Robert Cohen’s very personal guide to the creation of one-person shows
Every actor should have a one-person show up their sleeve.
Most actors – most of us, at least, not blessed with the guiding light of a major agent – are engaged in a daily struggle with thousands of other performers, dependent on the yay or nay of a dizzying number of different personalities to get us a bit of work: casting directors, producers, directors, ad agencies, clients, etc etc etc – the powerlessness is well nigh Beckettian in its bleakness and intensity!
Don’t despair, though – just get yourself a solo show and all will be well.
I’m lying, of course; nevertheless, having a solo show – a piece of work which depends purely on your own energies – is a way of claiming and retaining at least a little bit of power. Whether you make it your main focus or keep it just as something to perform occasionally between bigger gigs, a one-person show stands to enhance your self-esteem and hopefully earn you a few bob without the need to audition for anyone. Of course, you’ll still need to persuade venues of its potential, but at least they can’t cast someone else in your show.
“But Robert,” you say, “I can’t write.”
Yeah, people often say that to me, and equally often it turns out they haven’t put a lot of effort into trying. Writing is hard work if you’re going to do it properly. Plays aren’t written – they’re re-written. I don’t know who said that originally, but it was Malcolm Bradbury who imparted it to me – and if you’re ostensibly too young to understand the name-drop, then get Googling.
“No,” you say, “but I really can’t write”.
In that case, get a writer to write something for you. Most playwrights, like most actors, are struggling to get noticed as more and more of the big gigs go to the pre-established names (not least pre-established dead ones “on the curriculum”) – so a one-person show may be as much in their interests as yours.
For the moment, though, let’s say you’re going to have a go – and, before we proceed any further, let’s pose the question: why does Robert Cohen think he can teach me how to create a one-person show? Well, I don’t. I don’t think that. All I can say is that I’ve had a little success in the field, and I’m happy to note for public consumption what seems thus far to have worked for me.
The first thing to observe, before any writing gets done, is that subjects matter.
Likewise titles. Likewise the name and background of the performer. Likewise various other things which, in short, and to use the vile but useful parlance of our time, amount to talk of “hooks”.
When you get to promoting your show to potential venues, you’ll be up against stiff competition. Venue programmers need some reason to pick your show – some reason to believe it’s something for which they’ll be able to shift a few tickets. Now, I’ve not seen Jeffrey Holland’s show about Stan Laurel, and I don’t know if it’s any good (I’ve heard it is), but the quality’s less than half the point: the point is that it’s a show about a comedy icon, performed by someone who used to be in Hi-de-Hi, a very popular BBC sitcom. For the busy theatre programmer, that amounts to hook heaven.
By contrast, my first one-man show was called The Death of Nelson – not, as you’d imagine, a biography of everybody’s favourite monocular naval hero; the Nelson in question was Mandela, or rather a child named after him by a pair of right-on British parents who went to university in the ’80s. Not that I was playing any of those characters; I was playing the child’s godfather – and through the relationship between this man and his off-stage godson I ambitiously charted the ebb and flow of bourgeois British radicalism over 18 years from the high tide of Thatcherism to the dawn of New Labour.
And that’s the mouthful I had to relate to every person – every punter, every funder, every theatre programmer – whom I ever sought to engage with the piece. The play was universally praised by those who saw it – “a tour de force,” said The Graduate author Charles Webb – but getting it seen in the first place was a huge challenge.
The fact was that, devoted friends and family aside, nobody was going to break a leg to see a show by Robert Cohen. I needed a hook, and with Nelson there wasn’t one. Let’s be clear now: I’d never run away from a topic just because it was difficult to “enhook”; neither would I, say, do a show about John Lennon just because it seemed guaranteed to put bums on seats. Nevertheless, with the “Who’s Robert Cohen?” factor always in play, I’m now a lot more aware of that whole hook thing – it’s far from an exact science, but I think it helps that all my shows since Nelson have been capable of encapsulation in a single sentence:
The Trials of Harvey Matusow – the true story of a McCarthyite supergrass;
High Vis: a tragicomical tale about a traffic warden with a stalker;
Something Rotten: the events of Hamlet, re-told and reassessed according to the viewpoint of the prince’s Uncle Claudius.
OK, then, enough with the hooks. What about writing the damn thing?
Well, like I say, I can’t really tell anyone how to write their show, only say what works for me – and by that I suppose I mean what seems to engage people rather than sending them to sleep.
For the fact is, one-person shows can be tremendously dull, perhaps because there’s such a perilously thin line between solo performance and lecture. If you want to “wake the buggers up” (as Larry Olivier used to say), it’s a useful thing to be able to do more than merely stand and talk for an hour or more; I mean, yes, that’s what you’ll be doing, most likely, but if you can create the illusion that people are seeing you do a lot more – if you can create an offstage world and act as your audience’s conduit to it – then Bob should be your uncle. Certainly, one of the most rewarding compliments I’ve had was when someone said, just after one of my performances (can’t now recall which one) that it seemed as if they’d just watched a whole cast of characters on stage. They hadn’t, of course.
It’s also good, in my humble, to break up the narrative.
I have seen people hold an audience with an hour and a half of non-stop talk – indeed, if memory serves from over the decades, that’s how it was with the most thrilling solo performance I ever saw, a one-man version of All Quiet on the Western Front. Mostly, though, as a punter I find the slab-of-chat format hard to digest, and therefore, as a performer, I generally prefer to deliver my story in a series of individual scenes, moving between from one time or place to another. At the very least I try to vary the stage image with a new prop or some small change of costume, but I’ve been known to move the action across the globe – as in The Trials of Harvey Matusow, wherein I lead my audience from the Mersey estuary to London to New Zealand to Essex and finally to New York – all by telling them that’s where they are. As Bill Shakespeare knew, a willing audience will follow you anywhere. “This castle hath a pleasant seat” – and we’re in a castle!
Well, I could go on, but we’re perilously close to the word count, and I’ve not got anywhere near talking about selling your show to venues. Just as well, for though I’ve confidence sufficient to presume to pass on the above tips, I’ve no better idea than anyone else about the black art of getting theatre programmers to pick up a phone or answer an email. The problem is that, until you get to know and love these people, you’re just one of the hundreds swamping them with information about a show you want to bring to their venue. So thoroughly inundated are they, these people, that you’ll do well to expect as a matter of course to have to send emails at least twice – once at the start, and again when you finally get through on the phone, for, while it’s just possible they may have a vague memory of your project, they’ll more than likely have no idea where now to locate your original email…
But hey, we’re getting away from one-person shows, and into the more general area of touring. That’s a matter for another article, by another writer who knows more about it.
Good luck, anyway.