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Features Published 28 March 2014

All By Myself

The FIRST Festival runs from 1st – 19th April at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London. Here, five artists talk about their differing approaches to solo performance and the challenges the medium brings.
Exeunt Staff
Ed Rapley’s Self Trilogy

Dot Howard graduated in Fine Art from Central St Martin’s in 2003. Influenced by history, architecture and social activity, her practice comments and reflects on the locations in which she makes it, and aims to engage the people she shares it with.  How to Avoid Making an Entrance of Yourself exposes the self-doubt that underlies any attempt to make “good art”, and was created alongside a second performer using Signalong.

It’s unusual for me to perform on a stage. I usually make performance for small audiences in response to unusual spaces and in 2012 I set myself the task of responding to the stage as my site. How to Avoid Making an Entrance of Yourself is an attempt to describe some awkward moments I’ve shared with my audiences over the years and some of the anxieties I experience within the live moment. I wrote it as a solo performance and discovered in early rehearsals that I would need some assistance. Presenting solo performance can be particularly physically and emotionally difficult. Any solo artist knows this. We rely on others to assist us during the making (dramaturges, sound designers “outside eyes” etc) but then we are alone and it’s extraordinarily hard work.

In addition to these challenges I had a determined sense that during this show my audience should not see me at all and I knew that the script must be spoken from within the wings. I’d also devised a series of on-stage actions and visual effects that I could not operate alone effectively.

Here’s how I have managed this. During my “solo” show a woman is on stage and it’s clearly not me. She watches me within the wings and awaits her cues. She uses Signalong (an augmentative communication method based on British Sign Language), which adds a further layer of visual communication – my words are “drawn” by her hands. She remains nameless and mute. She faces my audience for me and conveys my words more effectively. She also positions and animates the set. So I have a stand-in, a ventriloquist’s dummy, an interpreter, a stage hand, a technical assistant and all of these characters are essential in the creation of this “solo” performance.

Ed Rapley is a performer, writer and director based in Bristol, and trained in Paris with Phillippe Gaullier. Created over seven years, The Trilogy is a ridiculous, touching and hopeful trilogy of solo pieces inspired by the big (death) and the small (atoms). 

Performer, stage, audience. Perfect.

I enjoy that directness, the immediate connection with an audience and the freedom to play for them in an open ended way. For me the boundaries are pushed by performers like Dr Brown playing with nothing but his connection to the audience, the Red Bastard through challenging people to confront themselves, Bryony Kimmings’ subject matter, risk taking and aesthetic depth and Victoria Melody’s use of her own life.

Of course it’s a restriction, one person on stage, a single point of failure. If you lose the audience or worse never had them, then the show dies the death of a dog on stage.

Bin Laden: The One Man Show

Bin Laden: The One Man Show

Knaive Theatre – run by Tyrrell Jones and Sam Redway – creates bold, entertaining and politically challenging work. Their debut piece Bin Laden: The One Man Show, was one of the surprise hits of the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, making The Scotsman and The List’s top festival picks. 

Maybe I am a coward but I don’t think I really like the idea of solo performance.

There is a large number of wasted potential in this room; unlike in Dance or Music, the audience are just as able (if not as willing) to take the stage and speak – which is why we use them. In Theatre, our performance space includes a place for the witnesses, the possibility of disagreement, and so some acknowledgement of other sentience, other lives in the room with the performer could (should?) be made. The audience is part of the action by implication; they just know a little less about what is about to happen on the stage. The performer is not alone, in any sense of the word.

Like the Viking Long Houses it is just their turn to speak, the audience may even know the story but, for tonight the floor has been given to the performer to share their version of it. In that sense, this space is sacred, there is something ritualistic and timeless about a single story-teller taking an audience on a journey with little more than words and body. This part of society has diminished in modern times; it is no longer an accepted truth that we will share a story nightly, or even regularly. And so our audience pays for it.

We often forget, in the theatre world, that only (relatively) recently have performers and people been separated, we forget that each person in the audience truly is a bard, a collector and teller of stories. And so it becomes our privilege. We are gifted the time, space and attention to tell a story we feel is worth telling and so we must examine the stories we tell selflessly and bring to light those parts of the story that match the privilege, the honour given us and the investment (socially and financially) that our audience has made. And if you are lucky enough to be a “solo performer” you are lucky enough to build a relationship with every person in the room, who change nightly, who are unpredictable, vicious, and innocent; not like the five strange things normally on stage with you. We – all performers – assume the right to perform and tell stories, but we must also assume the responsibility that comes with it; and as solo performers we need broad shoulders – we bear that responsibility alone.

Patrice Naiambana is a performer originally from Sierra Leone, and now based in Birmingham. Frustrated by representations of Africa in Western theatre practice, he founded Tribal Soul in 1991 as a means to make visible stories about African Diaspora experiences. His piece The Man Who Committed Thought won an Scotsman Fringe First Award at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival.

A solo enactment is a journey into who you really are – a space for naked exploration of outsiderness in front of secret watchers. There’s no hiding place. It’s gruelling. You always discover something valuable and maybe pretentious self- rigtheousness…

So why tell this story? The Man Who Committed Thought was created to put flesh on silences about Britain and Africa’s elites conspiracy to denigrate and deny the people of the land their dignity. Our complicity in the sacrifice of ‘disposal humanity’ to feed our needs. And vanity. I wanted to provoke myself to think about my responsibility and implication. I was playing Aslan at the Royal Shakespeare Company walking past the Queen’s lovely white swans. I would get news that someone I knew had just been killed by abject aimless terror. I am Sierra Leonean, a glorious former colony of Britain. But the bad news box introduced us to an amnesiac population as the country of child killers and amputated limbs. What was my responsibility as a diaspora storyteller?

My father was a lawyer who produced a news bulletin called Think when I was five years old, five years after we were given ‘independence’. He sold it for 3 cents. It cost 18 cents to produce. A nameless hero among many who wanted the mango seller to see the lie of the land. Vietnam and the one party state. Iraq and NGO dependency. Bloodied historical twins? His bowler hat sits on stage crowning a skull.

In the single story landscapes of ‘disposal humanity’, laughter is courage. I wanted to tell the story of how the voiceless of the land survive with dignity. Long before Blood Diamonds, we spoke. Black Theatre gave global local political vent, furiously with a purpose. No longer now. Drama schools do not teach from the space of shared history. Now in the UK we have a reservoir of black actors who practice their Hollywood-bound art on Conradian horror horror stories (value for money verbatim) for well fed impotent bystanders who are permitted to skip gaily away from their implication as one might from a manicured zoo. African Theatre (different to Black theatre) has not yet stepped into the field of theatre innovation in Europe. We wear the image of others, squint through the lens of others, nobody wears our image. The sign of a defeated nation. A solo enactment in this context is an attempt to provoke dynastic thinking and ethics. Useful perhaps for nation builders and their children?

This form tests whether we are in this sat nav-less ark together. There is however a classical precedent in the figure of The Griot. The Griot understands that we are all in this together. A cost effective lab ancestrally authorised. One man, five characters, some skulls, the Bible, Shakespeare and a cow.

Jelena Ćurčić has a theatre practice that works across formats and platforms, developing performance language in a manner highly engaged with audience and with community. Her show Vila’s Mountain is an intimate storytelling performance for adults based on Serbian fairy tales – a collection of which she also selected, translated, introduced and annotated for a recent illustrated publication. 

Storytelling is at the core of everything I do, and oral storytelling is, perhaps, the most accessible of all art forms, both at an audience and at a participatory level: it forges a strong bond and sense of community between the teller and the listener, a solid bridge, a two-way street. That sense of community, the shared experience, is really what I’m interested in.

Myth and legend, fairy tales and folk lore naturally lend themselves to the enhancement of this aim: being an integral part of many cultures and universal to human experience, they portray certain profound and eternal truths about mankind, about the precariousness of human condition, about the vicissitudes of life and the complexities of human heart. However, in order to be truly meaningful, art has to be intimate: in this performance, I take the audience on a journey that starts at my most intimate, deeply personal, then, flitting back and forth in time, immerse them in strange, perilous and peculiar worlds created by and belonging to my shared ethnic identity, along the way addressing the universal in all humanity, to reach the final destination of deeply personal nestled within each and every heart in the auditorium, thus closing the circle.

In this way, Vila’s Mountain is so much more than simply an artistic interpretation of my cultural heritage: it is a homecoming. Through the exploration of story, memory and narrative, at the intersection of performance and confession, making use of one of the oldest literary storytelling devices, that of story-within-a-story, allowing my many worlds to nest in and open up from one another like a set of Russian dolls, my personal identity emerges from, encompasses and transcends my demographic identifiers – those of race, gender, ethnicity, age – to reveal the underlying human fragility – my own, and everyone’s.

The FIRST Festival is at Tristan Bates Theatre, London, from 1st-19th April 2014

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