What am I doing alone onstage?
Memoirs of an accidental solo performer
Below is a sneak peek at the beginning of my solo performance memoirs. Enjoy! -- Charlie
You may have seen me walking down Dolores Street talking to myself.
It’s a wide street, with wide sidewalks, and the strip of grass running down the middle has tall palm trees reaching to the sky. In another country they might call it a boulevard. In San Francisco it’s just Dolores Street.
It’s never crowded, and sometimes as I walk up and down its hills, I marvel at my solitude. How can a neighborhood so close to the center of a city be home to such a peaceful street? I’m from New York. It’s true the neighborhood I grew up in – Riverdale, in the northwest corner of the Bronx – has wooded areas that are good for walking, but midtown Manhattan is at least a half-hour away by subway.
Dolores Street is where I’ve walked for more than a quarter of a century, running lines for my solo shows, or thinking through questions of plot and character in whatever I’m writing or directing, or scheming about where I’m going to get the money to produce it.
If you saw me on Dolores Street in 1994, I was pushing a stroller and running lines for my solo show Rush Limbaugh in Night School. By 1997, my hands were free and you might have seen me gesticulating as I worked on my characters in Ralph Nader Is Missing!. If it was 1999, I was in the world of The People’s Violin; if it was 2002 I was working out bits for Ten Day Soup; in 2004 Visiting Professor of Pessimism.
By 2009, I was doing some of my walking at Crissy Field, the long, flat promenade alongside San Francisco Bay, lost in the world of my magnum opus, Rabbi Sam, running my lines, preparing for the weekend’s performances.
But now, in the 2020s, I’m back on Dolores Street, sometimes walking all the way from Dolores Park, near where I live, to Market Street, sometimes circumambulating the park, lost in something I’m writing or thinking of writing, or just hearing in my mind’s ear (and maybe speaking out loud) one of the voices that’s lodged in my head and that gives me pleasure.
As I begin writing these memoirs, in the summer of 2021, the world is still in the grips of the COVID-19 Pandemic. So much has been upended, suspended, altered -- including theater.
In the last 18 months, I’ve set foot in a theater only twice. What was once a warm and familiar setting has become scary and strange. Is the ventilation system good enough? What if the masks we wear slip below the nose, as masks do? And what of the unmasked person or persons onstage and their exhalations and saliva? Is this place a vector of disease?
A few theaters in the Bay Area are beginning to reopen, with distanced seating and mask and vaccine requirements; others are being more cautious and remain closed.
But the old Normal is gone. And no one really knows what comes next.
So now, as I walk down Dolores Street, this uncertainty intrudes, and I hear myself thinking old-person thoughts, curmudgeon thoughts: What will become of theater? Of solo performance? All the work I’ve done in this art form over the last 30 years -- and all that I thought I was helping to build -- will it all be swept away?
I hate thinking these thoughts.
But the truth is that I was thinking thoughts like these long before the Pandemic. In the last decade, the seductive, ubiquitous Screen has disrupted our art form. Why leave home, why pay money, why have to look for parking or take public transit when there’s so much great free streaming content that you can watch in your pajamas -- and stop watching if you get bored?
But while I was busy worrying about the future of theater, Donald Trump got elected. And we tumbled into the nightmare of his presidency, living in a constant state of political emergency, our nervous systems fried, the old Normals gone, the old assumptions shattered.
Trump, the Pandemic, climate catastrophe, racial reckoning, the threat to American democracy: there’s nothing quite like a bunch of cascading existential crises to make your career as an artist feel indulgent.
After Trump was elected, I threw myself into political activism. I continued my work as a theater artist - but starting in 2017, my highest priority was politics: I canvassed for Democrats, phone banked, mobilized friends, fundraised.
The two parts of my life did come together. In the fall of 2018, Brian Copeland and I created and performed The Great American Sh*t Show, which blended monologues and a call to political action. And in early 2019, I collaborated on and directed Dan Hoyle’s show Border People, about immigration in the Trump years.
Even that seems ages ago now.
The idea of writing these memoirs was sparked by a conversation with my directing apprentice, Molly Rose-Williams. We were talking about solo performance, and I thought: I’ve known Molly for just a couple of years; she doesn’t know the long path that led me to think the way I do about theater and art.
There’s a skeptical voice in me that looks at the state of the world and condemns this memoir project as irrelevant. The planet is on fire, why spend time writing about my art, about projects that now seem remote or dated or both?
And yet this is the work I have loved, it’s what I have poured my life energies into. And I want Molly to know what I’ve learned.