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

Monday, March 17, 2014

Dallas Solo Fest Kickstarter

Dallas, Texas is getting its very own solo performance festival... The Dallas Solo Fest.

There's a Kickstarter going on presently to help fund the first one. It looks like this first year, it is curated and by invitation, but if it goes over successfully, in the future it will be a full-fledge fringe-sque festival with open submissions for solo performers.

Kickstarter info HERE (closes March 24th... act fast!)

Festival website HERE.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Q-and-A with Danny O'Connor

[photo: Jarrod Fresquez] Danny O'Connor performs BOUNCING UGLY

Mr. Danny O'Connor is a Dallas-based solo performer. He is the creator of the solo show ZERO, which toured to lots of venues and locations for a number of years. He has recently created a new solo show called BOUNCING UGLY about his time as a bouncer at the Coyote Ugly Saloon in New York City. He will be performing it at the upcoming Dallas Solo Fest in May 2014.

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

A: I am originally from Dallas, started acting at Plano Children's Theatre when I was a child (imagine that!).  I trained at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton before receiving my BFA in Acting from Emerson College in Boston, MA.

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

A: There are two specific details that brought about this desire.  First, performing in competitive speech in high school, ie: Humorous Interpretation, Dramatic Interp, etc...  Then, in college, as part of a performance art class, I was assigned to write a paper on John Leguizamo's solo work.  Freak showed me what one can do with solo work beyond just stand up comedy, and I was hooked.  I am very lucky that one of my professors was Robbie McCauley, an Obie Award winner for solo work, and she taught me a tremendous amount about how to maintain an audience's attention for hours at a time while also staying true to the show.

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

A: Last year I had my (probably) final performance of ZERO, which ran off and on for about seven years, and I am fortunate that critics liked it as much as audiences did.  I performed it in Dallas, Chicago and NYC.  Recently I premiered Bouncing Ugly (at the YOLO Solo Festival in Dallas) and I'm very excited about it's potential.

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

A: They are very personal works, showing parts of my life, some light-hearted and some very dark.  As the saying goes, I write what I know.  This has actually caused friction in my personal life sometimes, because I do not hold back what stories I share and every once in a while I offend someone who happens to know the details of said story.  But I think the best solo work is the most honest, and I won't hold back to spare feelings.  Besides, I expose more about my own demons than anyone else's.  Also, I cuss a lot and tell dirty jokes.

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

A: This is cliche, but the hope I am changing someone's life.  My shows are funny and goofy, but there is always an underlying message.  It's never political or trying to sway people's minds on a particular subject, I leave that to other more well-informed artist's.  I just hope to inspire, and what's really cool is every once in a while I succeed.
Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?

A: This is easily my biggest challenge as a performer.  The high of a good show sedates me.  If anyone has any advice, I'm all ears!

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: When writing, my trick is to write SOMETHING, even if I know it's garbage.  For every page of script that makes the stage, there are at least two more that end up in the trash.  As an old professor once said, "It's about creating a big pile of shit, and then finding the nuggets of gold inside."  That's worked for me so far, and I don't mind getting dirty.  

As far as the acting process goes, I do most of it myself, staring at an empty wall (or in front of the mirror when I'm drunk, I just can't seem to help myself.)  When I feel like I'm about 70% of the way there, I bring in a few trusted advisers to critique and brainstorm new ideas or jokes.  I think there are quite a few people out there who are willing to show their work to anyone/everyone in the hopes of getting new ideas or just receiving attention, but I'm under the impression that there are a lot more bad ideas out there than good, so I only show my unfinished product to the people I really trust.   

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

A: As I mentioned before, John Leguizamo was my first real inspiration.  After him, Lily Tomlin was huge.  

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

 A: I am TERRIBLE at this.  Someone help me!!

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

A: Don't be afraid to look stupid.  You're first time at the plate will probably be a miserable failure, and if you're lucky your parents will lie to you and say it was good.  That's okay!  Learn from those mistakes.  Be honest.  Don't be afraid of offending people.  Take risks!  In my opinion, nothing is more boring than safe theater.  That doesn't mean you need to urinate on the stage, it just means commit to whatever you're creating and don't water it down because you're afraid of hurting someone's feelings or looking stupid.  The audience is smart, they can spot a fraud when they see one, so throw yourself 100% into what you're trying to create.  But most importantly, you are never as good as you can be.  The minute you think you're just as awesome as possible, that's the minute you've become just another mediocre performer. Because everyone else is getting better while you're patting yourself on the back.

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

A: I have absolutely no idea, and I find it thrilling!

Q: Fun links or plugs?

A: ZeroThePlay (my previous show's website) is all I have for now.  Bouncing Ugly will get it's own page soon enough, when I get off my butt and do it. Oh, I'll be at the Dallas Solo Fest in May. Check that out HERE.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Philly's SoLow Fest

Worth checking out, especially if you are in or around Philly, wanna try out something crazy and lean towards the experiemental... the SoLow Fest.

Where: Philadelphia, USA

Application Deadline: "Form of Commitment" due in May

Festival: June 19-29, 2014

Points of Interest:

  • All artists who complete and turn in the Form of Commitment are ‘accepted’ into the festival. No one is turned away. 
  • SoLow is not responsible for insurance. 
  • We require everyone to find her/his own venue.