A solo show (often also known as a “one person show”) can take many different forms, from just a comedian musing on stage to a piece of performance art. When we think of a solo show, many of us think of something biographical or a memoir. This is because the genre is dominated by this type of storytelling. Some famous examples include Elaine Stritch at Liberty, where Stritch documented her life, and actor John Leguizamo’s semi-autobiographical solo shows on Broadway, which drew on his life experiences to create explosive storytelling. With one performer, the storytelling can lend itself to being more insular, for the performer to open up to an audience in an intimate setting. On the other hand, actors such as Whoopi Goldberg have also used the opportunity of a solo show to show their versatility, playing hundreds of different characters. On the Exhale charts a slightly different course—it is a full play that happens to be performed by just one actor, who is telling an original, fictional story. But what is it that makes the solo show so enduring? In an age of big, bombastic shows, why tell a story in this format?
On a practical level, solo shows are usually simple to assemble and cost-effective. You do not have to worry about paying a large multitude of actors, and sets are often cheaper. Also, budgetary concerns of theatres have limited cast sizes over the last ten years. In an article for the New York Times in 2007, Todd Haimes, Artistic Director of Roundabout, stated that “a new playwright now, no matter how talented, would never write a play for 15 people because it wouldn’t get produced... [B]y virtue of the constrained budgets theaters have we’ve changed the style of playwriting. Arthur Miller wouldn’t write The Crucible today.” But does this mean you would opt immediately for a solo show? Not necessarily. In the same article, James Nicola, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), had a slightly different view: “if you are comparing a solo piece to something with 12 actors and three musicians there is a huge difference in budget… but a four-person play as compared to a one-person play— the savings is some, but not huge. The bulk of production expenses are for advertising, design, printing expenses; those prices are the same whether there is one person on stage or 20.” That being said, an average four-person show at NYTW costs $300,000, whereas a solo show will cost around $250,000, which is still a considerable saving. Fast forward ten years, and in terms of budgeting, it does not seem like much has changed. For On the Exhale, Roundabout estimates that the show will save $85,000- $100,000 compared to a normal Underground show. The savings made are not just on actor budgets, but also costume costs, set design (as one person shows tend to be less set heavy) and labor (teching a show with one actor will be considerably quicker).
But simplicity and practicality are not the most important ingredients for doing a solo show. On the Exhale will be the first solo show at Roundabout since 2009, when Carrie Fisher performed Wishful Drinking. Before that show, the most recent solo shows at Roundabout were Beyond Glory with Stephen Lang (2007) and An Almost Holy Picture with Kevin Bacon (2002). Wishful Drinking was an autobiographical romp through Fisher’s past, while Beyond Glory looked at the courage behind servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor. An Almost Holy Picture had Bacon playing a priest, and On the Exhale explores gun violence. So what binds all these disparate plays together? Simply, the ability to provide intimacy and a compelling relationship with the audience, to really engage with them on a visceral level, which you often cannot get through larger casts. In almost any solo show, the performer constantly breaks the fourth wall, and many shows are completely in direct address to the audience, so there is a constant immediacy with the performer. In the words of NYTW’s Nicola, with a solo show “there is an energy in the room of authentic experience being conveyed that is not like anything else.”
On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage