and the cheese stands alone: one person plays

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April 23, 1961. Carnegie Hall.
April 23, 1961. Carnegie Hall.

One storyteller on stage, evoking a time, a story, a history – perhaps a call off stage, or a silent second character serves to prompt further story telling.  Yes, the one person play.  One act or full length with song (such as Elaine Stritch at Liberty) or sound effects.  Or just a human being in one on a stage.  Settling in for a good story with our narrator as the focal point. That’s it — clarity of focus and purity of intention and there’s nothing better when done well.

I am a dramaturg working with a group of theatre professionals assembling a one woman show about trailblazing makeup artist Dottie Ponedel — first woman member of the Hollywood makeup union, IATSE Local 706.  [See project blog at http://dottieponedel.wordpress.com/].  As background research, I draw upon my own long-term ongoing passionate interest in the one person play about historical figures, especially individuals in the arts. In our work on our play about Dottie, I analyze the strengths and weakness of particular dramatic choices from the scripts on my library shelves and the playbills in my own archives and the performances in my memories of stage adventures past.  As we research the life of a woman about whom there are no published memoirs or biographies (working closely with a relative who holds her archives), I assemble raw material in rational sequences.  I develop the raw life history.  And at the same time I attend to the details and events and interactions that have dramatic potential.  I ponder which events might frame a scene or begin an act or propel action through an intermission or resound in a play’s final moments? And in particular, I analyze what we can  learn from examples of other one person (or limited cast) plays also inspired by the lives of particular non fictional characters.

In September 2009, as I was beginning to wade into the experience of working with my play development colleagues, before I started interviewing and researching and assembling the timeline of Dottie’s life that I continue to augment — I crafted a research memo on the structural questions suggested by one person plays.  I was asked to suggest some one person plays to the group (more blog posts on this theme to come on specific works) offering examples.  And this I did from my own experience of reading and observing and actively consuming this art form for the past 30-odd years.  My suggestions ranged from Belle of Amherst (Emily Dickinson) to Master Class (almost one person about Maria Callas) to Tea at Five (Kate Hepburn) to Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein to Golda’s Balcony (Golda Meir) to Lillian (Lillian Hellman) to Full Gallop (Diana Vreeland) to Tru (Truman Capote) and on and on.  All of these plays offer ways of framing a life as a theatrical experience.  And all of these models require deep knowledge of the subject and the willingness to pare down a fascinating life into key and evocative details.

Before I knew many details of Dot’s life, I offered a summary of the possible elements of a life around which an evening of theatre could dramatically be structured. How could we root the show, I wondered.

  • Is there a particular pivotal event in Dottie’s life? from the Garland history perspective I’d vote for the drama of the BBC interviewers taking their “poor Judy” agenda into their interview with Dot but that’s Garland-specific … were there others?
  • Was there a loss of parent?
  • Were there career decisions and/or career transitions as in the Vreeland play?
  • Were there long lingering final illnesses that led to confessions?  Or dramatic pivotal events like the eviction as in the Stein play?
  • Were there late life accolades. For example: the Chaplin movie with Robert Downey Jr. used the event of Chaplin receiving an honorary Academy Award toward the end of his life .. were there events like this in Dot’s?
  • Would the pared down “an evening with Dot Ponedel” work as a structure?  Mark Twain Tonight and Clurman (about Harold Clurman) take this approach.  The character tells stories, using the audience as an audience that individual in character may have had at a public event.

I am struck in reading the original version of these words from 9 months ago that so many of these questions (now answered) have indeed provided initial dramatic structure to our developing enterprise.  And now I rise.  And now Dottie does begin to rise.  And our work continues.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 24, 2010)

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