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.
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.
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.
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.
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.