"I resent being an artist. I resent performing for fucking idiots who don't know anything. They can't feel. I'm the one feeling because I'm the one expressing. They live vicariously through me and through other artists. I'd sooner be in the audience, but I'm not capable of it."
Imagine you're an actor doing a one-person show somewhere in Denver. You're sick as all get-out with a mean flu. Now imagine that the backstage area comprises a tiny room with a piss bucket: no bathroom, no light, no dressing room, no TP, nothing. During your last costume change, you have an accident involving the bucket and your rebellious innards. Picture it.
Or, instead, ask Heidi Arneson, who recounts exactly this scenario in pleading tones, her face reddening. "So I'm reaching in the darkness, and I'm the only person there," she says. "No one's there to cover for me, no one's there to hand me something. I had to rush back out onstage, and my fingernails stink. There's shit underneath my fingernails and here I am onstage, thinking, where else am I smeared with feces? The last scene in the show is about wetting the bed--it's humorous, but it's also about the shame of that. And I played it like I never played it before because I was completely vulnerable--what could I do? And the audience gave me a standing ovation. I'd never gotten one before. That's the epitome [of solo performance]: We're just there, in our own shit, being humiliated little creatures, sick. Doing the best we can."
In a sense, every artist is a soloist. The struggles of creation--self-doubt, ambition, poverty--are lonely battles. Perhaps because of this isolation, the economics of art-making, and the influence of contemporary therapy, actors are turning increasingly toward one-person work: formulating a concept, writing the script, and doing the show alone, often without a director.
The entire month of November is devoted to solo shows at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater (and several venues around town regularly offer open mics for fledgling soloists). This is the ultimate form of self-promotion, self-revelation, and artistic control. The one-man show delivers intense intimacy with an audience, it's cheap to produce, and offers a chance to tackle artistic weak spots. It's also excruciatingly difficult, even painful, as Arneson attests. So why in hell would anyone do it?
"Because it's so hard," says Mann, whose Glass Onion consists entirely of John Lennon material. "God, if you can do that, you can do anything. It's a macho thing of, 'Yeah, I can do that too, man.'" Mann reports that going solo also presents a chance to perform regularly in a town where casting is cliquish and theater rental expensive.
For magician/actor Derek Hughes, who performs Magic Exists at the BLB, this particular show was an opportunity to focus on areas he'd neglected lately--namely, straight magic. For Dean J. Seal, an actor who handles booking at the BLB, his "documentary" piece Dropped On My Head! was a way to make something useful out of what would otherwise have been a pointless, unbearably painful waste of time. (He was literally dropped on his head during a commercial shoot and took three years to recover.) Comedian Colleen Kruse, who tells stories from her drinking days in The Bottle, sees her work as long-form stand-up, a way to draw people in and move them emotionally. Apparently, there are as many kinds of performance as reasons for risking the humiliation that waits in the wings.
"I was so insecure about my writing," says Kim Allen, who uses stories from his own rich but unusually painful life as source material. "I thought, 'No, this is journal stuff.' That's always been one of my concerns--I don't want to be this bag of pain that shows up and dumps itself on everybody else. The theater part of it is very important to me."
My Therapist Told Me I Sounded Bitter, which played at last summer's Fringe Festival, dealt with Allen's youth as the cross-dressing child of New York actors; his losses during the AIDS epidemic; and his slow retreat from the border of insanity while nursing his senile grandmother in Minnetonka. "This new show [That Boy Ain't Right, Mrs. Allen] is fun," he says, "it's less morbid. Don't worry--I don't talk about healing. I would never presume that I'm that well!"
At 26, Hughes is about half Allen's age, yet the actors find themselves in similar spots: Both are blossoming before audiences, while deep into the process of developing a personal style. Hughes has been doing magic since he was a kid in rural Minnesota, and his most exciting stuff cross-breeds acting, comedy, magic, storytelling, and a nascent kind of philosophizing. He has the unmistakable mark of the rising star: you can see it, or smell it, almost.
Hughes and his magic partner, Steve Cuiffo (who lives in New York), recently won first place at the International Brotherhood of Magicians Convention with a piece called "Express Train." Two men are waiting for trains. One is drinking coffee, only to find his cup's disappeared; and suddenly, the other is holding it. One blows his nose and finds his handkerchief has become a necktie; the other has lost his. Just as the two are about to speak, their trains arrive and they part ways.
The piece, like much of Hughes's work, uses sleight of hand as a way to tap into the metaphysical. "Some people theorize that the performance of magic came out of tribal shamans," Hughes claims. "In their teaching they'd do illusions and mess with reality to express a point. They were using illusion as a metaphor for the unspeakable things we can't talk about, [that] we don't have the vocabulary for: God, love, death. The magic does not exist in the magic but in the attempt to speak of something we all know, and can never know, in same breath."
For Hughes, the Bryant-Lake Bowl is just one stop on the road to New York. But Allen, who grew up there, says New York "would chew me up and spit me out--eat me alive." He's quite happy to stay here for the rest of his life; he's already bought a plot next to his grandmother at Lakewood Cemetery.
It's been hell just gathering the nerve to step onstage, and Allen might not have done it if his friends hadn't coerced him. Before his first monologue at Red Eye, "a voice in my head said, 'You're a gay man who lived through San Francisco in the 1980s. And now you're gonna do, what--10 minutes at 14th and Nicollet? How bad could this be?' ... I'm getting older. If you don't do it now, when are you gonna do it, dear? Are we going to wait until we're finally checked into the nursing home and start doing a little stand-up there? Sometimes I remind myself, honey, you're performing in a bowling alley. But this is all gifts. It's further than I ever thought I'd get."
Though a few of the performers may take themselves quite seriously, Seal sees Bryant-Lake Bowl as a remedy for the kind of church-like reverence demanded by stages across the city: A favorite quote on the BLB's promotional literature, attributed to Bertolt Brecht, states, "A theater with no beer is just a museum." And yet the Bryant-Lake Bowl has some fairly substantial problems, including "The Pole," which blocks sightlines, and the "Exit" sign onstage. During a recent performance of Craig Johnson's wonderful Diary of Samuel Pepys, the staff was unbelievably loud, talking and leaving the window into the bar open, while bowlers whooped and sirens whined outside. Table service in the theater is way understaffed, the floor is creaky, and a couple of the uniformly gorgeous waitstaff have attitudes big enough to power their own one-woman shows.
Yet the BLB, like Patrick's Cabaret, Balls, and the Two Chairs Telling series at the Jungle, gives performers the chance to work their material with live audiences for no overhead. In the current arts economy, that's a precious opportunity. In the interests of fair-warning, though, it ought to be noted that a substantial amount of this material can be nearly unwatchable.
Says Seal: "Our goal is to train people to produce themselves. They're not sitting around their apartment, going to auditions, waiting for someone to wave a magic wand and say, 'You can be a spear-carrier in our production of this show you don't really want to do.' My favorite thing is when somebody comes up to me and says, 'You know, I've got this idea for a show I want to do.' And I say, 'You can do it here.'"
The Bryant-Lake Bowl's program of 17 one-person shows continues through the end of November; call 825-8949.