Some are old hands at it; others are attempting it for the first time. Either way, it frays nerves, taxes the memory, and lathers the palms with perspiration.
The one-person show.
While the tradition of the extended monologue can be traced to the very roots of dramatic storytelling, it remains a form of theatre, in spite of its simplicity and directness, few settle into comfortably. Still, every actor, from beginner to veteran, continues to attempt it –not just because of its convenient low-cost (though that hardly hinders) but because it remains the ultimate test of their professional mettle.
This summer’s crop of brave, Ottawa-based aspirants include Manchester-born David Warburton, Jill-of-all-trades Natalie Joy Quesnel, and recent U of O grad Tess Mc Manus.
Warburton will be replacing the late (and brilliant) Greg Kramer in a re-staging of the popular The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare. Once again, the show will be directed by veteran actor and director John Koensgen, who hopes to take this version, thanks to a busy fundraising campaign, to the producer-stocked Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts showcase.
But in spite of his sizable contribution, Koensgen is clear: to the actor go the spoils – and the angst. “Directing a one person show is easier than acting in one,” states Koensgen, who has done both; his St. Nicholas, last performed at the Cube Gallery in 2010, is considered his crowning achievement as an actor, while Pierre Brault’s Blood on the Moon, which he directed, is the only show to play the NAC for 3 runs. “Once the show is together and in a good place performance wise, you can sit back and let the actor do the work. This enables him or her to own the story and allows you to watch it like an audience member.”
“I’m not going to lie,” confesses Quesnel, preparing to star at this year’s Ottawa Fringe in the self-penned First Words, a solo drama inspired by the true story of her grandmother’s loss of five children. “It’s been terrifying.” But, she adds, thanks to the constructive guidance of the inventive Emily Pearlman (whose work with Nick Di Gaetano has stolen many an Ottawa Fringe,) it’s also been rewarding.
“I’m not sure if it’s tougher to perform solo versus in an ensemble,” adds Quesnel, “but the preparation is certainly different. You have to memorize your text” – as early as possible, advises Koensgen – “without relying on outside stimuli. You can’t depend on another actor to jump start your memory with a specific gesture, because there’s nobody there on stage with you. As a solo performer, your imagination ends up in overdrive to help fill in all of the gaps, create the virtual environments and supplement the imaginary friends.”
Still, it has its advantages, particularly when, as in the case of both Quesnel and Mc Manus, you’re also the writer.
“When it’s someone else’s script,” says Mc Manus, “you get to make a million discoveries and try to understand the character’s motivations. When you’ve written your own show, the writer in you already knows everything about the character and the narrative. However,” adds the ambitious writer-performer, “as a young woman working in theatre, I’ve got to say, writing my own show is the best way to act. I don’t have to be squished into traditional gender roles or simply be someone’s daughter or love interest or the few, confining ways a lot of young women are portrayed in plays. I can literally create the sort of characters I feel comfortable playing.”
Mc Manus is betting that her latest kick at the one-person can, Tales She Tells – also Ottawa Fringe bound – will receive as enthusiastic a reception as her first, 2012’s Donkey Derby. Derby wowed ‘em not only here at home but in Winnipeg and Edmonton, and Tales She Tells shares its conflict-ridden Northern Ireland milieu, even if the work takes a lot more chances.
“Donkey Derby was presented in typical one-person format: monologue to an audience with limited movement in order for the audience to focus on the words in the text. Tales She Tells is a little different. Tales is a multi-layered text that will be told through singing, movement, and storytelling.”
As for nerves…
“There’s no room for self-doubt or anxiety,“ declares Quesnel. “You have to trust yourself and your story. You have to have confidence in your ability to connect with your audience and face whatever may come your way.”
Adds Mc Manus. “It’s a risky business. Nothing’s promised to you. You really have to know yourself to write, perform and tour a one-person show. Your talents, your limits, your opinions. Solid!”
And while each artist has aspirations for their shows, the jury is out on how broad the appeal is for this age-old yet limited form.
“I personally love one-person shows,” enthuses Quesnel, “but I can certainly understand why people would prefer larger cast shows. There is definitely something magical in the interaction between great actors on stage or in the execution of complicated choreography…but solo shows can really appeal to an audience wanting a more intimate theatrical experience.”
“Part of the theatrical experience is seeing relationships play out,” explains Mc Manus, “so I get that some people might wonder what relationships they are watching when there’s just one person on stage. But that’s why one-person shows are so great – the relationship is between the actor and the audience.”
“Limited appeal?,” a put out Koensgen replies. “Ask Lily Tomlin! Ask Christopher Plummer! The list is endless. If you go to the theatre, a good show is a good show, big cast or little.”
Links & More Information
John Koensgen / The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare
Watch for a presentation of the Player’s Advice to Shakespeare here in Ottawa at the Avalon Studio in July before it heads off to Edinburgh. Visit New Theatre of Ottawa online for details as they become available, or check with eventbrite.ca in the coming days where tickets will be sold online.
You can help John Koensgen get The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare to the Edinburgh Fringe by donating at www.CanadaHelps.org; type in the New Theatre of Ottawa and hit the “donate now” button.
Natalie Joy Quesnel / First Words
Watch for First Words at this summer’s Ottawa Fringe Festival, running June 19th through 29th.
You can find out a bit more about First Words and Natalie Joy here, nataliejoyquesnel.com, and consider donating to help with the development of the show at her Fund What You Can Page: fwyc.ca/campaigns/first-words
Tess Mc Manus / Tales She Tells
Watch for Tales She Tells at this summer’s Ottawa Fringe Festival, running June 19th through 29th.
You can find out more about Tess Mc Manus, Tales She Tells, and Donkey Derby on her personal website, tessmcmanus.com