One Person Too Many

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As another Toronto Fringe season approaches, I am reminded of the myriad one-person shows that infest these festivals. While these shows not universally bad and I applaud the bravery of the one-person, I must admit I tend to avoid them because when they are bad, they are interminable.

For me to attend a one-person show, I generally have to know and love the one person or know and love the material (e.g., a one-person show of Shakespeare soliloquys).

With a more-than-one-person show, the odds of me finding something to hold my attention increase dramatically. One or more actors may be worth following. The banter may be crisp. The scenery might be interesting.

With a one-person show, however, I really only have the actor and the material (sets are typically minimal to non-existent), so if I’m not enjoying either of those, then I’m screwed for 45-60 minutes.

Now, contrary to everything I have just said, I really enjoyed the last three one-person shows I saw at Toronto Fringe: Christine Aziz’s ELLAmentary, Jen Gallant’s Visa Called This Morning and a piece by Jerry Schaefer, all of whom I know from the Toronto comedy community.

Well, time to schedule another festival worth of plays—friends first.

(Photo is property of Toronto Fringe and is used here without permission.)

Dialogue v Narrative

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Yesterday, my friend Marsha posted a short piece on her blog—Why the Face (WTF)—where she discussed her challenges in writing narrative/action for a scene and how she found scene writing to be so much easier if she started the dialogue.

“On its own, free of formatting and figuring out what characters are doing physically,” she wrote, “it lets me really get into what these people are actually saying to each other.”

When I read this, I thought, what a fascinating approach as mine is the complete opposite.

When I start a scene, I can go on ad nauseum about the setting and what the characters are doing or how they are behaving, but I find actually expressing the characters in dialogue to be daunting. When I do start writing dialogue, I find that I am writing exactly what my characters are thinking (on-the-nose) or that their emotions and motivations are incredibly superficial.

When I describe a character’s behaviour, however, his or her emotions surface more slowly through unconscious tics. The tensions that I intone in my mind’s eye then inform the word choice when I start to write his or her dialogue. It is as though I have to psych myself into the character’s body before I can express his or her desires and impulses to the fullest.

What makes this ironic is that while discussing this with Leela, another friend, she reminded me of the days when I first started writing sketch comedy, and all I could seem to manage were a series of “talking-head” sketches. At that time, action was unimportant to me as I felt the only way to bring my point across was through words.

On paper, my sketches could be very engaging, whereas on stage, they were significantly less so. Thus, I needed to learn the power of the unspoken word. Apparently, the pendulum has swung full tilt and I am now in the process of finding a happy medium. (No wonder writing is so tiring.)

Ultimately, like a good Oreo cookie, the best screenwriting comes from the combination of solid narrative (icing) and solid dialogue (cookie), so I am glad Marsha has my back and I have hers.