Alone On Stage
The spotlight comes up. A lonely actor stands on the stage. In your mind, what happens next? Does the actor command the spotlight? Or freeze like a deer in the headlights? Whether it is a monologue or one-person show, a single actor on stage can be intimidating for both actor and director, but with a little advice from a pro, you can make a single actor a powerful presence.
Tom Key is known nationally for the award-winning, 1981 off-Broadway musical hit, Cotton Patch Gospel, which he conceived and co-authored with the late singer-songwriter, Harry Chapin. An actor, director, writer and producer, he is also a veteran creator and performer of one-person shows. He suggests the criteria for a successful solo stage show are the same as for any production: strong material and acting.
The rules of good storytelling also apply to a solo performance according to Key. He recommends looking for pieces that have a strong dramatic conflict. The harder the obstacle is to overcome, the stronger the fight and the better the payoff. "I think it is great to let the audience get extremely nervous that this might not work out well," says Key.
While Key describes himself as a theatre artist, his first love is acting, so when choosing material he evaluates it from an acting perspective. "I consider one-person shows the same as a play, but the protagonist and the antagonist exist within the same person," says Key. He remembers seeing The Belle of Amherst and thinking, "Really this is a play… all the good guys and the bad guys you see exist within this character." Finally, he looks for a character the audience can care about.
Creating the Character
“I think one of the appeals of a one-person show is that we are complex, and we have a lot of aspects to our personality that don't get much rehearsal or performance time in our work world or family time. I think the actor is used to letting all of those characters, those parts of ourselves, speak and have a voice," says Key. He believes that acting is really about revealing parts of yourself. "I ask myself what's the most similar experience to this character that I have been in and how did I feel? How did I behave? I remember what that (experience ) was like."
Key continues character development by questioning himself in relation to the experience. "So I think, how did I behave? What did I sound like? How did my body move? How was I breathing? How was I moving in that particular situation?” If he can't match the character experience for experience, he looks for a personal situation similar to what the character is facing and then reveals that part of himself on stage.
"I don't come from the school of thinking that I can play anything or anybody," says Key, "But because I believe acting is revealing who I am, I think the more I experience… vicariously through art, reading literature, or watching plays, [the more] I can identify with more people unlike myself."
The Artist's Tools
While visual artists can use different mediums, brushes or materials, Key notes an actor's primary tools for distinguishing characters are body and voice. By asking questions, an actor can find ways to portray multiple characters with the same tools. By example Key asks, "Does this character speak with his lips? Or his head? Or does he speak with his chest? Does he move more with his pelvis? Or his hands? Or his head?"
The need to distinguish characters is extremely important in a one-person show because the audience must follow the action without the visual aid of multiple actors. "I can be coming from a different place attitude-wise in a one-man show, but I need to make sure that I signal with my body and voice that I am that character," says Key who notes, "it helps the audience follow where I am.”
With Key's advice you can confidently feature a solo performer. Choosing material filled with conflict and helping your actor reveal different parts of himself will ensure that while the actor is alone on the stage, an entire cast of compelling characters will be revealed to the audience.