When I finished making my performance earlier this year and wrote a thesis on the dramaturgical process, I questioned whether solo performance had an autobiographical element at its core. Of course not all solo performance is about someone’s lived experience, a lot of solo shows have performers taking on the part of someone else. But, unlike an actor who is given a part and takes that role on board creating a character from the text, a solo performer, in most cases, is instrumental in choosing the person they want to portray. Therefore there must be something attracting the performer to the subject matter in order to take it on and what is it that attracts them? This week Simon Callow brought Inside Wagner’s Head to the Theatre Royal yet he did not spend 90 minutes being Wagner, instead, he let us into the world of Wagner as Callow. He told us the story of Wagner’s life where on occasion he would embody the composer. You may say then that Inside Wagner’s Head has no sense of autobiography at its core, but I would assume that Callow wanted to make the performance because of his absolute love for the music of Wagner. He admires the man for his commitment to art, not for his somewhat unsavory antisemitic views. The very fact that he tells us the story as Callow opens himself up to show us his interest and respect for the subject. Through his research, which created his script, there was dialogue that may have been taken, verbatim, from the archive. In Autobiography and Performance (2008) Deirdre Heddon suggests that by taking words verbatim ‘from people’s reflections on events connected with their own lives’ (2008:127) those words become their autobiographies. Callow is himself (auto) recounting the biographical story of another which is, according to Heddon, one of the ‘multiplicity of ways in which the [auto/biographical] relationship is structured in performance’ (2008:126).
So as a solo performer I have to create a strategy for my solo work. My supervisor, Professor Roberta Mock, went ahead and created a solo performance when her collaborator pulled out. Her performance of Down/town was, as Matthew Reisz said in the Times Higher Education, ‘a cabaret act followed by a more formal lecture’ that ‘demonstrated’ her research work. You can read Reisz’s article here. Mock believes that you are in a very vulnerable place making a piece of solo work essentially on your own. There is always a danger that it could be too inward looking, too personal, too self-indulgent, or simply inexplicable. Mock went ahead with the show as a solo piece using the applied dramaturgy of the disciplines she already knew, that of directing and sceneography. By using the disciplines she felt at home in first, Mock was able to ‘fill in’ the gaps from years of group devising with students, years of watching and observing. She then asked a fellow artist/lecturer, and someone she could trust, to watch the show four days before the performance to give her a second opinion.
I saw a show called The Lad Lit Project about a month ago performed by Alexander Kelly, the co-artistic director of Third Angel. Third Angel would normally work around two co-directors, one being “a foil” to the other, when not actually in the piece. In this instance the second director was unavailable so Alex asked Deirdre Heddon to be involved in the development of the piece. Being geographically miles apart they started an email conversation and having no previous knowledge of the genre of lad lit Heddon was able to ask authentically objective questions. The email conversation also enabled Kelly to be reflective on his acting out of Heddon’s provocations, in order to articulate clearly back to her. Although the word ‘dramaturgy’ didn’t get mentioned until the end of the five-month process, the provocations that Heddon asked and that Kelly had to address they realized had become a dramaturgical enquiry, therefore giving their combined essay on their correspondence, a title, Distance Dramaturgy. (Heddon & Kelly, 2010). Each show that Kelly makes has a different strategy but he accepts that he needs an-‘other’, or a ‘foil’, as he prefers to say, for dramaturgical imput.
Phil Smith calls his ‘foil’ an ‘outside eye’ – Smith makes performance walks and for his 2004 Crab Walks he used actor Anjali Jay as his dramaturgical aide. Because Jay had accompanied Smith on some of the walks he was going to use ‘she was able to identify what was key in their affect, and cut away unnecessary “setting up” and glosses’ that were evident in Smith’s first draft. What came into play here was the fact that Jay herself was a performer, so she was able to use her actor’s dramaturgy and, in doing so, she enabled Smith himself to perform the text, she ‘made it performer friendly, and audience friendly’.
It seems to me from these examples that the addition of a second set of eyes that can watch the performance at a point before the intended audience, but with enough time to make adjustments, is a priority. Whatever we call that person, an outside eye, a foil, a collaborator, this one intervention can stop the solo performer creator from becoming, in Mock’s words, ‘too inward looking, too personal, too self-indulgent’.
Smith has also worked without a second set of eyes but he claims he has taken on board a lot of what his outside eyes gave him and is quite fierce with himself. Smith works site-specifically, where the site itself can suggest what should come next. The site itself becomes the collaborator and part of an extended dramaturgy and, as Smith points out, ‘you should respect the site’s layers and textures as the first script’.
All quotes from personal or email conversations.
I have been reading Walking Writing and Performance (2009 ed Roberta Mock, Bristol: Intellect) as it looks at three separate solo performance case studies. In the final piece Deirdre Heddon talks about her reaction to using Exeter as the place for her performance ‘One Square Foot’. Each square foot was chosen by the artists involved because of its autobiographical, historical and political resonances and associations. Heddon was at odds with the fact that she had spent relatively little time in Exeter as opposed to Glasgow, the city she called ‘home’. This made me think about my own home, personally I feel I am miles from my spiritual home (see above) even though at 13 years I am coming up to living in the city of Plymouth for as long as I have in any other. It also got me thinking as to why I had chosen the synagogue to perform my own site specific performance. There has to be a more complicated reason I have chosen the synagogue besides the fact that it holds an incredible history that Plymouth doesn’t seem that interested in celebrating. If I was subconsciously choosing the synagogue for my chosen space, why was that? The fact that I don’t call this city my home has to do with not being able to put down roots, (I moved here not through personal choice) I feel like I am travelling, on a journey. This may have something to do with the fact that I have always been nomadic in my work, going where the work was and travelling the world to do so. But, in the past I still had a place I called home to go back to when the work was done. Now though the work has started to dry up and not only because I have reached that age where women start to become invisible, but also because I am hidden within the geographical isolation of the South West. Therefore am I drawn to the hidden-ness of stories because of my own isolation or do I see a metaphor in the Hebrew congregation with my own, once nomadic but now dwindling career?