Stigma of the One-Person Show

by James Haro

When I used to hear the term “one-person show” my first instinct was to run. I’ve collected from a few of my peers similar sentiments. That is not to say I haven’t been entertained or haven’t enjoyed myself during a one person show. Actually, I’ve been quite spoiled with two that I have seen, and I’ll talk about what made them unique in a bit. However, my first task will be to examine what exactly is the stigma that has been attached to the idea of the one-person show (I think “one man show” is the more commonly accepted term, but not all theater artists are men, which is something our industry often forgets).

So what is it? Attention span? Does it have to do with having to focus on one face, one body, one set of lungs, sometimes for hours? Or is it that sometimes it feels more like a lecture than a piece of theater (more often than desired the show is actually setin a classroom)? I don’t think I am wrong in saying that one-person shows are generally portrayed in pop-culture as silly; performances in bare stages put on by overly ambitious actor types talking about their daily lives or their cRaZy friends or family members. Sometimes they begin with an “Oh, I didn’t see you there…” or, “Oh! You startled me…” or, they walk on stage saying goodbye to someone else. Sometimes there are voices or impressions involved, different characters that the actor plays. Sometimes there is a message, and sometimes it’s not a subtle one.

I’ve been lucky enough to see two shows that defy these conventions, both of which are closing this weekend. LA’s own Circle X Theatre Co. has in its venue the infamous endurance piece by Casey Smith, “Violators Will Be Violated.” In New York, Women’s Project is presenting SITI Company‘s Virginia Woolf examination, an endurance piece in its own right, “Room,” performed by Ellen Lauren and directed by Anne Bogart. In both these pieces movement and theatricality is key, and their similarities are what I believe make them stand out.

When Casey Smith takes the stage in “Violators…” there is nothing but a single stool present. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that what follows is a thesis statement on why nothing is holy, how no one is completely immune from laughing at scatological humor, and makes you feel better that a wooden stool was just defiled in front of you. “Violators…” laughs in the face of the hour long sentimental monologue that is your run of the mill one-person show and spits in its mouth. Instead, it is a series of vignettes acted out in a violently hilarious almost wordless mime-ballet.

When Ellen Lauren takes the stage in “Room” there is nothing but a single chair present. She proceeds to demonstrate to all pretenders what it means for a performer to be the master of her body and breath. Her movements are thrillingly suspenseful and activates what can only be described as a spritely energy which carries her and the audience through to the end.

Both Smith and Lauren effortlessly engage you. Their respective roles are physically demanding and their energies certainly pay off. They aren’t relaying boring life stories, they aren’t putting on bad Brooklyn accents, they are simply performing. More than that, the audience is asked not to listen, but to watch the piece. On stage, a lot more can be interestingly done than interestingly said. This, I believe, is the biggest pitfall of the one-person show, and perhaps of any show.

So maybe the stigma attached to the one-person show has been earned but surely not all pieces deserve it. What can be done to cast away this stigma is a topic for another post, but more pieces like “Violators…” and “Room” would help. Because of Ellen Lauren and Casey Smith, my instinct to run from one-person shows has forever been curbed. Now I only briskly walk away.

James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking his BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at www.AngryPatrons.WordPress.com.

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