You’re an actor, sitting with a bunch of other actors in a theatre lobby waiting for your audition. People are silently studying their sides or mouthing monologues to themselves. Other folks are chatting quietly nearby. Inevitably, at some point, you hear it.
“Actually, I’m writing my own solo show. I just got tired of waiting around for someone else to decide when I could work.”
And you think, I’m tired of waiting too. Could I do that?
Many times I have groused at having to wait on someone else to decide whether I could be part of a project. I consider myself lucky to be a longtime member of the Chicago theater community. I’ve worked in non-Equity and Equity theaters. I’ve had periods of working constantly, and also long periods of not being cast.
ME: But I don’t write.
RIC: You’d be great.
ME: I don’t know why you’re saying this. I don’t write. The last time I wrote anything was a term paper on Ionesco in high school.
RIC: Just write about something that happened to you.
I did. Ric helped me. (Thank God people are always helping me.) I wrote about something that happened to me, which really means I wrote about something that changed me, changed the way I saw the world. The first night I stood in front of an audience in a wine bar and performed my own words, I had the feeling that everything I knew about performance—theatricality, story and creating a truly meaningful connection with an audience—fused together. My practice has been a form of self-expression and art-making ever since.
At some point I wanted to create something bigger. Since my only experience was writing pieces that were meant to be performed, the next logical thing seemed to be writing a solo show. I felt plenty sheepish about it, and was shy about announcing it. I kept asking myself, Does the world really need another one-woman show? (I ultimately opted not to answer that question; it was too much pressure.) With help from even more people, over the last few years I’ve created two shows, The Half-Life of Magic and Love Thy Neighbor…till it hurts.
My shows are based on things that happened to me. (Which is not to say that they are 100% factual, because I do manipulate timelines and condense characters … but let’s not get all Mike Daisey on this.) Put simply, I take my personal experiences and craft them into polished theatrical performances. I look at specific, sometimes mundane, experiences and try to shine a light on them so as to make them universally meaningful to other people in what I hope is an entertaining and surprising way.
I didn’t know what I was doing right off the bat. I just started writing, and one vague idea led me to a more concrete idea, which led me to something that seemed to make some sense. I tried to see as much solo work as I could, at fringe festivals and our local Fillet of Solo festival. I became less shy about asking for things. I asked other people about their process, I asked them to read my work, give me feedback on my work and, ultimately, produce it. And a lot of the time they said yes.
If you’ve been that actor feeling distanced from your art, and you are now wondering if you should dive in and try to write your own piece, the answer is “Yes, maybe!” For me, creating solo shows is a process that on a deep level reminds me that my ability to make art is not exclusively in the hands of others.
Whether or not you consider yourself a writer, as actors we already understand a lot of what makes a solo piece successful: dramatic form, how to be vulnerable in a moment, the importance of humor and levity. Actors know that any small story can be meaningful to an audience if it’s honest and universal. Actors understand how to hold an audience’s attention, alone, onstage. We also understand how hard it is to get a show from page to stage. So it’s important to know what you want out of the experience. Below is my practical advice.
- Discover what it is you have to say. There’s a tremendous responsibility in asking an audience to sit there and listen to you for an hour or more. What is your point-of-view, your unique perspective in the show? Make sure you’ve discovered something about the subject about which you are writing, even if it’s only true for you. And don’t worry: you do have something to say. You just need to figure out what it is.
- Have an intention. Keep thinking about your audience, always. How is what happened to you relevant to others? There needs to be a struggle to accomplish or understand something in the piece. Otherwise, it’s just indulgent.
- Be fearless. Just like you would when playing a role. Be honest. Show us who you are.
- Just start writing. It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing at first. There’s no magic formula. Really. I spent a lot of time looking for it.
- Get help. Collaborate, get feedback, hire a director. Take a class if you can, simply to put yourself in proximity to others who are working with the same beast. 2nd Story is a great place to start, or check out Arlene Malinowski’s workshop at Chicago Dramatists.
- Be realistic. I wish I could tell you theaters are dying to produce solo works, and that once you write this thing, you’ll be set. My experience has been that it’s just as hard to get original work produced as it is to get cast in meaningful projects. But that doesn’t mean don’t do it! There are many more opportunities to read and share and workshop solo pieces for invited audiences, and, truly, the process of creating a show has its own intrinsic rewards.
Turning the stories of your life into art that may have meaning for others is incredibly powerful. It’s a sometimes-terrifying challenge, an exhilarating rush to create and to perform. And it reminds you of who you really are, always: an artist, an art-maker, a storyteller.
Julie Ganey has worked as a performer in Chicago for 20 years at such venues as the Goodman Theatre, Victory Gardens, Northlight, Chicago Dramatists, Shattered Globe, 16th Street Theatre and Drury Lane Theatre. In the classroom, Julie is an arts educator for students of all ages through the Goodman, Lifeline, and Raven Theatre. Her bullying prevention program, Stand Up on the Schoolyard, has been presented to students and educators within the Chicago Public School system and across the country. Julie is a company member and the director of education at 2ndStory, a professional collective of writers and storymakers in Chicago. Her work has appeared in their recently published anthology, Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck and also on NPR.