Gretchen Cryer, "Signs of Intelligent Life," and Floating on Hope Ave
Yesterday I watched a recording of a Zoom master class in solo performance as an art form conducted by Gretchen Cryer.
The star of " I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road" shares her vast knowledge of this art form that I have loved for so long. It was such a joy to just listen to her speak. Very early on I noticed that she had a copy of Extreme Exposure by her side.
I bought my own copy shortly after graduating from college back in the late '90s. I knew then what I should be doing with my life, but I stumbled into security and the road before me became practical rather than creative. This book and seminar from early 2021 references such greats as Spaulding Gray, Moms Mabley, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, and Whoopi Goldberg. I've seen recordings of Leguizamo in performances such as "John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons" and Goldberg's "The Spook Show" (20th anniversary, Back to Broadway) and watched the latter's documentary on Mabley.
When I was living in Portland, I read a lot of Eric Bogosian, who clearly influenced the character of Derek in my own One Angry Gay Man.
But decades before then, what first inspired me to pursue the solo show was "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," written by Jane Wagner and so brilliantly performed by Lily Tomlin. I've only seen it as the 1991 film version, and my copy of that remains one of my favorite possessions.
I recently rewatched the film. Tomlin plays twelve characters and appears as herself about nine minutes in for about twenty seconds. She transitions between characters in changes in diction, pitch, rhythm, mannerisms, and pantomime. [The second time I appeared as Howie Newsome in Our Town, my pantomimed milk bottles were always kicked over by the actress playing Mrs. Webb.] Tomlin is so gifted in pantomime. When she plays Paul, the hypermasculine hedonist, he tells an entire story while getting dressed after his workout. Her actions are completely believable and hypnotizing to witness. The script is brilliant. Some of my favorite lines are "All my life I've wanted to be something, but now I see I should have been more specific" and "I personally think we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain."
Wagner introduces character names sometimes through self-talk, like with Chrissy, or by introducing herself to another unseen character, such as when we first meet Kate. I found it hard to introduce character names in a natural manner in my solo show. Most of my characters spoke to another person not vocally represented in the scene. I do have one character speak to another character of mine, but the audience may not get that is what I am doing because of how the scenes are set up. Wagner's words and Tomlin's performance are particularly impressive to me when she moves between three or more characters in the same set up, such as when Agnes argues with her grandparents or when Brandy and Tina interact with Trudy. (You'll just have to watch the show!) Another amazing feat that I was drawn to is how the same story detail (such as a violin prodigy) is referenced in at least three storylines. There are different timelines for the stories, with some of them sharing the same general time. A thorough analysis of the script would reveal how it addresses relevant issues of "the day" that are just as relevant, if not more important, now.
I wrote a play meant for six actors that was influenced by "Intelligent." Floating on Hope Ave tells four separate stories concurrently, but they reference one another, some more obviously than others. I've always adored ensemble movies that use similar techniques, such as Magnolia and Grand Canyon. I currently have some ideas for a new solo show that combines the work I did for One Angry Gay Man plus monologues I've revised or written in the past four months and change. It doesn't have much of a form yet, but it has its bones. Even before the pandemic began, I was starting to grow tired of multiple actor productions. My last performance in person as part of an ensemble was May 2019. This time away has allowed me to focus on my growing skills as a solo artist whose best work is still ahead.