BLOG: Solo Show Epidemic - Chicken or Egg? "We've got to break the cycle"

By Ben Anderson (Creative Producer, In Good Company)
in relation to Departure Lounge 2019

"Hands up who's bored of white people making sentimental autobiographical solo shows that use direct address, spoken-word, and gritty clichéd accounts of other people's struggles for the entertainment of the middle classes. The well-established default.
... Whoops."

So marks the first line in Holly Beasley-Garrigan's smash hit show Opal Fruits. I saw this show amongst the drip, drip, dripping and low dulcet rattling of tube trains and  dampness of Vault Festival earlier this year, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

When posed the question, by Holly Beasley-Garrigan wrapped in a 90s Tracy Beaker style duvet, I enthusiastically raised my hand with vigour and determination to highlight most of all my agreement with this sentiment, alongside a good majority of the audience. 

I certainly have seen a fair few shows that fit this description, but am I really sick of them? Is it fair to be sick of all of them? What in particular am I sick off? Am I part of the problem? Holly's show is nothing to bored about, by the way. As Lyn Gardner put's it, it's a refreshingly honest account of how:

'utterly engaging Beasley-Garrigan can deal with the fact that working in the arts and making a semi-autobiographical show "about the fetishization of the feral female" for what is likely to be largely middle-class audiences makes her part of the problem or the solution'. [https://bit.ly/2S77iTf]

This solo show epidemic gripping the indi-theatre sector is the contemporary chicken or egg conundrum. Solo shows make financial sense, they make practical sense, and in a society enthralled with identity politics it makes a lot of sense that people would want to explore, through the medium they know best, their place in the world and how that can, or can't, find common ground with people.

However I would critic myself a little and say that upon reflection perhaps I'm not sick of seeing solo shows. What I'm perhaps sick of, is the lack of choice for theatre makers when deciding the stories they tell and then their freedom to decide the best way to tell it.

I think there are two main reason why there is a lack of choice when making work on the small scale.

1. Solo shows or similar are fairly affordable to make, and therefore fairly affordable to programme, therefore pretty much risk free for venues. Consequently venues adjust their budgets to align with costs, making their bottom lines look healthier when their funding get tight, and subsequently it becomes unaffordable to make larger shows and so the supply of work becomes dominated by solo shows and ad infinitum. Programmers complain of a lack of choice, artists complain of a lack of resources and opportunity. Chicken or egg! 

2. The idea that everyone has to start somewhere. That you start on the small-scale and graduate to mid-scale or that you start making solo shows to 'cut your teeth' and then you grow the size of your shows. This is theatrical snobbery. The consequences of this snobbery are dire.

 For a start, this argument is flawed as we all know that as the expectation/scale of ones work increases perhaps as an artist progress into mid-career, the opportunities may increase a little, but the resources certainly don't keep pace. 

 I know many people that make work for the small-scale, and who are exceptionally good at it, and would never wish to make work for mid-scale or large-scale, but it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be able to tell stories in different ways. The consequence of this lack of choice also effects audiences; small scale theatre tends to be more accessible and cheaper - so it does mean that a certain type of audience is only exposed to a certain type of work, and the stories that are told are only told a certain way or only certain stories are being told to fit the constraints.

 Now, in the interest of optimism, there are some positives. It does mean that we have great theatre makers coming up with radical and interesting creative solutions, including media in performance, to address narrative, cast or staging constraints.

 So to answer the question chicken or egg? 

 Well, we've got to break the cycle, and there examples of this being done by both companies wishing to make small scale work with more than a cast of three! and by organisations, festivals and buildings that want to try and take risks and see the value of investing in this work.

 We need more opportunities for people to work on the mid-scale, and build work for the mid-scale from the beginning. Home in Manchester are doing great work in this area.

We need some big compromises and a shake up in programming. So that we diversify the type of work seen in smaller spaces.

 At Departure Lounge we have taken a decision to re-allocate resources. But to be transparent and clear, this means we have removed resources from Sunday programming and put them into ensuring that we have more larger casts, and larger companies and larger teams. There isn't more money, it's just that the money have been re-prioritised. We have ensured that those resources have gone into larger fees and more free accommodation for visiting companies as a percentage of their team rather than a minimum offer. This is important, because it's not just about the people on stage, it's also about the team behind the scenes and the costs relating to this.

This is a drop in the ocean, but it's a start. We've made these decisions, so theatre makers have more decisions to make themselves. The risk is ours to own, so that theatre makers can leave the risk taking to the art.

Book to see Opal Fruits by Holly Beasley-Garrigan and then directly after see Tokyo Rose by Burnt Lemon with a cast of four, and a team of many more, supporting the crucial Edinburgh preview of this work. 

Then see Fashion Spies by Quick Duck Theatre, sit alongside Mika Johnson's Before The Flagz and Adam Carvers's Kath.

Then solo show Yours Sincerely sit alongside Unfortunate by Fat Rascal Theatre on the Saturday.

All of this is at Departure Lounge 2019 at Derby Theatre from 18 - 20 July 2019; a festival jam packed with Edinburgh previews at affordable prices.

See the full Departure Lounge festival line-up, book tickets and view the trailer.