During the curtain call for “Loveland,” a solo play about a woman coming to terms with her mother’s death, as the audience is applauding wildly and wiping away tears, author and performer Ann Randolph comes on stage and announces that the show is not about her own mother, who is still very much alive. Charlie Varon, in “The People’s Violin,” begins with a preshow declaration that the parents in the show we are about to see are not based on his own parents, who, by the way, are truly wonderful people. Holly Hughes does them both one better. In the middle of “The Dog and Pony Show,” she quotes solo theatre artist Tim Miller as she announces, “Everything in this show is true.” Then, after a pause: “And some of it actually happened!”
I have been performing solo theatre for nearly 25 years, and every post-show discussion has included the question, “Is it true?”—asked usually right after the one about whether the knives that I juggle are sharp. (And yes to that one.)
My goal is to create great theatre that tells a more or less autobiographical story that is emotionally true for me. Why would I want to betray an audience member’s experience by answering that the part they loved was fictional? As a writer, why wouldn’t I draw on my own experiences and my own imagination? And besides, what’s so great about telling a completely true story anyway?
I set out to interview some of my colleagues in the solo performance community—many from the Marsh, the Bay Area’s solo performance haven—to see how they approach this “truth” business. Working mostly in self-written “personal memoir,” these theatrical descendants of the late Spalding Gray and our local John O’Keefe talked to me about their often complicated relationship to the truth. Some valued telling factual stories, others were more interested in emotional truth, and others went directly to fiction.
My biggest surprise was how many performers were invested in true autobiography. Don Reed, star of the current autobiographical monologue “The Kipling Hotel,” claims the audience can relate on a deeper level when they know it is really the performer’s own story. “The role of truth serves as a beacon toward authenticity,” he says. When an audience is told, “This is a true story,” it immediately reshapes the way they will process what they’re about to see. For some reason, and I do not know why, it also immediately makes people match it against their own life experience—whether it be from the stance of “Hey, something similar to that happened to me” or “What if something like that happened to me?”
Lorenzo Pisoni of ACT’s recent hit “Humor Abuse,” about his childhood in the Pickle Family Circus, brings up another benefit of autobiography: “'Humor Abuse' succeeds in part because it is based on actual events. I don't think it’s necessary, but I believe some of the humor stems from it being a true story.” Indeed. The main weapon in solo theatre is humor that is often mined from the actual story, and often from the sadness in that story. Often after my shows, when people want to know what is “true,” I sometimes answer (only partly joking) that it’s the parts they laughed at.
The performer who was the most adamant about being factual in her play was Marilyn Pittman, who tells the story (in “It’s All the Rage”) of her father killing her mother and then himself. “I’m really into getting the facts straight; I’m fanatical about it,” she told me. “I am trying to be accurate in telling the story not just from memory and experience. But there’s a chunk that is reading from my mother’s journal and my father’s therapy transcript. I want the audience to get to know them but not through my filter.” And, as if the audience is the jury, she adds, “I am reporting to you, your honor.”
Ann Randolph in "Loveland."
Photo: Leland Auslender
In many ways, the audience (and the world) is judging. A few audience members disclosed to me their deep sense of betrayal and disgust when they found out that a touching story presented as autobiographical theatre was based on a lie. As I’m writing this article, solo performer Mike Daisey is embroiled in a controversy over fabrications about his experiences with Apple workers in China that he told in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” While Daisey’s piece is presented as more journalistic than the personal theatre I’m talking about, the situation shows that blurry line between theatre and facts and how solo theatre, with its confessional tone and direct sincere address to the audience, can be (sometimes intentionally) misleading.
No wonder the audience is confused. Marga Gomez, whose “Not Getting Any Younger” is the latest of many solo shows, says, “The funny thing is that a lot of it is true, and then people after the show ask me the craziest questions as if I just made up the whole story. If I was going to make up the story, I would make up a more amazing story. They ask: ‘Was your mom really a dancer? Are you really Puerto Rican?’ Apparently audiences expect to be lied to.” Enzo Lombard-Quintero, of “Love, Humiliation & Karaoke,” says when people ask if the story is true, he thinks to himself, “I’m flattered you think I could fabricate something so fucked up.”
Pisoni has a theory that it can be a little too close for some people to hear writer/performers tell their own story; they need some distance. “I am always amazed at how many people don’t believe it’s true or that I’m the one in the photos that we project during the show,” Pisoni says. “Maybe that would make any story easier to digest? I don’t know why this is.”
This brings up the question of what it even means to tell a true story. We are always omitting information when we tell stories, our minds are always reconstructing what actually happened to make sense of it for ourselves, and memory is unreliable and subjective. “I’m 41,” says Lisa Marie Rollins, who describes her life as a transracial adoptee in “Ungrateful Daughter.” “Can I really remember accurately what happened when I was seven? And won’t my mother have another version of that memory?” (Obviously Mom needs her own solo show.)
Acclaimed director and teacher David Ford (with three shows up right now!) tells me that it’s tricky to talk about truth because “there are many systems of truth”: “That word is going to catch us up, because it means more than one thing.” I also submit that one cannot know or tell a whole truth. We are always dealing with partial truths, always trying to put different pieces of the puzzle together for a more complete understanding.
It is the director/dramaturg or teacher that helps performers tell a more complete, truer story.
We think we know our story, but we just know that version that we have told or thought so many times. Teachers like Nina Wise, Charlie Varon, David Ford, Martha Rynberg and myself help students bring out different ideas, qualities and perspectives. W. Kamau Bell, who has directed Bruce Pachtman (“Don’t Make Me Look Too Psychotic”), Rollins and Zahra Noorbakhsh, says, “I always encourage people to say things out loud that they believe but rarely—and sometimes never—articulate.” Rynberg brings out the specificity of a story so that “people can step into our skin,” and Charlie Varon says, “What is the discovery they are on the brink of, that they are tiptoeing up to? Is there some way that I can encourage them to take the next step?”
Those of us who use solo theatre as a form to create multiple pieces throughout our careers are continually mining different parts of ourselves. “I am interested in everything,” admits Josh Kornbluth, whose last of many solo shows was “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” “I can do a show about the color green and make it about my father.” And I could write an article about solo theatre and make it about my mother. (Incidentally, green was her favorite color.)
It’s important to the performers that their stories help their audiences feel less isolated and more part of a community. When my show “June Bride” first opened, the story of a traditional Jewish lesbian wedding, many young women brought their parents as a way to come out to them. Brian Copeland’s “The Waiting Period” not only entertains and educates about clinical depression, but may also actually save lives. Lisa Marie Rollins’s story gives voice to people who are adopted and their families. I’ve seen Latina lesbians literally in tears of happiness watching Marga Gomez. As Geoff Hoyle, who tackles the effects of aging in “Geezer,” says, “Hopefully when people see ‘Geezer’, they will say, ‘I’m not alone.’”
Brian Copeland in "The Waiting Period." Photo: Patti Meyer
But of course you don’t have to share the aspect of identity that the performer is exploring in order to love the show. It was with the excitement of the “outsider/inquirer/ally” that I attended Zahra Noorbakhsh’s “All Atheists Are Muslim,” the story of her relationship with a non-Muslim man, against the wishes of her father. I knew I would be in another world. And yet, when I walked in and joined the audience that was about 50 percent Muslims and of South Asian descent, I heard familiar strains in the preshow music. “Fiddler on the Roof”? The disconnect was jolting and comforting. Here I was, thinking I was entering a different culture, and I’m greeted with Tevye the dairyman! Noorbakhsh explained, “Yes, it’s my father’s favorite show!” Her father is a devout Muslim. How’s that for universality?
The experience of performing this material can be difficult for the performer (as well as the performer’s family!) but ultimately redemptive. As Brenda Wong Aoki suggests, “In ‘Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend,’ I learned that exposing a secret shame to the public can transform it into a badge of honor.” Whatever struggle we are talking about in the show, we survived with some degree of success. Pidge Meade may have had a battle with her weight, as she discusses in “40 Pounds in 12 Weeks,” but now she is downright thin. Gomez may be getting older, as her new show states, but she looks vibrant and young. Hoyle may very well be a geezer, but the amount of physicality he exerts in his show is enough to taunt a 20-year-old. As Kornbluth says, “It’s a way to have a level of control over things that are uncontrollable and to note them and share them and be recognized for it and be reflected back.”
But if it’s not great art, it doesn’t matter how “truthful” the story is. Geoff Hoyle puts it like this: “When you perform theatre, you don’t swear on the bible or the constitution to tell the whole truth. It’s art and requires a leap of imagination.” Anne Galjour, author of solo shows such as “Hurricane,” uses the truth more as a starting point and not as a basis for story: “Actual events put the key in the ignition. My imagination turns the key. When I really let go, the wheels turn and I enjoy the ride.” But we often also need to literally change the tale, in service of the bigger truth of the story. “The truth,” director Jael Weisman used to tell me, “is that the truth isn’t always theatrically interesting.” Gomez explains her process this way: “There’s the story and then there’s the details. Sometimes what really happened doesn’t capture what you can do with different colors to paint the story. I’m more interested in communicating what it felt like, so if I had to change when something happened or who was there, that’s fine.” And Dan Hoyle, who embodies the characters of people he met in Middle America in “The Real Americans,” explains in a program note that “the words you’ll hear tonight are a mix of many people’s and my own writing in service of the larger truth.”
I often find that the most personal stories are found in fiction. Ann Randolph of the long-running “Loveland” asks, “What is truth? What is fiction? I'm drawing on material that speaks to my emotional truth, and if I perhaps distort or exaggerate for comedic/dramatic effect then that is fine with me. It’s entertainment.” And Nina Wise of “What Just Happened?,” an improvised solo account of the day’s news, adds, “When creating either fictional or nonfictional work, the challenge is to tell the truth as best one can.”
About her post-show announcement, Randolph explains, “I told the audience that my mother hadn’t died, but everything else about the story was pretty true. My dad had died and I didn’t have time to tell both their stories, so I made my mother a composite of both my dad and mom. I created the alter ego of Frannie Potts because she’s a fun aspect of myself to play and also in order to give myself permission to speak the unspeakable in terms of grief.” Like Randolph, Sara Moore of “Show Ho” chooses to use an alter ego, Rhonda Hammerstein, to tell (and clown) her personal story of coming of age as a gender-queer teenager in the circus.
In order to tell the truth, sometimes we lie. Geoff Hoyle questions the whole form, asking in the body of his show, “Is that really what happened, or am I making it into a story?”
The draw of solo theatre, the reason for its urgency, according to David Ford, is that it offers us authenticity. With the world in our pocket and a screen at our fingertips, there is a yearning, “a thirst,” says Ford, “to see a real person onstage tell a story. But that’s not to say the show has to be autobiographical. I’ve done this for 25 years. I no longer see a distinction between fiction and nonfiction.”
So, even if it’s not truth we’re seeking, it is authenticity. And when I watch solo theatre and receive the gifts of the artists’ insights, desperations and secrets, I listen for the truth in all of these stories. Factual or not.
Sara Felder is a local solo performer. She recently workshopped a new play, "A Queer Divine," at the Marsh on June 6, and is teaching solo performance at Berkeley Rep this spring. Visit sarafelder.com.