Cyanne McClairian’s one woman show, I Died…I Came Back…Whatever will now enjoy the dubious distinction of serving me as an excellent example to call upon when an opinion I hold is in need of bolstering. (Would you believe that doesn’t happen often? Would you believe that if it was reported by Sean Hannity?)
You see, during the just ended Hollywood Fringe, that month long celebration of the arts by the creative clans of Los Angeles, I found myself on more than one occasion discussing definitions.
What qualified as “fringe”?
What qualifies a piece “performance art” as opposed to “self indulgent crap”?
What constituted originality and what deserved damning as downright derivative?
Typically, one-man or one-woman-shows, one-puppet-shows or one-big-angry-red-thing-that-frightens-you-shows comprises a goodly portion of any Fringe festival roster, therefore it’s not surprising that I found myself repeatedly being obliged to support why, in my opinion, why one event deserved the distinctive title of “Solo-Performance”, while referring to another as a “Someone-rambling-in-front-of-bored-strangers-show.”
You perhaps discern the subtle difference hinted at, yes?
One infringement of form often found at Fringe gatherings, is the stand-up-routine passing for a solo-performance.
So why do I call one a Solo-Performance and the other not?
The two can and do share common ground.
Both can be side achingly funny.
Both can employ a straight out direct engagement of the audience.
To avoid the accusation of “needless nit-picking”, let me say, that I think what separates and defines the solo-performance comes down to its intended purpose and, arguably, methodology.
Now a stand up routine can be hugely entertaining, but when leaving the comedy club you may essentially know nothing about the comic except “he was really funny.”
A solo performance can be as entertaining as the best stand up routine, but if you leave the theatre knowing nothing more of the performer than, “they were really funny”, then I would suspect the performance of falling short of success.
The ultimate objective of each is to prove a satisfying experience for an audience, of course, and here the question of methodology arises.
A stand up routine, stripped down to its most minimal component, is a joke.
The foremost component for a solo-performance is story.
It’s all well and good if the solo-performance is entertaining, but in truth that attribute is not necessarily the high water mark for its success.
“Red Bastard” was one of the standouts of the 2014 Hollywood Fringe, and a solo-performance. Those witnessing it were riveted, utterly absorbed, at times disturbed. Not many, I would say, were pleasantly “entertained.”
McClairian’s show, as vivacious and as animated as she herself, is very entertaining.
But again, I would not offer this as the reason for the show’s success, nor even as the device that draws audiences so deep into her narrative.
What bumps and pimples one might point to in her presentation are irrelevant. It is not a slickness of technique or a pristine chorography in performance that entices, I could say seduces, audiences into bonding with her night after night; rather it is their recognition of the truthfulness within the story told, and their appreciation of the courage required for it’s telling.
Contrary to what glossy cinematic tearjerkers and best selling sentimental potboilers would have us believe, hospital beds and critical care units are not conducive to either transcendental transformations or romance. Anyone afflicted with a life threatening condition is not suddenly privy to philosophic insights, just unpleasant to be around.
The core of McClairian’s piece is the story of a young actress, plagued by severe heart issues all her life, who dies while undergoing surgery. Let us say, for McClairian, this story “beats” close to home.
McClairian adroitly employs the “out of body” motif as her “character” confronts the choice of
whether to return to her pain racked life or to end her struggle by surrendering to the “light”.
In the role of chronicler, she works across the stretched tightrope of her narrative striking an exquisite balance between the confessional and the antics of a free wheeling fabulist.
One seldom obtains a sense of serene sanctification when faced with their mortality, usually they’re too occupied with being very afraid and very angry, a fact McClairian artfully conveys.
Though one might doubt the universe of actually casting Lawrence Olivia as her guardian angel, it is evident, that otherwise, she is unflinchingly candid in the revelations she imparts.
Stories of the men she was involved with turning out to be the wrong men, and of the decisions she made being wrongly decided, all sting with the sharpness of her genuine reflection.
And here, I believe is one of the hallmarks of the solo-performance: intimate honesty.
Even if the narrative is an utter fiction, the patchwork of lies from which it is constructed must be “honest” lies. In this way the story a performer tells functions not as “fiction” so much, as “myth.”
It’s been said, religions are lies that speak of those truths no language has yet found words for.
The gulf between theatre and religion has never been a wide span, and for the performer the stage is the arena designed for mythic truths; or perhaps a truthful mythos.
I hold, the classic solo-performance is one in which the performer exploits both his characterization and own persona to the maximum effect, while simultaneously blurring the boundaries dividing them.
McClairian more than achieves this. Cleverly, she integrates personal photos and videos to “foretell” what life holds for her if she decides to return to the realm of the living. She even goes so far as to masquerade her wedding video to co-producer Matthew Martin, as the future’s promise of marriage to “a hottie.”
Michael Chekov configured a trilateral model defining the theatrical experience as fulfilling the unification of relationships between actor, material and audience.
Stand up routine, historical biography or dramatic interpretation may all be formatted as “one-person-shows” and conform to Chekov’s model.
What distinguishes and defines a presentation, what sets it apart as a “solo-performance”, even if outwardly disguised as historical biography or dramatic interpretation, or even stand up routine is the intensity and degree of the artist’s identification with role and material and his willingness to engage an audience with an intensity of intimacy that veils or diminishes Chekov’s conventional divides of drama.
Well, at least that’s my opinion.
And Cyanne McClairian’s excellent one woman show, “I Died, I Came Back…Whatever” will serve me in arguing that point for a long time to come.
Kristyne Elizabeth Fetsic co-produced with the hottie Matthew, Jessica Lynn Johnson directed.