Therese Diekhans’ “The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” and the tradition of solo performance

About a month ago, local Seattle playwright Paul Mullins wrote an article for the Seattle PostGlobe digging into large theatres in the area for more heavily leaning on solo performance. While I share his frustration that large houses are focusing on smaller and smaller theatre (which I assume is part of the reason they are losing their traditional audiences), I just can’t tolerate his opinion that solo performance is not theatre. The first paragraph of the article is very condescending towards solo performers:

Let me be clear: By pointing out that one-person shows are not, strictly speaking, theatre, I am in no way trying to denigrate them or argue for their banishment. It has been a long standing tradition for regional theatres to opt for filling one slot in their season with an easily produced, low-overhead solo show, but indications are rising that Big Houses in this town intend to lean on this option more heavily in the future.

Sure, yes, big houses are behaving in a frustrating way and sure, a lot of what we see on a regular basis from solo performance is not theatre in the traditional sense — stand-up comedy or spoken word being two such forms of solo performance — but I have seen some AMAZING solo performances in my young life (and yes, they deserve that much emphasis with the word “amazing”), as well as a host of bad solo performances, that qualify entirely as theatre. Take, for example, Anna Deavere Smith’s amazing solo performances, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles (the former I have had the pleasure of seeing on tape, the latter I have not yet watched). Deavere Smith is an incredible, virtuous actor and talented writer. I feel as though the current production at the Intiman is somehow trying to hark back to that, mixed with The Laramie Project, which is not terribly appealing (yes, let’s have an out of town director, actor, and writer all tell Seattle what we think of our own city. Great idea). But Deavere Smith brought a lot of legitimacy solo performance, which is usually dominated by comedians or performance artists on a soap box. I have also had the great pleasure of seeing Dawson Nichols’ Virtual Solitaire a grand total of 3 times. Dawson was a visiting professor at my university when I was in school, and while I was admittedly not wild about his theatre history class, I was so impressed with his writing, self-direction (a feat so hard to pull off that I cannot recommend it to anyone), and performance of multiple digital and real characters in a futuristic, computer-run world, that I took his solo performance class that May. He wove subconscious, nightmare images, acid flashbacks, computer terminal operation, and the real, borderline disturbing oversharing often found on the internet into one beautiful and almost flawless script (if there were flaws, I honestly can’t remember any). I cannot believe that this solo performance is not theatre, because it has become one of those plays by which I measure other pieces of theatre, even those which involve multiple people. I also thoroughly enjoyed David Natale’s tribute to Eastern European Jewish cabaret performers, held in concentration camps, in The Westerbork Serenade. A brilliant piece of writing and performance. What exactly makes these works “not theatre”? Paul Mullins does not bother to define his terms, as he is too focused on shredding the Intiman and the Seattle Rep, the former of which has lost my respect for two mediocre shows in a row, the latter of which lost my respect after an abysmal production of You Can’t Take It With You (which, if you can honestly screw up so saccharine and easy a play, you don’t deserve respect). Yes, I think they can and should aspire to do much, much better, but I don’t think this automatically means solo performances are not theatre, and to say that the only reason theatres and theatre festivals ever produce these plays is to fill an empty slot in their otherwise over-budget season is insulting.

I think solo performance in general is trendy right now. Lots of theatres, not just the big theatres in town, have solo performances in their season, either this year or next year. Balagan had “The Jammer,” W.E.T. has “Cancer: The Musical,” “All My Children” is at the Richard Hugo House, Printer’s Devil Theatre has the interactive gambling show “Keefee’s House of Cards” — and that’s just to name a few. I think I’m missing 2, and I haven’t seen the lineup for next season for most of the local fringe theatres.

“The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” a show by Therese Diekhans, was a great solo show I got to see this past weekend. Diekhans embodied multiple characters including Mother Jones, one of the most prominent women leading the union movement in the 19th century. She also portrayed several children, most of whom worked in mills and coal mines, a handful of rough miners, a governor and a lawyer. Each character wove seamlessly into the next, and while I wasn’t sure if I would like the show (by creating and performing a show about a unionist, Diekhans is inherently on a political soap box, since unions are such a hot button topic in the news right now, and soap box solo shows make me cringe), but within the first 5 minutes her dedication to story-telling swept my imagination away. I know a solo show has been good if I remember much more scenery, many more characters, than there actually were in the story, and that is how I remember this one. My brain remembers the hills of West Virginia, the dark, smokey bar where Mother Jones preached her union sermon, the dusty northern mills where children desperately tried to avoid losing limbs for 12 hours a day. None of these locations appeared on stage, although characters were in them at various times. But I remember them clearly, as though I had watched a movie of this instead of a bare stage solo performance.

Solo performance has a rich history in this country, just like musicals. Does Paul Mullins think musicals are not theatre? … actually, he probably does, I shouldn’t ask that. But solo performances are theatre. And the big theatres in this town are tawdry and weak. The real, impressive, new work is being done by the small theatres in town, and I think Mullins’ article is weighed down with resentment that these theatres have not picked up his plays. Stick a wedge between the two, and support your local small theatres. You’ll get to see some great solo shows, 4th-wall breaking shows, original works, musicals, maybe even some opera if you’re lucky. The Rep and the Intiman have failed us, but solo performers have not.

Also, Therese Diekhans is off to the fringe festival in LA with her show — break legs, Therese!

2 thoughts on “Therese Diekhans’ “The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” and the tradition of solo performance

  1. Therese Diekhans was magnificent as Mother Jones! After the LA Fringe Festival, I hope she’ll take this show on the road. It’s worth it! I saw it the same day I saw Candide at the 5th Ave. It also was a great show and beautifully done. But I left “Most Dangerous Woman . . . ” with a lift in my heart and my step that told me I’d much rather see Therese Diekhans again than the touring Broadway company! And I’d rather have paid the big bucks to Mother Jones!

  2. I liked “Candide” as well, for a totally different reason than I liked “Dangerous Woman”. If I hadn’t had comp tickets to “Candide,” though, I doubt I would have seen it as I would usually rather spend my money where it makes a difference, and where I’m more sure I’ll get a good show. And yes, I wish Therese the best in LA!

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