The one-person stage show has made somewhat of a comeback in recent years on Broadway. When you include Billy Crystal’s recent “700 Sundays” and shows over the last 10 years from Carrie Fisher and Tracey Ullman, it’s a genre that’s attracting plenty of notable people. With some new ones on the horizon, some are being made into TV specials for cable or even the movie theater. However, do you have to be a notable person in order to create a one-person show? It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way if you have compelling material to go on. In some cases, it could be an entirely fictional creation as some of the notables above managed to do without being autobiographical.
Creating a Story
If you’re going to be the performer of your one-person play, you have to write material you know you can perform well. And you know that if it’s autobiographical, it has to be about something everyone will relate to. It’s probably a much tougher sell to write autobiographically today because of how many have already done it, namely Crystal and Fisher above, plus John Leguizamo. Nevertheless, if you can bring a new insight into the human condition, it’s still worth the effort.
Most of all, your story should have a complete arc and not just be random. It also should have a plot so you can hold up for stage value. Merely getting up and telling random stories with no cohesion is going to be considered improv than an actual stage show you can perform for years.
Should You Create Multiple Characters You Play Yourself?
Many of the best one-person shows from the Broadway stage have a notable person portraying multiple characters on their own. Few can do this well other than the talents of Leguizamo above, Tracey Ullman, or Whoopi Goldberg. Nevertheless, staying as yourself for a one-person show is already risky, because you risk things getting boring from your own voice. If you’re lucky enough to have a mesmerizing personality with a vocal timbre that’s made to be heard, you might be able to get away with it. Someone on the level of a Garrison Keillor, for instance, could probably hold an entire two hours telling his tales in his own hypnotic voice.
A good story, though, should have multiple characters anyway. If you’re a good mimic, you can create some fun and hilarious characters that people might love. That’s especially true when you can get outrageous and play someone of the opposite gender.
Just because you’re doing a one-person show doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider collaborating on the writing. You can perhaps find a much more creative story to tell this way when you have someone else’s opinion on what direction to go. Just remember that you have to make arrangements before any creative work begins on ownership in the work. Assuming you can make it beyond off-Broadway and to a major Broadway success, you’ll have to imagine the scenarios of who will get what to avoid contentious litigation later.
Adapting Existing Works
Sometimes a one-person show means adapting an existing work that you perhaps found in the public domain. Other times, it may be a copyrighted work you want to adapt into a one-person show. This could be based on transcripts from letters, diaries, a film, or even an existing play. To save money, it helps to sift through all pre-1923 material already in the public domain to see what you might be able to adapt successfully into a one-person show. “A Christmas Carol”, for instance, has been adapted into a one-man show several times.
If it’s something new, obtaining rights will likely only happen when you mail your one-person idea to the original author to get their opinion. Sometimes, it may be a forgotten or neglected work the author will be happy to support.
Writing a One-Person Show for Different Venues
A one-person show doesn’t necessarily have to be relegated to a professional stage. It could be an interactive show in a small club or even as small as an auditorium or church if you’re an unknown. An interactive one-person show might leave it open to you using improv to showcase your impressive improvisation skills. This could open doors fairly fast for you if you create memorable comedy on a nightly basis. In fact, creating a one-person show that varies each night can be a winning formula that gets you backing from a major Broadway producer.
When thinking of different venues, also think of the potential of how it could play on cable or in a movie. With some one-person shows frequently doing well when adapted for TV and even the big screen, it’s always worth writing with the future in mind.