The other day, I went out for coffee with a student and friend of mine in the darling up-and-coming neighborhood of South Pasadena. As I slowly sipped on my Chai Latte (decaf, skinny, nonfat of course) and devoured my delicious double chocolate brownie, she began to pick my brain about self-producing. Suddenly, it hit me hard that I am really back in LA.
Self-producing is an LA Theatre Scene epidemic. You can’t throw a stone here without hitting a solo show where an actor wants to be discovered and given a sit-com. Often the actor writes, directs and produces the show themselves, which is a lot of hats to wear. This over abundance of roles often leads to schlocky productions where under-directed actors whine about how hard it is to make it in Hollywood. How did this town end up this way?
Before I attempt to answer that loaded question, let me share with you a brief history of this thing we call a solo show. The first documented solo performance was in 1901 by a woman named Beatrice Herford, who simply performed impressions of her neighbors in order to facilitate peace between the feuding community. From there, it sort of evolved slowly, and then in the 1990’s, seemed to have exploded. Solo shows have taken many shapes, forms and a whole lot of diverse structures. For example, performers such as John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Anna Deavere Smith, Charlayne Woodard and Lily Tomlin tell their stories by embodying various characters, usually switching back and forth from the characters to themselves to achieve the narrative.
Then there are the performers such as Lenny Bruce, Eddie Izzard, Sandra Bernhard and the late Andy Kaufman who present their shows like a stand-up comedy routine, using little to no set, lights or costumes. Along those lines, there are performers that only tell a narrative story, (sometimes abstract and non-linear) and are considered performance artists because they often combine music and movement to get the job done. This group includes the late Spalding Gray, Tim Miller, Laurie Anderson, Roger Guinevere Smith and Elaine Stritch to name a few.
In addition, there is the rare play that has not been written for a particular solo actor, but instead for many performers over many years to perform. I Am My Own Wife by Douglas Wright, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, and Chesapeake by Lee Blessing are a few examples.
As you can see, there are many ways to tell a story, and solo artists over the years have found some very inventive ways. Having said that, Los Angeles has a long history of actors doing plays in order to showcase themselves. In fact, the Equity Waiver System was invented for Los Angeles actors (it does not exist in any other city in the United States) so that they could affordably produce theatre that would showcase them or shed light on them in a certain way.
So, back to my friend’s dilemma at Starbucks. She shared with me that after two years in Los Angeles, she has yet to be able to do the work she wants to do. After speaking to her about her options in this town, I realized that the reason actors self produce is because they are left to feel powerless by casting directors and producers in this town. Don’t get me wrong, it is not the show biz big shot’s fault, it is just the nature of the beast. So by writing her own show, and getting it up, she could feel the sense of empowerment that she has been longing for. And if it works, and is seen by the right people, she could potentially get a sit-com or a film deal.
After all, there were many that have forged their way before her, making it easier for her to succeed. Kevin Smith made “Clerks” by selling his comic book collection, Robert Rodriguez made “El Mariachi” for $7,000.00 and Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson made “Bottle Rocket” together. These were not studio films, they were self produced and independently made. Sure, they were picked up for distribution after they were made, but these film makers took the risk themselves. On the same note, many solos shows and comic routines were seen by the right people and turned into films and TV shows. Some examples are My Big Fat Greek Wedding by Nia Vardalos, the stand-up comedy of Jerry Seinfeld which morphed into the beloved Seinfeld series, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell whose NY success paved the way for a film by the same name. So if Nina, Jerry and John can do it, then why not my friend? After all, LA is a place where fairytales come true, and it can happen to you. Forgive me for quoting Disney, that was uncalled for.
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM Jan 2010