Matt Hoverman- Well, usually my classes are somewhat cyclical. I’m sure you can remember from doing your solo show that it’s often a scary thing. There are certain times of the year when people make resolutions, as in December and January, that I find more students in my classes. But I think in addition to that, since I’ve been teaching the class for nine years now, there has been enough buzz about it from people who have really benefited from it that I actually have to turn people away. I think that has to do with an increased interest in actors taking control of their careers. Earlier last year, as the economy began its downturn, I thought initially that I wouldn’t have as many students. But what has happened, as there are less opportunities in the theater, actors are taking their careers into their own hands more and more, and creating a solo show is an excellent way to do that.
L&W- Can you talk about how the class is structured?
MH- I started the class in 2001, after I had been teaching acting classes for quite a while. I always loved teaching, but the part I liked best about working with actors was when I was able to get them to tell their own stories. I had moved to New York shortly before then and was doing my own solo show work at the time. I started looking for a class to take for myself, and couldn’t find one. I’ve always been someone who learns by teaching, so I started teaching a class on creating a solo show. It was really a platform to explore the pitfalls and challenges of putting together a successful solo show.
L&W- You have had so many success stories from your students who have taken your class. Can you talk about some of those?
MH- Well you had your show accepted into the Midtown Theater Festival last year, as did a number of other students, and that’s a great way to get your work seen by the industry. There are so many great, wonderful stories of students who are brave enough to share their stories and reap amazing rewards as a result. One of my students was getting married, and her wedding planner suggested she participate in this documentary called “Manhattan Brides.” So she did, and when it was all said and done she got an e-mail saying they had changed the project to a reality show and were going to call it “Bridezillas.” What she thought was going to be a lovely interpretation of her wedding turned out to be this monstrous version of her that they had altered completely. She was publicly humiliated, and was really hurt, but decided to turn it into a solo show. She won Best Solo Show in the Fringe Festival in ’05 and got represented by a great agent, and she now has a film deal to turn it into a screen play. There are so many success stories, and a lot of times it’s that the performer just feels absolutely centered and fulfilled.
L&W- But you don’t have to be an actor to take the class, right?
MH- Not at all. A lot of the people who take the class are actors. Some of them are young and looking to discover their own unique voice. Some are older actors looking to explore their own stories and create opportunities for themselves and to show the market what they can do best. And then there are people who aren’t actors but who have a story to tell. I love working with those people, because I believe everyone has a story to tell. You don’t have to be Meryl Streep to do a solo show, and I can prove that by watching any number of students I have who aren’t actors. Their stories are often as profound and moving as the best character actors’ stories. I think there’s just a great fulfillment of finding yourself through your own story.
L&W- What would you say is the key to shaping a good solo show?
MH- One of the traps that a solo show performer can fall into is not seeing him or herself as the hero of his or her own story. I find from teaching this class that most of us tend to see ourselves as passive, so if we have a story to tell we often start to tell it in the vein of “so this is what happened to me: I was born in Cleveland and then I went to school and this girl dumped me and then I became an actor and all these things happened to me as a result,” and there isn’t a through-line. It may start out interesting at first to an audience, but then mid way through no one is sure why the story is being told. So when I teach I make sure everyone has defined and articulated what their “want” is: what it is that you’re going after in your story. What did you want at the time the story took place, and did you get it or not. When you have that as your story’s through-line then it can just fly from there. You become the hero of your own story, and the audience can identify with you. It doesn’t mean you always get what you’re after in the end, but even when you don’t the audience can and will sympathize with you. That way you’re not looking to be healed by the audience; you’re sharing a compelling story with them and providing them with a kind of entertainment that is extremely moving. It’s why people go to the theater: to identify with the characters on stage. And in a solo show, you are the character they are identifying with.
L&W- So the show essentially becomes a character piece, and that character has come out of you.
MH- Yes, when you take a tragic story and identify where you were able to triumph in it, you can tell it from that perspective and really inspire your audience. You become an active protagonist going after what you want. It’s a hero’s journey, and it’s a way for you as the performer to see yourself not as a victim of life but as a person who can take their own life into their own hands and make choices. That’s how it can be extremely empowering for the performer. Which is why it’s so fulfilling to watch non-actors do this work and not only receive a positive response from their audience, but to see them look at themselves in a new grounded and confident way.
L&W- When I took your class the one thing that I thoroughly enjoyed was the element of connecting to my own story and also connecting to the audience in such an intimate way.
MH- I went to Brown for my undergrad degree in acting and the University of San Diego Acting program for grad school. And both are amazing programs for theater, but are also very experimental. One of the things that I wanted to get back to was to create a place where people could create work that was connected to what was going on in their hearts and share that with others. So towards that end, I try to create a really safe place in the class. There are never more than six students per class, and there is only positive feedback given. (I always tell everyone in the first class that if you miss negative feedback you can always stay after class and I’ll berate you.) In my experience bringing stories out from the heart needs a place of trust and safety. And in every solo show class I’ve taught, people’s fears are always the same. They fear if they start talking about themselves no one will care, or the audience will see it as self-indulgent. But what they don’t realize in the beginning is that when an audience goes to see a solo show they want to see a human being telling his or her own story. So I need each student to feel comfortable enough to bring in any material they want so we can then shape it into a story for the stage. And that is the key to having a successful journey with your solo work.
L&W- Can students create their shows based on characters they have created outside of their own experiences?
MH- Absolutely! Many of my students create terrific character monologues from observation of others or from their imagination. But I have to say that most who have that idea when they come into class often will choose to tell their own story because they see how compelling an exercise it is. Overall, tremendous things happen to people who do solo shows. Billy Bob Thornton created “Slingblade” as a solo show and went on to win the Academy Award for the move version. Camryn Manhein, who was on the show “The Practice” had created a solo show called “Wake Up, I’m Fat” about being a plus-sized actress in the industry, and got cast on “The Practice” as a result. And the writers used many of the themes she used in her solo show for her character. So she didn’t just get cast in the role, she provided a whole point of view for it based on her solo work. John Leguizamo created a place for himself as a Latino man to play all kinds of roles. What I most want people to walk away with from my class is that there is a place for them to tell their stories. And if they never have a chance to take my class I hope that everyone gets a chance to share his or her own story in some way, because there is simply nothing else like it. It’s amazingly empowering.