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Saturday, 30 September 2017

Ambiguity and Balance in One-Person Shows

In some one person shows, it is clear that an actor is presenting a text, is playing a character created by someone else, such as David Bamber playing a character in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. The character thus created is either fully fictional, or based on a real-life person. That real-life person may be unknown to the audience, or may be well-known to the audience, even famous. The real-life person may, finally, be still alive, or already dead. In some cases, the author of a one-person show performs the fictional character or the real-life character him or herself, either with the support of a dramaturg and / or a director, or not. 

In other one-person shows, the actor presents a character who is based on the dramatist’s own life, or the actor is also the dramatist and presents a character who is based on his or her own life. In those two cases, the audience either knows about the autobiographical dimension, or not. They know because the announcement of, or marketing for the production, or a media review, provides a clue, or because they know the actor or dramatist in person. 

The autobiographical material from the dramatist and / or the actor in a one-person show relates to the authenticity of that material, and to the question where the dramatist and / or actor have exercised poetic license, have added to, have mollified, intensified, glamourised, or otherwise changed facts for dramatic-artistic purposes. The challenge for dramatists and actors is to create ambiguity or a balance between likeable and unlikeable features of their characters. Creating a character who is exclusively likeable is tremendously difficult as long as drama is still considered as an art form that needs conflict to function and thrive. A book chapter of mine on conflict in drama is currently under consideration for publication and I will link it here once published. 

A character may be ambiguous at best at the start, with some areas of potential for being likeable. If such a character ends up as exclusively unlikeable, especially where the potential of likeability is denied, audiences may well feel uncomfortable in that character’s presence. Ambiguity between, or balance of likeable and unlikeable characteristics, provide food for thought. Having to spend the usual 50-70 minutes of a one-person show in the presence of an exclusively nasty kind of creep is particularly uncomfortable if the spectator could be led to assume that we get to see into real areas of the dramatist’s or actor/dramatist’s life that we would really not like to know as much about as we are being offered. There is then no aesthetic pleasure of any kind, and no food for thought, just the feeling of discomfort for no purpose.

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