An Interview with the Solo Performance Festival’s Keira McDonald

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Poster Image for the Solo Performance Festival #6

Since 2006, the Solo Performance Festival (or SPF, as it is known locally) has brought a veritable cornucopia of talent and storytelling to a Seattle audience. A look at the artists who have participated in the festival reveals a breadth of heavyweight talent from both the local and international scenes: K Brian Neel, Elizabeth Kenny, Mike Daisey, Keith Hitchcock, Paul Budraitis, Mary Purdy, Terri Weagant, Matt Smith, and Lauren Weedman have all graced the stages of SPF’s home at Theater Off Jackson, either sharing their full length work, or trying out new material during their Shorts showcase. [Full disclosure, your correspondent has also workshopped material for his upcoming solo play at SPF in years past.-ed]

During those six years, the festival has been under the stewardship of Keira McDonald, herself a solo performance artist of some renown, though locally, most of that attention has come from the alternative press. Her work during that time features the same variety that the festival espouses, which helped to engender the adventuresome spirit it possesses; ranging from traditional memoir-based productions to what she terms “solo ensemble pieces.”

In the last couple of weeks, she announced that this festival will be the last under her supervision, leaving its future under some question as the search for a new leader commences.

The Seattle Star sat down with McDonald over the weekend and talked about her future, what she’ll miss about her direct involvement with the fest, the advice she gives to artists who are new to solo performance, her approach to the format, and how she personally deals with the stress of premiering a new work.

Seattle Star: How are you feeling?

Keira McDonald: I am relieved to have the fest open and pleased with the artistic content and the response. All of the shows have opened except for (Tuesday’s) shorts night and the Cherry Manhattan burlesque show, which I am looking forward to.

SStar: Nice turnout for both shows on Friday night.

KM: YES! I was so happy! Saturday night the crowds were a little smaller, BUT they were great shows!

SStar: With all the shows already opened, hopefully that’s a good sign.

KM: Here’s hoping with fingers crossed while I knock on wood!

SStar: I know Kate Jaeger (who performs Miss Fanny’s Fun Box) is new to the format, are there any other newbies for this iteration?

KM: Andy Buffelen whose show, Nick Winters, opened last night. He was a student of mine at Cornish and worked with BOOM! theatre for a while. He approached me with an idea and I wanted to see how he was going to do it. Thankfully, I was so happy that I ended up loving his show! He is very entertaining and funny in it.

It’s a fictional story about a kid whose biggest dream is to be the host of Wheel of fortune and the story takes some very funny and surprising turns.

SStar: This is an aspect of your role as founder/curator/guru for SPF that is fascinating to me. You get to see these artists fumbling with a format you are intimately familiar with; what are some examples of the problems that this group faced on the way to their opening that you helped them out with?

KM: I wish that I could get into that, but this year I was hands off with most of them. I did not offer any help creatively or artistically.

This is a lesson I learned from teaching. [As the curator of the festival] I want the stories to be purely their voice. Purely their own, without me bursting in and making them nervous or having the artists think that I don’t trust them or that I know the “right way” to do things.

So, I only offer advice such as this, let’s say an artist asks me if I have any advice, I tell them: “solo performance is the scariest thing you can do. You are really putting yourself out there, so my advice is have your car keys in your costume pocket so at any time you can run off stage and never look back.”

This is what I did the first time I did a solo show.

SStar: You mean give yourself the permission to bail?

KM: Yeah, giving myself permission to run helped me to take that step out into the darkness and stand by my work

SStar: Okay, so you didn’t actually bail.

KM: No way! It just helped to calm my nerves.

You know that feeling when the stage manager gives you places and you have forgotten all of your lines and you have no idea what you are doing. But then you remember that you’ve had a decent rehearsal and you know your show and you’ve done a few shows and that’s when your muscle memory takes over. Then you are in the moment and before you know it the show is over?

That is actually what happened to me on my first solo show.

But in the moments right before I went onstage, I gave my panicked self an out. I gave myself permission to run away and oddly enough it calmed me down enough so that I could step out into the darkness.

Once the lights went up on me and my show and the first words came out of my mouth I knew I could do it and I did.

When I tell this to first time solo performers they laugh and feel relief because someone else knows how terrifying that first show can be…all actors feel this way, but in a typical show, they have each other to cling to both backstage and onstage. The solo performer is all alone. With no one to support you; you are responsible for everything that happens.

It’s natural for the fight or flight response to kick in. So I try to calm their nerves about the entire process.

SStar: Which can seem pretty daunting if you’ve never done it before.

KM: I have seen hundreds of solo shows in all of their various themes; I have also taught it. In the creation process, usually the story or theme is clear, but it always comes down to overcoming this very big obstacle: the fact that you only have one person to move through the space and tell the story.

SStar: This is where I think the artistry of the format comes in.

KM: Yes, this is where the artistry of the format comes in.

It is a huge obstacle. You have to determine your relationship with the audience. Is it a character sketch? Is it a confessional? What is the construct and the context for this person to be talking to the audience.

In the more straight forward autobiographical stories where the rules are clear, it is simple. But when you’re taking liberties with the art form, when you’re basically doing a one person ensemble, the rules are up for interpretation.

So, I think autonomy is important. Not real big on creating-by-committee for the solo show. One clear voice and vision is what I am into.

Also, I don’t want people to make art that they think I want to see, or have them think that I need to approve of it. I want their visions to be supported and clear with no interference from the likes of me…

Some one asked me “when you give artists carte blanche to create anything they want, how will you know if it’s going to be good?” My answer is “I don’t.”

Besides, “good” is so subjective. I am into innovation. This means vulnerability and risk.

SStar: That question would drive me up a wall, right up there with the “solo shows aren’t legitimate Theater, it’s just storytelling” camp. As if splitting that kind of hair does anybody any good.

KM: I think perhaps those folks saw one style of solo play and then made that assumption. I have seen hundreds, and they can be very theatrical. There are many styles.

Mike Mathieu’s show (Purple Heart) is character driven and is very fictional. Andy’s show is basically a one person ensemble and is fiction. He plays many characters. Kate’s show is also fictional and character driven and there are elements of improv and it has elements of a multi media musical.

She plays only one character, and so does Mike. Eleanor (O’Brien, in Good Girls’ Guide: Dominatrix for Dummies) plays many characters but has one basic protagonist in her piece and is based on an experience she had in New York.

SStar: I think we’re finally at a point where the majority of the audiences and the artists are fully aware of the possibilities inherent in the art form. The savvy know to expect anything from a given show.

KM: I agree, the savvy know to expect anything. The non-savvy who just like a good story are typically down to be simply entertained.

SStar: Did you know the UW’s PATP program is using the solo play as their student’s thesis presentation?

KM: I did not know that, but if they are looking for someone who can help guide their students I am for hire! Some of the shows/characters/ideas that were developed in my class have gone on to be performed at festivals and theaters all over America and Canada…

SStar: It seems their general approach is equivalent to throwing their students into the forest with nothing but a swiss army knife, which then forces the students to mix and match the things they’ve learned during their time in the program, usually at the expense of any story they might have come up with. They all had the kernel of a great idea for a play in their presentation, but it hadn’t been developed.

KM: My curriculum is less about showing someone how to do it and more about provoking thoughts, ideas, actions. It is a creation class. It is a class about structure. We do play with styles.

I often tell my students the have to do the assignment. They don’t have to be good but they have to do them. Everyone has good ideas, but it is the “how” that matters. How are you going to do it? As a result, there is a lot of experimentation in my classes.

I tell them the same thing over and over again, though: It’s not theatre, if there is no action. I say, “that’s a nice reading of a short story, but a good solo show has all the same things as a multi-character play.” Action, conflict. The character has to end up somewhere different than where they started. It doesn’t have to be realistic or linear but there must be action.

I also ask “who is the audience?” I think this is the big difference in solo work. Who is the audience? You have to define your relationship with them. What is the conceit? What is the context that allows you to speak to them directly? Why do you need to talk to them?

SStar: This reminds me of your piece about the astronaut (Astronaughty).

KM: I love that crazy little piece. It taught me so much. I failed with that so many times before I found out what that piece wanted to be.

SStar: How was the audience defined in that piece?

KM: They were the world in judgement of Lisa Nowak [Nowak is the astronaut who was recently embroiled in a strange stalking scenario]. I wanted the world, “the audience”, to see her in her private moments of shame, impulse and pain. Also to see who they thought she was against who the tabloids made her out to be; the clown tabloid version of her.

To me that story was really about how we as a society “tabloid-ize” fallen heroes. We delight in the mistakes of others. We take people’s worst moments and make them late night talk show jokes; we tabloid-ize complicated events. At the same time the original story left itself so wide open to becoming tabloid fodder. On the one hand, everyone thinks adult diapers are funny and crazy; on the other, everyone can relate to the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” sentiment.

I kept changing that piece. It started out as a 50 minute solo show that went through many incarnations, then it ended up being a 14 minute mini musical.

SStar: You’ve spent six years with this festival, you created it, developed it, you did everything behind the scenes with it. Why are you stepping down from running things?

KM: I was originally prepared, and had been planning to do it for 5 years, and this was my 6th. I just think every organization needs new blood and leadership.

SStar: You mentioned earlier that you were looking forward to working creating with other people.

KM: Possibly I am doing some things with other people. You know how it is, as an artist you are throwing a lot of balls in the air…I am in the new Café Nordo show and I am thinking about some other projects. I am opening a show in Calgary this summer with James Judd who is in the festival this year and was in SPF in the first year with his show 7 Sins.

SStar: Anything you’re going to miss about being at the helm?

KM: [Saturday] night as I sat in the dark I thought, “gosh, I love this artform so much.”

I got a little sad, but I think it’s the right time for me to step down. I will miss the curation process. I love listening to people’s ideas, having conversations with artists and seeing their vision unfold. It’s magic!

But, even though I have been investigating solo work for a while, I’ve still been doing ensemble work, writing and directing big shows. I want to have some time just to be open and available and see what happens.

By the way, I don’t do everything behind the scenes. Patti West and the TOJ crew are awesome, Zac Eckstein is a golden boy and Grant Knutson has been helping out this year.

Big shout out to the amazing TOJ crew! Meggan Davis and Mandi and Amanda Slepski and the amazeballs TOJ board! SPF could not exist with out their hard work and generosity. I am but one of a great team.

I LOVE them and I have mad respect for the one and only Patti West. She is the visionary. She is the reason for this festival. She is a goddess in my eyes. Please print that!

SStar: Done. What are some of the qualities you’re hoping to find in someone who decides to take SPF into the future?

KM: I want them to feel free to be the leader without my interference; micromanagement is so unsexy. I would like a spirit of risk and innovation and a good mix of styles and stories. Clearly, I like to see a mix of veterans and greenhorns, and would want to see that continue.

The Solo Performance Festival is currently running Wednesdays through Saturdays until April 28 at Theater Off Jackson; various times, see SPF’s website for full details // Theater Off Jackson, 409 7th Avenue // $12 – $15

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