously, "Do you think it'll leak through the floor to the room below?"
With such exercises, you don't have to worry about keeping them in the play's action, you're free of all other restraints, and - importantly - you're not worried about "writing the play." You are just playing. Odds are you'll get to know the characters much better and quite possibly you'll find you've got some ideas for the scene that had stopped you.
Another good exercise is speed writing. Again, remove the characters from the play. Give one an innocuous speech. "It's a joy to have the sun today." Make the other respond. Make them talk. A tennis match, back and forth. Stimulus-response. Short speeches. Write at top speed.
Writing at top speed can help you disconnect that damned destructive self-censor - don't even think if what you're writing is "good" or "bad" - and just play. Force yourself to write at least five pages. Quite likely somewhere in there you'll find ideas for the scene.
For many of us, the block is based on a desire for perfection. We aren't writing "perfectly." So we freeze. The solution is to write but to think we're writing only a rough draft. That self-censor that hangs over our shoulder like an ugly gargoyle can be a terrible thing. Get rid of it any way possible. One way is to convince yourself that you'll later worry if what you write is good or bad. "Hey, these are just notes. I'm just toying with ideas." It can help, too, to believe in your power to revise. Some of need to do a bit of a stern lecture. "Self, you shall immediately put off your procrastination mode."
Often the block is because the basic idea turns out to be too thin to sustain the play. Here's when writing the scenario can be valuable. It is quite easy to shift things around on the outline, but much more difficult when in the scene.
One good way to write the scenario is to get a thick pack of 4x5 index cards. On several write scene identifications ("Act One, Scene One" or "Act Two, Scene Three," and so forth). Spread those on the floor. Now scribble ideas, one to a card, and put them where they belong under the big classifications of Act/Scene. A bit of dialogue. A complication. A discovery. An event. Exposition. Foreshadowing. Funny line. Everything you can think of. You can always move them to a different place. This process likely will take several days, perhaps longer. Fine. It is a worthwhile investment. Then put the cards into a correct order (hold em together with a good rubber band), with Act One/Scene One on top. Turn on the computer and start writing.
Ultimately, you have to write. Not letters to Mom. Not email to buddies. The sooner you get yourself back to writing, the better.
T.B.: Looking back at all the playwriting students you've taught over the years, did the ones who ended up with successful careers as professional playwrights share any common traits, any specific signs of early talent you can identify?
L.C.: Oh, lord, I wish I had that magic fortune teller's ball.
There was one intensely talented young man whose plays shouted "Yes!" He isn't writing. He may have been the most talented writer I've had. But he stopped writing. Why? I don't know and I suspect he doesn't know. Probably the standard reason - he necessarily wants to support his family. We all know that playwriting all too seldom is a steady source of income.
There was a girl who wanted to Be A Writer, not at all the same thing as Needing to Write. She evolved into the latter. When she was graduating, we talked about wanting to become a television writer. I told her the odds against her. She nodded and said, "What the hell, someone's gotta make it. Why not me?" She became a major screen writer, for which she won awards, and a strong novel.
Another girl wrote a marvelous full-length play that I thought was her ticket to success. I got a highly respected big name actress - we're talking Major Name familiar to 95% of the population - to write a letter supporting the play, and we placed that in front of the script. I expected she'd have production after production of that play, and that many more plays would follow. I used a friend in the play publishing business and urged him to publish it. The end result? That play was never produced. Not even once. She went in some paralegal work and stayed there for about ten years. The good news is that she is now a major writer-producer.
Several students from playwriting became novelists. Wow. One recently received a rave review from the New York Times. A couple of years ago one had a huge success and subsequently sold her novel for a movie. Did I know that they'd have such successes? Oh, I wish I could say yes!
So what's the difference between the writer who continues in contrast to the one who stops? I think some of it is not measurable. How can you measure guts, drive, hunger, an ability to persevere, enough mental and emotional and spiritual strength to sustain the effort?
But commonalities? Perhaps the core one is simple. The soul of a story-teller.
Secondly, a psychologist named Maslow talks about "the self-actuated person." I think that is a characteristic most successful writers share. It is an ability to make oneself write. Put the butt to the chair. Write.
Third, there is that nebulous quality called "a sense of the theatre." The playwright's works can be done only in the theatre. It isn't writing an essay or a novel or a sermon or a speech. Instead the playwright hears and sees the characters, in some stage environment that is, curiously, also real life.
Think of the first moments of A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley enters, carrying a package of meat, and throws it up to Stella, his wife. She asks where he's going. "Bowling." "Can I come?" "Sure," he says, and he leaves. That's a sense of theatre.
Creativity, love of characters, ambition, hunger to improve, an eye that actually sees the world, an enjoyment of working alone, an ear for the music of words, a perception of what motivates people, a love of wanting to write . . . but the list goes on and on.
Yes, I can judge a writer's script. No, even if that script is magnificent, I can't tell if that writer will continue writing.
The converse also is true. A very poor script does not necessarily mean its author should get another job, because there always can be improvements. For evidence, look at the early plays by Shaw or O'Neill. I swear there's no evidence of major writing talent in those one-act plays. And I refuse to believe that anyone reading A Comedy of Errors could possibly predict its author would end up writing Hamlet and Macbeth and Lear.
My point here is that no writer's future writing can be judged by his or her current writing.
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