Very recently, I began teaching another 8-week solo performance class at The Marsh in San Francisco.
I’ve been teaching these workshops for 26 years. I still love it — the chance to be part of each student’s creative process, the discoveries, the opening of doors, the trial-and-error unfolding. And with each class, I’m reminded of the unique demands of solo performance.
A performer stands on stage talking, telling a story. Or, the performer transforms into a character who addresses the audience. It feels a lot like a conversation. So it’s natural for the person onstage to want to apply the norms of conversation to solo performance. But solo performance doesn’t work that way.
The norms of conversation vary from culture to culture, but polite American society tells us…
- It’s rude to stare.
Looking directly – and silently – at the person we’re talking for at any length of time is awkward, rude, impolite, an imposition. Do not look into the eyes of the person you’re talking to for more than a second or two at a time – unless you are proposing marriage.
- Fill the silence
If there’s a lull in the conversation, someone generally jumps in to end the awkwardness. We’re uncomfortable with the gap.
The world of the stage is different. One of the most powerful things a solo performer can do onstage is to stare. Another is to pause and let your body be still inside the silence.
On that same night, I asked a student to tell the same story she’d just told, but to take her time: to pause, stare, connect with the audience (the other students). She did, and everything changed. She discovered new details in the story – the feeling of the warm cement under her bare feet, the sound of the screen door. These sense memories allowed her to inhabit the moment. As she did this, the audience leaned in to receive what she was saying. Then the performer’s body began to help her tell the story, with posture and gesture. Everything deepened, and we were all transported.
In these moments, the performer and audience connect, in a way that’s rare in the rest of life.
Charlie Varon has been an artist-in-residence at The Marsh in San Francisco since 1991. He has collaborated with and directed Dan Hoyle on all his solo shows, including Circumnavigator, Tings Dey Happen, The Real Americans and Border People. As a playwright/performer, Varon’s award-winning solo shows —all created in collaboration with David Ford —include Rush Limbaugh in Night School (1994), The People’s Violin (2000), and Rabbi Sam (2009) which have had long runs at The Marsh and toured the country. Charlie and Brian Copeland are currently performing The Great American Shit Show, an evening of monologues on life in the Trump era, at venues around the Bay Area.
Also at The Marsh!