What are audiences to make of the single female figure onstage, making theater out of her
hopes and dreams, her bitterest war stories, crashed love affairs, even her poems? Molly
Peacock explores the intimate, entrancing lone-star state known as the one-woman show.
Every woman I know has a one-woman show in her, a part of her life she would love to have onstage. It could be the romantic part or the most painful part—it doesn't matter. What matters is the impulse in each of us to lean forward and say, "Whew, could I tell you a story."
Three women—a jazz singer, a cartoonist, and a poet—are trying to figure out exactly how to do just that. At 50, 48, and 58, and already well known in their own fields, they are venturing into theater for the first time, crossing over to a brand-new art form to refresh their lives. I know the first two because I'm a fan of their work: the zesty Canadian jazz singer Denise Pelley and the beloved New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts. The third one, the poet, is me. We began these ventures with the encouragement of two dauntless younger women from London, Ontario: Louise Fagan, 40, and Jacquie Gauthier, 42, who are the driving forces behind Femme Fatale Theatre Productions. The warmhearted, statuesque Fagan, a theater director and music producer, and the vivacious Gauthier, a radio host and writer, created Femme Fatale on a handshake only a year and a half ago, but with great style and energy they're already on their way to realizing Fagan's idea of a minifestival of one-woman shows that will tour North America. Femme Fatale took our three shows to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., last fall, and to an off-Broadway run at Urban Stages in New York City from February 13 to 26, before heading off to other cities.
Imagine yourself in the theater, that private moment in the dark, the hush of the audience around you. The lights come up quickly on Denise Pelley in her one-woman musical, Jazzabel. In that first instant, when you realize that the staging has put you behind her as if you are invisibly onstage, you're slipping through the threshold of this woman's life. Her back is to you, and she's singing to another audience, one you can't see but you can sense, the cheering audience in the heyday of the Apollo Theater in New York City's Harlem of the 1930s and '40s. You're identifying with Grace the performer (she's the reckless Jazzabel's loyal friend, who's a singer, too), and you're in Grace's head—it feels as if you are right inside her voice. That's the transformative experience you have when you morph along with the woman onstage.
Pelley plays both the jaded Jazzabel and her innocent friend Grace, who leaves a small town to come to Harlem. Each character is an aspiring jazz singer who pursues her dreams—though they end up with very different ideas of success. As Pelley croons jazz tunes of the '30s and '40s like "Sugar" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," taking you deep into the music of the period, she connects with a complicated song in the heart of any ambitious woman: the melody that says, "Stay home and love your family," and the refrain that says, "Get out there and belt your heart out, no matter what."
In a way, the dreams of Grace and Jazzabel reflect Denise Pelley's own story: She's from a small city in southwestern Ontario, and coming to New York to perform is her own dream. She never thought it was possible until Jacquie Gauthier wrote Jazzabel for her and Jeff Christmas arranged and composed some of the music. Although Denise has been singing at sold-out performances in clubs and recording CDs, she knew the world of the theater would be more challenging. When you see her as Jazzabel in her dressing gown, slumped before her mirror, her embodiment of this majestic but worn-out character is so magically persuasive that you never think about the effort that's gone into her performance—the lines, the blocking, the wig and costume quick-changes, the sheer number of fresh skills Pelley has to conjure up to give you that stage-filling presence. That's a lot of pressure for one person. She could have stepped up to a microphone in a sound studio with her own clothes and her own hair and gone home to a calm midlife. But she took on the challenge. Why?
Because a one-woman show is about becoming—about how you become who you are. Whether it's Mercedes Ruehl as Peggy Guggenheim in Lanie Robertson's play Woman Before a Glass looking back on her choices, or Elaine Stritch in At Liberty seeking to understand her roles and regrets, or Claudia Shear in Blown Sideways Through Life figuring out why she got fired from her jobs, the exhilaration you feel as you empathize with the woman up there onstage lights you up as well. There you are, scrunched in your seat in a small theater among many spectators, but in fact you're having a solo experience—which can spark your own private fireworks of insight. When you consider all the pulls of the mundane world that conspired against your being showered, dressed, and finally in that seat, you may realize that lifting yourself out of your own routine to get to the theater has already given you what you've come for: a change of perspective.
You might even be able to laugh at yourself. Victoria Roberts, the New Yorker cartoonist, knows how the charge of a private laugh shared with another woman can make a hundred mental fireflies light up on a stage. The abracadabra of connection comes when that person below the proscenium arch says what you yourself have been thinking—as if you're both in the same cartoon bubble. Victoria understands the pressure point in a situation where you feel as if you're living in a cartoon. Born in New York but raised in Mexico and Australia, Victoria has been seeing her life in one-liners since she was a teenager. Cartoons stretch reality, and that's what she does on the pages of The New Yorker and in her books, but on the stage she actually stretches herself—literally—by gluing on an outrageous henna wig to become octogenarian Nona, a character she began drawing in art school in Sydney, Australia. Victoria had been moonlighting as a nurse's aide on weekends at a nursing home. The residents inspired her—particularly a confident, crusty dame named Queenie. Soon Victoria began drawing a portly naked lady sporting an enormous necklace—and called her Nona.
The only problem was that she was never able to make this nude oldster into a cartoon-strip character. It was hard to write clever captions for Nona, who was more a life force, a philosophy, than a source of one-liners. For years Victoria used the character in uncaptioned artwork, hearing a daffy, old-fashioned voice in her head as she drew. "Nona lived through the Depression and had a knowledge of how bad things could be, but also an optimism," Victoria told me. "She became concentrated, like frozen orange juice."
How do you get a quality of concentrated orange juice into a cartoon character whose quintessentially Australian accent you can hear so well inside you that you can imitate it on a dime? That's where the one-woman show comes in. Victoria has always wanted to make her cartoon character a living reality, and in her show Nona is as large as life. The thrill for Victoria is that her tiny line drawing, originally a product of her mind, becomes one with her body. First she envisioned Nona. Now through the character of Nona, Victoria makes herself visible. Yet for us in her audience, she will become a lens through which we can see ourselves—and be amused.
The Shimmering Verge
Every time I'm about to perform, I wonder if I have the courage to get up there yet again as a postmenopausal woman and be funny, sexy, and bold. I've been writing poems and reading them aloud since I was 10 years old, but a stage show is not just a poetry reading. The Shimmering Verge takes place inside a mysterious silk-paneled version of the cocoon where every poem is born, and the poems, whose titles range from "Have You Ever Faked an Orgasm?" to "Forgiveness," explore my childhood with an alcoholic dad, the deaths of my mom and sister, and my amazement at the luck of my midlife marriage. But it's really about the shimmering verge of in-between places in a woman's life, the times when she doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, to stay or go, to be thrilled or afraid—or even whether to live or die. These are the contradictions of living that poetry puts into words.
I've realized that a curious thing happened to me as I aged. The gifts I had cut off or ignored began to grow again. It was as if I were one of my grandmother's geraniums. The stems are full of dormant nodes of growth that will sprout if the head of the plant gets lopped off. My grandmother routinely cut back her geraniums for fuller growth, and by midlife I felt I had to cut back, too. I'd gotten leggy with overcommitments. I needed to fall dormant and let those side nodes grow. I thought that they'd just grow into more poems. I had no idea I'd make the poems into theater. But one day Louise Fagan asked me, a quaking newcomer to the stage, to participate in a benefit production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's groundbreaking show. After that experience, with Fagan's encouragement, I began to collect the poems I've written that have been most important to me, along with stories about my life as a poet. Fagan introduced me to a hip young rock musician turned serious composer, Andy Creeggan (one of the original members of the rock group Barenaked Ladies). Andy wrote the music for The Verge, as we call the show for short. So now here I am, doing agility training (dodging, pivoting, pointing, lunging, boxing!) and yoga to sustain the strength I need to get through a one-woman show.
Living Out Your One-Woman Show
I've begun to understand that the real reason a woman takes her private art to the public stage is the getting of wisdom. At a certain point, it dawns on you that you know a lot. And it comes to you that things that used to be hard for you have become easier. This ease provokes two reactions: One is simple astonishment that you've gotten this far and that your hard work has paid off, but the other is a secret longing for the days when things were more of a challenge. Luckily, just when Denise Pelley, Victoria Roberts, and I were ready for that challenge, the Femme Fatale team of Fagan and Gauthier came along.
Any woman, at any stage of her life, can stop to examine her own history, experience, and personal power and marvel at what she's learned. Whether you're a steady, rehearse-as-much-as-you-can type or you'd much rather wing it, from the moment the sun rises on your disheveled bed you step into the spotlight of your existence. That's the place where, even if you don't know your lines, you're going to have to perform. My definition of performance? Knowing you have to do your best, not only because people out there are expecting it but because you've learned that you really have your best to give. Every day you live out your own one-woman show.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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