Matt Trueman: Going solo on stage may be nerve-racking, but you are far from being alone
This year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme has landed with a millennial pink plop, and, as usual, it’s stuffed with solo shows. Fringe runs are mighty expensive. Solos come in comparatively cheap. They make the month manageable – or at least mitigate the risk – and, in a massive marketplace, they can serve as a showcase of an actor’s skill.
The opposite is also true, though. What you save in production costs, you spend several times over in stress, and a one-person show can be highly exposing. One young actor I interviewed recently told me that, while she felt ready to lead a production, she couldn’t conceive of standing on stage alone.
It’s a hell of a lonely place – a show on your shoulders, a whole stage to fill, and only an audience to keep you company. All eyes on you, and no escape.
Even an actor as assured as Carey Mulligan struggled with it. Performing Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys at the Royal Court, she experienced panic attacks as previews approached. “I just got very bad anxiety around, I suppose, being on my own on stage,” she subsequently explained. Harry Nilsson had it right: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do”.
Yet, that fear can be its own antidote. Struggling with stage fright, considering quitting theatre for good, Antony Sher wrote a one-man show about Primo Levi. It meant biting the bullet, taking the bull by the horns. Stand on stage alone, he figured, and you stare stage fright down.
But Sher’s subject speaks volumes: Levi’s experiences of Auschwitz. “If I ever got frightened,” he reflected long afterwards, “I could just say my fear is so unimportant compared to his fear of living in this nightmarish place.” Lone performers have to give themselves over to their material. They must completely submit to their subject.
It’s tempting to see a solo show as a set piece – a fixed turn that shows a performer on top of their game with a monologue they’ve mastered and got down pat. That’s the trap. They’re anything but.
Watch Laura Linney in My Name Is Lucy Barton at the Bridge Theatre – the striking thing is quite how un-showy she is. She plays Rona Munro’s text like a reflective TEDx talk, straight down the line. Far from displaying her range or her depths, Linney downplays almost everything and keeps big emotions in check – as people do when public speaking. In Sea Wall, Andrew Scott does much the same. He keeps a lid on his character’s grief until it’s too much to bear and it bursts the banks. Both do something else as well – they keep themselves open and respond to the room.
Because for all a solo performer is on stage alone, they’re far from the only person in the room. It’s often said that acting is listening – reacting to others. Without castmates to tune into and bounce off, soloists have to focus on us. The secret is simple, and yet hard to grasp, a solo show is never all about you.