The Hollywood Fringe Festival, like most Fringes, is all about freedom of expression. Taking after it’s mother-ship The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Hollywood Fringe mission states that it “is completely open and uncensored. This free-for-all approach underlines the festival’s mission to be a platform for artists without the barrier of a curative body.” Perhaps that’s what makes the Fringe a perfect place for one-person, autobiographical shows–the absence of an institutional force mediating what the audience sees is mirrored in the show’s lack of a fictional narrative mediating between performer and audience. The result is a plethora of solo shows.
Tiffany Phillips, whose piece I Never Met a Jerk I Didn’t Like sold out every performance, says she created her show out of a desire to turn her personal experience into something positive:
I went through a rough period in the love department. My self esteem was in the dirt and I needed to pull myself out of it, so I started writing. I’ve always felt that comedy and laughter are a great healer. Instead of whining and complaining about these “Jerks,” I wrote about it and turned a negative into a positive.
Phillips avoids the self-indulgent trap so many solo shows fall into by creating a colorful cast of characters that are distinctly not her:
These men I dated were such “characters” that I knew I had to bring them to life on stage. People relate. Both men and women. We’ve all been there. The woes of dating are a universal theme.
In a performance that echoes the physical and vocal transformations of Anna Deavere Smith, Phillips manages to tell a story that is personal, entertaining, and cathartic.
Jacquetta Szathmari’s That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone took on the explicitly political subject that informs her personal life. She relates,
I had been doing standup based on my experiences growing up in extreme rural Maryland and not fitting in with “my people” and a lot of black people would pull me aside and whisper that I was telling their story. It’s hard to get enough stage time to really examine the race/class issues I wanted to tackle so I figured, I’ll do my own show and see what happens.
Szathmari, who does not consider herself an actor per se, quotes characters in a storytelling style rather than embodying them in theatrical characterizations. Most of the time, she simply speaks as herself. This personal narrative combined with direct eye-contact with the audience and a few in-the-moment asides allows even audience members whose lives are nothing like Szathmari’s to enter completely into her world.
Keena Ferguson, a dancer and film and television actor, says she had seen very few solo shows when she began work on Keena: Unbranded The Solo Experience, so she didn’t feel confined by expectations that she’d be presenting a certain kind of theater. Her process, she says, was similarly free-form:
I started writing the stories that spoke to me immediately and I just wrote them with no editing at all. Kind of free writing. I picked songs I knew I wanted in the show to dance to. Then when I first met with Tanya Alexander, my director, I would just read them to her. My show is non-linear so there was no order at all to the flow of the show and then I had these dance pieces that were there. It was like a collage.
Ferguson employs a live musician as well as recorded sound as she moves in and out of dance, first-person storytelling, and characterizations of the important people in her life. She takes the audience on a journey from her life as Miss Ohio to the travails of getting started as an actor and dancer in LA, which invites the audience to consider that even the most beautiful women have to work to succeed.
Rati Gupta’s Not Another Teen Solo Show takes yet another approach by using pop culture to connect with the audience. She says she began writing when on a visit home:
I was bored, so I started reading through my old journals and was HORRIFIED by my high school self. I used to watch movies that paralleled whatever situation I was currently dealing with, thinking that they would guide me out of it. I kept comparing myself to Rachael Leigh Cook from She’s All That. When I reminisced with my friends about high school and all those teen movies, I realized that I wasn’t the only one whose expectations of love, friendships and the future were so affected by the TV/movies. These stories of mine weren’t a fluke, they were universal, and incredibly entertaining in hindsight.
Unlike with That’s Funny. You Didn’t Sound Black on the Phone, in which the artist’s race is the subject of the narrative, Gupta’s show makes only one reference to her Indian heritage as it tells the hilarious and universal story of a typical teenager in Indiana who just wants to be popular.
Gupta, Szathmari, Ferguson, and Phillips all found the Fringe Festival both a great place to experiment–they all changed their scripts in the course of their runs–and a great way to make what Festival Director Ben Hill calls “Fringeships.” Gupta put it this way:
Being a solo show writer/performer is lonely. Outside of your circle of personal friends and handful of artistic collaborators, you don’t really have that many people championing your work. With a fringe festival though, you’re thrown into this crazy fun mess of other creative people. People-power is clutch when it comes to solo shows. You CANNOT do one on your own, as ironic as that may be. Surrounding yourself with as many like-minded, positive, and supportive people, which is SO easy to do at fringe festivals, is incredibly important. It makes the whole process less stressful and more rewarding in the end.
Just as the Festival does not put itself in between the artist and the audience, these solo shows eliminate the fiction that usually provides viewers with a way to distance themselves from the artists. During these performances, the audience can’t disappear into the dark anonymity of the theater. Luckily–given the quality of the material–they don’t want to.
What do you think?