Solo performers take to the stage in Vancouver’s Fringe Festival

When was the last time you ran across someone in full clown makeup, sporting a gigantic flowery headdress, trying to purchase a sandwich in broken English? Well, if you were lucky enough to take part in this year’s Fringe Festival at Granville Island, that may have been just last week.

Fringe fest brings a massive selection of theatre to Vancouver, with acts ranging from improvised comedy, to sincere drama, to a group which picks up theatergoers in a rickshaw and treats them to a personalized snippet of theatre as they travel.  Amongst the smorgasbord of productions were a number of one-man or one-woman productions, relying on a single performer to carry audiences on an hour long journey with nary a slip.

The artists who choose to put themselves in the spotlight without accompaniment do so for a variety of reasons, but nearly all cite a few common elements which draw them to solo work. The most practical of these, says solo performer Gemma Wilcox, is the simple fact that, “if you’re going to make any money at all it’s hard to make it with one or more people.”

Far from the sole motivator, money often took a backseat in the performers’ analysis of their inspirations. Wilcox, as well as several of her cohorts, cited the portability and malleability of solo shows as one of the great upsides. David Gaines, the man onstage for two concurrently showing one-man acts, enjoys the fact that, “If you decide you want to change something, you can just try it, you don’t have to think about how [it] affects the other people in the company.”
Gaines spent this year’s Fringe Festival wowing audiences with his one man interpretation of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film, Seven Samurai. He has been working as a performing artist for the better part of 35 years, and spent many years performing with accompaniment prior to starting his solo acts.

As Gaines says, “it’s the first solo piece [he has] put on,” and yet his frenetic mixture of clowning, physical comedy and slapstick violence has had audiences in stitches, and critics raving. With pacing that brings to mind early ‘80s Robin Williams standup, he credits “watching too much television, especially cartoons,” with inspiring him to perform in a manner that had his makeup running off his chin by the end of the hour.

Offering another slightly manic comedic romp this year was Chris Gibbs, with his highly interactive piece, Antoine Feval. His is a tale of a dunce who befriends a mastermind jewel thief, and in the process becomes an unwitting aid to a series of heists in 19th century London.

Gibbs had his beginnings as a street performer, doing “an acrobatic show with no real idea of what needed to be done to get an audience.” He has grown over time into a comedic performer who still incorporates a bit of his acrobatic prowess into each show. His decision to perform unaccompanied was a natural outgrowth of his roots in street performance, although he has worked with a partner at previous Fringe shows.

According to Gibbs, despite the elasticity of solo work, there is a slight hang up in the fact of “how lonely it can be,” as, “when a show goes well or even badly it’s great to be able to share that with someone.” While all of the spoils go to a single party, two of the solo artists interviewed acknowledged that, oftentimes, “[they] prefer working with a company.”
Wilcox, the one-woman creative team behind Shadows in Bloom, was the exception to this rule, as her work is “sort of autobiographical, so [solo work gives] me the opportunity to play around with different parts of that.”

Her performance centers on the relationship exploits of a pair of semi-analogous characters named Pete and Sandra, although she gives voice to a host of other elements, including francophone houseplants and soon-to-be-boiled lobsters. With this subject matter in mind, she feels “attracted to doing one woman shows for that reason, just to play all those parts out” onstage.

With the impending arts cuts looming around the corner, the flexibility and slightly greater profit margins of solo performance may soon cause a greater number of performers to adopt the form for upcoming Fringe Festivals. This in turn means that there will be ever more costumed loonies meandering the pathways of Granville Island with armloads of brochures promoting their work, and all the more reason to see a few shows next year.

With a seeming nod to the financial hardships of the future, Gaines offered his evaluation of solo theatre: “it’s great fun ... it’s not terribly remunerative, but if it’s in your blood, it’ll make you happy to do it.”

//Max MacKay
Staff Writer

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