The Solo Voice

An Interview with Nancy du Plessis

A performer who has specialized in solo performance and cross-cultural experience discusses the special characteristics of her genre with Anjum Katyal for SEAGULL THEATRE QUARTERLY of Calcutta, India.

There is a strong tradition here of seeing theatre as a very community thing, a group activity, a whole lot of people working collectively on something. What has grown out of that is the attitude that to do solo performances might well be a self-aggrandizing, individualistic kind of approach. If you could address that, talk about that a bit. When you first came into performance –

I was living in a village – with my family, of course – north of New York City. It was close enough to be a far suburb. It was a unique village because it had a large proportion of people in the arts who had chosen to live there because it was really quite beautiful. One of the advantages of this village was that every summer there was the Shakespeare Festival. It was amateur, it was put on using the students at the high school and returning college kids. And we put on three plays every summer, of high quality. And we built a stage, we had a costume shop and a tech crew. I did everything with it over the years and did minor roles. I learnt a lot from watching the rehearsals and being involved. I was also a member of the board of directors. I was very, very involved.

So your first experience of theatre was very much as part of a group or community effort? As a part of a team?

Yes. [Later] I went to the National School of Speech and Drama at Northwestern University. I was exposed to something that they originated there, called "chamber theatre". I was part of the group that staged prose fiction, with a narrator – the character of a narrator – and characters from short stories. In this case, they were short stories by Katherine Mansfield.

I forgot about that later, but I think that has a lot to do with my solo performance. And I didn't even think about it until I had been doing solo performances for quite a while.

What do you see as the connections?

Because I have, sometimes, a narrator-voice. I step out of it, and ... One can, perhaps, see this more in performance than on a page. You can take a different tone of voice and a different stance. So there is a little distancing effect. The distancing effect was also influenced by working in Paris. Because they talk, in French acting, of doing things in the first degree or the second degree. And they really like to have distance. So I had this experience with them.

From the time that I finished school, I had been performing my poetry. I was the co-founder of a weekly workshop of poets, women – we were very serious. On Monday nights we got together, we discussed our work, then we did readings together. And because of my work with acting and speech, I was more dynamic in reading. And I started doing readings alone.

What was the name of this weekly workshop?

The Women's Collage. In Manhattan. We put out a little anthology and we really were extremely active. It was a small group, it was six people, sometimes eight. But very regular.

This was something you carried on in your travels?

I had done a lot of performances, which I had called poetry performances. I quickly stopped using the texts and I would just organize my poems with some melodies for periods of thirty minutes, or thirty minutes with a break, then another thirty minutes. I did them in cafés, I did them sometimes in theatres, I did them in bookstores or arts centres – I was very active doing that. And then group readings with other people. I started organizing evenings of poetry and music and got a little bit of seed money from organizations like the War Resistors' League, who later got all of the benefit from the entrance fees. They were really nice events. I produced them for radio and there were very good performers there, poets and musicians. I met a lot of people and one poet-participant told me about a group that was giving grants; she thought I could use it – because I was really killing myself to do this alone, or virtually alone. And I read about it and decided that I wasn't going to use it for that kind of thing, I was going to use it for myself.

In 1981, I had already done a thirty-minute piece that I had called "Notes from the Moroccan Journals". That was something to show the grant people. And I had written individual poems and I showed them that, and I described them, and I met them, and I got the grant. It was called the Centre for Peace through Culture and I was really pleased to have got a grant from a group by that name.

Did you notice any particular kinds of themes or preoccupations that you were gravitating towards in your performances?

I would say that I was always concerned about the effects of war, social justice, and women. These were always the main things.

And they were mostly your own texts? Things that you had written, rather than other people's?

They were all my own texts.

Was there something about the solo performance form, was it something you happened upon and it suited you? Can you talk about that?

When I decided that I would apply for the grant to do something connected with Morocco, I felt, one, I had to really write something. I had to express myself on this or else I would not get over it. It was, you know, a real necessity. But I also felt that it was very important for me to be there. I couldn't write a book, I couldn't write an article, I had to be there. And I had to be there being me and I had to be there sharing, well, what I found particularly beautiful about this culture. And I remembered, among other things, the drummer of the village, one of the older men, who was the storyteller – he was kind of storyteller-animator. And I used to think about him when I was working on this. Because I thought there is something of that in the way that I am moving around the stage and the way I am talking to the audience. I was not soliciting audience participation, I was talking directly to them.

So you always saw this as an intimate space where you were in direct contact with the audience?

Always. The premiere was given in a gallery, an appropriate place because there were a lot of world music concerts there. It was a gallery with a very nice wooden floor, there happened to be very suitable paintings on the walls. And I simply performed on one side, against one long wall, and the audience was seated on rugs and on chairs in a semi-circle around me. And this is always my preferred staging. I like being able to look people in the eyes. And I know people get very uncomfortable. I mean, it's hard. I can feel it myself, sometimes, in a performance. But I want that immediacy. I hate to perform on proscenium stages, never like to be above the audience. I have done this a couple of times, but I have never been happy.

You have already talked about some of the things which attract you to the way you have chosen to perform, the flexibility of it, the intimacy of it. What I see is a kind of throw-back to street performances, where the individual could communicate with the audience with just the skills that he or she has. Maybe you could just talk around that a bit? Because you do come from a more formal theatre background as well, so how do you see the contrast between the two kinds of theatre?

What makes the difference with me is that I renounced acting and the theatre per se, and returned to the stage through poetry. Poetry is an individual event and it doesn't even make sense to talk about having – I mean there are, of course, shows that are based on poetry, it is still primarily one person writing and one person speaking. This is what makes the difference with me. Because of my acting studies and experience, I did not move in a theatrical direction. But mainly, it is quite difficult to make the transition from me, the writer, to me, the performer.

Why the transition?

To get the distance and just deal with a text. Not to hear my old voice but to have a new one. That's always been very difficult, to make that transition. So it's a matter of the poetry and it being, very often, me speaking in my voice. I am not concerned about being an exhibitionist. When I get up on stage, I have a responsibility to the audience. These people are at least spending their time with me, their money, and they should get something that is really good. And I have no patience for the many people who say, oh, you do it all yourself, you must be an exhibitionist. Nonsense! I mean, I do not dance on tables, throw myself around, you know. At least half of the time, I can't even talk about myself, I'm not really interested in talking about myself. I do it because if I didn't do it, then I wouldn't get any opportunities.

To add to the question of solo performance, I mentioned earlier that it had to do with poetry. But it also has to do with the voice, the source of life. And the solo voice is something I have always been interested in – the solo voice with all the emotional inflections in speech – but also what you can do with song or vocalizing. This, I feel, I am able to do, to work with in solo performance in a way that in a play or singing a duet or performing with a group of people would not be possible. I would say, of other art forms that have inspired me, and intrigued me and aroused my curiosity, [the most significant] is pansuri, which is a Korean form. It is basically an opera for one voice and I have had more chance to think about this than actually experience it. But the idea of one voice/one performer creating a whole cast of characters definitely relates to what I am trying to do in a performance.

Do you see this way of performing as a kind of alternative open to people? There are lots of individuals breaking out in different ways, performing in their own homes and drawing rooms, almost a growing upsurge or ground swell against expensive theatre.

Yes, absolutely. I'm conscious of that since I began doing solo performance as such. And also, I do not have a video [as part of the performance], I do not have expensive electronic devices. I like it when I have good stage lights, it can be really very nice. But I have also done this in peoples' living rooms. I mean, I did a whole performance in somebody's living room. I was invited to do that at a gallery opening. Walking around the guests and then suddenly performing. That's okay. I like that. I mean, really, it has a lot to do with, basically, seizing the word.

In my work, part of the very personal nature of it, is that I would like to try to encourage people and women in my audiences to take risks and to act on their convictions, as well as to reassure them that they are not alone, in my treatment of universal themes, finding common humanity, amidst great diversity. For this, I find a real importance in solo performance. Because it is one person getting up and saying it. And, from hearing my audience or even getting letters, [I] know this has some kind of effect. I have always been encouraged to know about the biographies of other people I have admired, male or female, and speaking of the personal, I feel, is extremely important. All of my work is really based on my life, whether I call myself Nancy in the piece or not.

What about the audience? If you could talk about the relationship, the feedback that you have had, how does that work?

It makes a huge difference, depending on the relationship of the spaces – the performance space to the audience space – has a lot to do with how the audience reacts.

If you keep too far from them, if you are above them, if you cannot look at them, then there is the distancing effect, which I find makes what I want to do much less interesting and much less intense. And I am looking for intensity of experience. So there is that. And there are also cultural differences. I performed this a number of times in Munich and talked with the audience afterwards and said, "Gee, didn't you think there was any humour in it?" And people said, "Oh, yes!" And I said, "But you didn't laugh." And they said, "Oh, we smiled." You know, in other countries, people really give big-bellied laughs. It wasn't that these people weren't responding, but they were responding very differently. And I must say I have been to a number of performances here [in Calcutta] now and I find that at the end of the performances, people don't clap, or clap very much. As a member of the audience – it's true that there are some things here that I haven't felt were absolutely brilliant – but I feel, as a member of the audience, after sitting there and receiving for so long, I want to do something. And after a really brilliant performance, I have so much energy, I really want to clap. I want to clap, and I want to call, and I want to yell, "Bravo!" If I could wolf-whistle, I would do that but I can't. And I just wonder what it would be like, I just wonder how it would be to perform here if the regular thing was to have applause. That's really quite something. During the course of the performance, there are places where people say, "Yeah!", "Oh!", and "Right!" And places where people are just so quiet that you don't even know that they are there. And that's not very much fun for me as a performer.

Do you find you want to walk in and talk to the audience or do you want to stay in the performance space?

I have one piece that is my closest to a cabaret number. And it's in the order of the poetry performances, called I Believe in Love, but I am kind of playing at being a preacher and exhorting the audience. But it's not just, you know, male-female relationships, it is also a range of what love is. There I would go into the audience and talk to people, or at least try to get them worked up. And I liked that, but it does not work for everything. When I performed Notes from the Moroccan Journals at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, it was in an open area, well, in a gallery, and there was no way for me to be in the performance space while people were coming in and getting seated. So at that point, I started doing what I now do all the time, which is playing an instrument and walking through the audience and singing a welcome song. And I like that: I can see people, I feel there's a great boost of energy and it makes it very immediate. It's not - I don't like arriving in the dark and [singing], "Oh here she is, magic!" – you know ... I like to be there controlling it.

Are there any things that you have picked up from here or other countries which you feel are entering into the way you perform or think of performing. You mentioned the storyteller/narrator thing, that was one example. Is there anything else that you feel might be working on you somewhere?

In Paris, I created a piece called When It Hurts, and, in that, I was trying to play with a local form, café-théâtre. There's a lot of humour, it's quite loud, and a little bit silly, not really serious acting like there is in parts of Notes or Because I Love You So. And I enjoyed that – it's like frolicking. I really did enjoy that. A lot of café-théâtre is actually quite vulgar, but mine was not vulgar. It was kind of a reinterpretation of this form and it was also very much about being a woman artist. And a lot of women told me they appreciated it. So that was one case where I was really trying to work in a local form.

Reprinted from the Seagull Theatre Quarterly Issue 23 of Sept. 1999
Seagull Foundation in Calcutta, India