The rise of solo performance in theatre

Are funding cuts forcing performers to go solo?

Mention the word ‘funding’ around anyone in the creative industries and you’re likely to be met with murmurings of fear and perspiring foreheads. In England, Arts Council funding has been cut by at least £83 million through austerity measures pioneered by the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments. The situation in Scotland is not much better – just last year our national arts agency Creative Scotland abruptly withdrew all funding for the Scottish Youth Theatre (SYT) among other shock decisions. It is around theatre in particular that recent discussions have focussed, the main point of contention being whether a dire lack of resources is the reason so much of contemporary theatre is focussed on small cast sizes or solo performance.

True, many companies simply cannot afford to pay a large number of employees anymore and artists are suffering because of it – Scottish Opera for instance had to make their chorus part-time way back in 2004.Yet demonstrating indomitability against minimal funding, the countless worthwhile showsbeing produced today by individual artists or small groups are cementing theatre’s rightful place as an institution of unprecedented cultural import.

Though I’m no expert (I don’t read Theatre Studies or take part in a lot of contemporary productions) I do have a background in opera, an industry which has been no stranger to the cuts. Just last month I was cast in a double bill of two new operas in Aberdeen, each written for a cast of four with no backdrops and an old gym hall for a venue – glamorous. Yes funding was part of the reason for that (all the singers were double cast and unpaid) but such a setting also worked extremely well for what we were trying to get across to our audience. The subject matter and the music were intensely dark, so our staging complimented that in its intimacy with the audience and the strong character relationships we cast members could achieve with each other being such a small group. We had little to no props and our costumes were basic, but that only served to pull the focus completely on the performers movements, facial expressions and voices whilst allowing time to appreciate the intricacy of the music.

I spoke to various drama students among my friend circles in an effort to see if this kind of situation is mirrored elsewhere in theatre.When I asked them why they thought small cast sizes were on the rise, interestingly not one of them cited funding. They told me for instance that smaller casts suit the devising process far better than larger groups. Coming up with a new piece of theatre which expresses the intentions of all the artists involved is a process that will always necessitate plenty of trial and error – attempt this with a company of 200 and chaos will ensue. Choreography too is easier to manage in a small group, which is vital since many contemporary pieces are heavily focussed around movement. Rehearsing with the same group of people over a concentrated period of time will build trust and essentially create chemistry on stage which will be visible for audiences (and make improvisation easier when you forget lines, not that I’ve ever done that…)

What of solo performance? Championed by fringe festivals across the globe, most significantly Scotland’s very own Edinburgh Fringe, we are familiar with the premise that you don’t need pennies (or even a pal) to become a hit with audiences. As well as one-man bands, street entertainers and stand-up comedy, there are plenty of dramatic one-man shows even at Fringe level which really give testament to the genre – just this year Edinburgh played host to a one man Breaking Bad along with a one man Hamlet. A solo performance really tests the ability of the actor – with the magic of the theatre stripped away (effects, set, sound) and no cast members to lean on for support, the performer has to be extremely skilled to convey the conflict of the story s/he wants to represent.  Indeed, many fine actors have taken on the one man show to great accolade – Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol,  John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape etc. On a regional level too though, solo performances are extremely valuable. They’re the natural choice for many artists who without need of vast sums of money can perform their own highly personal art for audiences to react to. They encourage individuality and freedom, valuing what William Morris termed ‘our human right to free expression’.

But though small casts and solo performers are demonstrating that art’s quality cannot be diminished by denying creative industries adequate funding, there remains a need for governments to award theatre and the arts much more generously than at present.Primarily, we need to make sure artists have a platform to perform on and a wage to support their efforts. Jeremy Corbyn has pledged that if his Labour government is elected to power he will‘form a cabinet committee for the arts, to give performers more protection against low wages and tackle unpaid internships through a living waged national creative apprenticeship service’.  An innovation like this would transform the lives of many suffering artist, and it is at least comforting to know there are some key figures in government alive to the fact that the arts are crucial for people seeking to lead enjoyable and fulfilled lives.

[Laura O’Donnell]


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