Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Solo performers travel from NYC to Theatre Off Jackson for "Mom Baby God" and "Killer Quack"

Madeline Burrows in "Mom Baby God" (Jessica Neria)


Solo Performance Festival
Theatre Off Jackson
continues Feb. 27, 28, March 1

Those in the know have been attending Seattle’s Solo Performance Festival over the last several years, housed and supported by the crew at Theatre Off Jackson. Several different solo performers have had shows this last month and this weekend showcases a few more.

Two in particular are coming from the East Coast to showcase their talents.

Mom Baby God is performed by Madeline Burrows, who spent two years going undercover to anti-choice conferences (for which kudos seem due, just for actually attending such things to expose what really goes on there)! She plays “a teenage anti-abortion activist at the fictionalized Students for Life of America Conference. Six other characters from ministers to abstinence-only sex educators provide humorous, insightful and shocking looks into the movement,” says the pr for the event. More information on her work can be found at www.mombabygod.com.



James Judd’s piece is entitled Killer Quack, about a real man who pretended to be a dermatologist in Manhattan and ended up killing one of the patients. It turns out that Judd was one of the patients, seeing “Dr.” Faiello to remove a tattoo, and was kind of infatuated with the handsome “doctor!” So, his piece is autobiographical, and involves letter and converstions he exchanged with the man from prison. More information on his work can be found at www.killerquack.com.

Solo performance is a unique skillset. You must have a compelling story or subject matter and be confident about your ability to hold all the attention and manage the entire performance generally without any onstage help. I interviewed these two performers about solo performance and why their performances work best in that way.

MG: What was your background in theatrical performance and did you have to do/change/learn anything to become a solo performer?

JJ: The lessons I learned at The Groundlings and the Improv (in Los Angeles) is that the theatrical experience is always for the benefit of the audience, not yourself. The worst advice people give actors, especially solo performers, is "just go out there and enjoy the moment." I was lucky enough to be part of an improv class led by Cynthia Szigeti, the legendary improv teacher.  On one particular night I was on stage with scene partners.  I was dying up there. She shouted at me, "Do something funny!" It was a thunderbolt of truth. When you are on that stage it is your responsibility to entertain the audience who paid for their tickets and dragged themselves out of their homes to see you. If you can't cut it, get out. 

MM: I was doing a lot of Suzuki theater training, which is very focused on the body and physical specificity. Doing that kind of precise physical work helped me a lot when creating solo work, because in solo performance you’re relying on one body to convey sharply different characters and tell a story. I also worked with Andy Paris from the Tectonic Theatre Project when I was in college, doing interview-based work and training in their Moment Work method. That work taught me not to hide the process – in solo performance, you have no choice. So both Suzuki work and Moment Work taught me a million things about solo performance without me realizing it at the time.

MG: What made you want to develop a solo show on this topic as opposed to a multiple-actor play?

JJ: I'm exclusively an autobiographic solo performance artist.  My art is turning the stories of my life into theatrical experiences to entertain audiences. It's also an intensely personal story of my relationship with a man who began as the objection of my affection to someone who rejected and frightened me to a tabloid sensation as the Killer Quack to eventually becoming someone I consider a friend. Do I think it would work as a multi-actor play? Probably.  But then where would that leave me? Would I have to buy a ticket? What if no one wanted to sit with me? It's all too much to think about.

MM: Initially it was out of necessity so that I could attend all the anti-choice events on my own time and rely on myself to meet deadlines. But through the process I’ve fallen in love with solo work. One of the best things about solo work is the interaction with the audience. In any play you feed off of the energy of the audience, but in a solo show the audience becomes your scene partner. It’s terrifying and exhilarating, because it forces you to be present from the get-go.

I portray several male characters in the show – right-wingers who say some explicitly misogynistic stuff, but because it's a solo show performed by me, they are being expressed through the body of a young Queer woman, and by the same actor who 30 seconds later is portraying a teenage girl. Having all these characters come through the same body can give a sense of how this teenage girl, Jessica, is internalizing the politics of the right-wing, what effect they are having on her. It also provides a thread of continuity that I think is politically important. Solo performance drives home how despite some tactical differences, the anti-choice movement is very united. All these different characters are pieces of the puzzle. And that’s a scary thing.

From the get go I wanted this to be a piece of theater that could connect with a growing anger about the attack on reproductive rights and with activists who are grappling with how to build a counter-movement to the anti-choice movement. A big part of that meant the ability to tour the show, and doing a solo show provided the kind of flexibility to make that happen.

MG: What makes solo performance a preferred medium?

JJ: There's nothing easy about touring a solo show.  Being a solo performer means carrying everything, literally, with you to the next performance.  It's intensely lonely and psychologically difficult, especially that half hour you spend alone backstage waiting for the show to begin.  There's no camaraderie, no one to lean on backstage or onstage, and the cast parties are the WORST.

I can come up with a million better ways to spend whatever time I have left in this life that would be infinitely more comfortable and less stressful but for whatever reason I have to do this. It isn't a pursuit of fame because no fame will come of it. It isn't part of my journey to the next level. It isn't a means to an end. It is the end. This is it. This is what I do. Do I sound depressed? I'm not. I love this life. 

Mom Baby God performs Feb. 27, 28 and Mar. 1. Killer Quack performs Feb. 28 and Mar. 1. For more information, go to www.theatreoffjackson.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/venue/163709 or call 800-838-3006.