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Jose' Amador

I take issue with a couple of things here.

I don't know where you get this notion that solo work does not have risk or suspense; or that there's condescension involved, however subliminally, in having an actor provide both sides of a dialogue. As an artist, I'm willing to take on the responsibility for a lot of things, but not the recalcitrance of the audience to do their end of the bargain.

Also, I love that the solo show isn't "strictly speaking theater" because it wouldn't have been defined as such 130 years ago...Is there or isn't there such a thing as change, progress or an expansion of definition? There are times when this essay comes across as "you kids get off my lawn."

Both genres, at base, are doing the same thing: telling a story. You could argue about the immersive effect having more than one person on stage can have, but when you get to the bottom line, a shitty solo show is the same as a shitty play, especially in the audience's mind.

But after that...Yeah, ADs would be lazy to the extreme if they started depending more and more on the solo show to pad out the season. Daisey even has a bit about his role in all of that in How Theater Failed America.

...Goddamnit, I was told this would push my buttons. Now I really am pissed!

Jim Jewell

Yeah, yeah, I totally get what you're saying, and, hell, they don't call 'em "one-handers" for nuthin', but somehow this feels a little like those little jokes where someone mathematically proves Ben Franklin is a penguin by slipping in a quiet little divided-by-zero argument in the middle.

Unquestionably, it could be laziness that leads to the one-hander. It could reasonably be a simple difference of opinion with you and random AD over the artistic merits of the solo.

But, it can also be the desire to not lay off your freakin' crew for a month when you've already got them on bare bones.

It isn't Quixotic, I don't think you are tilting at windmills, but I wonder sometimes if you are spending too much time and energy railing at symptoms, peddling flashy cures out of a garish colored wagon. (OK, got a little carried away with that metaphor.)

And now there's some guy at the front desk that wants a tour of SCT, apparently unaware of how tired and crabby I am, so I'll have to leave it there. But I'll be back.

Bill Salyers

Wow, Paul. Where you gonna live next?

Jose' Amador


"I was told this would push my buttons, *and it completely didn't*...Now I really am pissed."

Scot Augustson

Well, yeah. When word got out that one person shows were one of the few ways to make a (meager) living for show folk, a whole bunch of people jumped on that bandwagon. (See: The Canadian Festival Circuit.)And, frankly, a whole bunch of people gave us an object lesson in the fact that most people can't pull off a one person show.
But when they can (See: Keefee's House of Cards) it's amazing and lovely no matter what you call it.
But, one little point. You seem so desperate to cling to the word "theater." And in doing so, you are at sea clinging to, chaining yourself to, an old iron radiator.
When you can get people to see live performance (no matter how many are up there on the stage) they love it, they want more. But tell 'em you're taking them to see some theater, and they'll make the kind of face a six year old makes facing Brussell sprouts.
My favorite anecdote is talking to someone after a show of mine, he'd been dragged along by a co-worker. He told me he loved the show, but would never have found it on his own, because he skips the theater listings.
We got a branding issue and squabbling over the word theater ain't gonna solve it.

Paul Mullin


Sure definitions can expand, but if they can ONLY expand then they're not going to do us much good as definitions.


I AM ranting at symptoms, and I understand the underlying ineffectuality of that tack, but I can't make much progress on the root causes alone. Weren't we supposed to have a drink to that effect?

Augustson and Salyers:

Get off my lawn!

Scot Augustson

You call this patch of weeds a lawn?

Lyam White

In theory, pescetarians (people whose only flesh consumption is seafood) can eat octopus, even though the octopus is a mollusk and the "pesce-" prefix is derived from the Italian "pesce," itself derived from the Latin "pisci," which means "fish." An octopus is not a fish, but can pass for one under the right circumstances by way of geographic derivation (that is to say, it comes from the sea) or for lacking mammalian or avian properties.

In the same sense, I think that a solo show is "theater" as much for where (and perhaps why) we go to see it, rather than for its properties.

Some solo work sort of fits both of your descriptions; that is to say, it can involve a fictional character who is a vessel to explore, in quasi-essay form, a philosophical viewpoint or conundrum. I'm not overly concerned as to whether it's "theater" or not; it's what I do when that's what I'm doing, and it's a nice opposition to the sort of generative, physical, ensemble work that is my bread and butter. And frankly, it's nice to have someplace other than a blog or an online forum to simply make an argument, to cultivate that argument, and to address it subversively through fiction, fantasy, and hypotaxis.

What DOES concern me is the concern. Do people spend a lot of time worried about whether the fictional "essays" that are Borges's ouevre are "legitimate" short stories? Maybe, but if so, those people are missing out on the real gift: the stories (or whatever you want to call them) that Borges wrote.

It is unfortunate that there are mediocre solo artists out there, and that artistic directors are possibly ignoring great multi-character work in order to save on overhead is a matter I don't take too lightly. On the other hand, if I'm attending a solo show, I am expecting theater, or at least I'm expecting the sort of experience for which I go to theater--that is, I'm expecting live performance, I'm expecting some sort of "heightened" presentation (whether musical numbers or juggling or just more varied inflection that one usually hears at the bar), and I'm expecting to be bathed in ideas by way of some delivery system that separates it from mere education, mere discourse, if only by finding a more subjective position from which to tickle the synapses.

It may not be "theater," I suppose, but if it's not, then I'd have to say I'm not sure "theater" is what I value in . . . well, theater.

Paul Mullin


As always, great feedback. And you happen to mention two of my favorite kinds of sentient beings: Borges and Octopuses.


Wes Andrews

I guess I basically agree; storytelling and theatre are different. What's interesting is that storytelling is getting more popular every day and is well-suited to new technologies (i.e. The Moth, This American Life, etc.) and theatre is trending in the opposite direction. My opinion is that theatre companies should be doing more storytelling, and being more explicit about it (note: this should not happen at the expense of ambitious theatre projects).

The bit that I take issue with is this: "Lesser playwrights never seem to learn: you can’t tell an audience anything." Probably the Greeks, with their long, expositionary monologues, would disagree with you. I think probably Brecht would too. This little "rule of thumb" isn't actually a legitimate theatrical axiom, it's just a prejudice against Narration. And the rise of the storytelling audience should be evidence enough for its banishment.

Bryan Willis

Hey Paul,

It's an ongoing trend at the Edinburgh fringe, too. High ratio of one-person and stand-up. Most of which is crap.


I get nervous when I hear old people say (and yes, we're officially older, "master playwrights" now), "this is theater, this is not."

I waited 17 years to tackle my first one-man script. It has an arc, it has a journey, it has interaction; the play engages and challenges the Audience. It's been running since 1998 (and bombed at Edinburgh, thank you very much).

I've found Dawson's work incredibly moving, sometimes providing everything I hope for when I see a play.

Incredibly difficult format? Yes.
Impossible? No.

In fact, I find many plays begin with that sort of challenge: "You can't do that and make it work."

Currently working on a commission from Book-It and several of our playwriting friends have been candid in saying, "That's not theater." I'm finding it to be an exhilirating mix of theater, film, the novel and I've been waiting years to use the word "radiophonic" in a sentence. That didn't quite work. OK, but it's been a thrill and I believe our final script will be a success on stage.

Paul, I've been hearing "You can't do that," for decades - as I'm sure you have, too. And yet, we continue to write plays.

Looking forward to your NPA reading in June, my pot-stirring friend. Very Best, Bryan

Calling all playwrights:
Kamarie Chapman - next month at NPA's reading. May 11 @ 7 pm at the Rep.

Paul Mullin - June 8 @ 7 pm.

Good things happen when we're all in the same room. Support your local playwrights.

Paige Weinheimer

The pros and cons of theatre institutions relying too heavily on solo shows. That's a solid line of inquiry.


I'm not following the jump to why solo shows aren't theatre, or risky unto themselves. And...

Well, pardner, Theatre is a mighty big state to police. Fear of scarcity is a powerful but devastating fuel - just ask The Cyanotic Soul of Sheriff Joe.

That said, there is one page from the conservative playbook that might be worth lifting... how bout:

"no enemies on the stage"

Noah Benezra

Paul I get where you’re coming from. To me the issue seems to be that you have two things that are marketed to the same demographic and therefore assumed to be the same thing. 50 cent and the Beastie Boys are marketed to the same demographic and therefore lumped into the same category or genre when in fact they are very different. There are differences between a solo show and a piece of theater performed with a larger cast, that's obvious and both have strengths and weaknesses. Rather than decry the weaknesses of the "traditional play" I'll spend some energy pointing out some of the strengths of solo performance that I think you overlooked in your essay.

solo theatre often finds itself ahead of the curve and far more contemporary than most other things you can see in the theatre. Pop culture, current events, and a youth voice are found far more frequently in solo work than in “traditional plays” Just look at Bogosian’s “Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll” or Danny Hoch’s “Jails Hospital’s and Hip Hop” hell even Will Ferrell’s “Your Welcome America” All of those shows brought an exciting voice to the theatre - a voice that was exciting precisely because it was unheard by other playwrights. Solo performance has proved to be a very good thing for theatre (strictly speaking) because it introduces audiences to the theatre who might otherwise feel alienated.

You can risk in a solo play and good solo performers do risk. Solo performers risk a type of vulnerability with your audience, risk speaking about a subject matter your audience may feel is taboo, and finally many solo performers Improvise and edit in the moment based on audience reactions and that is some risky shit. You talk about how the solo actor doesn't have a scene partner to surprise and shock them and therefore there’s less risk. I would argue that in solo theater the audience is your scene partner and the rhythm that you build with them informs changes and can motivate you. As a performer you can feel when an audience is with you or not and that relationship informs and enlivens your performance even gives you the opportunity to risk.

Finally what is "theater" vs what isn't "theatre" to that I would just say, who cares? How is that helpful? People didn't think Bob Dylan playing with an electric guitar was "strictly speaking" folk music but they were stupid and Bob Dylan is a music god!

Let’s just agree lame shitty hack theatre is always lame shitty hack theatre, end of story no matter how many characters are in the lame shitty hack play. I want to close by saying, shit dog I ain’t mad at-cha. Two solo plays at the rep next year sounds lame and “the thin place” might blow chunks too. I also understand that you’re arguing more about lazy artistic programming and less about solo theatre’s merits, but I wanted to offer a counter point. Also I appreciate you taking the time to make a considered argument. Even if I disagree with some points your thought is always appreciated.

Lyam White

I'd like to take a thread I saw in your post, Noah, and note that since jazz first started making its way to popularity, since the advent of cinema, the emergence of rock & roll, and certainly since entry into the postpunk era, there's been a space where academic (for lack of a better word) art and demotic art have moved closer together, while the truly academic and truly demotic moved to the fringes. In the midst of this, the writer-performer, in music, became the true "artist," while the mere composer or the mere singer became the province of the subsidized and the academic--the sort of thing that the elderly and wealthy enjoy, along with a smattering of brainy, humorless youth, while the rest of the world found a swath of "heightened" demotic music where the originator of the discourse was actually the one in conversation with you.

All of which is to say that the shortening of the distance between writer, performer, and audience gives solo performance some advantages--not only commercially, or in terms of overhead cost, but also in terms of content and relationship to audience--that move it closer to popular music, installation, and other forms that continue to enjoy popular support. A solo performer can subversive in content, language, or visual presentation with relatively little risk, just as some angry 20-something in Leeds with an electric bass and a jones for dub, circa 1979, could rail against Margaret Thatcher (and reach the charts doing it). I'd LOVE to see ensemble work find that freedom and elasticity, but as long as the fringe relies on artists working for free and the big houses rely on aging, wealthy subscribers and donors, it seems that solo artists might represent the closest thing theater (or at least Seattle theater) has to compare to the independent scenes in cinema and popular music, where one can defy convention and appeal to a steady enough niche audience to quit the day job.

Brannon Moore

Okay, I'll accept your definitions and reasoning about what makes theater theater: dynamic interaction, inherent unpredictability, fabrication of belief, and so on, all of which cause the audience to become interactively engaged with the narrative, rather than simply observers of a presentation or consumers of incident or whatever you want to call the viewers of a solo piece. Your Honor, I will stipulate all of that for the purpose of this argument.

So with those givens, what then do you make of something like "Late Night Catechism"?

It's a solo piece by definition. One actor in the program. Presentational lecture style. Unidirectional delivery of information.

But: direct interaction with the audience. Interrogation of the people in the seats, and incorporation of their comments, questions, and reactions into the performance. Unpredictability is inherent, and assumed; indeed, it is welcomed.

Is "Late Night Catechism" theater, then, according to your definitions?

Or do you quibble? You could argue, for example, that even though there's one actor on the program, the inclusion of audience members as adhoc performers, however fleeting, negates the "solo show" premise. You could also argue that the fact that this interaction is to some degree improvised, necessarily departing from the written script in order to deal with the unpredictable contributions of the audience; and that, as improv, the show should more appropriately be classified under some other heading. Or perhaps neither of these, by itself, serves to eliminate "Late Night Catechism" from consideration in the solo-show discussion, but taken together, along with any other objections you care to raise, the conclusion must be that the piece is a thing unto itself, unique enough to be considered on its own terms, apart from the conversation at hand.

However: doesn't this, potentially, point the way for a smart and creative artist to generate a piece of solo material that *does* meet your "theatrical" standards? If you allow the audience to affect the direction and delivery of the performance, taking the interactive place if not the precise role of the other actor(s), you open the door for exactly the sort of emotional and narrative dynamism that is at the heart of your critique.

For comparison, consider the lessons of "An Oak Tree." It is, ostensibly, a two-person piece, but in action it feels somewhat like two very different one-person performances happening on the same stage. The device is unavoidably, and deliberately, distancing. The audience cannot help but consider the performance as a performance, and winds up considering Performance, in its abstract sense. (Unless they're bored; "An Oak Tree" seems to be pitched at an audience intimately familiar with the foundations and mechanisms of theatrical performance, and is largely inaccessible to the casual viewer, which could be worth consideration as another component of your qualifications of the form.) Point is, there is no suspension of disbelief, because the architecture of the piece is laid bare. There may or may not be involvement in the emotion of the narrative, depending on the variances of each individual viewer's personality. There is probably some emotional involvement at least on the level of suspense, since the audience doesn't know what the unrehearsed actor is going to do, and doesn't know how the rehearsed actor will handle the other actor's choices. Which is to say, your "unpredictable" requirement is checked off. It's a different kind of dynamism from a conventional play, but it's there: and does that, by itself, make "An Oak Tree" a piece of theater, at least according to your definitions, despite all of the other complications and divergences from convention built into the piece?

The point is this: Your argument seems to be that the solo show invariably falls into one of two categories, "storytelling" and "lecturing," and that, whatever the merits of these forms, they are disqualified as theater because they are, put bluntly, static. I would counter by observing that you're begging the question: Just because solo shows typically take one or the other of those forms, nothing says it's mandatory that they do so. In other words, it is possible to conceive, in the context of work that's already been done, of a solo show that is *not* static, that operates according to different dialectical syntax, and that, therefore, may potentially qualify as theater according to your dicta.

None of this, incidentally, should be read as criticism of your argument, or denunciation of your perspective or your conclusions. Rather, it's intended simply as a response, and an expansion on your thoughts. I'm attempting to take your position as read, and then, instead of directly opposing you with an argument of denial (or, alternatively, simply accepting everything as the last word, and thinking no further), I'm examining your points to see if they may lead the conversation in a new and creatively stimulating direction.

Wherever this winds up, it's certainly an interesting thing to consider.

Paul Mullin


Wow, wonderful arguments there. So to answer some not so simple questions as simply as I can, and to simultaneously beg that no one consider me the ultimate arbiter, I would say that shows like LATE NIGHT CATECHISM or KEEFEE'S HOUSE OF CARDS and others that employ heavy use of uncanned audience interaction, such that the performer has to adjust their "script" to incorporate the interaction, ARE in fact theatre.

And for everyone who has argued along the lines of "how dare you, sir, presume to define such a fraught word as 'theatre'?" I cheerfully employ the Lewis Carroll defense:

"`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.' "

Kate Kraay

I'm thrilled to see you quote Lewis Carrol in your defense.

I am torn by this post of yours Paul. I do see the slippery slope of leaning on solo shows when it comes to the big houses. But I must say that some of my most transformative experiences as an audience member have been watching solo shows that were masterfully created. It happened to me again recently watching the Solo Performance Festival at TOJ. And by a recent Cornish grad for Christ's sake!!! There was suspense, dramatic build, delicious climax and catharsis.

And yes. I do feel the difference in layering with a fully fleshed out play, as in the difference between a solo cellist and a full orchestra. But as with the solo cellist, if he or she is a maestro, you relish their every stroke. I think that is one of the great things about a truly great solo artist. One of the the things you cannot always control in a full play is the excellence of all the performers. We all have to humor the occasional weak link. And I think this is part of what is so thrilling about a solo performance that is done well. There is a complete tour de force. And there has to be, as there is no room for laziness or leaning on anyone else.

Alisa Wilson

The one-person cast of Syzygy Theatre Group's recent show (Chesapeake
by Lee Blessing) -- was certainly an exception -- and definitely a
full length play. It just happened to have one character. -- I think the
challenge to the writer if writing a one or two person play (Tally's
Folly, Zoo Story), is how to keep it interesting and tell a story without it
being a showcase autobiography of the actor doing the role or a series
of scenes where the actor plays all the parts and it really isn't a
play. It's like a short story with one character but astounding
things happen. But there is definitely a difference between a one-man
show and a play with one character. (The thing with Syzygy is that they do small cast shows because they pay. Equity contract, pension points, etc. So they have to keep
costs down by performing in small theatre spaces usually reserved for
non-paying theatre cos like Circle X and Open Fist and Theatre of Note, etc. . . (I don't know how theatre is in Seattle with non-profit small theatre or if they can afford to do larger cast plays and pay under Equity modified contract)
The real challenge to the writer I think is -- can we write a full
play with only one character that ISN'T smacking of the one-man show.

My two cents.

Paul Mullin

Stephanie asked me to post this comment for her here.

Thanks for your feedback, Stephanie!


I’m the person who put the information on Intiman’s website about The Thin Place being only the second play by a Seattle writer to have its world premiere here (though that was actually a mistake on my part that’s being fixed—it’s the third). I didn’t include it to boast; I included it because it’s true and, I believe, interesting. Intiman was founded as a theatre devoted to the classics; the first world premiere in our history didn’t happen until Intiman had been around for 16 years. There were four under the artistic directorship of Elizabeth Huddle (including the two Seattle playwrights, Louisa Rose and R.N. Sandburg) and four when Warner Shook was here. We produced six world premieres under Bart Sher’s leadership—including three by Craig Lucas, who was our Associate Artistic Director, directed, served as dramaturg on a fellow writer’s premiere and adapted two Chekhov plays in addition to his own new plays. He was not a “Seattle playwright,” but he had a home and resources here that made him an integral part of this theatre for many years.

What I don’t understand about your postings regarding The Thin Place is that we are now doing what you have long advocated for, we are still only in rehearsals—and you are not only anticipating but actually criticizing us for what you think we will say if the play does not do well.

The Thin Place is not being produced in answer to anyone’s call. It’s being produced because Kate Whoriskey wanted to do a play of and about Seattle in her first season, and because she is committed to living writers; this season also includes commissioned new adaptations of Molière and Hawthorne. (Not “locally grown,” but while supporting writers, actors and designers in the community in which they live and work is incredibly important—it does not mean that there is not also value to giving the great company of artists who live in Seattle opportunities to work with new people and try new things.)

I hope you’ll come see Sonya’s play before you decide whether or not it is a risk for Intiman. I’m breaking my own habit of not responding publicly to anti-Intiman pronouncements by sending you this, but dialogue demands two people both talking and listening. As you wrote—dialogue breeds risk too, but I do believe that what we all want is a healthy and ambitious theatre community.

Stephanie Coen
Director of Communications, Intiman Theatre


As a long-time definer of words (based upon a certain graduate career), I understand the inclination and joy in playing with words. However, the definitions only hold at the center with the best case scenarios. The more tweaky examples we provide (storytelling vs theater, lectures vs performance, whatever competing parameters you want to set up), the fuzzier our margins get.

It seems to me you've got two arguments, only one of which is worth pursuing:

1) one-person shows aren't theater. This might be interesting and fun to get into, but it doesn't resolve anything and it doesn't solve anything. Who cares? Practitioners, yes, we care. Audiences? Not necessarily. For loads of audiences who don't care about strict definitions, the definition of a theatrical performance is anything that takes place in a building that we call a theater.

2) they're low-cost, low-risk shows for producers. If we're interested in talking about how and why theater gets produced, this is the conversation worth having.

Argument (1) is a bit of a red herring.

Paul Mullin

Thanks, Kurt.

Saying that definitions don’t hold at the center is as academically precise as saying most matter is made up of empty space. It is also as irrelevant. If the “mostly-empty-space” you hit me in the head with happens to be a hammer, it’s still likely to hurt like hell. Similarly words are tools and we use them to great effect.

Your other point that “loads of audiences” believe “the definition of a theatrical performance is anything that takes place in a building that we call a theate” is provably false. No one seriously believes that anymore than “loads of sports fans” believe anything that happens at Quest Field is a sport.


I think we're fighting the red-herring argument here. I'm with you on the empty-space-hammers-hurt bit and that words are tools - we're both writers, after all. But fighting over the definition seems like needless fence-building. In most practice, I'm in agreement that most one-person shows are more story-telling than acting and are, likewise, more theatrical than they are theater. But I don't feel like that argument serves us - not the result (which will be inconclusive, both sides firming up their positions), but having it at all.

I don't feel like you're attacking one-person shows in this post so much as looking for precision, and maybe that's why it feels like red herring to me. Isn't the major thrust of this the risk-adverse part?

Let me ask you this - WHY do you want to make this point?

As to the second argument, we're on a rhetorical binge. Yes, I can rent out my theater for a corporate event and we're not going to call that theater (at least not in a traditional sense - insert corporate joke here). But in a typical situation - I am a theater company and I rent out a theater building and I sell a ticket, most people are going to go in assuming that what I'm selling to them is theater. Personally, that's why I like to rent bars to produce theater in, but that's a different subject. Additionally, you'll be able to disprove lots of individual instances of my position, and you'll be able to convince even more people of it once you actually talk to them about what they've seen - but I don't feel that detracts from my position about people operating on their assumptions going in to the event itself.

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