Theater of one
One-man shows are perhaps the toughest act in theater. But these performers say one isn't the loneliest number.
Early screen star Greta Garbo may have declared "I want to be alone," but that was off-screen.
On stage, there may be no more daunting task than the solo performance.
The show is you - and you're the show. But actors continue to brave this special kind of high-wire act. Some of the reasons are economic: It makes for a short line at the pay window.
But the more profound lure is artistic: the chance to have the audience all to yourself, to shape an intimate show that's entirely personal.
"The difference in being out there by yourself is, 'The buck stops here.'
"If [the show] fails, it's you that failed," says Annette Miller, who played Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the world première of William Goldman's "Golda's Balcony."
But along with that burden "comes the totality of the joy" of creating a world occupied by just you and the audience, says Ms. Miller.
and just won an award as best solo performer from a group of New England theater critics.
Undoubtedly the most successful solo evening of drama today is "Mark Twain Tonight!" which actor Hal Holbrook has performed for more than 40 years. And for decades, actress Julie Harris won similar raves as poet Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst."
British actor Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") has won kudos for a solo version of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol."
And currently in New York, another former "Star Trek" captain, Kate Mulgrew, is playing Off-Broadway in "Tea at Five," a one-woman show in which she channels film legend Katharine Hepburn. And the late comedian George Burns has a new booking on Broadway in the form of actor/impersonator Frank Gorshin's one-man homage, "Say Goodnight, Gracie."
Beyond theaters, a handful of other solo performers can earn $5,000 or $6,000 per appearance speaking to business audiences, offering the wisdom of an "Albert Einstein" or "Benjamin Franklin," says Lilly Walters, a consultant to professional motivational speakers in Glendora, Calif. In fact, her agency used to have a stable of them that it called its Dead Speakers Society.
But as the demand for motivational speakers has dropped, mirroring the economic slump, so has the business audience. Ms. Walters says it's love, not money, that should motivate solo performers today.
"It's a tough road" financially for most of these one-person acts, she says, but "if you are passionate about Florence Nightingale or whoever, it doesn't make any difference. Because you're going to love every minute of what you do."
It's also not a job for a newcomer, says Miller. "I would not suggest this for a young actor."
She developed a one-woman show in 1972 called "Who's a Lady?" But at the time, "I got too scared to do it by myself, and I hired another actress" with whom she performed as a team. "You have to have a whole lot of experience to be up there. It requires tremendous concentration."
With "Hail to the Chief" blaring in the background, "President Teddy Roosevelt" sweeps down the center aisle of a basement recreation hall at a church in Natick, Mass., pausing to greet enthusiastically those along the way with water-pump handshakes and his trademark toothy grin.
The campaign crowd, actually a recent meeting of the Natick Historical Society, listens intently as Ted Zalewski of Cambridge, Mass., uses a few simple props like a pith helmet, pince-nez glasses, and a lectern to bring the "bully" exploits of the president to life.
"When you step into the arena and you dare to be Teddy Roosevelt, you have to really be good at it," Mr. Zalewski says. "You have to believe it, and you have to make it work. No one is there to help you."
At his "day job" Zalewski works with special-education students at a Boston area high school.
Just as Roosevelt overcame childhood illnesses, Zalewski had to overcome his childhood shyness to portray the gregarious Roosevelt, which he does on average three or four times a month.
He was attracted to the character about 12 years ago, he says, because "I saw real courage there. He was courageous at the physical, spiritual, and political level." Roosevelt had a close and crucial relationship with his father, "which I had with my own father."
Zalewski did a year of research into Roosevelt's life and wrote his own script.
Now he's a member of the Screen Actors Guild and has made appearances as Roosevelt at the White House and National Archives, as well as the Hoover, Ford, and Reagan presidential libraries.
He has expanded his repertoire of characters, too: He also performs one-man portrayals of Ernest Hemingway and will be breaking in a new show he's developing on poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow later this year.
Zalewski also teaches an adult-education course on how to develop a one-person show and is writing a book on the subject. Ten years ago he founded Solo Together (www.solotogether.com), an organization for historical presenters who portray characters from Louisa May Alcott to philosopher Kahlil Gibran.
"It's a lonely field out there," he says. "My goal was to bring us together."
That's been the goal as well for Dan Bassuk, who founded the Association of Lincoln Presenters in 1990 to, as he says, "link the Lincolns." The ALP has 151 members in 35 states.
"I feel like they're my brothers, and I talk with them a lot, says Mr. Bassuk, who has a PhD and has taught high school and college but is now portraying Abe, studying his library of nearly 900 books about Lincoln, or helping other actors in the ALP full time.
"I often talk to one Abraham Lincoln a day. It's great to get the energy from others," he says, noting there's nobody in the next cubicle with which to commiserate.
Bassuk, who began his second life as Lincoln in 1979, performs mostly for schoolchildren. He loves to entertain them with funny Lincoln stories and word play while encouraging them to be avid readers, as Lincoln was.
Among Bassuk's props are life-size dolls of Lincoln's wife, Mary, and children, Tad and Willie. They give him characters to play off as he re-creates moments in Lincoln's family life.
Actors are used to feeding off of one another's performance, often making their job more one of "reacting" than acting. Solo performers are challenged to do without that interaction. But Miller says she has found other people and things to fill the void.
Unlike most solo performers, she had a playwright and director to consult with on the text, as well as backstage helpers like the stage manager and her dresser.
Once on stage, she found other partners in the props, the set, even the sound and lighting. "I pick up a pencil, that's my partner," she says. "I hear a sound of war, that's my partner."
But the most important acting partner is the audience, says Miller, who'll appear next year in "Full Gallop," a one-woman show about legendary Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland.
It's audiences that drive all these solo performers, whether part-time or professional. And love of their subject.
The successful "Benjamin Franklin" that Walters knows has become an expert on Franklin's life. "He thinks he's Franklin. Hey, we think he's Franklin."
Actor Brad Sherrill has appeared in dozens of professional theatrical productions in the Atlanta area, including more than 30 with the Georgia Shakespeare Festival.
But he had another dream: to bring the Book of John, his favorite account of the life of Jesus, to the stage. "I wanted people to hear the unadulterated word ... in one sitting," he says. "No adaptation. No cutting. Just word for word through the whole thing."
Mr. Sherrill took 4-1/2 months off from acting, sat on his front porch, and memorized the Gospel. All 20,000 words. For the past two years, he's been performing in churches and theaters across the South. His one-man show, "The Gospel of John," is at Lamb's Theatre in New York through April 20.
It's not without precedent. British actor Alec McCowen performed "St. Mark's Gospel" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including a limited run on Broadway. But Sherrill felt John had something special to say.
"The thing that I really love about John is what Jesus tells his disciples before his arrest, which is all about loving one another and 'do not let your heart be troubled....' It's the greatest outpouring of love that can be found in the Gospels...."
"Love one another," he points out, is Jesus' final command to his followers, "something we've been hearing for 2,000 years and still find hard to do."
Sherrill keeps it simple when he performs. "There's no fake beard, there's no costume. To me, those kind of things can separate us in a sense - 'Oh, this happened 2,000 years ago!' I think it's a living text, and it applies to our lives today." Because he sees light and water as the major metaphors in John, "I use an oil lamp and a pitcher of water" as props.
At times, members of the audience become the other characters. "I pick out disciples" and speak to them. "It's an intimate connection."
Sherrill travels with close friend Scott Cowart, his stage manager, PR man, and codirector. But he admits he does "miss the friendships you have when you're working in a huge Shakespeare company." And he's taken time off to go to Africa for a month and to return to Shakespeare. "When I take a break, the material even sinks down deeper for me, and I'm able to reflect on it."
"You could mine this material all your life, as scholars have, and never get all of it, all of the richness."