This essay is the second in a three-part series on actors creating their own work that we will be publishing throughout the month of April. Check back on April 16th for the final installment by solo-performer Ray McAnally and actor/playwright Lekethia Dalcoe. The first piece in the series, by Niki Hatzidis, is available here.
For years I had ideas for a solo show, an embarrassing number of years. As an actor I was familiar with the genre, having gigged around the country as the “one-man” in an established one-man show that had been a Broadway hit. But I had always written off my own solo show ideas as thinly veiled attempts at stringing characters together into a what would be a good showcase, not a good show. Finally, I found the nucleus of a personal story with themes I really cared about. I realized I needed to tell this particular story because everything I was trying to write related to these themes in some way. So I decided it was time to write my show. I sat down to open my laptop. And then more months went by.
Sound familiar? Good, read on.
My show idea was very personal and I wanted to make sure it was funny but also revealed something honest. I’ve always respected artists who truly opened up and if I was going to do a solo show, I wanted it to have meaning. For me, that was a story about confidence and body issues. I had battled my weight for over twenty years. I saw women opening up about body issues and their weight, but I only saw men being self-deprecating. So, I knew I wanted to talk about my own experiences with body size, especially the duality of being an actor who books because I’m big, but then would go on a confidence roller coaster in my personal life. I mean, when you’ve played Fat Astronaut all day, it’s kind of hard to find the confidence to ask someone out that night.
I was Socratic enough to know that I didn’t know anything about writing a solo show. I hadn’t moved passed a page full of notes with three or four personal anecdotes. Looking back on it now, I was stuck for three reasons:
1) I didn’t know the structure of my story.
2) I didn’t trust that anyone would want to hear it.
3) I was afraid to show it to anyone until it was “perfect”.
These three reasons came together as pretty sturdy supports for my stagnation. They were thick like posts and as long as they were there I was stuck. Enter Opportunity, with a chain and a winch.
It was January of 2012 and a director I had collaborated with on multiple short film projects was going to be in New York for three months. We had the idea to meet a few times a week and get as far as we each could on writing a screenplay. Until this point, all I’d written were short-form comedy scripts. So I was going to get my introduction to structuring a feature-length project! Watch out, Post
Soon it was February, and the phone rang. One of my best friends from grad school, Katherine, called to tell me we were going to take a solo show writing class together. She’d been listening to me talk about this project for far too long and she was giving me a kick in the ass like real friends do.
The class was everything I needed to pull free those other two posts in my way. The teacher, Judy Gold, had this fantastic mix of stand-up and theatre experience. Also, she had the ability as a teacher to cut right to what you really wanted to talk about and what others wanted to hear. Each class we’d present material, get detailed feedback from the class, take home writing homework, rinse, and repeat. My classmates told me point-blank what interested them about my story (Post #2) and I quickly had to get passed wanting perfection before presenting (Post #3).
Now note, unlike in the movies, lessons are rarely linear. Hindsight allows me this compact understanding of events. All I knew at the time was that I was getting feedback on my writing and that scripted pages were actually happening. I still wanted anything I presented to be perfect outside of these two supportive environments. So, as you can imagine, when the class ended and I stopped having writing meetings, I grabbed some concrete, re-sunk those three Posts, and didn’t budge.
However, I did finish that feature-length screenplay, because I did my work as a writer and studied structure. I learned how I wanted to tell my story. My solo show writing class hadn’t been about structure as much as about developing your initial idea into something that could become a full story. It was there that my classmates and Judy encouraged me to talk more about the difference between the way I saw myself and the way my loved ones saw me. I found those relationships to add to my theme, but I was lost in what to do with them.
I needed to find some solo show structure that I could latch onto. The solo show I had toured with was performed more in the style of stand-up comedy, with theatrical bookends that made it personal and theatrical. I wanted my show to be more of a solo-play, like the work of Nilaja Sun or Bill Bowers (two incredible Solo Theatre Performers, check them out if you haven't already). So I searched to find the “traditional” standard structure and discovered that there was no such standard, not just for a solo-play, but for most styles within the genre of spoken word solo performance.
I mean, think about it. There’s no single structure to a stand-up set, a lecture, a story, a monologue, or a vlog. These are all examples of styles of spoken word Solo Performance. So my definition of Solo Performance became “a planned performance of scripted speech by a single person, alone, intended to entertain an audience.” Broad, I know. It was all the more reason to find my way into my story like I had with writing my feature film. I didn’t want to be frozen forever.
Enter Opportunity, once again, this time with dynamite to blow up all three posts.
It was April of 2013 and I was stuck on page twenty of my show. I’d been married for just two years but had learned so much about myself through the eyes of my loving wife that I no longer was on that confidence roller coaster. I had perspective and had found my potential story in my real-life weight loss and gain the year we got married. But I was hiding all those ideas and wondered more and more who would want to hear such a personal story. So I emailed D. Lynn Meyers, the Artistic Director of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. I was going to be in town, I’d worked at ETC, and asked if she’d consider letting me invite people to hear these twenty pages out loud.
She asked to see what I had. I sent the incomplete script.
She asked where the story was going, causing me to organize my thoughts. I formatted my story into a treatment, which was something I naively thought should only be used for screenplays. It was now the beginning of May and I waited to hear if I would get my reading, not realizing that I had just found my structure, thanks to the treatment.
Lynn responded with, “if you can have a finished script by the end of May, I’ll consider making it the final show of our next season”.
With that one sentence, Lynn yanked those posts straight out of the ground with superhuman artistic strength, concrete and all! I will never be able to express to Lynn what she did for me in that single email exchange. A well established and respected Artistic Director had read what I’d written and wanted to see more. Not only that, she thought her audience might want to see more, too. The script wasn’t even finished, let alone “perfect” (my old personal standard), but I shared it anyway, and look what happened!
It had taken me years to complete the first twenty pages of this project, and now I had three weeks to finish it. But I had a structure. I had someone who wanted to hear it. And no one was asking for it to be perfect, not even me.
I wrote the full script in two weeks.
My show received its World Premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati in May of 2014. We ran for three weeks with audience members returning to bring family and friends. On opening night a tall thin guy approached me but got too emotional to speak. His wife explained that he had lost over one hundred pounds in one year and wanted to thank me for explaining to her what his life was like. It blew me away. It still does. And every night since that I’ve done the show, audience members have lined up in the lobby to tell me why the show spoke to them; men and women, all shapes and sizes.
Because I stopped waiting for perfection, trusted my story was worth telling, and did the work to find how I wanted to tell it, I have been given so much support. I was able to develop this script with two accomplished directors, Ed Stern and D. Lynn Myers. I got to work with designers and artists like Brian C. Mehring, Matthew Callahan, Brandon T. Holmes, Reba Senske, Shannon Rae Lutz, Rick Diehl, Lon Strickland, Carrie Christine, Greg Bro, and Clay Delauney. Thanks to the help of film director Joel T. Wilson, and lighting designer Matthew J. Fick, my show was filmed in front of a live audience at the Franklin Theatre in my hometown and is now available as a solo special on Amazon Prime. I turned my experience researching the Solo Performance genre into a course titled “Performing Solo: From Stage to YouTube” that I teach at Rutgers University. And most recently, tickets just went on sale for the show’s first Festival run, in New York’s 2018 United Solo Festival.
I’m telling this story in hopes that it might inspire another actor/writer to develop their idea into a real living and breathing show. I hope that reading this might help you identify one or all of the posts in your way. And most importantly, that you won’t try to take as long as I did to share the process, so you can pull those posts right out of the earth. Trust me, no one writes a solo show alone.
Raymond is a writer and award-winning actor. raymondmcanally.com