Solo Summer! – CoHo’s crowd of ones

From royal wives to dreamboats, it's a dominating lineup of five solo shows

Eleanor O'Brien in "Dominatrix." Photo: John Rudoff

Eleanor O’Brien in “Dominatrix.” Photo: John Rudoff

The nice thing about acting is, you can always count on the other actors in your show to pick you up and give you a shot of energy.

Unless, of course, you’re all alone onstage.

I’ve been thinking a bit about solo shows lately, what with Lauren Weedman’s “The People’s Republic of Portland” holding over at Portland Center Stage and Mike Daisey’s recent one-night stand for PICA of his new show “Journalism,” which follows a media flap over his blending of fact and fiction in a previous show, and just the sheer terror and potential exhilaration I can imagine at going out there onstage by yourself, metaphorically as naked as a jay bird. It makes me think of Christopher Durang’s old comedy “The Actor’s Nightmare,” in which an accountant named George Spelvin (a standard pseudonym for actors who don’t want to use their real names in a show) finds himself mysteriously shoved onstage with no rehearsal and not even knowing what play he’s in.

So CoHo Productions’ “Solo Summer!” festival, which kicks off Thursday evening for a five-week run of five solo shows, caught my eye. And on Monday morning I found myself sitting in a coffee shop getting the festival lowdown from Eleanor O’Brien, whose “GGG: Dominatrix for Dummies” opens things this weekend, and Camille Cettina, whose “Mr. Darcy Dreamboat” closes the festival out in mid-July. In between will be a week each from Tonya Jone Miller (“Threads”), Erin Leddy (the Drammy-winning “My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow”), and Tara Travis (“Til Death: The Six Wives of Henry VIII”).

Going solo isn’t just acting without a net. It’s also fundamentally changing the relationship with the audience. Instead of interacting with the other performers while the crowd looks on, your “other actor” is the audience itself – “which is terrifying, and so much more exciting,” Cettina says.

In other words: You can run, but you can’t hide. And that constantly hovering danger is part of the charge. The relationship with the audience is a lot closer than in an ordinary show, Cettina says, although a little distance always remains: the fourth wall melts, but retains something like a scrim.

Some performers like to involve the audience actively. O’Brien, whose shows are about sex and intimacy and self-acceptance, invites volunteers onstage. “It’s shocking what you can get people to do if you ask them,” she says. “I mean, I’ve had people get onstage and … spank themselves.” In the past she’s given her volunteers brief scripts. This time she plans simply to ask them to tell what they love about themselves, and she finds the prospect just a little scary: “I don’t know how that’ll turn out.”

O’Brien curated the festival for CoHo, looking for acts that were singular and had good track records. Some of the shows are new to Portland, some have been done here before. All five were developed by their performers, who are writer-actors, and often producers, directors and tour managers, too. And all five performers are women.

That last part is sort of an accident. When O’Brien took her tentative list to CoHo’s Philip Cuomo he glanced it over and said, “It looks like it’s all women.” O’Brien replied: “Oh, it does look like that, doesn’t it?” and the deal was struck.

Camille Cettina rocks the books in "Dreamboat." Photo: Gary Norman

Camille Cettina rocks the books in “Dreamboat.” Photo: Gary Norman

A certain amount of self-revelation or even confessional slips into most contemporary solo shows, which tend to be theatrically rooted but also take some cues from performance art. Unlike older one-person shows such as William Luce’s Emily Dickinson bioplay “The Belle of Amherst,” which has been performed by countless actors, or Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight,” in which Holbrook slips inside Twain’s skin, the shows in Solo Summer! are intensely personal or based on personal observation: they pretty much belong to the people who created them. They’re also different from standup comedy, which has its own rules of combat, and from “The Moth”-style storytelling, which is told but not scripted. Spalding Gray (“Swimming to Cambodia”) was a pioneer of the form, and Portland audiences have seen a lot of solo shows lately, from Daisey’s “Journalism” to Weedman’s quick-witted trio of “Busted,” “No … You Shut Up!” and “People’s Republic.” O’Brien, who’s toured her shows extensively, often on the fringe circuit, thinks the form might be ready for a boom, partly because solo shows are relatively inexpensive to produce and take on the road.

Here’s the lineup.

 

“GGG: DOMINATRIX FOR DUMMIES,” June 13-16

O’Brien tells the tale of training to be a professional dominatrix in New York, when she was living and acting there. Like her earlier “Inviting Desire,” it’s been a hit both in Portland and on tour. The show goes beyond whips and dungeons to ideas about being whole and being wanted. The Edmonton Journal called it “surprisingly touching … beautifully tender and erotic.” www.dancenakedproductions.com

 

“THREADS,” June 20-23

Tonya Jone Miller’s highly regarded show is based on interviews with her mother, Donna Miller, who grew up on an Indiana farm and in August 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, flew into Saigon. The results of her adventures there continue to echo through the years and generations.  www.threadstheplay.com

 

“MY MIND IS LIKE AN OPEN MEADOW,” June 27-30

Erin Leddy based her remarkable show, which she developed at Hand2Mouth, on her experiences living for a year with her grandmother. It’s about sound, memory, and the passing along of things, and it won a Drammy Award for outstanding Portland production of the 2010-11 season. Since then she’s toured the show widely, and brings it back for another hometown run. www.hands2mouththeatre.org

 

“TIL DEATH: THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII,” July 5-7

“Tara is one of the stars of the fringe circuit,” O’Brien says author/performer Tara Travis, who’s performed her historical comedy across Canada. Travis plays all six wives, in rapid succession, all of them gathering eventually in an ex-wives club to tell tales and argue about who’s the REAL No. 1. “The idea is as brilliant as the execution is funny,” the CBC said, and I can’t help wondering lust how literally the writer of that little squib meant the word “execution.” www.monstertheatre.com

 

“MR. DARCY DREAMBOAT,” July 11-14

Portland stage standout Cettina did a short run a while back of her show about literary crushes, and is bringing it back for all those people who meant to catch it but were too late to the gate. (I was one of them.) She calls the show “a visceral celebration of the joy of reading books,” and besides Jane Austen checks in on the likes of Nancy Drew, J.D. Salinger (himself a notorious solo performer), and T.S. Eliot. Like all of the solo performers, Cettina has a touch of entrepreneurial spirit. “I didn’t come up with ‘Darcy’ because, ‘There aren’t roles for women’,” she says. “It wasn’t that at all. But it is true that there just are more roles for men.” www.pushleg.com

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NOTE:

Festival shows are something of a bargain – $15 a ticket, or $50 for a five-show pass. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays (no show July 4). CoHo Theatre is at 2257 N.W. Raleigh St. in Portland. Reservations/information here.

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