One Woman Alone On a Stage
NEW YORK — 'IT'S not acting, it's life," was how George Bernard Shaw described Ruth Draper in the 1920s. And for the last 12 years, American actress Patricia Norcia has recreated the monologist's bare-stage, one-woman show that moves to London in October.Before Lily Tomlin or Whoopi Goldberg electrified audiences with their eclectic collection of quirky characters; before Eric Bogosian's rock-and-roll gritty set pieces; before John Epperson's "Lypsinka" or John Leguizamo's "Mambo Mouth," there was Ruth Draper. From 1920 to 1958, the prim New England matron transformed herself into dozens of hilarious yet poignant personalities, from a punctilious Upper East Side hostess, to a feisty Scottish immigrant, to a temperamental Romanian prima donna, employing little more than a shawl and an occasional pair of gloves or a hat. Draper was encouraged by novelist Henry James and famed Polish pianist Paderewski to launch a professional career from what had begun as drawing room amusement for family friends. "What intrigued me" about Draper's act, says Ms. Norcia, "was its incredible humanity, and the mixture of putting the absurd together with the moving." She discovered Draper's work as a drama student at Yale. After trying it out for a class project, Norcia decided to develop it into a one-woman show. Her repertoire now includes 12 pieces, making her the world's preeminent presenter of the Draper canon. "Also, it's just wildly versatile," she adds, pointing out the range of "characters" Draper invented fo r her short, satirical dramas. "They stand as little plays." The craft of performing alone on an empty stage, bringing diverse characters to life, has evolved into a popular entertainment form. Draper's contribution remains at the center of it. Her contemporaries Cornelia Otis Skinner and Joyce Grenfell never achieved her level of acclaim, because, in Norcia's view "her writing was eons better." Lily Tomlin credits Draper as her inspiration, and John Gielgud proclaimed Draper "the greatest individual performer America has ever given us." DRAPER'S pieces always weave detailed, specific stories, showing women at revealing moments in their lives, whether they reside in luxurious 20th-century New York townhouses, as in "The Italian Lesson," or 17th-century Madrid, as in "At the Court of Philip IV." In every piece, the audience only hears the voice of one character, but the intricate writing suggests the presence of others, to such a degree that an entire "scene" can be visualized. "Each audience member is a participant," Norcia says. "They a ppreciate having the opportunity to use their imaginations. And, of course, they can do that because the writing is so wonderful." Instead of approaching the performances as impersonations of Draper, Norcia explains that "what I do is Ruth's plays, and use her as a playwright. I am very faithful to the style in which she did them." The acting challenge is "to be very specific about all the characters, not just the ones that speak - how tall are they, where are their hands, where are they looking." Ironically, when playwrights Thornton Wilder and Robert E. Sherwood nominated Draper for membership in the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1954, the institute's definition of a playwright was too narrow at the time to permit her election. Norcia has successfully taken "The World of Ruth Draper" on tour throughout the United States and Japan, and regularly keeps sell-out audiences laughing at a twice-yearly series in New York's Carnegie Recital Hall. Her performance at London's Duke of York's Theatre on Oct. 13 will introduce the show to England, where Ruth Draper enjoyed decades of success. "I've even been asked to perform a benefit evening at the Stately Manor in Buckinghamshire, the same type of private performing Ruth did early on!" says Norcia. Being identified with this show has had one significant impact on Norcia's career: It's given her a reputation for being versatile. "I was on Broadway last year in 'Mastergate,' and played all the wives!"