Creating a one-person show takes a certain amount of chutzpah, relying on just one bold soul to connect with an audience and hold its attention throughout. It's even more of a personal investment when the story being told on stage is actually drawn from the real life of the performer. Dragon Productions Theatre Company is highlighting the art of the solo show with its first "Singular Stories: Celebrating Unique Voices" festival this month, featuring three Bay Area writer/actors.
When Laura Jane Bailey began exploring the idea of doing solo work, she recalled the advice of a friend, who said to think about a topic that makes a good story at a dinner party. Her thoughts turned to how she met her husband.
"It's a romantic, funny little story but then it always kind of segued into this story about his mother, my new mother-in-law," she said. "Her story is fascinating to me." Bailey's mother-in-law grew up in Germany, survived World War II and immigrated to the United States shortly after. "Mutti," the show that resulted, is a weaving together of stories about Bailey's mother-in-law's experience and her own experience falling in love with her husband and becoming part of his family. It's a monologue, according to the Dragon's press release, "about a Midwest, middle-aged woman finding who she is through women's work."
Bailey's a familiar name and face on the local theater scene as an actor and director, but "Mutti" marks her foray into writing and solo-performing. The show made its debut at the Dragon's Monday Night Play Space, so it's fitting to bring it back to the Redwood City stage.
"Being a middle-aged actress in the Bay Area, there aren't always a tremendous amount of work opportunities," she said in a phone interview from Sacramento, where she was performing with Capital Stage. Creating her own show, she said, is a good way to "take agency over my career."
What does Bailey's husband, whom she described as "in no way a performer," think about her sharing his family's memories with the public? While she said he felt a little "exposed" when seeing the full show in the company of friends, all of whom were looking to him for reaction, he appreciates the honor being paid to his family's story.
"I'd ask him all along the way, when there's something personal about him or his mother, I'd run it by him and ask, 'Is this OK?' He hasn't said no yet so, so far so good," she laughed.
"Working for the Mouse"
Trevor Allen worked for four years as a costumed character at Disneyland, and his adventures in the Happiest Place on Earth form the basis of "Working for the Mouse," giving audiences a glimpse behind the scenes at the Magic Kingdom.
"I do many different character voices in the show. It may strike some folks as cartoonish but that's the point. That's sometimes hard to pull off because you're just one body playing multiple characters in a scene," he told the Weekly. "Making that clear, funny and entertaining can be a challenge but when it works, the characters come alive and the audience is with you ... well, that's the best feeling there is."
Park employment involved working for "part-time, minimum wage in hot fur costumes and stifling conditions without 'voice clearance' or medical insurance," but there were magical moments, too, he said. Some favorite memories chronicled in "Working for the Mouse" include playing an imaginary game of baseball, dressed as the Mad Hatter, with children along the parade route when a float broke down; celebrating a "mad luau" with other costumed characters, and helping make a terminally ill child's wish come true.
Allen has been performing versions of the show, including at the Dragon, for several years.
"It's a period piece now because it's about a time and a place that doesn't really exist anymore, but it still feels fresh and new every night because it has to be. Each audience is different," he said. "I am happy to be coming back to the Dragon. It's a wonderfully intimate theater."
"The California Missions and Race Tour"
For Fred Pitts, a self-professed history geek, it was a 2012 tour of the California missions that inspired his one-man show. At each stop along the way, he encountered numerous friendly folks who were all eager to tell him he resembled "someone famous and black," he said. "Me taking a solo trip to satisfy my love of history turned into a journey about what it's like to live as an African American man in this world."
As his trip went on, Pitts (whom local theater fans will recognize from frequent appearances as an actor, including most recently with Palo Alto Players) updated his friends about his adventures via social media, he found he had an eager audience following along.
"Everyday, people were asking 'What happened today?' and 'You gotta make this into a solo show at some point,'" he said. "I am not a solo guy; that's not what I do." Nevertheless, he dutifully copied his reports into a file and when years later he took a class on creating a solo show, "The California Missions and Race Tour" was ripe for revisiting. The show made its debut at the PlayGround Solo Performance Festival in San Francisco.
What makes a successful solo show, he said, is "a story that's compelling and a performer that can keep you interested from start to finish." For Pitts, who portrays around 34 characters in his piece and named San Juan Capistrano as his personal favorite mission site, it's important that audiences are both entertained and gain a bit more knowledge of history and culture.
"I ask the audience, 'How many of you grew up in California and built a mission out of sugarcubes in the fourth grade?' I like to have people walk away understanding that history is not all that sugar-coated history we were taught. There's a pretty side to his and a really ugly side, especially with the missions, and in terms of Native American and African American history," he said. "I'm not judging anyone. We get taught history as kids and the history we're told is usually slanted, depending on what they want you to remember or not remember," he said. "The history you're taught can't be the whole story. Find out the details. It's much more fascinating!"
What: "Singular Stories: Celebrating Unique Voices."
Where: Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Aug. 7-11 (performance times vary; see online).