Solo stage shows must be regarded as the theater equivalent of a highwire act in which the performer is working without a net. For better or worse, the actor has no one else to pull focus, no one else to bounce lines off of or react to, no one else to cover any gaffes. From wire to wire, the actor is essentially under a microscope. Carrying an entire show single-handedly is one of theater’s steepest heights to climb.
As challenging as it is to pull off any such show, it’s conversely among the least difficult types of plays for a playwright to create. That author can use the form and the solo persona to express a stream of thoughts, ideas and emotions.
Greenberg’s Plays at South Coast Repertory
Richard Greenberg and SCR have been collaborating for 31 years. Throughout this time, SCR has produced 12 of his plays. “Three Days of Rain” has been produced twice, making the total count 13.
“A Shot Rang Out”*
“Three Days of Rain” (revival)
“Our Mother’s Brief Affair”**
“The Injured Party”**
“A Naked Girl on the Appian Way”**
“The Violet Hour”**
“Hurrah at Last”**
“Triumph of Love”
“Three Days of Rain”**
“Night and Her Stars”**
“The Extra Man”**
* world premiere
** world premiere, commissioned by SCR
Considering how closely – and frequently – South Coast Repertory and playwright Richard Greenberg have worked over the past three decades, it’s a wonder they haven’t tackled a solo show.
That’s about to change with this weekend’s opening of “A Shot Rang Out.” Greenberg wrote the play especially for SCR artistic director David Ivers, who stars in a show that carries the tongue-in-cheek subtitle of “A Play in One Man.”
“Shot” is yet another SCR world premiere. It’s the eleventh time SCR and Greenberg have teamed up on a show. It’s the first SCR-Greenberg play to follow an unplanned 10-year hiatus. Perhaps most crucially, it marks the company’s return to live, indoor theater after enduring a year and a half of pandemic-induced shutdown.
The working relationship between playwright and theater company began with “The Extra Man” in fall 1991. Counting the current show, SCR has produced 13 Greenberg plays (including “Three Days of Rain” twice). The majority have been world premieres of works commissioned by SCR.
The character Ivers portrays in this current production is, like Ivers himself, also an actor – one who is returning to the stage after a lengthy period of isolation.
Thrust before an audience, the character is alone under the theater’s harsh lighting, and visibly shaken. Greenberg’s new play documents the winding life journey of this individual, pointing the way to the events that led to his seclusion.
Using the Solo Show Format to Welcome Audiences Back
Greenberg said the earliest days of the pandemic and theater shutdown generated discussions between himself and theater colleagues such as Ivers regarding “when theater would be brought back. No one knew what was going to happen.”
Literally “in the dark” regarding what form new productions might take during the shutdown, theaters like SCR bounced around ideas like using film, videotape and live streaming to keep theater going.
Ivers said he knew early on that due to union protocols and other limiting factors, “our best chances of coming back were going to be smaller-cast shows.” A solo show certainly qualifies. Anyone who surveys the current landscape will see that many theaters across the nation are reemerging or have reemerged from the pandemic by tapping solo shows or choosing scripts that require a minimal cast contingent – a way to rein in costs while helping conform to COVID protocols.
Greenberg said Ivers “had always flirted with the idea of being alone on stage” and that early in the pandemic, Ivers and SCR managing director Paula Tomei had discussions comparing that concept with how isolated everyone felt, concluding that a solo show was a good format to tap for the resumption of live theater.
Ivers said his concurrent conversations with Greenberg revolved around his writing a new, small-cast show for SCR. He called Greenberg on March 13, 2020 – the day everything shut down in California – and said, “You want to write that play now?”
That got the ball rolling, but Ivers says, “We didn’t know (Greenberg) was going to write about a theater guy in isolation coming back to the stage.”
Not only were Ivers, Tomei, dramaturg Jerry Patch and others at SCR ecstatic at the resulting script, Ivers said that because of the way the lone character’s trials and tribulations dovetailed so neatly with what millions of people worldwide had been experiencing due to the pandemic, “A Shot Rang Out” was the play for SCR to unveil in welcoming live audiences back to the theater.
Tony Taccone, brought in by Ivers to direct the show, says the play “captures the more striking aspects of emerging from the pandemic. The conflicts afflicting our hero – his behavior, his problems, his suffering, his experiences – are those that many, if not all of us, have shared, so it feels so right for this time. It was written for that moment and is spot-on in terms of capturing the zeitgeist of the moment – and that makes it feel immediate.”
Written from a Personal Place
Playwright Greenberg says the script reflects and is informed by the uncertainties surrounding the theater world at the start of the pandemic. Theaters everywhere struggled to find a precedent, he said, for what they were experiencing. Greenberg said that even now, more than a year later and with the advent of vaccines plus masking and distancing protocols, few tangible precedents exist.
Yet, Greenberg said, “A Shot Rang Out” isn’t about millions of people suffering through a dreaded contagion, but, rather, the personal journey of one person, upon which playwright and audience could project their fears and uncertainties.
“The play isn’t directly autobiographical, but it’s a map of my mental condition during the pandemic,” Greenberg said. The script is filled with his perceptions and emotions from an anxiety-ridden part of his life. “I had other personal things going on” throughout 2020, he said.
“Personal” includes a cancer diagnosis which included figuring out how to go back and forth to his radiation treatment without getting COVID.
“I had to deal with having to get to and from radiation treatment without getting COVID,” Greenberg said. Thus he was able to use the process of writing about an isolated character as a form of therapy. “I feel more emotional control when I’m writing. In writing for David, I was writing out of the anxiety I was feeling, and filled the play with it.”
Taccone calls the script “very much a Richard Greenberg play stylistically, emotionally and tonally. The language is rich and the play is gorgeous and moves in wildly different directions. Its dramatic arc is elliptical, not traditional. Where it starts out and where it ends up are completely different.”
While the latter part of the play contains “a peripheral reference to a major event that could well be” referring to COVID, this is never stated outright and the play isn’t about the pandemic.
Ivers said Greenberg had a first draft ready within weeks. “You never know quite what you’re gonna get with a new play. My first read confirmed this was definitely a first-draft work, but inside I felt it was a thing of beauty.” He sent it to Patch and director Tony Taccone, who confirmed this.
“We’ll always be emerging from the pandemic,” Ivers said. “The entire globe has a deep memory (of it).”
“(This play) meets the moment so universally of being in the middle of a pandemic. It’s so beautiful, so immediate, so painful, so hopeful, all at once, and without naming what we’re actually in,” Ivers said. “(It’s) laden with his use of vocabulary and his stunning use of language, his intelligence, his wicked sense of wit.”
Director Taccone notes that Greenberg employs “a very sly dramatic strategy” and the play ranges from funny elements to those that express hard truths about the human condition.
As for the show’s title, Greenberg fell upon it while reading a mystery novel whose climactic point elicited the phrase “a shot rang out.” The playwright said he was struck by “the audacity of the cliché” in terms of the author’s use of it.
Greenberg said at that moment, it occurred to him that the phrase was a fitting title for his script. “The catastrophic suddenness of a shot ringing out is à propos,” he said, not only referring to the suddenness of the pandemic, but also to the nature of creating this new play.
The Demands of Solo Shows
The prolific Greenberg has written just one other solo show, “Jenny Keeps Talking,” an early ’90s play in which one actress delivers three monologues spoken by three different characters.
He notes that while the one-person format offers the playwright “more narrative leeway” than anything with multiple characters, it imposes tremendous demands upon the performer. The form, he said, affords writers the maximum in self-indulgence even as they make incredible demands upon performer, director and even audiences.
Well-versed in the demands of directing one-person shows, director Taccone has worked with Carrie Fisher, John Leguizamo and countless others in bringing their solo vehicles to life on stage. “A Shot Rang Out,” though, is of a different stripe from these others – it’s a solo show that isn’t written by the performer.
It’s also Ivers’ first time taking on the formidable challenge of carrying a show from wire to wire. Ivers said he has portrayed many of the big, iconic roles, including Hamlet, Salieri and Cyrano de Bergerac, but he has never performed a solo show. The task of making it work is “daunting …. I don’t know how I’ll respond in front of an audience.”
“I’ve dipped my toe into this format,” he said, “but this is my first time doing so in a fully realized way. It’s humbling.”
Among the challenges to Ivers includes just learning the 85-page script (“it’s a lot to learn”). Then there are the insecurities that come with “vulnerability, the emotional arc, the challenge of creating intimacy with the audience, the stamina to perform it.”
Ivers said solo shows also differ from traditional plays in another aspect that’s not so readily apparent: They rely on the presence of an audience whose reactions become much more important when there are no other characters on stage to perform with. “(This play) needs an audience to receive it, needs people to share it with.”
Taccone corroborates this point, saying that with a solo show, “the primary dramatic relationship is between the actor and the audience.” While not every actor is able to handle the demands of being alone on the stage, Taccone believes Ivers clearly is.
‘A Shot Rang Out’
When: Oct. 2 – Nov. 6, 2021
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Healthcare Workers: 1,000 complimentary tickets for healthcare workers have been set aside for performances between Oct. 2 and 24. To reserve those tickets, go to scr.org/forms/complimentary-tickets
Info: 714-708-5500, scr.org
Reworking the Script Until It’s Audience-Ready
This past August, Taccone, Ivers and Patch took the play to Theater Aspen, a summer-long play festival whose final week is devoted to one-person shows. Performing the show for what Taccone calls a small crowd, the three were able to identify where the play needed work in what he calls “the last really big script push,” essentially using the festival as an out-of-town tryout.
Rehearsals began back at SCR on Sept. 8, during which the third and final round of edits are being implemented. Even as opening night approaches, Ivers continues regular phone calls with Greenberg to discuss the script.
“We’re still making cuts,” he said, as he and Taccone continue tapping the playwright to tweak and fine-tune. Thus, “A Shot Rang Out” has proven just as fluid and unpredictable as the calamitous course of world events and the new reality that created fertile ground for its birth.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.