Wednesday 28 July @ 19:03:13
by Eric Larson
You want to trust Heidi Arneson when you meet her. It’s her see-through blue eyes, her childlike attitude, her openness that command your attention.
For Arneson’s long list of students, who she has spent the better part of a decade instructing in the fine and elusive art of solo performance, these are welcome attributes. They need to trust the person who helps them uncover secrets about themselves, who turns those secrets into words and movement, and helps prepare them to climb onto a stage, breathe, and share those secrets with a paying audience.
“A lot of people when they’re starting out think no one’s going to be interested in their life,” says Arneson. “But the opposite is true. I did a show about a girl’s slumber party and I thought nobody was going to be interested. But all the women were jazzed on it because they had similar memories. It becomes bigger and more symbolic when shared.”
Trained, she says, in all of the arts except for music, Arneson came to the conclusion in the early 1990s that she needed to focus all of her interests in a single medium. That’s when she chose solo performance. Not quite stand-up, not exactly monologue, not spoken-word, straight storytelling or perfectly performance art, solo shows are a peculiar other-genre that draws from the elements of all the others. There are no sets, few if any props, little lighting or other technical concerns.
Jon Spayde, one of Arneson’s former students who has performed locally, says that where stand-up aims for laughs and strict storytelling tends to rely more heavily on the narrative, Arneson’s work treats solo performance like a multi-character play.
“She has you establish space for each character and how to cue the audience to show that you are that character. You change positions, you have a tic or buck teeth. It’s a gestural, immediate, simple way of establishing a character … The challenges are very distinctive. You really get to see the chops of the actor.”
Similar to the rise of memoir genre in literature, these often confessional self-stories began taking the stage in the 1990s, with the Twin Cities at the forefront.
“I couldn’t tell you why that is, exactly,” says Arneson. “There’s just a hell of a lot of creativity here. It’s a great place to nurture theatre. It’s those long winters. A lot of time for introspection. And [the 90s were] when a lot of people were looking inward, and at issues like incest and dysfunctional families. All those things became okay to talk about in a theatrical sense.”
On that wave, Arneson started to mine her own life to write and perform her own pieces. Rick Ponzio, an instructor at the Playwright’s Center, “sort of gave me permission to talk about my own issues,” she says. More than 30 performers at this year’s Fringe Festival are permitting themselves to speak their own lines.
For some, solo shows might make sense because of the sheer economics and logistics of staging a show with a larger cast and a “traditional” script. But, as Arneson suggests, the reasons for these do-it-yourself shows may also be more deep-rooted than all that.
“My knee jerk reaction was a gigantic ego,” she says. “But it’s more than that … I feel like it’s sacred. But it’s also revolutionary.” Sacred, because solo performance affirms the importance of our individual stories Revolutionary, because it strips theatre back down to its bare minimum: actor, stage, audience.”
“With a solo performance,” she says, “the person is able to process their life in what becomes an entertaining manner, so that they can heal. But it’s not necessarily therapeutic. You take this part of your life that you’re wrestling with and write about it and polish it and theatricalize it, then after a while it’s almost as if the pain goes away, and the beauty and the joy starts to resonate.”
As transformative and life-affirming as these stories may be for a solo performer, Arneson recognizes that at the end of the day the actor’s job is to entertain the audience.
“My bottom line is entertainment and that’s what I teach people,” she says. “A student of mine was talking about what it was like when she first found out she had cancer. But it was boring. I asked what she was feeling at the time. She said she didn’t believe she had it. I said ‘Then play the denial’…otherwise [the audience] doesn’t care.”
Alan Berks, another solo performer at the Fringe this year, (though not acquainted with Arneson) can probably attest. When Berks was in his mid-twenties and “dealing with a lot of things in [his] head,” he found himself volunteering for a lone goat herder in the hills outside of Jerusalem, Israel.
Although his background and education are in theater, he says he had no intention of turning his time there into any kind of staged performance. “At no point did I think to myself, ‘Oh, wow, this would make good theater,” he says. But, his Fringe debut, “Goats,” is a group of stories — both personal and political — that resulted from his experiences abroad. Having already performed “Goats” in other cities, Berks says audiences have been very receptive to the one-man one-stage format. “There’s never any doubt that I am directly addressing the audience. But I think it a challenge for them. I can be very confrontational, and it’s very intimate.”
And intimacy, Arneson suggests, is in short supply these days. With television, blockbuster films, and hot-ticket theatrical productions that clothe audiences in the impersonal comfort of spectacle, she notes that solo performance “asks a lot the audience’s imagination in a way that popular media doesn’t.”
Is it too much, then, to suggest that the original, ancient concept of theater — a single storyteller who plays not only themselves, but morphs in and out of the characters as they present themselves in a story — is enjoying a peculiar rebirth? Arneson thinks not.
“Solo performance is a way of rebuilding culture from the ground up … There’s a story where a man struggles up a mountain the meet the wise man or wise woman and asks, ‘Why are were here? We are born in pain, we cause our mother’s great pain, we live through all this pain, and then we lose our bodies, we lose our jobs, we lose our families, everything. We die in misery and pain. Why are we here?’ And the wise person says, ‘We are here to tell our story.’”