It astonishes me that on its tenth anniversary, more theater-goers don’t know about the splendid United Solo Festival. The world’s largest of its kind, this curated collection of one-person presentations offers 120 shows from countries such as Canada, Israel, Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Nigeria, and South Africa, as well as the United States. From September 19 through November 24, the intimate, top floor theater of 410 West 42nd Street (Theatre Row) runs mostly one-off performances each day and into the evening. (If there’s demand, several shows are scheduled.)
The extraordinarily diverse menu contains biography, comedy, drama, documentary, stand-up, music, and movement. Artists stand before an audience, often with next to no scenery or tech to distract. Opportunity exists to reach out to the industry, generate income, and receive media attention. It’s a grab bag of talent, culture, tradition and perspective.
Every year, I interview four participants to show festival range. Two are included here.
The Tall Boy by Simon Bent
Developed by actress Tandy Cronyn
Based on Kaye Boyle’s short story The Lost.
Directed by David Hammond
September 28, 2 p.m.
Actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy exposed daughter Tandy to theater early on. She passed through Brearley and boarding school in Bavaria, with the stage as a horizon line. Instead of following up with theater studies, Cronyn bent to the will of her authoritarian father and attended Canada’s McGill University (he was Canadian) flunking out “as badly as I could.” (She grins.) Central School of Speech and Drama paved the way for three years working in London, seeing theater that featured the greats of our time. Cronyn has been a working actor since the age of 19.
Like many thespians, the performer looked for a unique source from which she could develop a solo play. Experience appearing in a one person show, William Luce’s The Belle of Amhurst, had been extremely satisfying. Prerequisites? It had to be smart, “thrilling,” and in a woman’s voice. After several “go-rounds that just didn’t work,” it was suggested she look into women writers of the early 20th century, especially those who went to cover wars. As Cronyn “never really cottoned to the idea of someone’s biography,” she read a considerable amount of non-fiction and short stories.
Novelist, short story writer, educator, and political activist Kay Boyle spent almost 20 years living and working abroad. She went to Germany after the war and covered the Nuremberg trials. Cronyn found The Lost in a book of Boyle’s stories called Smoking Mountain. It concerns three displaced boys, ages 12, 14, and 16; an Italian, a Pole, and a Czech who meet at a displaced person camp in Germany’s American Occupied Zone just after WWII, around 1946.
“The refugee problem was humongous,” she says. “Addressing it took an international effort – hello, is anybody listening? The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was formed even before the war was over. It’s not specifically mentioned in the story, but my director suggested I look it up.” The agency, though largely dominated by The United States, represented 44 nations. (It shut down operations in 1947.)
“Having lost everything, the boys got swept up by different Army units as mascots,” she says. “Each was indelibly imprinted by GIs who took them under their wings. One sounds as if he came from the deep South, one like a Brooklynite, one like Jimmy Cagney.” (Cronyn demonstrates the three accents with ease.) “They’d been with the troops two or three years,” she continues. “Their units are family. Mother is The U.S. Army.” Two unsuccessfully try to stow away on a New York-bound boat. The third is sure he has rosier options.
Head of The Kay Boyle Society conjectures The Lost is based on true stories told to the author by her friend Kathryn Hulme who worked with refugees for UNRRA and was part of a team that ran Wildflecken, a camp for displaced Poles in Bavaria. Cronyn read Hulme’s own book The Wild Place, Marcia Davenport’s memoir Too Strong for Fantasy, and a great many first person accounts. She commissioned British playwright Simon Bent (Elling) to adapt a piece that would now be called The Tall Boy.
“I related a lot to the material. I remember being in a taxi with my (British) mother in London, driving past a pile of rubble that looked like it had been a church,” Cronyn says. “I said, what’s that? She answered, `a bomb site.’ It was 1960 and they still hadn’t…then I get to Bavaria where the German economy had totally rebounded. I saw no sign of war damage. It was shocking.” (Cronyn is a political activist.) I ask whether she speaks German. “I once had a governess who taught the odd phrase,” she says. “Haben Sie sich die Tourenzähne geputzt? (Have you brushed tour teeth?)” She laughs.
The play debuted in 2012. “I was great about developing the piece but lax about producing,” she says. It’s been performed in several other states and in 2014 won Best Adaptation at United Solo. “I had to rehearse and rehearse in order to abruptly change accents, and just as importantly, body language. You basically have to choreograph it. David (Hammond) would tell me where it got muddy. It has to be precise. I play the American relief worker, the boys and some secondary characters.” The Tall Boy will play Chicago’s Stage 773 December 5 though 15, 2019.
Tandy Cronyn is working on a solo show that’s come out of Writers@LargeNYC, a group that meets regularly at The Lambs Club for readings and feedback. It’s the story of an important Washington Democrat with influence and personality. Stay tuned.
Opening Photo Trix Rosen
Beat the Devil!
Written and Performed by Glen Williamson
Based on Goethe’s Faust
September 20, 9 p.m.
Actor Glen Williamson emerged from Childrens‘ theater, Julliard, and Michael Chekhov studies to co-found The Actors Ensemble and participate in the collective New Directions. A spiritual man with deep feeling and sharp intellect it’s not difficult to believe, after meeting, that Goethe‘s Faust has been prominent in his life’s 39 years.
While at University of California Santa Cruz, Williamson was sent on an exchange program to Dornach, Switzerland to work on a rare, uncut production of Faust mounted every few years by the world center for the anthroposophical movement, Goetheanum. “Twenty-four, one-half hours of playing time, not counting intermissions,” he recalls. “A nine-play repertory. I’ve heard that a more recent production was about 17 hours. Maybe they talk faster now.” Williams only exposure to that point had been auditing an upper division course. He had to learn German.
Between rehearsals, performance and lectures, he got to know the play really well and to love it. The artist then co-directed an abbreviated two part version at college. “Part I is the basis for the famous operas,” he says. “That’s all most people know, but part II gets really wild.” It was another 19 years before he tackled his own adaptation. That effort began as a series of long improvisations with only beginning and end fixed. From these the script was crafted.
When I ask what attracted him to the story, Williamson notes a prologue in heaven where the devil’s complaining to God about human life being pointless and absurd. A self-described “contemplative 21 year-old,” he’d been raised Presbyterian, but meditating since the age of 12. “I heard a radio show during which Betty Bethards spoke on a course of meditation, guardian angels, and reincarnation. Meditation opened up worlds for me.”
“What were our thoughts about the deal that was made,” I ask. “The bargain in Marlowe’s Faust, the version with which most people are familiar, is not the same as the one in Goethe’s Faust,” he says. “In Goethe, he twists it. Faust says, ‘Okay, devil, you think you can satisfy me? I’m a human being. You think you understand human striving? Alright, you try.’ He asks for a lot of things, but the devil gets more than he bargains for. (Remember Twilight Zone episodes where specificity and cleverness created unexpected results of wishes.) It becomes an exploration of what it is to be human and the nature of evil.”
“At one point the Devil says, ‘I am a part of that power that always intends to do evil and always accomplishes good,’” he says. “As I understand it, Goethe is saying that evil ultimately serves the good because good can only develop by meeting resistance through encountering evil, that it serves a purpose.” A more colloquial example of this might be Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in which a utopian society has to literally invent evil in order to create balance/order.
God’s positivity is something of a surprise which appears, at first look, to be an extremely dark piece. “Human beings make mistakes as long as they strive, but in the end they will find their way,” he says. As we slog through what many perceive as our current dark ages, belief in humanity feels like a lighthouse.
I inquire how Williamson’s feelings about the piece have changed in 20 years. “I have a deeper sense of what’s important,” he says. “At the end of Faust’s life, he has a confrontation with a being called Sorge, which literally translates as care or worry. I call her Guilt, which I think works better in English. She appears as a gray feminine spirit along with Want, Debt, and Need.” (‘Sound topical?) “That scene has helped me when depression threatens. It says, I see you but I won’t acknowledge your power.”
“Would you make a deal with the devil?,” I ask. “As modern human beings, we all make these bargains,” he says. “We live in a time of profound evil. Technology, for example. Where would we be without it, but is it serving us or are we serving/bound to it? It’s always a question, a tension.”
The artist says his audience doesn’t have to know the story beforehand. If one does, he notes, there will be surprises. If not, it will all be a surprise. Certainly the theme is relevant, age old, and universal.
Glen Williamson participated in the very first United Solo and has presented his Faust, in their ‘Best of’ category, three times. He currently performs this and several other solo shows all over the country and has just written his first full length play.
Photos by Robb Creese
For more information, go to the website for the United Solo Festival.