“…the imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.” ― Jonah Lehrer,
“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
Please Stay mixed story-telling with a variety of solo-performance styles. This article will explore your scene options for solo-performance, and will provide a list of performance styles available to the solo-performer. My hope is that this will inspire you to find new ways to express your ideas, and to find variety for your audience.
Disclaimer: Stand-up and Storytelling
This article will not explore stand-up or storytelling. Storytelling we covered in a previous article, and stand-up we might cover in the future as I am deeper into the preparation for Comedy Festival – 100% of stand-ups agree, if you want to learn stand-up, do stand-up.
Scene Options for Solo-Performance
The scene is set in a context where there would be some sort of audience the scene might be a class-room, press meeting, TED Talk etc. The performer takes the role of the presenter, and the audience is cast in the role of the audience or gathering of people who might be present. You may ask the audience questions, or call them out for the inappropriateness of their laughing.
Setting it up
I suspect the interesting thing about this scene will not be how you cleverly reveal to the audience what they’re watching. So make it clear as soon as possible. Here’s an example of this from (my favourite scene from) Please Stay:
“Welcome to the Danger Zone. This is the last stop on your walking tour of NASA’s facilities.” – Excerpt from Please Stay, “Danger Zone”
The character in question was a man obsessed with space, science and the inherent danger therein.
Playing with it
Now that you’re in the scene you can do whatever would normally happen in this situation. And of course you can bounce off the audience as you see fit, and as is appropriate for the situation. It’s a lovely way to involve the audience without giving free rein. It is important you do not require the audience to give you a certain type of response. I recommend having a fun character who is appropriate for the context, that way you can deal with anything.
Make sure to research (where possible) examples of what you are looking to recreate on stage. Find a character you will enjoy playing. Have a clear perspective for your character, what they’re trying to achieve, how they feel about what they are doing here today and give them a very definite energy. This will help ground you in the character, and allow you to deal with whatever comes up.
If you are going to have audience interaction, write some questions you think the audience will ask, write some off-the-wall unexpected questions, and work out how your character might respond. This helps you round out the character, but also means that you can throw some questions at yourself if the audience is quiet on a particular night. In Please Stay, I had my character ask himself a question so the audience would know that the character would look after them, and what to expect.
“Does anyone have any questions about space, or science, or NASA, or Danger? Some people ask me what is the most dangerous area in space. And the answer is of course, space itself. Because there’s no air up there, and the other parts are on fire. Good danger question. Good space question. Good me question.” – Excerpt from Please Stay, ” Danger Zone”
These scenes are great for setting up worlds, showing a specific side to a character, or just having a bit of fun with the audience. Here are some examples I’ve seen people use in performance and workshops:
- High School Teacher addressing their class
- TED Talk
- Press Meeting to reveal a scientific discovery
- Manager telling staff that the company is shut down
- Dumbledore addressing students of Hogwarts
The scene is like anything you would see in a play, improv, on tv or anywhere else. The only difference is that all the characters are played by one person.
Setting it up
You can definitely have fun revealing what characters are in the room. But I recommend you clarify at least 2 of the W’s (WHO, WHAT and WHERE) out of the way, so we can focus on what is going on. Give each character a clear physicality and vocalisation. If you have a room of 20 people, don’t be afraid to have some blur amongst the rabble. But if a character is important, cast them appropriately through the way you perform them.
Here’s the top of a multi-character scene from Please Stay:
INT. POLICE CHIEF OFFICE
The POLICE CHIEF is an old grizzled woman with a deep voice. POLICE CHIEF is sitting at the back of stage thumbing through a case file, going through the contents.
DETECTIVE DRAKE is standing front of stage looking at the audience through the glass window of the POLICE CHIEFS office, as if he’s looking out at the Homicide unit he is a part of.
When lights come up, we can only see the POLICE CHIEF.
Detective Drake, you’re probably wondering why I brought you in here.
I assume you’re here to wish me well on my retirement. Give me the old gold watch, the handshake and then push me out into the cold ocean. Like an elderly Eskimo.
You wish Drake. No, you’re not done yet. We have one more case for you.
Here’s an excerpt from a really early (and awful) story for Big Strong Boy:
The year is 2005, I am 24 working a job I don’t know I hate, but I know something’s wrong so I take a risk on a Jetstar flight to Japan. Five weeks in the land of the rising fun. I really didn’t know what to expect when I get there. I took Japanese in highschool, but the only phrase I remembered was Daijobu des ka, which means “Is it Okay?” as a question. Turns out I’d be using that a lot.
I spend a lot of time in Kyoto which boasts 17 of the world heritage sites, but most of what you’ll see in Japan was destroyed during the war. I’m a real culture nut…
– Dan Pavatich, Excerpt from “DRAFT – Japan Part 1”
What the hell is this? The answer is, not great. My Director (Marcus Willis) remarked:
“I don’t know what this is.” – Marcus Willis
I am reminded of the quote I opened this article with:
“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” – Jean Luc Godard
Here’s how the beginning of this story changed by the time Big Strong Boy opened:
I am 25 years old, I have short spiked hair, I run an office for one of the top four IT consultancies in the world. I’m a success. What I do know, is that somethings not right, what I don’t realise is that I hate my job and I’m in the middle of a breakdown. So I do what any other normal person would do, and travel.
Japanese Sex Clubs have this rule…
– Dan Pavatich, Excerpt from “Big Strong Boy 1.2 – Sex Clubbed”
Admittedly the second paragraph opens with a shock for comical effect, but I think we can all agree this feels like more of a story. I feel like I’m being set up for something. I might be biased but in the first example, I’d be looking for a door, in this example, I want to know more. How did I turn my bore-fest into a more-fest?
(*Sigh* I’m a little embarrassed by the simplicity of my solution. But here we go.)
Go From Snore-ey to Story
I have done my fair share study on “story structure.” I’ve spent a lot of money sitting around improv and writing classrooms talking about protagonist, antagonist, asking whose story it is and trying to manifest the proper pronunciation of ‘denouement.’ In the end, I decided that the stories were inside me, and my challenge was all to do with form; the way in which I was bringing this small section of my life to the stage/page.
I took a story structure that was simple and from someone I admired: Dan Harmon’s Embryo (which is the process Dan Harmon uses to create shows such as Rick and Morty and Community). Here are the 8 steps of Dan Harmon’s embryo:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort
2. But they want something
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
4. Adapt to it
5. Get what they wanted
6. Pay a heavy price for it
7. Then return to their familiar situation
8. Having changed
I copied this list into a word document, made each step a heading and made space below each one.
Then, I started writing under point 1. When I thought I had done what the heading said, I moved on to point 2, and so on. Note that I was writing my full story this way, this wasn’t a summary. I put no arbitrary rules on how much should be written under each section, what was too brief, or too verbose, I just started writing.
Here is an excerpt of a story I wrote using this method:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort
I’m 20, I have hair down to my butt, it has blue streaks in it and I am 2 years through a degree in computer science.
2. But they want something
I don’t know if you’ve been to university, but a lot of people are having sex there. All sorts of people. Disgusting people, old people, young people, people of different creeds and backgrounds. Oh yeah! It’s a real victory march for equality. But not for me.
I spent my days playing X-Men versus Streetfighter in the university arcade. If you don’t know about X-Men versus Streetfighter then you were probably a friend of mine. It was $2 a game, and if I compared my academic achievements to my X-men versus Streetfighter achievements I’d be pretty embarrassed. I had finished X-men Versus Streetfighter with all the characters. My academic accomplishments were none. But all of that kind of paled in comparison to the fact that I’d never been kissed.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
One day a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes entered the arcade and I was in love…
– Dan Pavatich, Excerpt from “DRAFT – University Part 1”
I don’t think this story structure is significantly better than any other, so you could follow this same approach with any structure. I would totally follow this approach again, it really helped me keep my story head on straight. Additionally, here’s some things I realised through writing this way that I think could help you irrespective of how you approached writing stories:
- In true stories all the characters are friends, families and enemies of yours. You’ll want to give them the attention you give them in the real world, that you wish the rest of the world give them. You might want to talk about how you guys met, and that in-joke you have. There’s a good chance that it’s not interesting to anyone but you.
- Some of my stories were tight (as I said at the top of this article), they just came out with ease. Many of them had small issues, and had to be put into this model. I’d quickly discover some step was missed, or not dealt with clearly. I’d tidy it up, and suddenly stories that had left me flat were now bangin’!
- The simplicity of the structure is its power. It helps make it clear who the main character is, in my case it was always me, and that presented it’s own challenge.
- Short stories might achieve multiple steps in one sentence. That’s ok. But the longer the story, the more you should hold yourself accountable to hitting each point.
- Point 1 is the person I was. Point 8 is the person I became. Show, don’t tell. Show us how you were, show us who you became. My most effective stories demonstrated this by a change in behaviour in a similar situation to the one we started with.
- Be creative. The directness with which I addressed the story points bordered on comical at times, but there are other sections and stories where I was more specific in how I conveyed my ideas. In the example above, I talk about not having love, but having a lot of time playing games. ‘Game’ (in the context of both gamer, and someone’s ability to woo the ladies) became a source of comedy in this story, and a way to explore my romantic prowess and anchor jokes.
- Edit! Using this structure in the way I have definitely gives your stories immediate form. But you still need to revise, rewrite and review.
- Be ruthless. There’s a story in my show that through sharing it with many people I trust, just wasn’t doing what I wanted. I’m sure it will end up somewhere else in my creative life.
- Perform your show regularly. Don’t lose sight of the performance aspect of your stories. Include stage direction if it helps you, put in physical cues. I will talk about this in a future article.
While shaping what would become the show I put up, I pulled all the stories into an embryo of their own, and made sure the Embryo worked over the show as a hole. I went through each of the “8. Having Changed” points from each of the stories and discovered an arch that worked for me. I also discovered some stories were treading the ground already walked on, and weren’t moving the story forward, so I removed them. I also realised that my show was missing a “8. Having Changed” for itself, and so I wrote something that was about my life now.
Would love to hear of resources that have helped you structure and write stories!
Here’s some links on Dan Harmon’s Embryo – Channel 101 has many articles written by Dan Harmon himself on how the Embryo works and the specifics of applying it:
- Wired Article: How Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community (Interview with Dan Harmon)
- Channel 101 Wikia: Story Structure (Written by Dan Harmon)
Other articles in this series:
How To: Create A Solo Show (Part 1) – Post-mortem of Please Stay.
How To: Create A Solo Show (Part 2) – Post-mortem of Big Strong Boy.
How To: Create A Solo Show (Part 3) – Getting Started.
How To: Create A Solo Show (Part 4) – Creating As A Process.
How To: Create A Solo Show (Part 5) – Writing True Stories.