Every year, the shows I see on the first night of the Ottawa Fringe Festival all seem to have something in common. Last year, it was that they all had death as a major theme (i.e., they were comedies).
This year, they were all one-person shows—in particular, one-woman* shows.
Now I believe back during the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s inaugural undercurrents festival, I remarked (if not publicly, then privately), that I was a bit skittish about seeing My Pregnant Brother because it was a one-woman show, and they can go one of two ways. Of course, Johanna Nutter’s show blew me out of the water: it was autobiographical without being self-absorbed, and presented a difficult, unfamiliar subject (not only from a heteronormative perspective, either) in an accessible, real way.
What My Pregnant Brother did for me was to raise the bar even further for solo shows. I began to expect more from them, since I had been shown just how gripping they could potentially be with the right performer and the right story.
So the three shows I saw yesterday evening, and their performers, were: The Animal Show (Katie Hood), Old Legends (Emma Godmere), and Dying Hard (Mikaela Dyke).
Now, these are very different shows, and very different styles of solo performance. The Animal Show is semiautobiographical first-person, depending for its effect upon (and highlighting) the personality, experiences, and insight of the performer. Old Legends is fictional realism, the most traditional of the three (and therefore easier to analyze as theatre) and depends on the ability of the performer to assume a role, remember and deliver lines, and present a narrative to an audience. Dying Hard is verbatim theatre with real people and their words and mannerisms as a source, where the skill of the performer in presenting this reality (and, by the way, verbatim theatre is a particularly strong echo of the oral historical tradition—I find it satisfying that the apex of our society’s technological development has led us full-circle to the imitative storytelling that predates written language) is the theatre of the piece.
These are each worth seeing since, in each case, the performer is more than adept at the make-or-break skill on which their specific show depends. Furthermore, it is worth seeing all of them to destigmatize the solo show.
Maybe there was a time when all solo shows really were an exploration of the writer/performer’s crisis of identity/battle with addiction (and not all of those shows are unwatchable—many are brilliant—but they tend to run together). This is certainly not the case now. If someone turns up their nose when you say “solo show”, you can ask them if they’re going to see Nirvana live since they’re clearly still living in the 1990s.
I think it’s fairly accurate to say that a solo show benefits greatly from the involvement of a director (or a director-dramaturg). A director keeps a self-written solo show from becoming introverted, ingrown, and self-involved. I don’t believe, especially in the case of a solo show written by someone other than the performer, that the writer should also direct; in fact I think (and this may be the only time I admit this) that letting a director, dramaturg, or script consultant—one with an appropriate attitude towards the vision of the piece—have a go at the text with a long, long leash is probably the best way to keep the solo serpent from swallowing its own tail.
You can see The Animal Show, Old Legends, and Dying Hard, as well as a number of other solo (and non-solo) shows, as part of the Ottawa Fringe Festival. Showtimes are too complex for me to list here, but the Ottawa Fringe Festival website, iPhone app, and paper programs have full schedules and maps.
* Is there a difference between a one-man show and a one-woman show? Hey, that can be your Master’s thesis.