You've probably heard that old aphorism, "Everyone's got at least one good story to tell." It's a pleasantly democratic sentiment, whether true or not. Still, I have to admit I am thoroughly sick of all of this narcissism. The number of blogs in this country now far exceeds the number of people who know how to read, I suspect. Tell-all auto-biographies, both real (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and fake (A Million Little Pieces), launch literary careers and dominate book clubs. And once again, we're seeing a resurgence of that most personal of theatrical forms, the solo show.
The stereotypical solo-show experience: You are trapped in a theater for an hour or two by an egomaniacal "artist" who narrates her tale with props, silly voices, and a feverish intensity. Favorite topics? Sexual abuse, wild times on drugs and booze (from which the narrator barely escaped with artistic career intact), and the impossibility of reconciling with one's wacky family because they're either dead or dysfunctional. (The late, great Bill Hicks once described the solo show he never wrote: "Hi, my name's Bill, my mommy never beat me and my daddy never fucked me...that's it.")
And lists. Lists, lists, lists. One of the most insidious contagions passed from the world of slam poetry is the endless lists that pepper some solo shows—"Things that make me happy: Sunlight. Birds. Swing sets. The Muppets. e.e. cummings." I don't know about you, but since I graduated college, my lists have mostly read like this: "Laundry. Pay phone bill. Dinner—what goes with pork chops?"
I've seen a whole slew of solo shows in the past week, some of which fit the stereotype perfectly. One of them, Another You at On the Boards, hit every stereotype so comprehensively that I suspect it was composed on some sort of solo-show software. I'm quite sure the performers and authors believed that they had insights worth sharing, but I can't help wondering: When did autobiography stop being something written toward the end of your life, when you have some wisdom and insight and, who knows, maybe even some maturity as an artist? Unless you've got energy or talent comparable to the blitzkrieg cheerfulness of a Mike Daisey or the unstoppable comic precision of a Lauren Weedman, it's unlikely you can transform personal anecdote into something that'll hold my attention.
Even the creators of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, who had plenty of drama at their disposal, felt the need to pad their show with a lot of personal codswallop—diary entries and e-mails, detailing the life of a fairly ordinary young woman growing up in Olympia and going to Evergreen. In fairness to Corrie, she certainly never planned for her random journal jottings to be read onstage. ("Mother! I can't believe you staged my journal!") But the adaptors clearly believed that modern audiences want their politics, like everything else, covered with a thick gravy of personal autobiography, details that would make her more "human." For some in the audience it undoubtedly worked, but for me, the personal preface was unnecessary coating for the substantive if harrowing second half, filled with perceptive insight about daily life in Gaza and the complexities and horror of the political situation.
If solo plays must be performed (and apparently they must), then thank God for shows like Giant Invisible Robot, which Canadian performer Jayson McDonald brought to town recently as part of the Seattle Solo Performance Festival. I'm assuming that this twisted tale of a boy's friendship with a murderous metal monster isn't autobiographical in the least. (If I'm wrong, we're all in for a lot of trouble.) Autobiography gives immediacy, but as artists like McDonald demonstrate, once free of the restraints of personal experience, the creative imagination can go anywhere, not just to a lonely kid's bedroom, but to a military command post, a scientist's laboratory, or sitting on a hillside with a giant invisible robot. I won't give away the brilliant ending, but I found the emotional heart of McDonald's entirely imaginary story more moving than the real tales I'd heard elsewhere. Let's hear it for fiction, and for stories that have been dreamt up, not jotted down in a journal.