The Fringe has changed a form
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
It began with this article and one quote from it. "Don't be afraid of doing a real play. They are a nice break from all the one-person shows. (David C. Jones)"
That particular piece of advice to Fringers was then tweeted by Brian M. Carroll (a reviewer and Fringe nut) - @BrianMCarroll (fullyfringed.ca) - who offered no comment.
Nancy Kenny - @nancykenny (nancykenny.ca) - a theatre person was dismayed. Soon, in the tweet-off, Ms Kenny brought up Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape - perhaps one of the greatest solos in theatre history.
It became a wonderful convo with theatre artist Rob Salerno - @RobSalerno (robsalerno.wordpress.com) - dotting i's and crossing t's with this Tweet: "Solos can be terrible. So can duos, sketch, improv, music, and yes, even 'real' plays."
At the heart of this, I realized, was a discussion not of what is or is not a good play. Mr. Jones' advice, and my and, I think, Mr. Caroll's reaction to it was: of course. The Fringe has elevated the solo and debased it at the same time. Fringe has forced us to look at the idea of "a play" and - also because of the rise of long-form anecdotal standup (Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me, say), spoken word, poetry-slams, story-telling etc. - has turned the discussion into an interesting minefield.
Let's start with the actor. Are they playing a character or - as they simply tell a story sitting on a stool with little or no theatrical artifice - are they basically themselves offering a tale that may or may not be told cleverly or may or may not be the full truth? If you can imagine that person, on stage, in front of you doing precisely the same thing at a dinner or party...is that a play? We all know people who tell good stories. When they do it with ease and assurance in a theatre does that make it a play?
Now, let's complicate the issue. If the same person with the same story adds music, lighting effects, stage effects (let's say still constrained by Fringe size and budget) and makes that story PRIMARILY a theatrical event then, perhaps, it is a play. I would posit it is that ephemeral thing we call art. Let's enter dangerous waters indeed now: I would suggest that, when it comes to the personal solo - beyond effects - the text itself must meet two other criteria: is it unusual? is it also universal?
Sure, there is a lot of bad solo art which have many hallmarks: coming out stories, one more highly personal and itchifying than the other; tales of first menstruation (not itchifying but unless you're Carrie, not particularly interesting anymore); sex stories; dreams... They all seem to fall into the category of TMI (too much information; read: embarassing). It becomes like one of the reveals in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - the failure of a novel that was not a novel but a true story. Just because it's "true" does not make it art...or good - it just makes it factual.
Of course, all this is angels on the head of a pin and even the discussion of what is and what is not a play, theatre or art is one for the ages.
I think I have to conclude on what all these things are or aren't by paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it..."
(Yes, but when is it porn and when is it erotica...?)