Why Solo Theater Shows Are Having a Moment

“Your audience must become your partner,” Kathleen Chalfant says

solo shows
Gabriel Byrne, Kathleen Chalfant and Mike Birbiglia (Emilio Madrid; Richard Termine; Craig Schwartz Photography)

Who needs co-stars to steal the spotlight? One-person shows are clearly having a moment on New York stages these days.

Gabriel Byrne is on Broadway, bringing his memoir “Walking With Ghosts” to live audiences, while comedian Mike Birbiglia will perform his latest monologue “The Old Man and the Pool” at Lincoln Center later this month. Not to be outdone, Jefferson Mays will soon open a revival of “The Christmas Carol” — playing all 50 parts himself!

Off Broadway is rife with solo performances, too, from Marjan Neshat in playwright David Cale’s thriller “Sandra” at the Vineyard Theatre to Mohegan theater-maker Madeline Sayet in “Where We Belong” at the Public to David Strathairn as a Polish World War II hero in “Remember This.” The Oscar- and Tony-nominated Douglas McGrath had just opened his own autobiographical one-man show, “Everything Is Fine,” when he died suddenly last week of a heart attack. (The show was directed by John Lithgow, who was in L.A. working on a PBS project when he learned the shocking news that everything wasn’t at all fine with his actor’s health.)

Why so many of these one-person shows now? For starters, they are exceedingly less expensive to produce at a time when production costs have exploded.

Another appeal is their potential to be converted into audiobooks and podcasts for companies like Audible, which launched its own theater initiative five years ago and has been mounting short-run productions (and not just of solo shows) at Off Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre that it later adapts into audio productions for download.

“I pushed the one- and two-hander scripts at the beginning of Audible Theater, with Billy Crudup and Carey Mulligan doing them,” company founder Don Katz told me. Audible has since expanded its ambitions, mounting six new shows this fall — and also producing Byrne’s “Walking With Ghosts.”

And audiences (and performers) also seem drawn to the intimacy of one-person storytelling.

Timely issues can help — whether it’s Seyat’s experience as a Native American in “Where We Belong” or comedian Alex Edelman’s encounters with anti-Semitic bigots in his monologue “Just for Us,” which has had sold-out runs Off Broadway and at the Wiliamstown Theatre Festival. “Killing Eve” star Jodie Comer will portray a rape survivor in “Prima Facie,” which is due on Broadway this spring after a successful run in London.

In “The Shot,” currently part of New York’s United Solo festival, “NYPD Blue” alum Sharon Lawrence portrays the pioneering late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. “‘The Shot’ is a story for this moment,” playwright Robin Gerber said, “when women can be abused with impunity, paid less and denied autonomy over our bodies.”

Overcoming trauma is a common theme, especially for autobiographical shows. Byrne recalls being molested by a priest while studying for the seminary in Ireland, while McGrath detailed his own encounter with an abusive teacher while growing up in Texas. McGrath told me he didn’t even know his life was worth chronicling until others urged him to go public about that experience.

“You need a story strong enough to hold attention for 80-90 minutes and a performer to do it,” said Cale, who has penned more than a dozen one-person shows over the years.

For performers, solo productions offer special rewards — and challenges. “It can be exhilarating or it can be terribly lonely,” said Judith Ivey, who won multiple awards for playing advice columnist Ann Landers in the 2010 proudction “The Lady With All the Answers.”

Kathleen Chalfant, an actress currently performing Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” through the Off Broadway theater Keen Company, said Ivey is very much on the mark: “It is both those things, and your audience must become your partner.”

For Monica Piper, a stand-up comic and writer who performed her solo show “Not That Jewish” in 2016, the experience is “only exhausting before and after you are on stage.”

Michele Willens’ “Stage Right..Or Not” airs weekly on the NPR affiliate robinhoodradio.