Monday 16 September 2019

'It elevates the stakes and the peril' - Actors reveal the thrills and terrors of the solo theatre show

The one-man - or one-woman - show is a theatre stalwart and audience favourite, but what particular challenges face actors as they take on the daunting task of holding the stage, solo? Hilary A White finds out

Clare Monnelly in Charlie's a Clepto
Clare Monnelly in Charlie's a Clepto
Stanley Townsend. Photo by Conor Horgan
Pat Kinevane. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Hilary A White

'I suppose my expectation was that it'd be like doing a normal play but having a really big part," Stanley Townsend chuckles down the phone from London. "But when the show begins and the lights go down and it's just you, and you're on, it's, 'Okay, here we go'."

There is years of stage and screen experience in Townsend's happily weary Dublinese, thousands of hours of read-throughs and countless evenings at home learning lines. From Mamet to McPherson, Boorman to The Bill, he is the archetype of the jobbing actor, up for everything because he is up for anything.

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But he'd never entered that temple of dramatic booby-traps - the one-man show. This is why it had to be ticked off when the chance came along.

While he feels "privileged" to have got the call from director Sam Yates (whom he worked with in a West End production of Glengarry Glen Ross), it was not without a tinge of trepidation that he accepted the part in Paul Muldoon's Incantata.

Stanley Townsend. Photo by Conor Horgan
Stanley Townsend. Photo by Conor Horgan

"Those small mistakes, the odd night where something goes wrong and one person in the cast covers for another person - with this experience you cover for yourself. It elevates the stakes and the peril. If you get into trouble, there's no one to dig you out but yourself."

Described in one review as "a brilliantly unstable experience", the play debuted at Galway International Arts Festival last year, an event where Cillian Murphy and Enda Walsh have also ploughed remarkable one-man furrows.

It is a subgenre of theatre that seems to come ready-packaged with heightened intensity for both audience and performer. Drama stripped down to its bare essentials and the ley lines of communication from stage to pew that little bit sharper somehow.

"I read it and it scared the bejesus out of me," the 58-year-old says of Incantata, a work that deals with creativity through grief. "So I said to myself, I better do this! And I'm really glad I did.

"You miss the other people. You're usually part of a cohort that are a bit nervous together and you share that. For this, I was nervous on me own. Or when you get your costume - normally you look at everyone else's costume and you have that banter. I don't want to make it out to be terribly lonely but because that social nature of it isn't there, you find you have to keep it playful in your head otherwise it can all get angsty or serious."

Townsend has come to one-man drama late in his career, and sounds thankful for the chance to test out his "bag of skills" on a rare new platform in Incantata.

Pat Kinevane. Photo by Patrick Redmond
Pat Kinevane. Photo by Patrick Redmond

For those in the earlier stages, such as Dublin actress Clare Monnelly, the daunting nature of a solo show can feel like a rite of passage that needs to be got through. This, plus frustration with the industry, resulted in her writing and performing in the warmly received Charlie's a Clepto earlier this year.

"I did a week's development in the Axis in Ballymun," she says, "and after, they wanted to produce the show so it became a reality really quickly that I would be doing this 75-minute one-woman show on a stage. I'm glad it happened that way because if I had too long to dwell on it, I'd have bottled."

If that was the imagined lead-up, the preview itself awakened Monnelly to the practical terrors of going it alone. Unlike Incantata, Charlie's a Clepto (as with many one-man shows) had no real set, just lights and a floor, so there wasn't even that to hide behind. And all eyes are on you so if something happens to cross your mind, it's going to show up on the character's face too and pollute the monologue. "It is by far the hardest thing I've ever done in acting. You can't be anywhere but in the moment for the entire time so it's intensely exhausting. You have to zone-in and quieten down in the hour leading up to the show to build up the energy needed to get through it. You're so naked. And I'd written it as well so I felt extra vulnerable - I couldn't blame the script. And my husband directed it so I couldn't blame him either!"

The risk paid off, and as the glowing reviews came in and profile was boosted, Monnelly felt like she could handle anything now. And if she now finds herself breathing a sigh of relief to be performing in Minefield, a self-written three-hander coming to Dublin Fringe in September, that's allowed, too.

There are some, she reminds me, who have attained critical acclaim, awards prestige and near-household name status through their solo work. "You can't speak about one-person shows without speaking about Pat Kinevane."

When I relate these sentiments to Kinevane himself, the Cobh actor hoots back incredulously at such talk.

"You say those things but I don't even believe them, boy! I'm from a very working-class background and going out to work is a very natural thing for me. I just treat it so," says one of the most celebrated dramatists in the country as he marks 30 years in the business this month.

Since joining the esteemed Fishamble stable 14 years ago, Kinevane has mined a rich seam in one-man shows that yielded him an Olivier Award in 2016 for Silent.

Before, a new piece, is just back from turning heads in Edinburgh and is about to hit the road across Ireland. Workmanlike may be his approach to the form, but he is a veritable master of this tricky format. "lt's a strange one for me because I don't feel as if I'm working solo," he says. "I'm supported by a production that feels very layered and I'm just doing my bit.

"It's almost like recording music and mine is the final track being laid down. So I don't feel as exposed as I thought I would be. I'm also behind a character or characters. I know it's not me."

It took a little getting used to, Kinevane concedes, however.

"You learn a lot about yourself when you're doing it. I had to really banish any sort of nervousness or apprehension because I find that nerves are very destructive. To be totally relaxed and very centred and calm in order to do my job. I had to grow up."

Despite coming to the lone stage from different angles, all three agree that there is something quintessentially Hibernian about the solo show that shares DNA with the storytelling medium.

"It's like storytelling at its purest," Monnelly says. "Everyone loves going to the theatre to see a massive show with a big cast and lots of production design, but to reduce it down to one person on stage with a compelling story, I think that speaks to the power of the Irish storyteller for me. Some of my most memorable theatre experiences have been one-man or one-woman shows."

"Years ago," Kinevane says, "when the Seanachaí told a story, you entered into a lovely unspoken contract to listen and absorb. It's more special when it's one person rather than 10. Everyone in the audience feels they have an intimate connection with the performer."

'Incantata' runs at the Gate Theatre, Dublin from September 4-14

'Minefield' will run in Axis Ballymun from September 11-14 and Smock Alley Theatre from the September 17-22

'Before' will tour throughout Ireland between September and November, including a presentation of all four of Fishamble's Pat Kinevane plays ('Forgotten', 'Silent', 'Underneath' and''Before') at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, September 11-14

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