Intimacy, economics lead to more shows with a cast of one Acting Alone

March 12, 1995|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,Sun Theater Critic

One-person shows are probably as old as theater itself. Maybe even older. They may have begun the first time prehistoric man came home from the hunt, stepped up on a rock and entertained his neighbors by acting out the events of his day.

The current proliferation of these shows, however, makes them seem like a hot new trend. As is evident from the diverse area offerings, one-person shows now come in a variety of forms -- though they share the same ancient storytelling root.

Biographies of famous people are one of the most popular forms. "Hannah Senesh," part of Center Stage's series, "Feminine Singular: Women Speak Solo," is about the Zionist who was the first woman to parachute behind Nazi lines in World War II. And "The Belle of Amherst," being presented to benefit Everyman Theatre next weekend, is about poet Emily Dickinson.

There are several other types as well. "Citizen Reno," which opens the "Feminine Singular" series Wednesday, offers a personalized look at current events delivered by a savagely comic performance artist. "Shirley Valentine," coming to the Mechanic Theatre next month, is a full-fledged fictional play that happens to have a cast of one. In "Playing Paradis," which ends its repeat engagement at the Theatre Project today, Claudia Stevens interweaves her personal history with that of an 18th-century musician.

Even reciting the Bible can be considered a one-person show if the actor is as skillful as Alec McGowan, whose performance of "St. Mark's Gospel" returns to the area for a one-week run at the Kennedy Center beginning March 21.

What's the reason for this slew of monodramas, as they are sometimes called?

In conversations with a number of the performers, several reasons came up again and again.

"On one level it's really about low overhead and portability," says Rhodessa Jones, whose show, "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women," is based on her experiences teaching aerobics to incarcerated women. A sell-out at Center Stage last season, it returns in April as part of "Feminine Singular."

For Baltimore actress Tana Hicken, low overhead and portability have allowed her to offer benefit performances of "The Belle of Amherst" for worthy causes.

"I knew it was something I could hang onto. If I did it, I could give it away," says Hicken. She first appeared as Emily Dickinson in the William Luce script 12 years ago, and has used it for various benefits since then. Everyman Theatre originally scheduled it for a three-week run, but when the theater ran into funding problems, Hicken volunteered to give two fund-raising performances instead. (She will also perform "The Belle of Amherst" during this summer's Columbia Festival of the Arts.)

In addition to the low cost of mounting a one-person show, it can also serve as an annuity for an actor. Having this type of professional insurance is an idea whose merits are apparent to even a relatively secure actress like Hicken, now in her 12th season as a member of the resident company at Washington's Arena Stage.

"Since most actors are out of a job most of the time, I would recommend that most actors put together a one-person show to be able to continue to work when you're not technically employed," she says.

In this respect, it's not entirely coincidental that all the interviews here are with women -- or even that Center Stage's series is "Feminine Singular." Says Reno: "A lot of performers for practical reasons recognize there aren't a lot of acting roles to go around, particularly for women, and they'll make it themselves."

Besides the economic advantages -- a major consideration in these hard-pressed times for the arts -- the intimacy of monodramas is another advantage. "Because you have no other actors to get involved with, it's really the most pure and intense form of communication that I've ever experienced on stage," says Lori Wilner, who helped develop "Hannah Senesh" with writer and director David Schechter 11 years ago and will perform it at Center Stage next month.

Wilner, who appeared in the play steadily for four years in the 1980s, relishes "the freedom and control you have doing a one-person show. You're driving the car. You are steering it. You decide how much gas you want to give it. You decide how fast to take the turn. You know the roads, and you know the car, and everything else is what kind of day it is, what kind of mood are you in, what are the weather conditions?"

Point of view

In shows of a more personal or autobiographical nature, the solo format becomes an ideal way for the performer-creator to express his or her point of view. "The audience gets to walk around inside of my head. I feel like that's my responsibility as an artist," explains Jones, who portrays herself as well as four composite characters in "Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women."

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