What I Learned From Reading Over 700 Solo Shows

I’ve been curating three festivals a year for eight years – Sola Voce, the solo part of the Estrogenius Festival, the Women at Work Festival, and the Left Out Festival. Over that time I read countless solo shows and talked to lots of people about them. Often someone would say, “Solo shows, they’re all the same.”
This remark reminds me of the days when I did standup for a living. Many of the male comics I worked with would say to me, “Women aren’t funny.” I often (truthfully) said, “Not possible. I just watched you laughing at my act.” Their answer? “You’re the exception.” Of course, that wasn’t true. There are lots of very funny women in standup, and in the world of theatre. And if these male comics had examined their statements, they would have seen they couldn’t back them up.
I was NOT an exception (nor were the other female comics who had the same experience as mine). There’s no standard guideline for what’s funny when it comes to women (or men, for that matter).
So there can be no exception, because there is no rule. What my male colleagues were saying was “I am prejudiced, and I intend to remain that way.” It’s one of the multiple reasons I finally left standup comedy as a career, and wrote my first solo show.
For the past decade or so, when I would hear someone toss off a disparaging remark about solo shows, I would think, “Here we go again.” I don’t like to argue against prejudice. I think it’s usually pointless, often annoying; so I like to take the Navajo approach and be silent. It works for me.
However, I think solo shows are gaining in credibility. Soon looking down your nose at a solo show will be seen as unenlightened, like the “women aren’t funny” stance that was endemic in standup. Solo shows can’t be all lumped together anymore. I frankly think we could be entering our heyday. Now that the art form has lost some of its stigma, it’s attracting more and more artists. I saw this same phenomenon in standup comedy. When I started doing standup, there were very few comics or clubs. We all got to work all the time. Quality was uneven (both the clubs and the comics). But after a few years, more and more clubs were opening, and more and more people were entering the business. The quality of the art improved. Soon there were hundreds of very good comics in the US.
That same sort of thing is happening with solo shows. Solo show festivals abound, where once there were only a handful. Solo show artists are actually making money, and doing runs, and going on tour, and winning awards. Critics actually show up to see us and write reviews. Great coaches teach solo show development workshops, such as NYC’s Matt Hoverman and writing teacher Jen Nails . A number of coaches, including myself, prefer to work one-on-one. That’s my favorite angle with solo shows. It provides the maximum of flexibility in approach and craft. But however you want to pursue them, the means to create a solo show have never been more available.
The quality of the work submitted to the festivals I curate has been improving steadily, I’m happy to report. I see such a variety of work these days –multi-media, song and dance, spoken word, monologues, multi-character, naturalistic and surreal writing, even poetry. It’s really exciting. People’s shows are from five to 90 minutes, they play from one to dozens of characters, and their topics are far-ranging. It’s true, though, that I see some common themes.
It’s important to try to stand out from the crowd, when you’re dealing with topics. Lots of people are wrestling with the same fascinating life issues. Many are choosing to write solo shows about them. Your personal hero’s journey may be very similar to someone else’s – and though it’s very significant to you, it may be yesterday’s sandwich to others.
I am going to share some of those topics–not to dissuade you from writing and performing about them, but to encourage you to try to find a new angle, a new treatment, a different style from all the others. After all, you don’t want your script to end up the victim of prejudice, tossed in the “Hero’s Journey” bin.
So here is a short talk about
Topics that are Common as Dirt
How I Triumphed over the Adversity of my Situation.
This could be poverty, divorce, perversion, child molestation, being ugly, fat, smart, stupid, pretty, unappreciated, slutty, Christian, (or slutty and Christian) lesbian, trans—you name it.

What Race/Ethnicity Am I?
I know it must be brutal to have people continually say, “What are you?” How do you answer such a question, either for yourself or others? But it’s a fact that the US is now so full of multi-ethnic people that it is no longer a rare experience.

How I Tried to Meet/Date/Marry the Person of My Dreams
Back when online dating first happened, in 1995, stories about meeting on Match.com were unusual. Now they’re yawn-provoking. We are all trying to meet someone, yes, and probably lived most of those stories ourselves. No new info here.

My Celebrity Story
Believe it or not, a lot of people look like a celebrity, and it’s affected their lives. Or they have a celebrity in the family, or they have a famous name, or they dated a celeb. America is celebrity-mad. Almost everyone has six degrees of separation or less from a famous person.
So what to do if you really want to tell your story, and it has to do with one or more of the above topics? Find a new angle. Try changing the POV. In the case of being mistreated, for instance, see what happens if you tell the story from the perpetrator’s standpoint, instead of from the victim’s.
Instead of writing from your own personal history, as in “My situation was harder than yours, but I grew and learned and never gave up, and today I am older and wiser but still full of heart and I still have fun,” see what happens if you write from the POV of those who never believed in you and are now surprised.
Whatever you do, make your best effort to be original, to think outside the box. There may be hundreds of solo shows out there–thousands, maybe, but with enough thoughtful analysis, enough brainstorming, enough research, and enough polishing, (and a great coach or director) you can create one that will stand out from the crowd.

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11 thoughts on “What I Learned From Reading Over 700 Solo Shows

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