The May/June issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine includes a feature by Sara Felder titled “Juggling the Truth: True and Semi-Factual Confessions in Solo Performance.” We’re pleased to present a number of Felder’s interviews with her fellow Bay Area solo performers that went into the article.
Cassie Angley is a local solo performer whose show “Finding the Michaels” recently played at the Marsh Rising and at Shotwell Studios. Visit findingthemichaels.com.
“Primal and Nurturing”
Cassie Angley, interviewed by email by Sara Felder on March 12, 2012.
How did you pick the theme for this show?
Actually, the theme picked me. I attended a self-revelatory theatre solo performance of a friend of mine, which she had developed in a drama therapy workshop. Her theme was dark and deeply personal. As I stood in the lobby waiting to give my friend her much-deserved hug, I suddenly realized that my nine-year writer’s block began the day I stood in Manhattan on Sixth Avenue witnessing the massacre of 2,977 New Yorkers. Then the thought continued: it wasn’t just the witnessing of the towers exploding that threw me off kilter; it was the words, “He could be in there,” that erupted in my head. It was an incongruent thought about the whereabouts of my missing father, someone I hadn’t thought about in decades, that sent me on a quest to satisfy a lifetime of longing. As I stepped out of the theatre, I knew my story was going to be about how witnessing this tragedy gave me the courage to finally embark on a journey I’d been longing to take my whole life. I signed up for the workshop the next week, and slowly the walls of my writer’s block crumbled.
Is it important for you that this show is based on actual events? Do you think it’s important to your audience that your show is based on actual events?
As I began exploring my story and its themes in my new workshop, I started sharing my personal experience of 9/11 and the quest it sent me on with my New York and California friends. I learned that many of them, whether they witnessed the tragedy on the television or on the streets of New York, were profoundly personally affected by 9/11, and were also propelled into action that led them on their own personal quests. Courageous quests for lost friends, relatives and dreams, that prior to looking tragedy in the face they’d been too fearful to embark on. 9/11 acted as a catalyst for change and healing in many of our lives, and yet no one was talking about it. I wanted to start the dialogue about how positive change can come from experiencing tragedy.
It was also important to me that my journey to find my father was not fictionalized. I hope the true story of my journey might give so many others courage who have lost their own fathers to divorce, abandonment and the lack of pressure society puts on men to raise their children. While I was writing “Finding the Michaels” I saw a solo performance at the Marsh about a woman looking for her absent father. She was raised within her mother’s Anglo culture and she was trying to connect not only with her missing father but also with his Arab culture. In the middle of the piece she learns that her father has died before she’s had a chance to meet him. I sat in the theatre feeling so connected to her, to her story and to my own story. At the end of the show, a man stepped out of the audience and gave the actress a big hug. “This is my father.” She introduced the man to the circle of friends surrounding her.
I felt crushed with disappointment and alone in my loss. A “Finding the Michaels” audience knows that my story of my missing father is my true story, that I survived it and they can too. My desire is that my true story told through the intimate genre of solo theatre might give my audience courage and hope.
What do you think is the value or power of solo theatre (for the audience)?
Solo theatre replicates storytelling, which is as ancient as the beginning of human language. There is something very primal and nurturing about hearing a story from a single person who acts out all the characters. In ancient times they did it around a fire. In modern times elder family members perform our family heritage at the dining room tables or in recliner chairs in the center of the living room—introducing us to all the “characters,” living and deceased, in our family trees. When we were children, many of us enjoyed a kind of “solo performance” as our grown-ups read us bedtime stories from picture books, where they acted out all of the characters.
At its best, solo theatre can be a nurturing place for an audience to hear a personal story. A story which not only allows them empathy for the characters presented, but also a moment to go deep inside themselves and connect with their own life stories.
Let’s face it, as a playwright and performer I love solo theatre because it allows me almost complete control over my piece. I don’t have to worry about a savvy actress putting her own twist on my play, which doesn’t jibe with my artistic intent. And it’s cheap and easy to produce, because the casting it already done, and hey, I work for myself for free! But more importantly, solo theatre serves me tremendously as a playwright, since it allows me to literally try on my work, roll it around in my mouth and body and hear how it plays and feels. If I can’t make my own material land true in my own body, then I know I need a slight cut or a rewrite. Performing my own writing is the best editing tool I’ve ever experienced.
I seem to remember that there's some dancing (and maybe even singing) in your show. Could you talk about the different forms you use—including humor—to tell this story?
While at San Francisco State University in the late ’80s, I performed and trained with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. This was during their heyday, when Dan Chumley was still directing it, right after they won their Tony Award for best regional theatre. Chumley taught me that the most radical thing you can do in theatre is make an audience laugh, especially in their realm of political theatre. He explained that when an audience laughs, they are “getting it,” i.e., connecting to your material. The laughter also makes an emotional space when heavier topics are dropped in.
“Finding the Michaels” walks the audience through some heavy emotions—fear, loss, grief—so in my second and third draft of the script I purposely “punched it up” with jokes and humor. Then when my director and I got it up on its feet in rehearsal, we re-puzzled the scenes together so heavy moments are followed by funnier moments.
Also when my audience laughs they actually become part of creating live theatre, for I must pause in my performance for their responses, which means they are actively affecting the pace and rhythm of my performance.
In my next piece, “Split Chicks,” which (believe it or not) deals with even darker themes, in addition to humor I am using a mystery format as a way to make a disturbing story more entertaining and therefore more palatable.
Sara Felder is a local solo performer who recently workshopped a new play, “A Queer Divine,” at the Marsh on June 6. She is teaching solo performance at Berkeley Rep this spring. Visit sarafelder.com.
Solo performer Cassie Angley in “Finding the Michaels.”
Photo: Shilo McCabe