The Community of One
By Atif Ally Dagman
As young thespians, we are often told by senior practitioners that theatre is a craft of giving. Each member of a group contributes equally to the creation of something bigger than themselves. The process of making a play is one of constantly tweaking and turning the cogs and gears of a machine until it breaks itself off the assembly line to exist independently of its creators. This period sees the play go from a mechanism to an organism. Contrary to what I thought I had set out to do, my experience of creating Miah-Boy Diaries: a moderately muslim musical was hardly different.
Attempting a solo-play was, more than anything else, a response to the ensuing pandemic. To my mind, the form resonated with the premise of isolation that people were facing across the world. This also meant I would have to simultaneously ideate, write, design, direct, perform, and eventually compose music. It seemed like a substantial give. What I did not anticipate was how much I would also take.
The solo-play was a form I had been researching into for a while. I drew inspiration from Will Eno’s “Thom Pain: based on nothing”, which sees Thom Pain alone on stage continuously building on thoughts and memories, and their consequent thoughts and memories, trying and failing to suppress their impact on his life. This is the driving force of the entire play, executed marvelously by the likes of Michael C. Hall and Rainn Wilson (the former on stage and the latter on screen, both directed by Oliver Butler). It is now common knowledge that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” was inspired by her solo-play of the same name, which sees a woman sharing funny experiences of hers with a crowd only to stumble upon larger, more pressing revelations. Even Rajat Kapoor’s King Lear (solo-play adaptation titled “Nothing Like Lear”, interpreted and devised by Atul Kumar and Vinay Pathak) used negative space to depict the monarch as a clown more forlorn than he knows. I interpreted it as performing an extended monologue. Additionally, the prospect of a self-sufficient production I could showcase at any time meant not having to wait for opportunities of work.
Every monologue is circumscribed within a context. The Oracle needs to foresee Oedipus' fate for him to kill his father, Banquo needs to die for Macbeth to hallucinate, Stanley needs to lech at Blanche for her to fight her past and the princess must order Charandas’ execution for him to reflect on the nature of truth. The community around a protagonist thus creates the backdrop against which they express their views. The issue I needed to address was therefore: how do I create a community with one performer?
This is where the musical treatment came to my aid. If you think about it, a guitar solo takes flight only against the ambience of rhythm, bass and percussion. Tom Morello needed Chris Cornell’s grunge to drive those licks home, Frusciante and Flea need Chad Smith behind them, Paul and John needed George and Ringo more than they gave them credit for, Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B. B. King and Hendrix always played with sessions musicians. So strictly speaking, you cannot solo without a band. Today, if you have an ear for it, multitracking software can help one person do the job of four band members. I could use the depth of an original soundtrack to recreate the variety and nuance of an ensemble.
But even in musical theatre an ensemble is key. Besides giving the story more depth, music as a device also gives it more meaning. For example, two characters singing a duet and one harmonizing with the other could imply a commonality between the two, or emphasise an underlying emotion, or contrast ideas, or accentuate an interaction of the themes they represent. An ensemble does exactly this, but to a greater degree. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. respectively in the original Broadway version) harmonizing with one another in the “Hamilton” song, “Dear Theodosia” was one of the many examples of the two characters being linked by a common past and a common future, but being driven by different motivations. “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked” explored a similar dynamic between Elphaba and Glinda (played by Indina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth in the original Broadway version). Evan, Zoe and Jared (played by Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfus and Jared Goldsmith respectively in the original Broadway version), and eventually the entire ensemble, singing “You Will Be Found” with the ensemble in “Dear Evan Hansen” made more tangible the essence of an online community to counter Evan’s crippling social anxiety.
Bearing all of this in mind, the obvious disadvantages of staging an online solo-play-musical were staring me in the face: Whom do I react to? Whom do I sing with?
The addition of stand-up comedy added to my nascent ensemble. The stand-up comedian had the poetic license to include the audience within the ambit of the play – to play the character of a stand-up show crowd. In all the aforementioned solo-plays, the approach to solo performance is reacting to one’s own speech or making dialogue with audience members in the absence of co-actors, i.e., the approach of conjuring characters out of an apparent nothing – which theatre and stand-up comedy have in common. Using music in a similar capacity to conjure a concert crowd (or in this case a live streamed watch along), both stand-up and music became structural elements that were intrinsic to the plot. It was part of the piece – a story about finding yourself through trial and error. My trial of writing a stand-up set and a musical soundtrack for one performer was mirrored by the character’s trial of interpreting sensitive communal experiences humorously or picking up an instrument and finding the confidence to write a song. The set and songs were written to further the narrative rather than provide relief from it. The musician side and the stand-up comic side of the protagonist was as much of an ensemble member as the audience was. The journey of the character was spurred on by the subsequent discoveries
of these sides to himself.
The idea of expressing through other means that which words fail to articulate was what led me to believe that the musical form would complement the nature of what I was writing. Much like stand-up comedy, it was about what was not said more than what was. Delegating the role of the imaginary laughing/cheering crowd of one’s daydream with the actual show audience made the piece more interesting.
Even with minimal design, mounting a production single-handedly is a bad idea. Having the Thespo team step in to aid with technical advice and the streaming of the play not only helped me concentrate on the performance more, but also made me realise how easy it is to overlook the inevitable sense of community belonging that the art form gives you, even at a time when physical presence is diminished; and ironically, this is exactly what you take back. After a certain point in the process, the play does not belong to the creator anymore. It dwells in the cosmic exchange between audience and performer and is immortalised in collective memory. Somewhere down the line, responsibilities need to be shared for the piece to become its own ecosystem. This does not happen if its habitat only has one of the several elements it needs to thrive.
The act of collaboration inaugurates a community amongst thespians. The activity of this microcosm is contagious. Individuals in a performance space concatenate their energies to evoke amongst audiences what they feel at the time. The dynamics of this transaction of energy may vary from a solo-play to an ensemble play or a musical. But the basics of synergy in performance are immutable, even in the online medium. That is why the form can be molded to fit the artist’s vision, and performers and audiences alike keep coming back to the theatre. One performer can make an impact on an audience. One performer can stage a musical. All they need is a community behind them. If they do not have one, the craft will assign one to them.
We give what we take. We take what we give. Since whatever we are looking for cannot be found on the outside unless
we find it on the inside first.