I’ve been explicitly forbidden by my wife from ever performing a solo show. It’s not because I’m a terrible actor (although I am) or that my life story is relatively pedestrian (although it is). The problem is that over the years the whole concept of a one-man play has developed an unsavory reputation. Although I’ve seen some absolutely amazing solo gigs, most of them are borne out of the narcissistic delusion of an actor who received too much encouragement as a child.
Despite my criticisms, I still get excited when someone genuinely talented tells their story before an audience. And I’ve seen some very inspiring solo shows recently–Danny Hoch’s Taking Over and Dan Hoyle’s Tings Dey Happen among them. Since I’m not about to risk marital discord by developing my own guaranteed-to-be-terrible performance, though, I decided to sneak a peek behind the scenes at someone else’s work.
I went to The Marsh, a local theater company that's been the driving force behind a majority of Bay Area solo performances since the late 1980s, and asked for help in matching me up with an actor to shadow. I explained that I was looking for a compelling performer with a sense of humor who could teach me the art of crafting a one-man gig. The folks at The Marsh introduced me to Marilyn Pittman who was working on It's All the Rage, her first solo show to receive a full production. It’s a true story about how her father killed her mother and then himself about 10 years ago.
Did I mention it's a comedy?
I meet Marilyn for the first time a month before opening night to pick her brain about the makings of a solo show. We grab drinks at a Hayes Valley café and I learn it takes an effortlessly engaging, unflinchingly honest performer to entertain a room full of strangers with a personal story. You have to be smart as a whip, willing to get into some dark places, and know precisely when to inject levity into a serious story.
Marilyn’s a master storyteller who fits all those qualifications. She has an innate sense of delivery that she combines with slightly ironic detachment. I'd say that this attitude is a result of her long career as a stand-up comedian, but the longer Marilyn talks, the more I get the feeling she came out of the womb with one eyebrow slightly arched. She's such a compelling speaker that one of her many gigs is giving lessons to public radio personalities about how to liven up their banter. She could be reading me the dictionary and I'd still be hanging off her every word. As it stands, she’s telling me a joke from It's All the Rage about how her father murdered her mother.
“The first thing I thought after it happened,” she says, “is ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe my mom’s dead. But, on the plus side, we don’t have to put up with my dad anymore.’”
Admittedly, the kicker is mostly in the delivery, but when Marilyn tells this joke, it’s really funny. Funny in a way that makes it seem perfectly normal that we’re sharing a laugh about what was easily the most traumatic event in her life.
Marilyn explains that even though she’s been seeing a shrink for years, doing this show was the best form of therapy she could’ve asked for, and she funneled that healing process into a script. It makes sense—the most interesting literary characters are usually in the process of working through something difficult. It seems the key to writing a solo show is taking something you’re actively trying to resolve and prepping it for the stage.
I haven’t seen a single minute of It's All the Rage and already I’m getting a master class in solo performance.
I'm sitting in on a rehearsal two days before It's All the Rage opens and I have no idea what to expect. It turns out that the process is pretty similar to an ensemble rehearsal, except that there’s a laser focus on everything the performer does.
The Marsh is known for bare-bones production style, so the spotlight is really going to be on Marilyn alone. Because there's just one actor playing a whole cast of characters, it’s crucial to make sure there's a concrete delineation between when she’s portraying her mother, her father, her siblings, herself, and herself as the narrator. Marilyn has worked on defining these parts with different speaking cadences and body movements that alternately suggest masculinity, femininity, youth, and age.
Her director, David Ford, is helping to make sure everything that happens onstage is couched in emotional truth. He reminds her to emphasize what each character is feeling and on how each part affects the others.
Today the pair is running scenes and making last-minute adjustments, cementing all the important cues for the performance. They begin by practicing a scene where Marilyn's father is answering a phone call from his girlfriend. The conversation takes place a few days after Marilyn had tried to convince her mom to leave her abusive father. She’s listening in on her dad, surprised at how polite this gruff man suddenly sounds. After he hangs up, he snarls at his daughter, “You stay out of my marriage and I'll stay out of yours.” In a short time span, Marilyn is playing herself and her father and making asides to the audience. It’s a delicate dance, shifting between characters who are expressing such strong emotions.
As the rehearsal progresses, it becomes clear how It's All the Rage could be therapeutic for Marilyn—a difficult time in her life gets reconfigured from so many different angles. I watch as she has to relive painful memories of her parents’ relationship and the murder-suicide that followed, but she also has to repeatedly take direction and technically analyze these sensitive moments.
Marilyn and David make it almost all the way through a casual discussion about the location of all the bullets her father shot into her mother (four in the torso, one in the head, one flew past into the screen door) before she pauses mid-sentence. “I can’t believe we just had a conversation about this,” Marilyn says. They were so wrapped up in the production, the surreal moment nearly escaped unnoticed.
As I watch this actor and director work together, another layer of a great solo performance reveals itself. Something special happens when a grisly situation morphs into art and something very personal becomes so public.
Two days later it’s opening night, and as I’m waiting for the show to start, I feel nervous. At this point I’ve seen It's All the Rage numerous times—there are parts I can recite from memory—but never in front of a live audience.
This is a big deal. The house is packed, and I’m rooting for Marilyn's show to succeed. My nervous excitement feels like a mixture of cheering on my favorite sports team as it enters the playoffs and waiting to perform myself.
Marilyn jumps onstage and starts racing through her opening scene. It’s a stand-up bit about road rage that gradually relates to her decade of familial angst. Watching her, I can’t help but think about how naked she really is up there. If people think her story isn’t compelling, it’s doubly biting because it’s about something she lived through. It's All the Rage feels as dangerous a situation as a performer could put themselves in, and from the outside, it’s more than a little terrifying.
Luckily, the audience loves the performance, judging from the rapturous standing ovation she gets after it’s over. Standing and clapping along is probably as close as I’ll ever get to doing a solo show, which is fine by me. The whole process seems like an insane amount of pressure for a novice, unless you're wildly talented or have a story that’s just busting at the seams to be heard. But if my time with It's All the Rage has taught me anything, it’s that the most unlikely situations can produce a really amazing show.
It's All the Rage runs Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, through December 5. Tickets are $20–50.
Visit themarsh.org for a schedule of some of The Marsh's other solo shows. I recommend Dan Hoyle's The Real Americans and Don Reed's East 14th .
There's also info on the website on how The Marsh can help you become the next world famous solo performance superstar…stranger things have happened.