Thursday, March 3, 2011
Falling in Love with Solo Performance by Lance McQueen
For about seven years I had both admired and feared solo performance. The idea of opening myself and creating a purgative art piece personal enough to be engaging, yet not so personal as to cause me embarrassment was terrifying. But as someone in Ensemble Training Intensive (ETI) said, “your desire to succeed has to outweigh your fear.” So here I am having fallen completely in love with solo performance and hoping to articulate the importance for actors to create projects for themselves.
When I was growing up between California and Alaska, I hustled up odd jobs to keep candy and soda money in my pocket. California summers allowed me to mow lawns and Alaska winters meant shoveling driveways. In the ninth grade, I discovered Junior Achievement. J.A., as it was called, introduced, developed and empowered young people through business fundamentals and the spirit of entrepreneurship. Our group met once a week to discuss and develop a business plan. Our great idea was to produce emergency roadside kits using materials donated by the local hardware store and peddled to the unsuspecting shoppers exiting the neighborhood Safeway. We hadn’t reinvented the wheel, but there seemed to be a genuine need for the kits in Anchorage. The concept of, “creating my own thing,” was forever emblazoned on my psyche.
Fast forward many years later.
At its core, I believe solo performances work best when the material is generated by the artist performing it. Perhaps there’s a catalog of proven, published solo pieces that actors can perform, but what makes for one actor’s powerful, dramatic storytelling can lack that personal feel the medium is known for.
Our ETI class began by using short, timed writing exercises to build confidence and endurance. Our subjects ranged from trivial to personal. Short and structured to fervently streaming our consciousness. Marya Sea Kaminki, our Solo Performance instructor, used these drills to free our imaginations and get us accustomed to deadlines. Evidently procrastination is common among artistic types and deadlines prod the writer onward. The absence of deadlines has caused a shoe box in my closet to fill with half finished poems, scripts, scenarios and inventions. Our first week of class completed, we received initial assignments: use all the tools in our small developing toolbox to write a five minute childhood memory piece.
Terror struck nearly all of us.
My fear came from finding myself on the precipice of artistic freedom and not knowing whether others would find my stories interesting. But again, Marya was there urging us to push through fear, concentrate on our truth and results be damned. We were learning that this skill was like a muscle that had to be developed and in developing any muscle there would be discomfort, even pain. Sometimes old dusty memories are funnier left in the attic. I was feeling a little discomfort.
For my piece, I focused on a neighborhood grouch whose very presence rivaled the affect the Wicked Witch had on the Scarecrow. Any of our errant balls that found his yard received death sentences. I memorized, rehearsed and performed it for the class.
And … they liked it.
They actually traveled back and accompanied me into the grouches’ yard to retrieve that ball. I liked the feeling of completing something. It was just the push I needed. My first play had been produced!
Over the ensuing weeks, Marya would set new parameters. One week we would write two person dialogues, acting and speaking both parts. The next week we would write two person dialogues, but only play one part. We would then leave a silent gap and imagine the other character speaking the lines. Each week the task would change. We’d adjust and Marya would expertly guide us toward our goal: a final showing of one of the four or five previous assignments, but extended from five to ten minutes. This showing would come to be known as, “The Solo Festival.”
My Festival choice was an earlier assignment that showed signs of power, irony and sensitivity, but it needed length and polishing. It centered on an aging professional athlete and the unavoidable consequences his unguided youth created. Our pallets had grown considerably. I combined several formats to create a powerfully, touching story.
The tide was turning.
If you work in any business long enough, you’re likely to experience highs and lows. Before ETI, I was definitely at a low. I never got tired of acting. I was just damn tired of jumping through hoops to do it. Actors need not only a strong desire to act, but love, perseverance and positive encouragement. Before I developed friends, mentor and elders, I lacked support. I allowed myself to be come bitter and disenchanted. Acting’s migratory nature and the gypsy-esque lifestyle can wear thin. Needing other people’s approval to ply your craft can create frustration and resentment. So, to finally empower myself and to give myself permission to “kiss myself” was monumental.
Four months of hard work would culminate in sixteen different plays. Some of them humorous and insightful, others thought-provokingly poignant and some just outright hilarious. We crewed for one another which solidified the ensemble.
Now it was time to let the audience in.
The performances would be the icing on the cake. Some art can exist alone in a closet and some art needs that symbiotic relationship. This art demands a certain give and take in order that the art be fully realized. We sold-out every show. They came. We gave. They received and I watched with pride and satisfaction as sixteen budding artists emerged from their cocoons, discovered their new selves and set off for new destinations.
This new destination of mine, this love of solo performance, has me looking with great anticipation to the future and to creating more of “my own thing”.
I highly recommend it.
Photo at top: Lance McQueen performing in "The Solo Festival"
Photo at bottom: Lance McQueen and Luisa de Collova in ETI Class
Freehold's Ensemble Training Intensive (ETI) is designed for emerging artists who are ready to make a vocational commitment to the theatre. ETI is a ten-month conservatory course that focuses on developing the technical skills necessary to meet the demands of classical text and contemporary material composed in extraordinary form.
Freehold will be offering a Solo Performance class taught by Marya Sea Kaminski as part of its Spring Quarter classes. Registration will be open Monday, March 7. For more information, Solo Performance at Freehold.