Another Way to Approach Autobiographical Material by Cheryl King

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In my experience both as a writer of my own solo show and as a director working with other solo show writers/performers, I occasionally see artists having trouble with the issue of writing about personal traumas and crises.

When writing in the first person about these issues, the author/performer often comes across as the victim. This stance does not sit well with the audience, nor is it a good approach for any performer who wishes to be a sympathetic character.

I often suggest that the writer produce a scene in which she plays both characters, herself and her antagonist, or that she write it as a narrative, but from a point of view other than her own. For instance, in my show Not a Nice Girl, I wrote a scene of my molestation at the hands of a cousin, not as my little three-year-old self, but from the point of view of the cousin doing the molesting, as he recounts the story to the prison shrink. This approach keeps me, the performer, from appearing on stage as the victim, and allows the audience to witness the perpetrator from a more secure point of view.

I think it is a good choice to write many of the stories in a solo show from several points of view, after which you can decide which one is the most powerful delivery vehicle to put in the final script. This "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" approach is not only good for writing solo shows, but can serve well for life in general.

A good solo show—specifically, a show written and performed by the same person (or occasionally by a very in-sync collaborative team, such as Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin)—has the same qualities as a good play, plus a special quality produced by a virtuosity of spirit.

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The lessons learned during the writing/performing/rewriting/ reimagining process are more intimate, more emotionally risky, when the artist is both performer and writer. When the topic and the vehicle are the same, it's tempting to take it too personally. Add to that the often-necessary job of self-production and the situation is as fraught with complications as the planning of a wedding ceremony. Doubts set in—"My writing is better than my acting," or "I can't write a press release," or "I can't assemble the support staff or financial wherewithal to make it happen." These hazards, fears, and conflicted feelings have the power to stop the solo artist in her tracks.

Good guidance is crucial in the solo show arena. Many years ago, in my life in stand-up comedy, Rob Bartlett, a brilliant comic, told me, "When in doubt, question your delivery." It was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. The solo artist, creating her own text, can operate at this intersection of writing/acting in a way that is not possible for actors who are doing material written by others and who must be loyal to the text as written.

In the process of altering delivery, we find ourselves seeing clearly the ways to alter the text. This can be a very long process. It is important to be willing to continue to revise both the text and the delivery until it feels right.

These alterations in delivery heighten the value of the material, but even more importantly, they often seem to reveal or confirm some aspect of the performer's sense of self.

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