Features Published 10 February 2015

First Things First

FIRST - the annual festival of solo performance at the Tristan Bates Theatre - opens this week. We spoke to some of the participating artists about the thrills and challenges of the form.
Natasha Tripney

How did you come to make your show? 

Eva Magyar – Marlene: The Competition: I always make shows about events,things influences my life. Finally moving to UK after years of being a guest artist here, taught me about how is to be an immigrant female artist and I thought to use the wonderful Marlene Dietrich’s life to reflect on will be an interesting challenge.

Louise Wallinger – Annoying The Neighbours: I went through a period where there was a lot of anti-social behaviour in the block of flats where I lived. In the middle of all this a strange buzzing sound was keeping me awake at night. I thought it was something electrical/mechanical but the local council thought it might be someone creating noise nuisance and offered to send a ‘professional witness’ (in this case a Noise Officer) to my flat at night to work out where it was coming from. I was intrigued by the thought of a professional witness. I also noticed with the problems in the block how some people were scared and wanted to move and others were relaxed enough to leave their front door open all day. So I started to think about our relationships and asking people about their neighbours. I also interviewed Noise Officers and other Council workers about their experiences of neighbour relations. As with interviewing for any verbatim show I was then led to a large extent by the material I was gathering.

Dave Florez – Angel in the Abattoir: I saw William (Andrews) at a scratch event at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington, and he blew me away with his performance. I was working on a third installment to a series of one man shows I’d been writing and producing up at Edinburgh Festival – and I thought William would be perfect for this.

As a performer do you enjoy the experience of working solo? How does it affect your relationship with your audience? 

Eva: To make a solo performance is a very lonely form of theatre. That could be painful. The positive side is the freedom, that you can always work, not just during those weeks in the rehearsal room. Also you a free to change as the world changing around you. It is a stronger connection with the audience if it’s a solo show. It feels like a one to one very honest chat. It is a thrill to be so open and truthful and it is scary to.You wouldn’t be that open with everybody on the streets….

Louise: It’s a bit odd performing solo. I feel strange at points during the show that someone else doesn’t do their part. And sometimes I’d really quite like them to. But in terms of going from performing Verbatim theatre with others to performing it solo, it isn’t as big a leap as from performing in a conventional play – with the verbatim technique that I use there is no fourth wall so most of what you do is directed out to the audience. Your relationship with the audience remains pretty much the same – they take up the position I was in as the interviewer.

William Andrews – Angel in the Abattoir: It’s great to get the chance to work alone on stage. The stakes are higher and it’s certainly more intimidating  – but, I suppose, high stakes can mean high rewards – and certainly more excitement. If you’re the only one holding the ball though, well – I don’t want to think about mistakes!

Andrew Maddock – Cypress Sunsets:  I started performing solo as a test to myself, to see if I still loved getting up on stage and performing and to see what I could learn. At first it’s daunting, looking out at a sea of darkened faces and knowing that they have paid their hard-earned money to be entertained by you – that quickly becomes humbling and then an absolute thrill. The feeling you get when you know an audience are with you cannot be bought, and that fight to bring them onside is even better. I’ve always been taught to graft for what you have and having that feeling after a performance is really good.

Aaron Sparks – Down-Up: As a circus artist it is pretty common to work solo in a short 5-7 minute format in a cabaret or something similar. I’ve worked as an ensemble member in full length shows but this is my first attempt at a long solo show. I really enjoy the artistic freedom with solo projects but am mindful that it can get a little ego centric so I’ve sort out outside eyes and other help to keep the flow of the show. Working solo allows you to connect with an audience in a way that you rarely get in a ensemble show. I definitely feel the pressure on solo projects as you know there’s no one to rescue you if it all goes to pear shaped.

Aaron Sparks' Down-Up

Aaron Sparks’ Down-Up

Are there any challenges particular to solo work and how do you meet them?

Eva: The biggest challenge is to keep going on your own. Force yourself ahead. Believe in that it is important what you do. It is very easy to taken away by that little voice who says ” ah, leave it … to much work, not paying your bills and who will be interested?” But I know, it could be a life changing experience for some audience member. And for the performer too. These days to have an intimate, live relationship with an artist is rare.

Louise: When you are creating solo work you have to make sure that at some point there is an outside eye. You need to test out what you are doing on someone else. One of the challenges of performing solo is to try to relax… You can’t take a deep breath while one of the other actors is performing.

Dave:  How to keep the audience engaged throughout. How to keep the story clear and driving forward. How to gradually reveal the character through the images and action portrayed. How to subvert audience expectation of what a one-person show entails. How to surprise the audience with just one person on stage.

Andrew: I think motivation is a big factor for me, same as anyone that maybe works from home or for themselves, that sense of urgency can sometimes be fleeting. But I have a great team around me to reel me back in. It’s still difficult though, I miss comraderie backstage before a performance for example and have to find ways to psyche myself up until I can hear the audience start to file in. Muffled conversations and laughter from behind a stage door right before a show is the best sound in the world.

Aaron: Working on your own allows you to progress at a rate that you can dictate, this can be great when you are full of energy and motivation, you can work at 2am. On the flip side, when you’re feeling bored, low or distracted the last thing you want to do is work. I find having deadlines is a great way to tackle that problem, deadlines and coffee.

Is the form restrictive or liberating, as both a performer and a writer?

Eva: Restrictions are useful sometimes. It makes you sharp, thinking in different ways. You can’t use any cliché. Have to be inventive. That keeps you alive and playful like a child. A very exciting place to be!

Louise: As with creating anything, restrictions can make you creative and force you to make choices. As long as you get that outside eye at some point so that you aren’t restricting yourself by relying purely on your own reactions to something and the limits of your own thinking. As a performer it is liberating because you are playing any character you are able to – no one has cast you according to ‘type’.

William: I find the restrictions actually more liberating, creatively speaking. It seems to be true that when you are contained in some way – it pushes you to find creative solutions.

Dave: It’s both, I think. And you have find new ways to make the monologue dramatic and compelling, rather than just reportage. For me, live storytelling is more about the telling than the story, and so it’s exciting to come up with different ways to get your story across.

Andrew: Absolutely liberating. I got into acting having done a Social Inclusion program in 2010 with the NYT called Playing Up. I was lucky enough to have a Q&A with Miriam Margolyes who told us that any actor worth their mettle should write and perform their own one person play. Thanks to her I’m on show number three and loving every second. I now have the power as an actor and writer to craft worlds I understand, that relate to people who don’t normally visit the theatre that I can hopefully share with as many different people as possible.

Aaron: When I work solo it can be difficult to see the light, I can spends ages writing a scene and then when I come to rehears it I realise its not right or there’s nothing in it. I like the freedom so much though. Ideas from your head, into your body and onto the stage. Brilliant.

Main image: Eva Magyar’s Marlene

FIRST at the Tristan Bates Theatre runs from 11th-28th February. Louise Wallinger’s Annoying The Neighbours, a verbatim play about neighbourhood disputes, is on 13th February, Aaron Sparks’circus solo show Down Up is on 13th-14th February, Andrew Maddocks’ latest autobiographical Me Play, Cypress Sunsets is on 14th February, Eva Magyar’s Marlene – The Competition runs from 17th-20th February and Dave Florez’ new play Angels in the Abattoir – starring William Andrews – runs from 25th-27th February  2015

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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