On Monday, June 15, 2020, Actors’ Equity Association’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee presented the second event of its 2020-21 event series. “Solo Performers: 50+” was a panel discussion with performers over 50 years of age who have created and performed their own solo work. The event was proposed and facilitated by EEOC member Prudence Wright Holmes, who has written and performed several solo biographical works. Prudence was joined by guest facilitator Chris Williams, Equity’s National Director of Strategy and Operations.
The panelists discussed the lack of representation and work opportunities for actors over 50 years and how they made their own opportunities by creating their own solo shows. Members received an overview in everything it takes to start with an idea and end with a career-fortifying show of their own, from ideation and play development, self-producing and licensing and selling and touring. Panelists included Elaine Bromka, writer and performer of the solo play Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat, and Betty, published by Dramatic Publishing; actor, writer, and musician Alvin Eng, creator of the solo plays The Last Emperor of Flushing and Here Comes Johnny Yen Again (or How I Kicked Punk); actor/author Perri Gaffney, creator of four solo performances, including an adaptation of her debut novel The Resurrection of Alice; Samuel A Simon, actor, lawyer and writer of the solo work The Actual Dance, chronicling his wife’s battle with breast cancer; and Deborah Jean Templin, writer/performer of two solo works: Unsinkable Women and Singing for The Cows.
Every great show begins with a spark of inspiration. Holmes cited her inspiration as the need to expand her casting possibilities. “I don't like the way I'm being cast. I wanted to create positive role models of women I admire. And so that's why I found different stories that inspire me.” Templin added, “I think any one-person show begins with the question that you really have a strong need to answer.” Simon also added that he thought, “particularly in 50 and over that people have stories in them. That your own story is something, or your own experiences can be universalized,” through the genre.
The panelists were full of advice about what touches make an engaging show. Gaffney offered that, “any good play has to have a conflict, a problem... You got to be pulling for the character, rooting for them, you know, because they have a problem they're trying to solve.” Bromka noted that if you've opted to tell the story of a historical figure, it is of vital importance to “find out what those characters were afraid of, what they were angry about, what they didn't understand...[don’t] just to say, this happened and that happened. It doesn't matter. It's not alive.” Finally, Templin encouraged potential creators to, “think about your audience,” and to write different versions of your show that are scalable and for different audiences. Consider providing a student guide for educational performances, or shorter versions for senior centers or nursing homes.
"I don't like the way I'm being cast. I wanted to create positive role models of women I admire. And so that's why I found different stories that inspire me.”
The conversation then turned to working with collaborators, and the panelists universally extolled the virtues of dramaturgs in the development process. Gaffney recounted a conversation with her dramaturg. When she expressed her incredulity about cutting a section, the dramaturg said, “It's nicely written, but it does not promote the story. You don't need it. You could have a sentence, or you can do a gesture instead.” Simon also expressed the importance of incorporating your designers as collaborators. “Each member of the team becomes really important as it develops,” Simon said, “And I found trying to keep each of those things makes the show stronger.”
Performing Arts conventions are common places for booking agents and venue representatives to “shop” for touring events for their venues or organizations. Examples of these are Arts Midwest in Minneapolis, MN or the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Convention in NYC. While the panel generally extolled that the conventions can be “worth it,” they expressed the caveat that it is only an opportunity to show your work and create relationships. “If you’re not willing to make cold calls and keep up with all the people," said Templin, “It's probably not worth it.” Though Simon added, “I was lucky. But if you don’t show up, you don’t have luck.” Of course, conventions are only one marketing tool. Bromka advised that creators should also, “find the niche audiences - people who already have an interest in your subject.” That approach can be more successful than just going to theaters who don’t necessarily have interest in your topic or an unknown performer.
During the Q & A session, the panelists discussed funding and grant-writing for your solo work and whether or not to work with a booking agent. Eng concluded, “Ultimately, I think it comes back to distilling all these great avenues down to really creating a community - both on and off the stage - for your work.”
Members of the Actors’ Equity Association can view Solo Performers: 50+ in the member portal, and any reader can view a recent Equity News cover story about how other Equity members have navigated some of the unique theatre industry challenges that arise with age.