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.
Mark Kenward has created seven one-man shows, performing them in over 30 cities, including runs at the Marsh in San Francisco. He has also directed several one-person shows. Visit markkenward.com.
“Uncomfortable Truths and Unexpected Epiphanies”
Mark Kenward, interviewed by email by Sara Felder, April 7, 2012.
Is it important to you that your work is based on actual events in your life?
When I am doing an autobiographical piece I like to stick to the actual events, making some allowances for comedic exaggeration, flights of imagination and bundling of experiences, all of which I signal to the audience. There’s nothing wrong with a storyteller taking artistic liberties if the storyteller lets the audience know they are doing so. The most important truth is in how I am connecting to my audience, and that includes letting them see me wink at the process of arranging and amplifying a story. Then I can get deadly serious and honest when I need to, and be in full integrity throughout.
However, autobiographical shows are only one kind of solo performance. I’ve also adapted works of literature, including “Moby-Dick” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” In those cases I obviously edited out a lot of text to create my script, but it was important to me that the sentences that remained were ones that were actually written by the author. Not everyone who adapts literature feels as strongly as I do about preserving the author’s language, but I feel there is a certain integrity at stake, just as there is with autobiographical shows.
I was commissioned by a sixth-generation Sonoma winery to create a one-man show based on their family history. The story was told from the perspective of a family member who owned the vineyard back in the 1950s. This person had been dead for some 20 years, and yet somehow I had to come up with a script in his voice. His children told me about some major events in his life, and their general thoughts of who he was as a person. Still, there were a lot of blank spots, so there was room for invention, which the family encouraged and approved. And this had its own sort of integrity, as the audiences were clear that the piece was a creative imagining of what life was like for a grape farmer some 50 years ago. Plus, they were a little tipsy from the preshow wine reception.
I have directed a number of shows that were purely fictional, including black comedies, experiments in surrealism and exquisite character studies. Those are fun to work on, too, without the constraints of being hemmed in by actual events.
Then there are those nonfiction solo shows that are more in the vein of journalism or documentary theatre. I think the recent events with Mike Daisey have clarified that these shows must follow different rules than autobiographical shows. The writer doesn’t get to exaggerate or rearrange things in a journalistic piece. I haven’t worked on such a piece, but I imagine it will be a good challenge to embrace one of these days. Just the facts, ma’am.
What is the role of solo theatre in society?
I’m not sure solo theatre is all that important to society at large, at least not compared to more mainstream forms of expression, but I’ve seen solo theatre play a profound role in individual lives. Creating a one-person show can make you a better person. You have to open yourself to both uncomfortable truths and unexpected epiphanies. You have to acquire and hone new skills. You have to connect with peers, producers and especially audiences. You have to push your thinking. You have to figure out what it really means to “show, don’t tell” and all those other things that are easy to say but harder to do. You have to deal with the opinions of reviewers. It is psychologically demanding work. It takes months and months to create a full-length show. And after all that hard work there are those few rare transcendent moments on stage where it all comes together, moments that are incredibly intoxicating and life-affirming. All of this would mean nothing if there weren’t audiences out there who love the immediacy of solo performance, who love being entertained or provoked or enthralled. And then there are those people to whom your show speaks in an especially powerful and personal way. Nearly every solo performer I know has received a heartfelt letter or email from an audience member saying “your show made a difference in my life.” We all have the potential to inspire each other in this way, and I think that is what makes solo work relevant in our scattered times.
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.
Mark Kenward with young performers in Marsh Youth Theater’s 2010 show “The Wave.” Photo: © 2009 Light at 11b