Why you should care
Because they’re the next trend in first-person storytelling.
Onstage, Echo Brown is a German man, a Brooklyn hipster, a cop, a douchey boy from her childhood and, inevitably, herself. Her voice drops, her posture changes and she slips into male roles with ease. A 31-year-old Dartmouth grad, Brown has her own one-woman show at the Marsh, San Francisco’s solo-performance theater. Before Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters, which has been extended and extended yet again since its debut, Brown had no background in theater.
Welcome to the new world of one-woman performances across the U.S. We’re seeing “more solo shows” and a “notable increase in woman storytellers” these days, says Chris Jones, chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune. For those, like Brown, seeking to make a theatrical debut, those who’ve spent years awaiting their turn in the spotlight or those who just have something to shout from the stage, doing it all is a way to have it all. Some one-woman shows are helmed by star power like comedian Margaret Cho, Anne Hathaway or The Good Wife’s Cush Jumbo. The shows might have a stand-up-comedy vibe, but often they’re confessional, long missives to the audience that come from someplace deeply personal.
As theater spaces break out of the traditional and into bars, parking lots, black boxes and homes, there are far more opportunities for low-budget, one-person shows. YouTube channels and other digital media platforms have opened up avenues for self-expression that didn’t exist before. Plus, with crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, raising capital for that show you’ve always wanted to make can be arranged without just begging friends. Festivals have lent the genre legitimacy as well — in New York City, United Solo grew from 47 solo shows six years ago to 150 shows in 2014, and more women than men were performing in them in 2015.
Women’s confessionals have become a “rite of passage,” performer Aurora Lagattuta says — a kind of feminist secular bat mitzvah.
The question is: Will these one-woman shows be taken seriously? “Everyone in LA says they have a one-person show and you smile, but inside you’re rolling your eyes,” says Ann Starbuck, a one-woman-show performer. Sasha Klimczak, a 28-year-old audience member at Brown’s show, says it’s easy to be “skeptical” about one-woman shows: Cheesiness threatens. Even so, with the rise of female memoir and the online personal essay, women’s confessionals have become a “rite of passage,” performer Aurora Lagattuta says — a kind of feminist secular bat mitzvah.
It’s a fine line to walk, spilling your guts onstage — between therapy and theater, as Starbuck puts it — and one that’s still being figured out for one-person shows in general. Some one-woman acts are historical, about individuals who wouldn’t be in the spotlight otherwise; others are confessional. Brown talks about her youth, about her brother, who’s now in prison, about race relations, about what it’s like to be a woman in America. And about lumbersexuals in Brooklyn. It’s kind of like reciting from the Torah. For instance, Lagattuta says her show is about “self-acceptance” and “valuing your uniqueness.”
The one-woman show is a small example of a larger movement for women’s equality in theater — according to a study by the League of Professional Theatre Women, between 2010–14, one-third of directors in off-Broadway productions were female, though more than two-thirds of Broadway’s theater audience was female, according to a 2014–15 Broadway League study. In a one-person show, women may write, star and even direct. Indeed, many female roles in theater are bit parts or small character roles, akin to Hollywood. Starbuck, for her part, says that when she auditions there are 30 other women in a room who look just like her, reading a couple of lines.
The economics of one-woman shows, as is so often the case with art pieces, are shady. Some are funded out of pocket and many don’t make their money back, especially if they’re not helmed by a star. Starbuck says her show Tiananmen Annie lost thousands of dollars last year, despite critical success. To be fair, for others, it pays if their shows have a long run or they can charge a reasonable sum for tickets. Still, good reviews don’t mean the next job is a slam-dunk. The self-funded Brown plans to continue performing her show — take it internationally for a little, tour it at some colleges — and then retire it. Then, she’ll perform another one.