NEA/Pinellas Recovers Grant Update
A Cast of Thousands! Remember when Hollywood made that promise to lure us into theater seats?
The Studio@620 is turning the tables on that classic pitch, offering instead plays with “a cast of one.” In the past six months, four one-actor plays have been mounted at the creative space in St. Petersburg, all starring Pinellas actors – Ann with Bonnie Agan in October, Wonderful Life with Matt McGee in December, Roshin’s Wake with Dorothy Hershman in January and Every Brilliant Thing, which just closed earlier this month, with Dylan Barlowe.
All four were mesmerizing theatrical experiences – a single actor holding us enthralled in a darkened space.
Well, technically alone. At all of these one-actor plays, ironically, an amazing number of people showed up onstage.
In Wonderful Life, Matt McGee, using his considerable acting chops summoned up no less than 15 characters. Actually, the entire cast of Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. American Stage producing director Helen R. Murray and Jason Lott adapted that classic film for this stage version.
With only a slight turn of his body or change of his voice, McGee transformed himself into George Bailey and George’s wife Mary and Mr Potter and George’s brother Harry and Uncle Billy and the floozy Violet and, of course, Clarence the Angel. There wasn’t a prop in sight (except that pair of glasses on Mr Potter).
The St. Pete drag performer, actor and playwright performed the engaging play at Coastal Creative and the James Museum in St. Peterburg and at Gulfport’s Catherine A. Hickman Theater as well. Talk about earning your wings. As McGee said in a promo for the play, “It’s wonderful to be back.”
Or consider all the voices that we heard at Every Brilliant Thing, thanks to that play’s cleverly orchestrated interaction with audiences. The one-actor play by Duncan McMillan with Jonny Donahoe is about a six-year-old boy who began a list of brilliant things to convince his suicidal mother that life was worth living – and who continues to add to the list all his life.
In the script the actor is instructed to use members of the audience to shout out the items (which were printed on numbered slips of paper and distributed by the actor beforehand). The script also calls for audience members to be used as stand-ins for the people who populate this touching story (also negotiated by the actor before the play began).
So picture this – we are seated in the round at The Studio with actor Dylan Barlowe (who plays “the Narrator”) in the center. He is explaining to us how at six he came up with the idea for the list when he suddenly calls out “Number 1” (the first item on his infamous list) and the woman next to me exclaims, “Ice Cream.” Later, when Barlowe says “Number 4,” someone in the bleachers across the way yells out, “Laughing so hard you shoot milk out your nose.” And so on.
As he continues to tell us his heart-breaking but ultimately life-affirming story, his father, his school counselor Mrs. Patterson (and her sock puppet Booger), a lecturer and girlfriend Sam miraculously materialize, all thanks to audience members willing to play these parts. At one point, to cheer us up, Barlowe (who attended the Pinellas County Center for the Arts) even gets all of us to do the wave.
The audience also became part of the drama at The Studio’s two other one-actor performances, Ann and Roshin’s Wake. Ann, the story of the legendary brash (and, yes, feminist) Texas governor Ann Richards, written by Holland Taylor who originated the role, begins with the governor addressing a graduating class. We in the audience are, of course, the stand-ins for the students.
And at Roshin’s Wake, a story written and performed by Dorothy Hershman of an Irish immigrant traveling across the Western territories on the Oregon Trail – programs handed out to us made it crystal clear that we were once again expected to play our part. “Imagine yourselves ‘In-Role” as fellow travelers on this wagon train.”
The Studio first presented Ann to sold-out crowds in the spring of 2022. In October the biographical play made famous by Holland Taylor on Broadway was back at The Studio by popular demand. All of the original creative team returned, headed by the indefatigable Bonnie Agan as Ann. Lisa Tricomi, who directed the Studio’s production, called the play “a love letter to democracy.”
Ann started out in the auditorium of a college graduation, but the setting quickly expanded to a convincing re-creation of the office of the governor of Texas (thanks to production stage manager Marcus Wehby), complete with American and Lone Star State flags.
There, Agan as Richards launched into a full, multi-tasking frenzy, yelling at her pokey speechwriter, giving a filmmaker a quote about abortion rights, telling a dirty joke, talking to Bill Clinton (who was then in the White House), ordering cowboy boots for her staff, debating whether she should issue a last-minute stay of execution, fixing the fringe on the American flag and acting as referee as she plans an outing with her kids.
At play’s end, I found myself with tears in my eyes, first from laughing so hard at Richard’s saucy personality and then in sorrow when Ann described her own funeral. It is a tribute to Agan’s gutsy performance to say that I would swear that there were dozens of other people onstage with her as she switched seamlessly from phone call after phone call to conversations with her assistant (who is a pre-recorded voiceover) to rants about the need for more political participation.
In contrast to Ann’s elaborate office mise-en-scene, the setting for Roshin’s Wake was chillingly stark – just a tree stump and a wooden cross. The play tells the story of Oognah Donohue whose daughter has just died in childbirth. When the play opens, Donohue is mourning at her daughter’s gravesite which she will soon have to abandon when the wagon train she is on moves westward.
And just as the program predicted, Dorothy Hershman, who wrote, directed and performed Roshin’s Wake (with a convincing Irish accent), addresses us directly as if we were indeed her fellow travelers, inviting us in the end to join the others for the Irish wake that they are holding to help her through her grief.
Hershman, an award-winning actor, moved to Gulfport from Texas in 2000 to take a job as a drama specialist for the lower grades at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa. It was there that she got her inspiration to write Roshin’s Wake.
When the 5th graders were learning about the Oregon Trail, she would help them do improvisations — or what she calls “process drama, exploring a subject by going into it and living it” — to make the period come alive for them. (Read her interview with Bill DeYoung in the Catalyst).
In 2015 she retired from Berkeley, but she never left the Oregon Trail. During the pandemic lockdown she tapped into the many years of research she had done on that period and wrote down the story she tells in Roshin’s Wake.
Roshin’s Wake was produced by Francine Wolf whose Largo-based ZaZu Productions L.L.C. created a promo for the play’s world premiere at The Studio@620.
Wolf herself is no stranger to one-woman performances. She will be presenting her own solo play based on her life, Please Don’t Tell My Kids!, from May 12-14 at the Tampa International Fringe Festival (and at the Fringe Fort Myers in June). Her Tampa performances will be held at Screen Door, a 36-seat microcinema in the historic Kress building in Ybor City.
Small spaces seem to be the key to the success of these one-person shows. Although many solo plays certainly have been performed successfully on proscenium stages, the distance between the audience and the stage at those more traditional venues works against the intimacy that one-person plays thrive on.
The first play with a cast of one I ever saw at TheStudio@620 was The Year of Magical Thinking, starring Roxanne Faye in 2013. The play is written by Joan Didion, based on her book of that title. It tells the story of Didion’s wrenching and disorienting year after her husband’s sudden death.
I already had seen the play in 2007 in a Broadway production directed by David Hare at the massive 800-seat Booth Theatre. Vanessa Redgrave was playing the role of her friend Joan Didion. Didion was even in the audience that night. I had read the book and loved it. But the play left me cold. I blamed the distance between me and the sole performer onstage.
When I saw that Roxanne Faye was doing the play at The Studio@620, directed by one of The Studio’s founder, Bob Devin Jones, I decided to give the play another chance. When Roxanne Faye delivered the lines, “… it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you,”
I remember having the distinct impression that she was talking to me and me alone. I was deeply moved by the play this time.
The positive impact a smaller space can have on the success of one-actor plays was reinforced when I saw The Year of Magical Thinking a third time in 2017, directed by Karla Hartley and this time starring local actor Vickie Daignault in the solo Didion role. It was held at the 99-seat Stageworks Theatre, the longest running theater in Tampa, where Hartley is producing artistic director. Again, the play worked for me.
All three actresses I saw in The Year of Magical Thinking made the work their own. Redgrave most likely captured most accurately her friend’s demeanor as she faced down grief, but Faye showed me the difficulty the normally cool Didion had while fighting off her emotions and Daignault allowed me to see Didion’s open wound more clearly.
Each embodied Didion’s grief and her struggles to deal with it, but it was the size of the venue where I saw that grief projected that made all the difference for me as a spectator. I could almost reach out and touch both Faye’s and Daignault’s anguish, which undid me, while Redgrave remained a remote figure to me.
Two other plays with casts of one that I recently saw offered me further proof that when it comes to one-actor plays, size does matter to me — the size of the theater, that is.
In December I went to see The Year of Extraordinary Travel, written and performed by Becca McCoy and directed by Vickie Daignault (you can read my piece on this play here) at the Studio Grand Central in St. Petersburg.
And this month I traveled to Sarasota to see Backwards Forwards Back by Jacqueline Goldfinger, performed by L. James and directed by Brendan Ragan, at the Urbanite Theater. Both venues are small black box theaters – Studio Grand Central seats 55, Urbanite seats 75.
At both of these plays, I was watching a single actor on a nearly empty stage tell a very personal story in a small space.
In Goldfinger’s Backwards Forwards Back that intimacy was crucial. Actor L. James plays a soldier returning from war. Seated in an armchair with a Virtual Reality headset, he talks to us about the VR therapy he is undergoing to rid him of his PTSD nightmares. A screen behind him projects the scenes he is seeing during his therapy – a desert, a burning building.
But it is the images of his war experience and its aftermath — including his detention of a boy whose entire family is annihilated by an incoming rocket and a harrowing scene at a Fourth of July celebration when he returns home — that remain with me still. They are the vivid images that James conjured up with his riveting performance just a few feet away from me.
That close proximity gave me an intense experience a larger theater would have had difficulty to match.
Blame it on the COVID lockdown when we became accustomed to seeing actors one at a time in little square boxes. Blame it on the financial crisis facing theaters that have made them shy away from plays with large casts. Or just call it a trend. Plays with a cast of one definitely are having their moment.
The Studio@620 is a recipient of the Pinellas Recovers Grant,
provided by Creative Pinellas through a grant from the
National Endowment of the Arts American Rescue Plan.