The Ensemble of Soloists
The performer walks out on stage and a single white spotlight snaps to attention. The audience goes silent and waits, anxiously, for the play to begin. In that moment before a word is uttered, the actor holds everyone’s attention in his hands.
How does it feel to be a solo performer in a theatre filled with people? Exhilarating? Frightening? Powerful? It is, most likely, a combination of those emotions and more, much more.
For the 13 students in Dana Yeaton’s winter term class, “Performing Others: Writing and Staging the One-Person Show,” they found out intimately what solo performance is like, with a twist to the experience. The students wrote all of their material themselves.
“Performing Others” is both a theatre class and a college writing (CW) class. (Middlebury College students are required to take at least one CW class by the end of their fourth semester.) And from their first meeting on Jan. 3 – a sleepover for which every student had to write and then perform their own monologue – the students realized that Performing Others would probably be a transformational experience in terms of their acting, their writing, and their commitment to the workshop process.
Yeaton, a visiting assistant professor of theatre and 1979 graduate of the College, called the class “an ensemble of soloists.” Yes, every performance was a solo performance, but how the students got there was an ensemble experience. During the final week of winter term the students gave two public performances in Seeler Studio Theatre, but not before they spent countless hours in the workshop process examining each others’ writing and acting and motivations and biases, often under a microscope and in ways more personal than they expected.
“Almost nothing in theatre reaches full production today without being ‘workshopped’ first,” Yeaton explained to the class.
“So our process will be an open one. Almost before you have the impulse to put something in writing or on stage, your peers will be responding to it, shaping it with their questions, confusions, and enthusiasms. And, of course, each one of you will have the same responsibility toward their work.”
Performing Others met four days a week for two-and-a-half hours per day. The class also included weekly film screenings and frequent evening and weekend assignments. By the end of the second week, each student had written and performed (in class) six monologues of varying length. The students were required to react to their peers’ work, sometimes in face-to-face discussion and sometimes anonymously on paper.
English major Alexander “Sasha” Hirsch was a senior “Feb” who took Performing Others as his final class at Middlebury. Concerning the workshop process, he said, “It is a testament to Dana Yeaton’s skill as a teacher of writing and criticism that, as the class wore on, we began to synthesize his method of critique. The more we listened to Dana give feedback, the better we became at giving our own. As a result, I felt that by the beginning of the second week I was getting concise, insightful and, most importantly, respectful feedback from every member of the class.”
Yeaton opened every class with an exercise, usually tai chi, to help his students focus and work together. Then he directed each session with the meticulous attention of an offensive coordinator calling plays for a football team. As an accomplished playwright and theatrical coach, Yeaton sensed what his ensemble of soloists needed from moment to moment and improvised accordingly.
One of the biggest challenges for the class was coming up with enough original material to write six monologues. Remember, this was a class about performing the lives of other people so none of the material could be autobiographical. Yet through field trips (to a local center for young parents), visiting artists (like Dael Orlandersmith), readings (“I Am My Own Wife” by Doug Wright, and others), and outside experiences (a solo show about Ethiopia), the students were pushed to think beyond their own lives in their writing and performing.
As a consequence, one student wrote a piece about having just 90 seconds to live. Another created a one-woman performance about a single mother on the run. A third assumed the part of an Army sergeant in Afghanistan. Yeaton’s students crossed genders, lifestyles, races, and boundaries – all in a quest to find purity of expression as solo performers.
Click on the video to see Lucy Van Atta ’12 performing a part she was not born to play.
Their final performance was titled “Single Whip,” both as a tribute to the well-known tai chi posture and as an expression of each student’s mission: to write and perform as soloists.
“As a writer,” Yeaton explained after one class, “I would have run out of material if all I ever did was write about my own life. The characters that are the least interesting in my own work are the ones that are the most autobiographical. So this is a class about allowing your imagination to go where it needs to go, and it’s also a class about gaining the confidence that you can do it because you’ve done the research – both the literal research and the emotional research – to go there.
“A lot of what we do in this class is drill down into every character, into the subtext. And, in a way, that’s what makes one-person performances today so interesting. There’s the story on the top, but that story is only interesting because we sense these characters go very deep and we want to go there with them.”