Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Q-and-A with Brad McEntire

Brad McEntire

Guest Contributor Grant Knutson of Minion Productions offers a brief Q-and-A with solo performer and producer Brad McEntire.

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I'm excited that I get to introduce Brad McEntire: solo performer, festival producer and founder of this very website, TheSoloPerformer.com. He is the founding director of the Dallas Solo Fest and will be participating as a performer this year. 

I've been working on the Dallas Solo Fest since it began in 2014, but Brad and I first met nearly a decade ago when he was performing his show Chop at the (now sadly defunct) New Orleans Fringe Festival. 

Since then, he's been kind enough to bring his shows to several events I've produced on the West Coast. And I've been lucky enough to travel with him a few times as he performs at festivals around North America. 

Unlike some solo performers, Brad's various shows are widely different in style. In fact, he has this sort of restlessness that pervades both of his work and his personality. What ties his shows all together is that they present big ideas that make you think, but with an understated delivery that makes it feel as natural as a conversation. 

Let's dive right in...

Q: Please give us a little bit of background? How did you get involved in the theatre?

A: I was always interested in the arts. When I was a little kid, I liked to draw and I thought for a long time I’d be a graphic designer or fine artist when I grew up. I have also been a voracious life-long reader. I fell into theatre in high school because I had a crush on a girl in one of the theatre classes. In college, I got a theatre scholarship, so the plan was to study theatre, but major in art. I got totally hooked by that time and ended up getting my BFA in Theatre and Performance Arts (emphasis in Acting).

I went to a wonderful, sadly now-defunct university called the College of Santa Fe. It was such an isolated place, but I had fantastic teachers there. They really equipped me to tackle the theatre by the time I was done. While in college, I indulged in pursuing all kinds of things. I played the clarinet (badly), wrote horrible poetry, directed, edited and acted in little student movies – both on film and on video - and did everything there was to do in the theatre. I built sets, costumed, directed, acted, designed lights and swept the stage. It was like a little wonder world of chances to play both in and around the theatre.

 After college I spent time living, working and being poor in New York and London. I started the precursor to the theatre I now artistic direct. I ran a suburban public high school theatre department for a few years. I lived in Hong Kong for a year teaching high school kids ESL through drama games. I eventually got my Masters degree in theatre (with an emphasis on playwriting). I became an adjunct theatre teacher at community colleges. That’s my sort of “day job” nowadays.

Artistically, I rolled from one thing into another continually curious and continually working. I studied clowning – both American circus style and Eurporean - and was a birthday party clown for a short while. I got into sketch comedy, which lead to improvisation. I did children’s theatre for a while. I did murder mysteries on a river boat. I acted in a lot of things across the board, from very traditional theatre to crazy experimental stuff. I put in my 10,000 hours, so to speak.

I have built up a unique skill set. Now, I still act from time to time (mostly in my own stuff), direct on occasion and produce. My scope of experience allows me to understand and converse with a lot of different kinds of other artists. I consider myself that old term one doesn’t see much anymore, “a man of the theatre.”

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

A: At the tail end of my time in Hong Kong, I began tinkering on a one-person show that eventually became my first proper touring production, Chop. It is about isolation, culture shock and the romance of the unknown. I came back to the States and continued working on it with a great director friend of my, Andy Merkel. He helped me shape it into a real show. I started doing the fringe circuit for real back in 2010.

I was particularly drawn to the DIY and personal nature of solo performance. In an ensemble show, ideally (though I will admit this isn’t always the case), the emphasis is on trying to make as tight a final product as possible. The emphasis is on perfection. The cast, crew, designers and director are working to all get on the same page and make the show - the end result - as good as it can be. The goal is to bend the collaborations and interpretations into a coherent whole and to make it as impactful as the playwright or director means it to be.

Solo performance is not a format that lends itself to the strive towards perfection. The aim it to be as idiosyncratic and as novel as possible. I wrote an essay about this years ago. This little excerpt says it well.
The Collective works, ultimately, towards perfection. My idea of an Individual working in the Theatre is different. The goal is not perfection. The Individual Theatre-maker (such as a solo performer) is working ultimately for the most personal outcome. Originality trumps perfection.

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

A: Sure. Like the rest of my works for the stage, my solo shows are a mix of weighty thematic explorations together with fluffy retro/pop-culture weirdness. It has been called “kitsch with significance.”

So, though the backbones of many pieces involve the search for identity, place, love, respect, revenge and other substantial age-old thematic universals, the plays are also filled with chupacabras, rocket packs, time travel, carnival barkers, dinosaurs, robots, unkillable goldfish and so on.

That play I mentioned above, Chop, is a darkly comic gothic love story about an extremely isolated and lonely man finding his place in the world. That place just happens to be at the center of an amputation fetish group.

Brad McEntire's show Chop

Q: Could you tell us about some about the show you are currently touring?

A: Sure. I am currently, for the summer, touring and performing my show Cyrano A-Go-Go. It is the closest thing I have to a TED-talk/Spalding Gray/ Mike Daisey style monologue show. What I mean by this is that I essentially play myself, talking to an audience. Most of my other shows are strructured more like plays, with me playing fictional characters. This makes it my most personal work, too.

The show traces my development in the theatre and in life from the time I read my first play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. I also tie in a lot about the themes of that play, a behind-the-scenes look at its history and touch on the real-life historical figure of Cyrano de Bergerac.

My hope is that my show is jam-packed with just as much action, poetry and tragic romance as the swashbuckling play that serves as the subject of my exploration.

Q: What inspired Cyrano A-Go-Go?

A: I have been a sort of armchair scholar obsessed with Rostand’s play for years. It also struck me that a lot of how I percieve theatre comes from Cyrano, such was the impression it made. You know how your first encounter with something affects your views of that thing. Remember the first time you went a certain place for vacation, or the first book in a certain genre? The first song from a certain band?

I was also deeply influenced by TJ Dawe’s fringe show Totem Figures. He talks about the influences on him growing up and the things that would be in his “personal Mt. Rushmore.” I only ever heard a recording of it, but I totally deconstructed it to see how he had put it together and I tweaked that structure to put this show together. Before hearing Totem Figures, I was dead-set against doing a talky monologue show where I play myself onstage. Up until then, I usually found autobiographical shows kind of narratively weak and overly confessional. Hearing him set up thematic ideas and then compound on them was a light bulb moment for me. It was like hearing a theatrical essay. Though we have never met, I owe him a great debt for the inspiration.

Brad McEntire in Cyrano A-Go-Go

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

A: Solo performance actually brings me joy. I am not sure about other people, but I hear that advice to do what makes you happy and I always think, “Okay, great, but I don’t know what makes me happy.”

The list of activities and experiences that bring me actual, genuine joy is very, very short. Honestly, and I know this sounds awlful, but I really just tolerate most things. Many things in the world bother or upset me. At least of the things I can actively identify that make me happy (and that can be done publicly, in front of other people), creating and performing solo shows is near the top of the list..

I genuinely love crafting and then touring my one-person shows. I enjoy the travel and networking and sharing my work with far-flung audiences. I enjoy the intimate nature of it. You don’t need a huge audience for a one-person show (I’m not against that, by the way, but it is not a deal-breaker). You just need a cozy room full of folks who listen and who you can engage with.

The whole thing still has a veneer of romance to it and I am, sadly, seldom romantic about anything anymore. Age has given me a pervasive cynicism. And this romance appears despite how incredibly difficult the work itself is.

I sometimes say, when faced with a ridiculously absurd or challenging situation, "If it were easy, it wouldn't be any fun." For solo performance, the non-ease is actually one of the things I really like about. And it is never easy. At least, not for me.

The making of the work is always difficult and challenging and I always feel like I have to venture into the belly of the beast to craft something worthwhile and entertaining and original. And when I am waist-deep into creating a new piece, I sometimes want to give up, but then I remember that out of all the hardships of life, I chose this particular struggle. I chose to make this thing. Choosing to do something difficult is a special thing. The world hurls difficulty at us right and left and usually gives us very little choice in the matter, but getting to choose your struggle, that is sort of a sacred, wonderful thing.

And when I complete a show, at least enough to show to people, I feel an immense sense of achievement. I had to work for it. A lot of things these days offer only shallow instant gratification. Making a one-person show is not one of those things.

Q: Besides TJ Dawes, who are some of your influences on your work?

A: As far as solo performers go, I like the work of Bremner Duthie. I like the energy that Martin Dockery gives to his pieces. I like the archival recordings of Ruth Draper.

In the theatre, I am a die-hard Peter Brook fan. His books (particularly The Empty Space) have been hugely influential on me. I like the playwrights Samuel Beckett, George S. Kaufman, Sarah Ruhl and Mickle Maher. I like some of Dan Dietz’s plays and some of Sheila Callaghan’s work. I like Shakespeare, of course, and some Goldoni. I like some of Oscar Wilde. I like the work of my friend Lin-Manuel Miranda. And, of course, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

I know this sounds like a horrible mish-mash, but I take inspiration from wherever I can get it. It all goes in the mix and adds to the fodder of my imagination.

Brad McEntire in his show Robert's Eternal Goldfish

Q: What prompted you to start this site, TheSoloPerformer.com?

A: As a solo performer, I was looking for resources online about solo performance back in 2010. Back then, there just wasn't much on the internet yet about solo performers, their processes, clips or shows and so on. There are a lot more resources now and a lot more performers have individual websites. 

Since I couldn't find as much as I wanted back in 2010, I just decided to start this little Blogger site and just started complining stuff. It has become a place to put essays and opinions, opportunities and profiles. 

In 2013 I was interviewed by Adam Szymkowicz for his wonderful website I Interview Playwrights. He did the whole thing over email and the format he used became a sort of an inspiration. I began doing a silimiar thing with solo performers here on this site.

TheSoloPerformer has just been a side hobby, but nine years in, it has become a neat little compendium of information on the world of solo performance.

Q: How do you bridge the gap between the creative and the business side of solo theatre?

A: Not great yet, but I’m learning. It took me a long time to realize, like everything else, marketing and PR are things that could be learned. It would take time, but I was not powerless to acquire the skills and knowledge I needed to sell my shows. I have only really put a lot of focus on it since starting the Dallas Solo Fest back in 2014.

I have slowly embraced the administrative side of things as inevitable and that they should, in fact, be done as well as the artistic side of things. To do otherwise is a disservice to your show.

Live performance is a unique thing to market nowadays. It is location dependent and time-sensetive. A lot of what the internet has to offer, doesn't work for marketing theatre. But there's tools still to be found in social media, email, websites and the like.

It has been a slow trudge, but I am getting better at it a little at a time.

Q: This is a good time to talk about the Dallas Solo Fest. How’d that come about?

A: I envisioned an intimate, “boutique” fringe-like theatre festival in Dallas to showcase a curated collection of local and national solo artists presenting full festival-length pieces. My li’l theatre company was in an interesting place back in 2013-2014. We had a cheap, accessible space with about 80 seats and I saw that here was an opportunity to finally make the idea a reality.

A lot of getting things done in life, I believe, is recognizing opportunities when they arise. So, I put together the kind of festival that I’d want to go to. It has stayed small and personal on purpose. I’ve had a small, flexible, wonderful crew. The technician, Shea Smith is just a great, solid dude. And you [Grant] were instrumental in helping me get it off the ground, supporting the festival behind the scenes every year. Thank you for all your help. This year, my friend Erin Singleton is coming in to work box office.

Q: How has the Dallas Solo Fest been received?

A: Mostly positive. The artists who have participated have mostly had positive experiences. We have tried to make southern hospitality a real thing.

The audiences have been very enthusiastic and audience attendance has grown over the years, but only incrementally. We have had sell-out crowds and we have had audiences of as little as three people. It has been horribly uneven. I have yet to figure out the tipping point/ force multiplier to really launch audience attendance. It is the single most frustrating thing. At the rate DSF is currently growing, it would be years before it becomes the draw that I’d like it to be.

The growth of the DSF has paralleled the decline of print media and, really, just arts coverage in general. My media list is much shorter than it used to be. And though a few bloggers and amateur arts journalists have sprung up, they do not have the reach and readership to counterbalance the disappearance of arts coverage at mainstream newspapers and websites. And those mainstream papers and websites that are still around are now harder than ever to grab the attention of. So that, too, has been a challenge.

It could be that festivals have a shelf-life. Maybe the demand really is not what I think it is. That has to be take into consideration. The only way to know is to try as hard as possible to put on a great fest, then sell the festival to audiences. Then we'll see who and how many show up. It is a hard process, but I keep good books and genuinely hope the DSF will be embraced in the cultural landscape.

On a personal note, I hugely enjoy getting to know both new artists and the audience members who attend the fest. If it starts to really take off, then I could see keeping it going, and continuing to refine it, for another five or even ten years.

Q: Since 2014, the Dallas Solo Fest has featured around 30 different individual solo shows, with eight more about to be presented this year. Of the shows you've seen to date, which DSF show has most surprised you or been different than you expected?

A: Ooooh, good question. I have seen all of them, sometimes more than once. I am going to leave off from this answer any shows that were surprising because they were less than expected (sadly, that has happened a few times). 

One of the shows that made me laugh the most was David Mogolov's Eating My Garbage. He has set me against eating Subway sandwiches since. 

One of the most heart-felt pieces in the DSF was Bremner Duthie's show '33: a Kabarett. I was overwhelmed at the depth of his show and the performer's talent as a singer.

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

A: I am not sure what the future of solo performance holds. Though it has been a thing for ages, I feel it is just in the last decade or so become a true legitimate format. Unfortunately, it is often still viewed as a narcissistic showcase thing. Or is mixed up with other one-person formats like stand-up comedy (this is not helped by stand-up's recent sneaky co-opting of solo performance, such as Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette).

Since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, theatres more and more were willing to give solo performance a chance since the production costs are comparatively low for one-person productions. Arts Centers around the country continue to “round out” their subscriber packages by programming solo performers… if those performers have a bit of a name.

I used to consider solo performance as nothing better than a stepping stone to another career. Famed soloists of the past like Lily Tomlin, John Leguizamo, Whoopi Goldberg, Eric Bogosian and even Spalding Gray leveraged their solo performance fame into film and TV roles. And then kinda stopped there.

One of the most successful solo performers in a long-term sense has been Hal Holbrook with his ever-adaptable show Mark Twain Tonight! He has been performing that show for half a century. It is an institution by this point. But again, Holbrook is a film and television actor mostly. And he has traded variety (by having just the one solo show) for depth. It is a good trade-off, in my opinion, but a trade-off nonetheless.

Mike Daisey continues to experiment with the form, mostly testing the limits of time duration in his storytelling, but I am not sure what his end goal is.

Beyond its use as a steping stone to other industries, I am not really sure what the mountaintop looks like in solo performance. I mean, there is a support stucture for sustaining it with fringes fests and independent venues scattered around, like a less formal and more contemporary Chautauqua circuit or vaudeville circuit. But what is the highest achievement to be had? In the past Ruth Draper gave a command performance for King George V at Windsor Castle. That was cultural power.

I do hope solo performance catches on enough in mainstream theatre - or hell, just with the mainstream in general – to maybe fill large theatres or even stadiums and get Netflix specials someday. I think that would be great, but to be honest, even if stuff does go that way, it will be a long way off.

For me, I am not sure what my own end-goal is, either. I will continue doing what I’m doing as long as I feel it has significance and I am enjoying it. I have, at least, a few more solo shows in me waiting to be created, toured and performed for audiences all over the place.

Q: Shout outs or links?

Sure thing…
Come see my show Cyrano A-Go-Go at the Dallas Solo Fest (or later this summer at the Elgin Fringe).

Or, see my newest show The Beast of Hyperborea at the Festival of Independent Theatres in Dallas in July 2019.

My main home online is at:

Here’s these, too:

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