Time to Go Solo

Everyone else is doing it.

There are two irrefutable truths about solo shows. The first is that they’re rising in popularity, as shown by the fact that virtually every large theater in Seattle and elsewhere features at least one a season. The second is that when they’re good, they can be very good, and when they’re bad, they’re just terrible. Even solo performers agree.

“That feeling when the show’s started, and you know it’s not going to be good, and you’re pinned to your seat by the direct gaze of the performer, with no escape possible, that…that is really a bad feeling,” says Keira McDonald, who toured the Canadian fringe circuit last summer with her own solo show. “I probably have seen a hundred shows since last July, and I’m all too familiar with that problem.”

McDonald is the creator and main driving force behind the Solo Performance Festival (or SPF), running this week at Theatre Off Jackson and featuring six different shows as well as Monolodge, a collaboration with Seattle’s Unicycle Collective that features nine local artists presenting excerpts from works in progress. This year’s program features mostly out-of-towners, which McDonald says is due mainly to scheduling problems. “I wanted Marya Kaminski, I wanted Todd Jefferson Moore. But they were all, ‘Oh! I’ve got to work with my own company!’ ‘I’ve got to do Molière!’ Whatever,” she laughs. Fortunately, her fringe tour gave her a chance to see a bunch of new performers, and as the main curator for SPF, she was able to convince them to visit Seattle.

One of these performers, former Seattleite Suzanne Morrison, has seen her own share of bad solo shows. When she was developing her current show, Yoga Bitch, she decided that she would, at all costs, avoid at least one cliché. “It seemed like every other show I saw was some guy talking about his sexual abuse or his drug addictions, and then at some point going into a seizure. So I decided: no twitching in my show.” But then, to her horror, there was a point in her story where she and her director decided that some twitching was required. Considering that her experience at a two-month yoga retreat in Bali included repeated suggestions from her fellow attendees to drink her own urine, a small seizure is probably artistically justified.

Morrison blames the excesses of some solo performers primarily on a tendency to take themselves, and their experiences, far too seriously. “Comedy’s your best friend in this medium,” she says, particularly when the material, like hers, is autobiographical. “It can be devastatingly boring and cringe-worthy if someone’s emoting all over the place. I don’t want to be sobbing on the stage talking about my mother.” Her own show is a humorous rebuke of the money-hungry yoga industry, and the overinflated egos of its gurus.

Other SPF performers seem to have taken this advice to heart. Six of the shows, which include Boom by Bellingham’s Andrew Connor (half of the comedy duo the Cody Rivers Show), Deep Fried Curried Perogi by Edmonton’s Michelle Todd (a meditation on racial identity by a Filipino/Jamaican who married a British/Ukranian), Twirling by Seattleite Aaron LaPlante (a short portrait of an eccentric master artist), and Seven Sins by San Franciscan James Judd (assorted vignettes about bad behavior), are comedies.

Even Jayson McDonald, who knocked me out last year with Giant Invisible Robot (he’ll give a couple of encore performances this festival ,too), is premiering a new comedy called Boat Load that sounds more whimsical than gripping, a tale of an actor who needs a thousand bucks to either save his career or pay for his cat’s operation. But then again, the story of a boy’s friendship with a humanity-hating giant automaton (the GIR) sounded cutesy as well.

“Honestly, I think it’s the future of theater: smaller, more autobiographical stories,” says Morrison. “My audiences include a lot of people who don’t go to theater, but these stories are ones that they can relate to. Most theater is presented less like entertainment and more like it’s good for you, like taking a vitamin or something. People are actually interested in the subject matter here.” There’s truth to this: Would you rather see another Alan Ayckbourn, or hear an account of a bomb maker’s convoluted relationship with his home town (that would be Connor’s Boom)? My money’s on the solo show.