Going Solo?

 Tonight I’m off to a media performance of The Syringa Tree at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. This is an award winning and internationally acclaimed play and it therefore seems a good way to begin the GCTC’s season. I will also be writing a review of this play for Cult(ure), and this time I decided to do a quick Google search to find out at little about the show in advance.  This is actually the first time I’ve taken this approach. I believe strongly that a play should be taken on its own terms. For this reason, I prefer to go into a show as “fresh” as possible. It’s worth noting that I still carefully avoided all the reviews of other companies’ performances of the play in an attempt to remain unbiased.

 Naturally in my Googling one of my first stops was Wiki. While Wiki has its issues, I find it pretty reliable for a very general synopsis.  Wiki had this to say about the play:

“The Syringa Tree[1] is a deeply personal memory play of a childhood under apartheid. Written and often performed by Pamela Gien it has received excellent reviews in New York and across the USA as well as in London.[2][3] Also very positively reviewed[4] in Dublin, the play has received several awards.

Originally, the play was intended for one actress only, with no props besides a swing and one costume. However, it can also be performed with two or multiple actors.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Syringa_Tree)

I find that last line particularly intriguing and I’m really curious to know if Pamela Gien has made that allowance in her script. I would suspect not, as she performed it solo in the original off-Broadway version. I think it’s fair to assume that she would have performed it the way she felt it should be performed. (I could be wrong.)

I fully understand, however, why a company might decide to add other actors to a Solo actor show.  There is something very compelling about “the chemistry” that happens between two or more actors when they perform on stage that is always missing from solo work.I usually prefer the performances of multiple actors over solo actors because I enjoy this chemistry so much.  

That is not to say that solo performances aren’t worth seeing. Many of them are quite excellent. Pierre Brault’s Portrait of An Unidentified Man, for instance, is a great example of one that did everything right. It was unquestionably one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.

I’m not sure how I feel about converting solo actor scripts into multi-actor scripts, which brings us to Wayne’s question of the day:

Is it OK to take a script intended to be performed by one actor and turn it into a multi-actor piece? Judging by the Wiki entry, this is precisely what someone did at some point with The Syringa Tree.

 (Bonus points will be given to anyone who has read the play and can therefore illuminate us on whether Gien has actually made allowances for this in her script.)


18 responses to “Going Solo?


    Depends on the actress…but seriously amazing. I wept. Many tears. Twice, several years apart.

  2. Also, now that I’ve read your full post, I’m not sure how multiple actors would be added to the script. It’s quite clearly written from a one-actor point of view; reading the script is like reading a stream of conciousness novel.

    • I agree with you Meg. Syringa Tree is written as one character’s point of view. She is telling us her story. In this case, I think it would be a mistake to turn it into an ensemble piece.
      What about other plays? Or is this something that should never be done?

  3. I love, love, love The Syringa Tree. It’s such a beautiful play. And the woman who performed it here in Calgary was amazing.

    I think that maybe you can take some one-person scripts and turn it into a multi-actor piece, but probably only if it wasn’t very well written.

    I think that The Syringa Tree would not work at all as anything other than a one-woman shows. And most well crafted one-person shows would be the same. There’s something very different in writing a play for one vs. many people.

    Of course, I have been know to cast chicks in dudes roles so clearly I don’t have the highest respect for the intent of the playwright!

    • Do you see a difference between letting a female play a male character and substantially altering the structure of the play?

      Intentionality is a pretty tricky thing.
      With well known plays, by dead playwrights, I think that a greater flexibility for alterations can be taken.

      For lesser known plays where the majority of the audience is seeing it for the first time (or even second) I feel it’s important to be faithful to the script/playwright.

      • I think that some characters are actually gender neutral. Sterling might argue with me on this, but we did Root of All Squares with two women and I didn’t feel like there was anything in the characters that prevented them from being women. They were just people and we chose to cast women (to the play’s great benefit given our slim male pickings).

    • LR, any chance you’d be willing to unpack why you think it is beautiful?

      • I would call it beautiful because it moved me with it’s utter simplicty. One woman on stage with just a swing. It strips away all the razzle dazzle and lays bare a single actress who has only her body and her voice to affect you. It lets the story speak for itself.

        And I was moved. I was genuinely moved by that play, not something that happens too frequently at the theatre.

        So I guess the play might ‘work’ with multiple actors but I think it would lose the emotional ferocity it had as a one-woman show.

        (and I’m drawn to shows like that, in general, Copenhagen, My Name is Rachel Corrie, Prisoner’s Dilemma 🙂 )

  4. Meg – I didn’t know that was your favorite play! I’m torn between Boy Gets Girl, Wit, and 10 Days on Earth. Oh! and Copenhagen. Or Christmas Carol (I have a real soft spot for Christmas Carol).

    Damn, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I think top 5 is the best I can do.

  5. Yup. Syringa Tree is my favourite play, followed by Ronnie Burkett’s Provenance, and The Blue Light.

  6. I recall looking at Colleen’s script of The Syringa Tree when she auditioned for this role and it is separated into specific characters so I can see how they could have mulitple characters. not sure it should though the way the pacing should be with one actor. I actually had a few problems with the way the script switches near the end – very quick and found I was in another play.

    • Thank you Chantale for adding this information. Bonus points awarded!
      After seeing the show, I think it is pretty clear that the playwright intended it to be solely a one actor show. I agree that the pacing would be altered otherwise. Also the characters themselves work when we are being told a story through the voice of the lead. I think they would degenerate into caricature without this context.

  7. As a playwright, I’m always going to stick up for the intention of the playwright. But, I think it’s important to explore (in collaboration with the playwright). I’m always fascinated by what directors and actors find in a play that I never knew was there…

    • Thank you for commenting Lindsay. I would be interested to hear about some of the surprises that casts/directors found in your scripts. It sounds like you might have a good story to share. 🙂

      Anyone else have any similar stories about this kind of collaboartion? Either as a playwright or as a director/actor?

  8. I’m a playwright and I think the only obligation the production has is to use the words, their order, and the story-driven stage directions.

    Everything else is fair game.

    Radical deviations should be noted somewhere in the program. So, if someone did this play with multiple characters, it should be made clear that this is a deviation from the original production.

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