Saturday, September 27, 2014

Q-and-A with Paul Stein of The Solo Collective

Paul Stein
I met Paul Stein in Chicago during the summer of 2009. We were both participants in the Chicago Directors Lab. We both spoke a little about solo performance, but not enough to anticipate where we would be half a decade later. Paul now runs The Solo Collective in Los Angeles (and I produce the Dallas Solo Fest). Anyway, we were at the Directors Lab and you know how it is at these kinds of things. You meet a lot of people. It seems really intense over several days. But then everyone kind of goes back to thier own cities and back to their own careers. But you don't actually stay in contact with a lot of the people, you know. 

When Paul and I parted ways on the last day of the Lab, I rememeber saying "stay in touch," and Paul shook my hand and said "Oh, I won't be a stranger." And you know what? He hasn't. Which is awesome, because I finally got ahold of him to do a brief interview for this website.

So, here we go...

Q: Give us a little background on yourself. Where'd you grow up?

A: I was born in New York City, but I grew up in Los Angeles, primarily in the San Fernando Valley.  I’ve been a resident of Los Angeles for over 30 years.  My parents were in the theater and entertainment business – so I experienced the many roller coaster highs and lows as a child when my father and mother were in and out of work.  Even though, I live in L.A., which is a TV and Film town, I’ve always loved the theatre and wanted to make my living in that specific field.

Q: Were you "in the arts" when you were younger? Did you take arts classes at school?

A: Yes, I went to college to pursue theatre.  At 18, I went to L.A. City College’s Theatre Academy.  It was an acting conservatory, 2-3 year program.  I did it ‘ass-backwards.’  At the time, it was a finishing school, a program for the college graduate. I auditioned twice, got in on the second try. I was one of the youngest students there, my fellow classmates were in their early/mid/late 20’s.  For three years, it was all drama classes, theatre history, tech courses, character analysis and play production. I grew up quickly and learned plenty because I was around older, mature student actors. I proceeded from there to Cal State University Los Angeles for my Bachelor’s in Theatre.

Q: How did you first get started in the professional theatre?

A: After graduating CSULA, I started stage-managing at Equity-waiver Theaters around town.  Most of my college teachers told me, “If you want to get paid in theater, do tech.” Problem with that, you get pigeonholed as just that – tech only.  At the same time, I was studying acting with Charles Nelson Reilly, a family friend and probably the biggest influence and mentor in my life. 

I was also part of the ensemble at the MET Theater, where I participated in a weekly scene-study taught by A-list actors that were part of and ran the MET Theater Company at the time: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Holly Hunter, Beth Henley, Arliss Howard, James Gammon, and many others.  It was during that period, I realized how hard it was to be an actor – that desire to allow yourself to put it ALL out there every time--, so I gave it up and started playwriting and directing (which I came to realize, are just as hard.)

Q: You seem drawn to new/original work. What appeals to you about it?

A: To me, Theater is an imperfect art form. There are hundreds and hundreds of beats in a play. 

It is so rare to hit each rehearsed beat with specified clarity at every single performance. That’s how I feel about new and original work.  You can have a wonderfully written play and somehow the production falls flat or is executed poorly.  Other occasions, some mediocre/kind-of-good script transforms into a fantastic production that elevates the text.  Because new work is truly untested, it offers great risks and great rewards.

Q: What drew you specifically to solo performance, particularly from the directing side of things?

A: I saw a lot of BAD one-person shows.  Los Angeles gets a terrible rap for solo work (and sometimes deservedly so) -- it is primarily viewed as a showcase vehicle for an actor. That’s the association – it’s self-indulgent.  I know that is a generalization and there are so many great solo artists here, but because of the volume of shows, individual goals and intentions for the art form are sometimes blurred.  As I witnessed (and stage managed) many solo shows and showcases, I started taking notes about the writing and performing choices.  (Good or bad choices – that’s subjective.)  I kept asking myself “why are they making the ‘obvious’ choice that has been done countless times?” So, that started my route into directing, wanting to find a more interesting approach when working on a solo show. 

On a more positive note, for me it is such a personal, intimate experience directing one-person shows.  Performer and director, in a rehearsal room, working together on a project. It’s very unique. I don’t find that similar working experience with full-cast on a multi-character play.

Q: You have worked at HBO. What brought you there? 

A: I had just finished stage-managing a one-act festival produced by Ensemble Studio Theater LA, sponsored by the cable channel Showtime.  HBO also was planning a similar type of one-act festival. Those producers called me, I was interviewed, hired me on the spot and I went to work the next day teching 17 one acts. 

The month-long HBO New Writers’ Project Festival was successful, so they opened their own theater called the HBO Workspace in Hollywood.  Development venue, over 200+ shows a year.  A lot of great performers, countless numbers, came through that space – Tenacious D, Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mr. Show with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, would try out their material and sketches there.  And, I stage managed one of the very first performances of Nia Vardalos’ solo show, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  I began as an SM, then became Production Coordinator and until I moved up to Associate Producer.  So, an original four-week festival turned into a 7-year gig.

In addition,  I worked as a Venue Producer for over ten years at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and Venue Supervisor at all five TCF: Comedy Festivals in Las Vegas produced by HBO, TBS & AEG.  One year, I was the Festival’s Los Angeles Talent Scout and Coordinator for the Aspen Festival.  Lots of solo performers and comedians at those festivals: Eddie Izzard, Sandra Shamas, Will Power, Sarah Jones, Julia, Sweeney, Colin Quinn, Tommy Tiernan, to name a few.

Q: And Comedy Central?

A: I am the Executive Producer of the Comedy Central Stage, a development venue sponsored by the cable network.  It is a first-look development space – we do about 100 shows per year, everything from sketch, Improv, pilot presentations, stand-up comedy, one-person show, etc.

Q: Tell us about the Solo Collective. Where'd that idea come from?

A: I had been an Artistic Director of a small local theater ensemble (Moving Arts) and I created a very popular show that was a hit with audiences and critics (The Car Plays), but I had some silly notion to be a founder of a theatre company.  That was my want – “creating something from the ground up.”  Well, the idea basically germinated while working as a freelance director on previous shows.  I would observe the performer juggling too many hats – writer, actor, fundraiser, promoter, and producer.  It’s hard—do it yourself, finances possibly being an issue, cutting corners, a lot of responsibilities seem to fall solely onto one person.  Sometimes, my directing jobs would meld into producing duties, not by choice but out of necessity. 

So, I thought, why not find a way to build a support system.  Start a theater company with a group of really talented solo artists that I admire.  Introduce a brand that audiences can trust. Change the negative perception / connotation of solo shows for those non-fans and doubters. Display my directing aesthetic and mindset towards solo work, the art form and craft.  Give a home to the individual, and roots to grow new material.  Those were some of my first thoughts.

Q: What are some of your influences? Who inspires you?

A: As I mentioned, Charles Nelson Reilly was a big influence, his approach and love for the theater continues to resonate with me even though he is no longer with us.  Besides his generosity and humorous stories, he passed down to me the simplicity and practicality of directing—‘find the truth in the scene and moment’.  It’s funny, when I think about it now, my parents were the Production Stage Managers for a seminal solo show, “The Belle of Amherst” starring Julie Harris. They did the 40-city tour, Broadway run, my dad even went to London with it.  I was very young, but I wonder if that show influenced me in any possible way or all just coincidence? 

For inspiration, I don’t have one favorite performer or show, but so many actors, plays and performances have left an indelible mark.  Just a few: Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”, Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me”, Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America”, anything by Antonio Sacre, “Bust” by Lauren Weedman, Michael Kearns, Danny Hoch, Charlayne Woodard.

Q: Any advice for solo performers just starting out?

A: Ask yourself very specific questions – why are you doing this?  What are your creative, personal and financial goals for mounting a solo show?  What is the specific reason why you are doing this – solo writing and performing versus crafting a play or short story?  Find shows, scripts and performers that you admire.  What kind of piece do you want to do?  Characters – showing your range as an actor?  Storytelling?  Do you have a one-of-a-kind story that is truly your own and you need to voice it and share it with others?  My very first directed solo show was by Juston McKinney.  He’s a professional comedian, but before that he was a State Trooper/Cop in a small town in Maine.  His father was homeless by choice, living on the street.

And, his father would get in trouble on purpose so he could see his son.  One-of-a-kind story, and Juston told it with jokes and material from his stand-up act.  He “needed “to tell that story.  What story do you need to tell and be heard? Get a supportive fan club – director, good listener, someone to handle box office for you, anything and anyone that can help you reach your goal. Finally – be dedicated!  Commit to it.  And, it takes time to develop.  It’s a marathon not a sprint.

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance? 

A: I’m not sure.  Solo plays are a hard sell, even though, financially more affordable producing one actor as opposed to five.  Audiences, however, like to see ‘Stars’ in One-Person Shows versus an unknown performer with a fantastic story.  Solo Festivals seem to be popping up more and more frequently.  Getting one or two nights makes it more of an event, but it doesn’t allow you to develop the show in front of an audience over time with multiple reps.  In L.A., there are so many weekly and monthly Storytelling shows all around town.  People getting up on stage,
being heard by interested audiences – that’s encouraging.

Q: And for you personally and the Solo Collective?

A: We’ve added two members to the group – we are now 7 strong (Carla Cackowski, Drew Droege, Brendan Hunt, Elizabeth Liang, Molly Prather, R. Ernie Silva and Antonio Sacre.) I’m very excited about that. Each new person offers new life, performance and professional points-of-view that we all gain from.  Our Season 2 just began – three shows in this fall, two in winter and three in spring.  Might change, but that’s the plan, for now.  As Artistic Director, I am asking all the of performers to create a new, full-length show.  I think it’s a important for a performer to have a repertoire and not just one story/show that they do for years.  However, that didn’t seem to hurt Hal Holbrook with his Mark Twain Tonight!

I also think The Solo Collective is a work-in-progress and will continue to evolve over time.  How does a group of individual actors (who are all used to working independently) collectively help, assist, root for, promote and produce their fellow members’ work?  That’s an ongoing challenge, especially with work/life/family schedules getting in the way.  We hired a full-time publicist for Season 2, so I’ll be curious to see what transpires with that investment.  Personally, I want to write a “How-To Solo Writing and Performance Book” but I need to do it!  Come on, when I am ever going to finally write it?!?  It’s been years --Do it already!

Q: What's next for you, personally, in the world of solo performance?

A: I just finished directing Antonio Sacre’s newest solo piece, “The Storyteller” for The Solo Collective.  It closes on September 28th.   This was our fourth collaboration together. He’s such a wonderful performer, he makes it easy to ‘direct’.  I’m very excited about my continued involvement with the solo play, “Vincent” written by Leonard Nimoy and starring Jean-Michel Richaud.  Based on the Van Gogh’s letters between the two brothers, I directed the production in October 2012.  Since then, the show has travelled to New York City, San Diego, Reno, NV, and Kansas.  Next year, the play will be performed (in French) at Cine XIII Theatre in Paris, France throughout March and then premieres at UCLA’s Center of the Art of Performance in April 2015.

Q: Links

A: The Solo Collective -

Solo Collective SEASON 2 trailer from Paul Stein on Vimeo.

Monday, May 26, 2014

6 Tips on Self-Promotion from Austin Kleon

I have just finished producing the first ever Dallas Solo Fest. At the bar after the shows one of the things the performers (myself included) commiserated about was marketing one's show. As an out of town artist in particular, it is difficult to get the word out about your show in a new city. Added to the built-in difficulty is the aversion many artists have to self-promotion. The old stand-by of "My work Will Speak For Itself" doesn't mean crap if no one sees your show. 

This is a topic I'd like to return to here on this blog, but in the meanrime, I stumbled across this Fast Co Create article on Austin Kleon's new book Show Your Work. I have the book and highly recommend it. Lots of stuff to think about for solo artists. It is mostly common sense, but Kleon has a great way of putting a lot of disparate ideas together in one place to serve as a wonderful refresher.

"The way to avoid being “human spam” is that “before you have something to shill, you need to build up a network of goodwill,” Kleon explains. That way, when you’re sending out a Tweet about your latest radio appearance, your followers will think, “When he’s not on book tour, he’s giving me all these interesting things,” so I’ll understand it if he needs to be self-promotional when he has a big product out.

Read the full FastCo post HERE

6 Tips: How To Be a Performer for a Living from Veronica Varlow

                                                                    Veronica Varlow [credit: Marion Mossing]

Burlesque performer Veronica Varlow has put up a wonderful post entitled...

6 Real Life Tips: How To Be a Performer for a Living

Good advice for solo performers. Especially number 6. Check it out HERE.

Nine U.S. Fringe Festivals has a nice article up on nine fringe fests in the United States.:
"Fringes are generally distinguished by short, unconventional performances, low-cost tickets and a large share of ticket sales returned to artists. Many open their stages to amateurs as well as seasoned acts."
Check out the full article HERE.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Q-and-A with Alexandra Tatarsky

Alexandra Tatarsky called Alexandra Tatarsky's BEAST OF FESTIVE SKIN "endlessly entertaining" when it played at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival. The solo show, in which Tatarsky plays a series of characters at an open mic nite in hell, comes off like is an absurdist vaudeville about the agony of creation. Below Tatarsky discusses her influences, her "dad" and performing for two Belgians. BEAST OF FESTIVE SKIN will be featured in the 2014 Dallas Solo Fest.

Q: Where you are from and how you did you start solo performing?

A: I owe my early interest in solo performance to the vast amount of individuals in my neighborhood walking around talking to themselves, often with tutus on their heads or in gowns made of beer cans and trash bags.  As a youth in New York City, I recall thinking to myself: Oh, if only one day I could grow up to be just like them!

Q: What brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?

A: One day, a dear friend and musician Hazel Ra asked me to perform in her vaudeville show.  During my research into travelling sideshows, quacks, healers and the lost art of the theatrical science lecture, I discovered Dippel, a 17th century alchemist and inventor of the color Prussian blue.  His story was so tender, so ridiculous, so full of failure that I knew I had to share it with the world.  And so I began performing as Dippel.  And that is how I entered the world of solo performance.

Q: Could you tell us about some of your recent solo work?

A: I continue to perform around town under many different names—Dippel, SELENA and The Mound, to name a few.  I have in the past couple years gathered these creatures together into a full-length solo show called Beast of Festive Skin, in which they all meet at an open mic night in Hell.  The show changes depending on the venue, the crowd and my state of mind.  I am also forcing myself to write some entirely new material, most recently SIGN FELT! (a show about nothingness).  And of course I also enjoy wandering around town getting into compromising situations, which often prove to be the most intimate of solo performances.  Most recently, I was famous on the internet for a couple of days as Andy Kaufman’s daughter. As my dad used to say, “They laugh at us.  We laugh at them.  Everybody laugh!”

Q: How would you describe your particular kind of solo performance?

A: Elementary school talent contest, travelling medicine show, absurdist vaudeville, bar mitzvah party.

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?

A: Solo performance is the scariest thing I can think of to do.  I keep going so I don’t feel like a coward.  John Wayne said something along the lines of, “Courage is being terrified, strapping on your guns, and getting on the horse anyway.”  I try to remember this.

I stay motivated by drinking coffee in the morning, doing gibberish meditation (talking to myself for a long time in gibberish), and reminding myself that if I stopped performing, I would be too bitter to ever go out.

Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting a solo project together? Do you create a ton of material on stage with improvisation? Get it down on paper first? Tape or video record it? Hold readings for feedback? Go up to a mountaintop?

A: I begin by thinking too hard and for far too long.  I read many books, I take many notes, and I bounce between many ideas.  At the final hour, when I have thoroughly exhausted my brain, I abandon all of this and walk around in a crowded place so no one pays attention to me and I begin talking out loud to myself without stopping. Eventually, thank heavens, I find myself returning to particular phrases and I stretch them out and cut them down until I have something of a story.  Then I book a show somewhere so that I am forced to complete the tale or else face public humiliation—sometimes both!  In that case, I simply remind myself that there is a long and venerable tradition of public humiliation.

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire/embolden you?

A: This street preacher I saw in the summer one time who was yelling at her congregation of bums, “I would rather be at the beach right now!  But I’m not!  I’m here with you!  Cuz I wanna bring you da light of Gawd!”

A poet on my block named Donald.  Grandmas with excellent comedic timing.  Homeless people who plug a TV into the streetlamp to watch football.  My parents (they are both psychologists).  The Puerto Rican Day parade.  The Mitzvah Tank in New York City that dances for the coming of Moshiach.  Speaking in tongues.  Experiments that didn’t quite work out. 

The street performers I saw growing up.  Master Lee, who neatly chops a cucumber on the groins of unsuspecting audience volunteers.  Tic and Tac, the acrobatic twins.  This couple from England who threw cream and sugar in the air and caught them in teacups balanced on their heads.

Also, Peter Schumann.  Al Giordano.  Free Schools.  Ventriloquism.  Sock puppets.  Abner Jay.  Storefront psychics.  Euripides.  Daniil Kharms.  Spoonbill and Sugartown Booksellers.  Elizabeth Cotton.

Tatarsky as The Mound
Q: How do you bridge the gap of the business side of theatre?

A: I try not to.  I make different days for business and for theatre.  And I try not to do any business until I actually do some theatre. 

Regarding business: I try not to say No to opportunities for performance, regardless of pay. At the same time, I also try to spread the gospel of: Hey person/curator/bar/festival, I really think you have a responsibility to pay your performers! 

And if you really can’t afford to pay me because you don’t have a job, are about to get evicted from your apartment, and kindly invited me to perform in your stairwell to raise money for an organization to stop the destruction of mountaintops in Appalachia, then maybe at the very least we can all contribute something to a big pot of soup and share that for dinner?

Q: Any advice for some aspiring artists just starting out in solo performance?

A: When I ask the cranky older artists in my life for advice about being an artist, they say: don’t be an artist.  And when I say: but I wanna be an artist!  They say: OK, so be an artist! 

I have found this to be very helpful.

Recently, I was in a class with the great director and teacher Ed Sherin.  He asked us all why we were there.  An older fellow in the room said, “Well, I tried a lot of things in life and being onstage is really the only thing that makes me happy.”  Ed said to the fellow, “Oh you poor, poor bastard.”

I also found this very helpful.

Q: Share with us something funny that has happened to you recently.

A: I was sitting on a bench on Grand Street.  An older man with rowdy red and grey curls poking out from under a large hat said to me in a voice thick with Yiddish and allergies, “Excuse me, do you have the time?”  I said no.  He went on, “Oh wait.  I just remembered. I do have the time.  I have the best time!!!”

Q: What are the largest and smallest audiences you've ever played to?

A: I played to an audience of 2 very sweet Belgian fellows who may or may not have understood anything.  For some reason, nobody else came that night.  Passerby peeked in through the windows.  At one point, the cops showed up because a neighbor had complained about something or other.  The show had the quality of a dream where nothing makes any sense but you enjoy it very much. 

I have also played to audiences of several hundred.  This is great fun because several hundred people laughing at you is much louder than two people laughing at you.  And the vibration of it gives you lots of energy. 

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you personally as an artist? 

A: Real live humans breathing together in small dark rooms will only become more powerful in this age of so many screens!  I certainly plan to force many more live humans to gather together in small dark rooms and other strange places.   

Q: Links?

You are also welcome to send me a message at

Alexandra Tatarsky's BEAST OF FESTIVE SKIN will play at the 2014 Dallas Solo Fest. Info... HERE.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why Solo Performance Matters

Slavin in the UK

Scott Wesley Slavin
All for One’s Managing Director Scott Wesley Slavin has begun a series of blog posts called "Lessons From Solo Theater in the UK" about traveling to see solo shows in England. Over on the All For One blog. Here's a snippet of the first post: 
Time and again I’ve watched theater audiences forgive just about every mishap and clumsy execution they’re forced to endure in a live performance–except one: a lack of insight into the human condition. Our hunger for theater comes from our ever-present hunger to be pulled from the shell of our habitual defenses and raised up into the world again, alive and feeling. Travel wakes us, restores us. We see the world–and ourselves, warts and all–with fresh eyes. It offers its own Hero’s Journey, from which we can return with barrels of new elixir.

Worth a look. His first post deals with "Getting out of Kansas" and the next (of three) is called "Forget the Text" about devised theatre.

See it... HERE

Monday, April 7, 2014

Q-and-A with David Mogolov (repost)

This is a repost of a Q-and-A with David Mogolov here on TSP from December 14, 2012. He will be featured in the 2014 Dallas Solo Fest, presenting his new show Eating My Garbage. For more info visit... HERE.

I caught David Mogolov's show Dumber Faster at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival. He and I were performing in the same venue. His show was funny, thoughtful and performed at a breakneck velocity. His presentation style echoes the Spaulding Gray/Mike Daisey approach (addressing the audience directly, as an audience, from behind a desk), but Mogolov definitely carves out his own idiosyncratic style. He is personable, professional and super-smart, but somehow is careful not to create the holier-than-thou distancing that can sometimes plague solo performers of the desk-and-talk style. He holds the subject he is exploring up and invites the audience to say "hey, you guys, just look at this..." right alongside him. 

He recently agreed to be interviewed for, and I'm so glad he did.

Q: Please give us a brief bio, where you are from and how you started in theatre/performance?

A: I'm from Iowa, but was raised largely in Kansas, and then I moved to Boston for college and never left town. Though I did a tiny bit of theater in high school, most of my stage time back then was as a particularly untalented musician. I was in a band that wasn't very good but had schtick that went up to 11. So when college ended and a friend of mine recommended that I audition for a play, I wasn't really scared of the stage, and I was too ignorant of theater to know how much I didn't know. At his recommendation, I auditioned for a production of As Bees In Honey Drown, and got cast. The production was in many respects a fiasco (I surely bear a big load of the blame), but we had a really great pair of leads, and it's also where I met a fellow cast member, Steve Kleinedler, who subsequently became one of my closest friends.

That was in the spring of 2001. That Thanksgiving, I had this truly bizarre odyssey home to Boston from visiting relatives in Virginia, and I kept telling the story to friends, and obsessing over it, until one night my friend Zabeth, who was at that time booking a new comedy night at ImprovBoston, said, "You should tell this story on stage." To which I said, "People do that?" I needed a director, so I called Steve. The show, One Night at T.F. Green, got good audiences, a fortuitous little bit of press, and a second run. 11 years later, Steve and I still work together on every show, and I think I finally know what I'm doing. He's directed 5 of my solo shows, a dueling-monologue show with Sara Faith Alterman, and we wrote, produced, and performed more sketch comedy than seems plausible, on reflection. 

David Mogolov                                                                       [courtesy:]

Q: What event or desire brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?

A: My dad, my brothers, and I watched pretty much every stand up comedy special that aired on TV between 1986 and 1996. To me, it was the single greatest thing a person could do, but I have to admit it never crossed my mind to do it. Although I heard and understood the "you can be anything you want" messages as a child, I don't think I internalized them until I hit 30 or so, by which time we usually figure out it's too late. But yeah, at the core of what I do is that childhood and teenage adoration of stand up comedy. Particularly George Carlin. And a solo show by Steven Banks called "Home Entertainment System" which, if there were any justice in this world, would be an enormous hit that everybody knows.


Q: Could you tell us about some of your solo work?

A: Well, the first show, One Night at T.F. Green, was a mostly-true account of my night at the airport in Warwick, Rhode Island. I attempted to tell the story close to accurately, both in storytelling and through playing many of the people I met. Though I think it was a good show, and the audiences really liked it, it was also a huge opportunity for me to make some mistakes that I could learn from. Each show since has gotten better, and with the last two, There Is No Good News and Dumber Faster, I've found a style that seems to suit me.

Q: How would you describe your particular kind of solo performance?

David Mogolov in DUMBER FASTER                                  [via:]
A: I sometimes think of it as theatrical comedic essay. The best essays end up in places their sources don't obviously point to, and reading them is constantly surprising, but on reflection, it's all completely logical. That's what I try to do with my shows. I want to take the audience from a set of basic claims and observations to a place that is undeniably true but totally unexpected. So I start quietly, telling stories and talking about current events and psychology and economics, and I throw out more and more and more until it's a big interconnected mess, and then I pull it all together, because I honestly hate messes. I try to layer in the joke density of stand up comedy, so that all the way through the audience is laughing. 

Q: What is your favorite thing about doing this work?

A: The first laugh of the show. That's my absolute favorite thing. It should arrive at a particular moment, and when it does, it's just fantastic. Nothing compares. Then I can stop worrying and lose myself in the show. 

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?

A: Motivation is hard. I'm a procrastinator, but one wracked by guilt. I wish I could procrastinate without dread. As a practical matter, I motivate myself by setting deadlines and making them public. Even if nobody's really watching, announcing that I'll have a first draft by New Year's forces me to do it. The only thing that overpowers my laziness is my shame. So I have to do it.

As for inspiration, I guess there comes a point between shows where I've been reading, and listening to the radio, and hearing friends talk, and my brain catches on a little wrinkle, a bit of cognitive dissonance or a little warp in the logic of the universe that I keep coming back to. With There Is No Good News, it was this financial crisis that exposed deeper problems with how we live than we were acknowledging even in the depth of it. With Dumber Faster, it was the double life we live, the public and private selves, the way we're not acting in our own interest, and doing it so publicly. I get hooked on some idea, and I can't stop poking at it, and at some point I consciously realize that I've already got the core of a show. So then I set that public deadline. 

Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting together a new project? Do you create a lot on stage, improvising? More on paper? Tape or video record? Hold readings? Go to a mountain top?

A: For starters, I can honestly say that I don't know what I think about something until I've tried to write my way through it. And that's true of these shows. While a ton of great stuff comes out of rehearsal, and new jokes get found on the stage, I'm am fundamentally a writer. I don't know any other way.

When I'm about to start a show, I tell Steve [
Kleinedler, the director], and I give him a date to expect a draft. Then I tweet it or put it on Facebook or something. When sit down to write, it's with that topic I'm struggling with, something that is fascinating and current, that allows me to be critical and self-critical, and that's broad enough to hook a lot of stories to. By the time I know "this is the one" I've already got one or two elements that I know are at the core of it, and I start with them, just writing without agenda. I write TERRIBLE first drafts. They're humorless rants with barely relevant anecdotes hooked onto them. But I beat that draft into a better shape, and then send it to Steve, who is the only person who sees those terrible drafts. And he gives me constructive advice. A lot of fundamental questions. He'll notice rhetorical patterns in the draft that I hadn't caught. We don't even read that one aloud, because it lacks anything like the cadence or humor I want to bring to the stage. I wait a couple weeks, and then go back to it with a fresh mind. The second draft is a gutting of that original. With Dumber Faster, I'd bet I deleted over half of it entirely, and the stuff that got cut wasn't without value, it just didn't fit around the new center of the show, which I think I've identified. Each subsequent draft for awhile moves that center, ties the pieces around it tighter, introduces new complexities and tries to resolve them. By draft seven or eight, Steve and I are reading weekly, and we then usually bring in a cold reader to read it to us. Then I gut it again, and build it up again. The stage version of Dumber Faster was 17. Between 7 and 17, we had one staged reading (draft 12). It's painful cutting scenes and jokes I like, but I've never looked back at an old draft and thought it was better. I know this process works for me.

David Mogolov performing EATING MY GARBAGE

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire/embolden you?
A: Novelists and essayists. I'm rereading Myla Goldberg's Bee Season right now. That book is kicking my ass. The depth of the characters is incredible, and she has these little scenes that are seismic. A brother and sister sitting on a couch not talking. If I wrote that scene, it would be that last sentence, that sentence fragment. Hers is an atom bomb. 

Halfway through Dumber Faster, I started watching the British comic Stewart Lee. I watched what I could online and then bought everything I could of his from a record company in Wales, and while I don't think our styles are anything alike, your word "embolden" is completely apt. Everything I was just about to say, I now had to say. His shows are incredible

Q: How do you bridge the gap of the business side of theatre?

A: Oh man. I guess I bridge it by falling into the ravine. I have this dream of ending up in the black someday, but I'm a 9-to-5er. I'm fortunate to have made a career that is interesting and ethical with a company that gives me the flexibility to keep doing theater and comedy. I guess because I came to it slowly and without a plan, I've remained shocked that I get to do this at all, and so the fact that I'm woefully negligent in looking after my own business interests doesn't keep me up at night.

Q: Any advice for some aspiring artist just starting out in solo performance?

A: Two things come to mind: be ruthlessly honest with yourself and find a director or an advisor who will do the same. Most people will not tell you the truth, they will tell you what is easiest to say that will encourage you. Encouragement is valuable, but it doesn't push you to make good theater or comedy. Look at your own material the way you'd look at the work of a rival. Pick it apart. Write a scathing review of it in your mind. When you revise, when you rehearse, address those problems. Because you're not the only one who will think of them. You're just the only one who can do anything about them before it's too late.

The other thing I'd say is, if you're dealing with true stories, you don't have to tell every detail. Just because it's true doesn't mean it's theater. Pick the elements that make for good theater, and save the rest. If you stopped for lunch between the two critical events, you're not morally obligated to reveal the lunch. Your first obligation is to captivate, entertain, and challenge the audience. You can do that, ethically, without presenting a diary.

Q: Share with us something funny that has happened to you recently.

A: I have a sort of compulsive personality, and on a lark, I started writing fictional biographies of my friends on Facebook. It turned out to be a good writing exercise, and really fun, and one thing led to another, and six weeks later, I'd written 100 of them. I hadn't really intended to take on a new project like that at all, but because I'm an idiot with no time management skills, I wrote about 50,000 words of biography in less than two months, putting aside almost everything else. The response has been really positive, so I put them all on a site: Unauthorized Facebook Biography

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you personally as an artist?

A: More generally, I think everybody's ability to see anything and learn anything at any time will expose more people to solo performance and lead to a lot of technical innovation. We'll see a lot of spectacular weirdness. While it's harder than ever to do anything at a huge level, I see increasing opportunities to find rewarding and valuable communities in niches. Nothing has to be a hit to be viable. That's my hope. 

Personally, I'm starting another show. I've identified the topic I can't shake, so I'm just about to set a deadline and get to work. First though, I'm retiring Dumber Faster in grand style. The details are still getting worked out, but in March we're going to run it as a charity show for an awesome organization that still needs me to sign some paperwork before I should use their name publicly [Update: the benefit was for Doctors Without Borders] . We're going to record it and make it available for download for a $5 charitable contribution. I'm not seeing a penny from it. I should have details public in January 2013!

More information about David Mogolov and his work at: 

For info about his show EATING MY GARBAGE at the Dallas Slo Fest... HERE.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Q-and-A with Elaine Liner

Elaine Liner in SWEATER CURSE

Solo performer and arts journalist Elaine Liner discusses her show Sweater Curse: A Yarn about Love. She will be one of three north Texas based performers in the upcoming 2014 Dallas Solo Fest.
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Q: Where you are from and how you did you start solo performing?

A: Proving the old adage that "it's never too late," I started my career as a solo performer, playwright and actor at the age of 59. I'm from Dallas and have a degree in theater from Trinity University in San Antonio, where I studied with regional theater titan Paul Baker. But after college I headed to New York and fell into magazine writing, editing and other forms of journalism. Being a critic in print has been my main source of income for over 30 years. But with the demise of journalism as a viable career -- I now earn less than I made in the 1980s, writing more words for less and less money -- I have turned to different channels for expression. I've long been a fan of solo performance but never dreamed I'd be doing it myself. Life is full of surprises. As it turns out, I'm pretty good at it.

Q: What brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?

A: One word: Knitting. When I should be writing on deadline, I often scroll the web for free knitting patterns. I've been a knitter since I was eight years old and usually have a project or two on the needles. One day I ran across this term on Wikipedia: "The Sweater Curse." It's an old wives' tale that says if you knit for your lover, he'll leave you before you finish the sweater. Suddenly I thought, "Well, that should be the title of a play." I started typing and four days later I finished it, a monologue about my obsessions with knitting, my many unraveled romances and the mentions of knitting in great literature, from The Odyssey to Macbeth to A Tale of Two Cities and beyond. I've reworked the script as I've performed it over the past year and a half, but it's basically what I wrote in that spurt in the spring of 2012. The moment I finished the play, I had another thought: "Edinburgh Fringe." And I spent the next 15 months getting it there. I premiered Sweater Curse: A Yarn about Love at the 2013 Fringe at the Sweet/Grassmarket Theatre and will return to do it again in August 2014.

Q: Could you tell us about some of your recent solo work?

A: Since the debut of Sweater Curse at Edinburgh Fringe in the summer of 2013, I've performed it many times in theaters around North Texas, most recently at the Granbury Opera House for three weeks in February and at the MCL Grand in Lewisville. This piece works in spaces big and small. In the run-up to Edinburgh in 2013, I did it in people's living rooms.

Q: How would you describe your particular kind of solo performance?

A: My style seems to be, as one critic wrote, "like a friend who really, really needs to tell you some stories." There's acting happening, but not so much that you notice it. I like a conspiratorial tone between me and the audience. I try to make my show feel like a conversation in which I reveal some secrets and share a little advice. Not My Dinner with Andre. More like Kathy Griffin without the dirty stuff.

Q: What is your favorite thing about doing this work?

A: Definitely the vibes from the audience. I invite my audience to bring their knitting or crocheting to my show and keep on stitching while I'm talking. I knit onstage so often we're both clacking our needles at the same time. In a way, that helps weave together my stories with their experiences in love and life. At several points in the show, I ask questions and want knitters in the audience to fill in the answers out loud. When that happens, it makes the show interactive. That's what I like. Yes, it's a monologue. But it's not a one-sided conversation.

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?

A: I just love doing it. Having people stay after my shows just to hug me, to touch the knitted stuff on my set (I made everything you see up there), to tell me their "sweater curse" tales, that's what keeps me motivated. Also it's a pretty darn fun way to spend an hour of life. I love doing my show and sharing it with people. Whether they've ever knitted a stitch or not, people seem to like it, laugh along with it and then feel better having seen it. I've had people who've seen my show two or three times. That astounds me.

Q: What is your approach to the development process?

A: I'm a word girl, so I have to start with my fingers on the keyboard, typing the words. The only time I improvise is during a performance when someone's cell phone goes off. I'm liable to work that into whatever I'm saying. Most of the time, I just say, "I can wait if you need to take that call." Then I just stand there as the rest of the audience stares down the offender.

Prepping for Sweater Curse, I hired a great director, Tim Hedgepeth, whom I've known since we were both Trinity students. He's the top director in San Antonio theaters now and was perfect for my project, so patient and encouraging. I also started doing Pilates and I took flamenco lessons, which helped me be more physically aware of my body in space. Being alone onstage, you're conscious of every breath and every move. There's no one else for people to look at!

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire/embolden you?

A: Oddly, I was influenced by Kathy Griffin. I watched over the years as she transitioned from traditional stand-up to becoming a storyteller. She makes her audience feel like close friends to whom she's telling secrets. I like her "Oooh, wait, I have to tell you this" approach to performance. And of course, I've been inspired by many, many solo performers that I've met through the Edinburgh Fringe. You want to see the best solos? Go there. From stand-up to monologues, traditional acting, multi-character pieces, mime. You can see it all there.

Q: How do you bridge the gap of the business side of theatre?

A: I am a relentless pre-planner. Before I got to my first Edinburgh Fringe, I'd spent months rehearsing, planning, accumulating data and, of course, raising thousands of dollars. I had a notebook full of every bit of info I might need for a month in Scotland, including maps showing the best walking routes from my hotel to the theater, to the nearest grocery and pharmacy. I try to leave very little to chance. I have two of everything, including duplicate costumes and shoes, an extra tech script, always with me. I keep receipts like a pack rat. I can depend on myself to be prepared even when other people come up short.

Q: Any advice for some aspiring artists just starting out in solo performance?

A: See a lot of solo shows and figure out where you'd fit in, what you could do that no one else is. Be bold, be fresh, be interesting. Don't feel limited by age, weight or gender. Before I wrote and starting performing Sweater Curse, I hadn't seen a show like mine, talking about my particular obsessions with knitting, great literature and finding love late in life. My target audience is older women who do crafts, so I market directly to them through sites like and MeetUp.

With my background in media, I have no problem getting publicity and knowing how to deal with media, but I also know that you can bypass media and market directly to your best audience. But if you haven't had 30 years of journalism to draw on, my best advice is to learn how to do your own media -- and I'm not talking about the basic press release, which is not enough these days -- and to use your social media skills to get more and better publicity. As a newcomer to the very crowded Edinburgh Fringe, I got more than my share of reviews and media coverage because I knew how to gin up interest in me and my show. I made myself stand out from the crowd. One tip: Get lots of good, high-res images made. One photo isn't enough. You need lots and lots of photos. If you have to spend money on publicity tools, spend it hiring a professional photographer to shoot pix of you onstage, offstage and in studio set-ups. I bartered with a good Dallas photog, who shot my second round of photos in exchange for a 20-foot-long Dr. Who scarf, which I knitted in two weeks.

Q: Share with us something funny that has happened to you recently.

A: At the top of my show, after telling the story of Penelope knitting and unraveling the shroud as she waits for Ulysses to return from the Trojan War, I have a line that includes the name of my play. But one night I said, "Have you heard of the knitting curse?" Nothing like blowing the title. If you mean in real life, every day is a sitcom when you're my age. I spend way too much time looking for my car keys and walking in and out of rooms, thinking, "What was I going to do in here?"

Q: What are the largest and smallest audiences you've ever played to?

A: The largest is probably about 150 or so at Granbury Opera House and at the theater in Lewisville. The smallest was three patrons in a 30-seat theater one slow day at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. As it happened, it was one of my best performances and one of those three people was a major critic who gave me a five-star review and ended his column saying I deserved "a full house of stars as well as people." My box office boomed the next day. No performance is a throwaway. You just never know who's out there.

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you personally as an artist? 

A: I hope to keep doing Sweater Curse as long as I can. It's not a difficult show to perform. It's not like I'm working circus silks or training for the big tap number. I did write another play right after I wrote Sweater Curse. It's a two-act comedy about old people in assisted living called Finishing School. A local Dallas theater did it this spring. The elderly lead actor ended up in the hospital after the dress rehearsal and they had to replace him overnight with another elderly actor. So I think my next project will be about teens. They're less prone to health emergencies.

Q: Fun links?
Twitter: @TheSweaterPlay