How to Put on a Solo Show
Hello, I’m here to tell you that you can do a one-person show. Yes, you. I’m talking to you. Not the person sitting behind you on the bus or the train, or the person behind you in line for your coffee, or wherever you’re killing time reading this article. Perhaps in the plethora of brilliant StageMilk articles, this very title caught your eye and you’ve pinned it for later— for your tea break perchance. You saw it and thought “Huh. A solo show, what a freaky little idea.” But deep down there’s been something nagging at you, nay, screaming at you. You want to create your own solo show dammit. And now you’ve made your tea and you’re sitting down to read it, eyes searching, scrolling down, waiting for that big moment where a particular sentence in this here article resonates with you and cracks you wide open. Like a person struck by lightning, you throw your tea over your shoulder and scream out “I’m going to put on a one-person show for (insert your closest local fringe/theatre festival)!” No doubt startling your housemates/family/neighbours/coworker you’re sharing the break room with.
Listen to the audio version of this article
Well, here it is.
Here is that line.
There is no hidden secret to a one-person show.
There is no magic key required.
The stage is yours. YOU DON’T NEED ANYONE’S PERMISSION. NOT EVEN FROM ME.
NOW GO DO THAT WONDER OF A ONE-PERSON SHOW THAT’S BEEN HIDING IN THE BACK OF YOUR MIND!
Brilliant. Now that that’s done let’s get down to some practical hot tips and suggestions, and also some tidbits to ruminate on while creating your show. Some of these I’ve mined from my own experiences of putting on two solo shows, and some I have acquired from a couple of one solo show aficionados, whose work blows my mind again and again. And again. These hot tips are a smattering of things I wish I knew before doing my first one-person show and could only learn by blindly throwing myself into the ether. In this approach some things felt right, some things felt wrong and some things all over the hugely sliding felt-right-felt-wrong scale. But I’ve done it so you don’t have to.
Some of these hot tips I’ll genuinely be utilizing when making my third, fourth, fifth or one-millionth one-person show —who knows when I’ll stop! But what I do know is that I love one-person shows. I love performing the darn things, writing them, performing them, talking about them, performing them, watching them…. seeing someone conjure up a whole world with nothing but themselves and perform it with complete joyful abandon. Like a painter throwing their paints around the room, creating a one-of-a-kind piece right before your very eyes – but that painting is made with the elements of theatre…. I mean don’t even get me started. Utter joy.
One side note before we get down to the guts of this; one person shows sometimes get a bad rap. Sometimes it’s tall poppy syndrome (it’s very real), or the person saw a solo show they didn’t like and decided for themselves that all solo shows sucked. Or deep down the person really reeeeaaallly wants to do one themselves but doesn’t think they’ll ever have the courage to do it, and channel that pent up energy into dissing what they truly desire. But you, lovely reader, do have the courage, and that’s why you’re reading this article. But enough psychoanalysing! On with the tips!
Know your Creative and Professional ‘Why’
If it suddenly goes dark while you’re making your way through the tunnel of the creative process, your ‘creative why’ will be your torchlight. There will be times when you have to make big decisions about the script, or provide some solutions on problems in the storytelling; That is when your ‘creative why’ can bring a whole lot of clarity. For some people the ‘creative why’ is the fun part; it’s defining the real essence of why you’re doing what you’re doing. E.g. You’ve written a great story and your ‘creative why’ is to just get up there and tell this damn good story in an entertaining way. Done.
Or, “I want to make a joyful experience for the audience by showing a character’s unique life story.” Beautiful.
Or, “I want to put an untold story under a theatrical microscope to enlighten and thrill an audience.” Brilliant!
But the ‘professional why’ is a different sort of goal; one that deals with your self-development as an artist. Sophie Joske is a ground-breaking fringe circuit performer, theatre-maker, and Melbourne Comedy Festival regular and she introduced me to the concept of the ‘professional why’. She’s the creator of multiple award-winning fringe shows, including three solo shows, and as we spoke about this unique theatre-making process, she broke down the ‘professional why’ further: “If your answer is to make money then no; do something else. Let’s say for example you want to push yourself further in your physical work as an artist – which was one of my own goals for my last show – or you want to experiment with more tech, or even to try and sell out a bigger festival venue or build an audience for a longer-term. That’s all great. Whatever it is professionally you want to achieve, just know why”.
Book yourself into a festival
There is nothing in this world that gets me off my ass quicker to write a show than just straight-up booking myself into a festival. When I did this for my first show, I had five minutes of it written and a title – that was it. And if I hadn’t booked that festival slot, I would never had made the show at all. As various fringe festivals start announcing their admission deadlines once again all I’m going to say is – do it. Book yourself in and you can channel all of that magic holy-shit-what-have-I-just-done energy into writing the script. Welcome to the very first of many addictive adrenaline rushes you’re going to experience while making your show.
Honour your own taste in theatre
You can try and figure out what an audience wants to watch until the world turns into a flaming ball of lava. But the only thing you can truly know for sure is what *you* want to see. Your taste in theatre is as true as the sky is blue, and if you really want to see it, and you feel there is a space for you to create it, there will be other humans that want to see what you’ve got. If you’re building this bad boy from the ground up, mate, it will be a whole lot of work. Stay true to what you like and boldly move forward with it mind with each aspect of the decision making along the way. Your financial, professional, and artistic planets need to align for it to happen, so when it does just take that deep dive to create something that is unique. The rare privilege of truly owning your own space on stage will pass you by if you’re constantly trying to mould your work into what you think everyone else wants to see. Stay present in the process, stay true to that ‘creative why’ in the decision making, and let it fly!
Cast your audience
Knowing that I could cast my audience as characters within my own show was somewhat of a eureka moment for me. Everything else flowed from the idea that as long as there’s more than one audience member then the show will make sense. This also takes an absurd amount of pressure off the thought that you are the only person in the show. This in turn can also take the elusiveness and why-am-I-talking-ness out of the equation. When you start brainstorming it’s so cool to list how many different situations there are in which a person holds court, uninterrupted, for 50 minutes straight. A judge or a lawyer can talk to a courtroom for nearly an hour straight. A work colleague can give a boringly hilarious safety talk, complete with instructional videos, uninterrupted for an hour. A stranger spoke to me at the bus stop for 50 minutes while we waited for a delayed bus, which made me laugh and broke my heart all in just under an hour. Someone in a nursing home gave me their life story unprompted for nearly an hour, and I walked away as a different person.
Forget what anyone tells you about audience participation, people love being a part of the story. For the audience to be engaged it doesn’t mean you have to make someone’s nightmare come true by getting them up onstage with you. At the realisation that they’re, members of the tribunal, at the station with you, a part of the staff meeting in the nursing home, or are going to be jumping out of the plane with you, they won’t get a chance to think about what they’re having for dinner afterwards. Dial the stakes up to 11 for them and make them the jury in your courtroom solo show!
Give it the space it deserves
The beauty of a solo show is that you can rehearse it wherever your director is prepared to travel. This is what I feel significantly differentiates it from the process of rehearsing with a huge cast. In the dramaturgy phase of shaping the script, this can be done just about anywhere. You can get that done in a park, weather permitting. But once you’re ready to get it on its feet and throw spaghetti against the wall, then you’re going to need some walls. There are so many places that are willing to give you space if you promise to leave it as clean as it was when you arrived. Hit up your local council, hit up your mate with that giant back shed they just use for self-tapes, hit up a local dance school, hit up your old university to see if they’ll lend space to an ex-grad. If you’re working on a shoestring budget – as is generally the case – I would highly recommend making some cold calls. Not all, but some local councils are willing to offer discounts on venues that are a bit further out but barely anyone books for 9 am on a Tuesday. And you’ll be amazed at how many people are willing to help out a local artist if you take the time to explain where you’re at in the process.
Being able to rehearse your show in a multitude of different spaces is great training for getting yourself on a festival circuit. If you’ve booked yourself in for venues in other cities, you sometimes won’t be granted access to that space until you bump in or tech the show the day before it goes up – and sometimes even the day of opening. Learning how to adapt and work with what’s around you will play to your advantage. You’ll sometimes just get a few awkward photos of the venue, and trust me when I say this, the roof will be lower than it looks, the acoustics will be worse than they seem, and the chairs will be packed a lot closer to the front of the stage than you expect. A great solo performer will be able to work these things into the piece and adapt themselves and the show ever so slightly to fit the venue. Whether its vocally or physically adapting, changing exits and entrances around, or sometimes even cutting them out altogether – be ready to work with what you’ve got. You can make it seem like you built the show for that very venue all along.
Oh, and you might get weird carpet, or a door in a weird place, or a huge power outlet in the playing space right where you don’t want it to be…. always with the weird power outlets.
Set goals for each rehearsal
As it’s only you performing, you form an especially focussed working relationship with your director by virtue of the fact that there’s less people in the room and a lot less distraction. It’s just you, the director, and the story – 99% of the time. There’s also a lot more onus on you as the creator to stay in communication with the director to set some rehearsal goals. They can be as big or small as you like; from making sure the whole first half of the show flows thematically, right down to ensuring the music fade-ins and outs aren’t too clunky, or that expositional bit on page 10 sets up the reveal on page 36 clearly enough. Whatever it is you need to achieve with the time you have (especially if you’re paying for the space that day) ensures you don’t waste your own time or your director’s time.
Jane Watt is an actor, solo show creator, and a force to be reckoned with who also loves to break down the process as much as possible. “Always have an outsider direct your work to. Set yourself smaller deadlines that all lead to the massive deadline”. Her show Gate 64 was critically acclaimed at multiple comedy festivals in Australia, then toured all the way up to the United Solo Festival in New York, then to Edinburgh and back. “Know that you’re going to fucking hate it through the process. But trust your gut and keep going” Jane explains. Which leads us to our next point….
Respect your own writing process
Having a full script on the first day of rehearsal is major goals but is not always the reality. Even if your story has it’s beginning, middle, and end on day one, that script you start with will be many edits away from what you will perform on opening night. And then the opening night script may be different again from what it’ll be on closing night. Your beast of a show will continue to morph and evolve at each stage. It’s thrilling the nth degree.
But let’s rewind back to the rehearsal room. Jane Watt explains: “Don’t feel the need to write chronologically and be ok with showing someone something that’s half baked”. You won’t scare the bejeezus out of your director showing up on day one with a half-baked script, but you will scare the bejeezus out of them by presenting an early stage draft and harbouring resistance to develop it any further. “You can just start with the idea and know the beginning and the end of it, that made me feel a lot safer” Jane continued.
It’s 100% ok having a million different scenes across a million different journals, google drive docs, and phone notes that you stitch together and form into a solo show. As long as you have a clear idea of the story you want to tell when collating them all. There’s no right or wrong way to do this and there’s definitely no CEO of solo shows who’s going to tell you off, so trust yourself and your process. Always know that it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare to begin with or end with – or at all. I reckon Shakespeare would’ve had a million google docs for a show on day one anyway, and not a single scene in chronological order.
Lots of money does not good theatre make
You, lovely performer, are a disco ball. Get a light on your show and look at how many directions you can shine in! To get it done you need lights, you need a space, a legend techy and that’s pretty much it. There’s no limit to what story you can tell with just yourself in an empty space. For sure, big-ass sets, crazy lighting, pyrotechnics, and AV can be mad cool, and I would never stop anyone from incorporating any of these into their festival show. But, when I’m making a solo show, the boundaries of a tight budget push me as a performer to think outside the square a little bit. I have to hone in on making the elements of story and character rock solid before thinking of any other theatrical element. When I see a solo show that has put these two elements above anything else, the satisfaction level is second to none. Take Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge as an example. It started as a 10-minute sketch, then developed into a solo show, before being adapted for the screen. The solo show version involves a performer and a chair in an empty space, and is just a mind-blowingly good story, executed flawlessly. That’s all you need and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Your show may be small in budget, but yeesh, can it be mighty in scale.
Give the show a test drive
Doing a preview for a handful of people a week out from opening (or even earlier) will be the most awkward, yet safest, run of it you’ll ever do. Use a rehearsal space you’re familiar with as you may be nervous AF. I’d recommend getting there well early, sorting out your tech, warming up, and setting the space exactly how you want it to be for your first full run for an audience.
Like any preview for any show I’ll ever do, the doubt will be amped up to the point that it’s almost crippling. It can be the most exposed you think you’ll ever feel, and you’ll probably get laughs in spots you never expected. Just let it be the stickiest run in the history of theatre, and don’t even try and iron out the kinks. Let them be there for all to see because who knows, they could be the gold. Or they could be a huge gaping sign that that bit doesn’t quite work…. yet. But that’s cool! Your respective theatre-makers watching will be able to give some great outsider feedback which you can take or leave. I find that having those fresh eyes on it so close to opening can be exactly what the show needs.
The creative solves I’ve gotten that close to opening have completely transformed my work into something I never could come up with on my own. Or as Joske puts it “Know, understand and nurture your critical creative relationships”. They’re worth their weight in gold and then some, because one tiny suggestion from them can solve something you’ve been trying to fix, re-block, or re-write for months! Months I tell you! Doing the necessary evil of an awkward test run before tech takes precedence over everything; it’s a lot harder to focus solely on story after that shift in priorities happens during tech.
Bringing it all together
Get yourself a publicist
When I say publicist, I don’t exclusively mean consulting a company specialised in publicizing independent theatre productions. If you’re just starting out that can just mean a buddy who can take charge of the socials for the show. Having someone who can post about ticket deals to spruik a few hours before the show, or someone who can photoshop a review quote onto a production shot and post it the day after opening to get a few more ticket sales, just anyone who’s good at building up some hype. I have huge respect for performers who can spruik their own work as well as they con spruik someone else’s. I’m just terrible at spruiking my own stuff, even if I love the show I’ve created.
Life and work problems don’t care if you’ve got a show on, and every hour of your time before getting on stage each day can be completely filled. This is assuming that like me, you don’t have the luxury to afford time off work during your performance week. Bills still have to be paid. If you can afford that time off, wicked! But I’m only interested in giving you an extreme scenario here. Imagine you’re about to perform your solo show, you’ve just started a new job and you can’t take a huge amount of time off yet, so you’re at work all day, your techie has to leave the state suddenly, you have two hours before you need to be at the venue after work and you also have to print off your programmes because you didn’t print enough at the beginning of the week, you have to brief a fill-in techie when you get there and fix a light that has just decided to break. This will leave you 20 minutes to throw your costume on, warm up and then gather yourself before the audience comes in. You do the show, then rinse and repeat all of that the next day. Present-you will thank past-you for getting a buddy to post about the discount code for tickets for the Thursday night show that isn’t selling as fast as you’d like.
I could be a lot better in this regard and I definitely don’t take self-promotion as seriously as I should when I’m performing, so naturally I’d prefer publicity done badly over having to do it myself. It’s not my strong point but that was my first lesson in handballing jobs around work, or rather – asking for help. Sophie Joske concurs; “Sometimes you want to hold everything close [with a show]. Always ask for help and accept help”.
For some people, this is easier said than done, for some people they just like to know it’s done even if it means doing everything themselves and then collapsing into a heap at the end of it all. Save yourself that burnout, after all, there’s no show in the world worth sacrificing your health for. There are plenty of people who can help you if you just ask; delegate early so you can really enjoy more than a few minutes of the performance week when it’s on.
Remember “It’s bigger than you” Jane Watt – 2020
Smart words from a wise performer. This quote can be unpacked and applied to so many aspects of the performance week. It’s something Jane tells herself before every show she did of Gate 64 and also before her stand up shows. It means that the story you’re about to tell is bigger and more important than every ounce of fear that will no doubt be coursing through your body in that hour before you step onstage. Just look after yourself, stay well, warmup that voice and body before the show, and let every doubt go. Remember you’ve just worked your ass off and rehearsed this solo show to within an inch of its life, you’ve got this!
Put it in writing
Before you get a mate to tech for a night, or a mate to design your poster, or a neighbour’s friend from tango class to do front of house (FOH) for a few nights, make sure you’ve clarified that both parties know what the deal is. And even better, make sure it’s in writing – even if it’s just in an email. Get all that nitty gritty on there; duration you need the person’s services, deadlines, percentage cuts and fees. And if it’s not in your budget to pay the person make sure they’re fully aware of this. I can’t give every person helping me out on my solo fringe show a million dollars each (which is what they’re worth), but I can promise a decent cut. I can also offer artistic barter. In exchange for someone’s expertise helping me for a day on my own show I can always; rig lights, do some flyering, do FOH for a few nights, help with a bump in or bump out, tech on other nights and even promote someone else’s show after my own. There’s so much you can offer someone for helping you out for a short period of time.
“Treat your techies like gold, because they are” Sophie Joske – 2020
Without our techies we’re just another geezer in a bar telling a long story in bad lighting. Nothing wrong with that, in fact, I love hearing someone’s life story at the pub. That actually sounds like another good premise for a solo show ‘A bar fly’s life story you didn’t know you needed’. But I digress, back to the point…. I’m not seeing your show for that, I’m seeing you for some ThE-Atre maaaan. And it’s your techies that put that hectic lighting on you, make your sound cues crispy perfection, and, a lot of the time within a fringe setting they also get your audience seated quick smart. They’re always the first ones to arrive and the last ones to leave, and they don’t get anywhere near enough recognition. So please please, I beg of you, treat your tech like the MAGIC GOLD that they be.
Some Final Words
Well hey-o that was a whole lot of info and now it must draw to a close. I want you to know you have all the agency in the universe to see everything I’ve scrawled and take anything that resonates with you. And also, the full freedom to actively go against everything I’ve written, except the last one which is the only non-negotiable dot point for obvious reasons. I’m going to get out of your hair so you can get on with writing that masterpiece.
Here’s one final musing from the wise Joske; “There’s actually no such thing as a one-person show”. I know. Let that sink in. There are so many people who can help you get it from your brain to the page and then to the stage. It’s a huge team effort putting on any show regardless of how many performers are on stage and you’re never on your own. Now go let your freak flag fly and shine like the disco ball that you are.
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