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Saturday, December 11, 2010

First Person: Keir Cutler on The Solo

Why Solo?

Rant Demon, which will be remounted at the 2011 Wildside Festival at Centaur Theatre in January, is my eighth original solo show.

I have performed my monologues so often, in so many places, it seems that one-man shows is all I ever intended to do.  But in reality, I started out wanting to be a playwright of traditional plays, to be performed by multiple actors.  I even got a diploma in playwriting from the National Theatre School.  For years I sent out my writings throughout the English-speaking world.  Occasionally, I would receive back a nice letter of encouragement, or someone would arrange a reading. Nothing ever got fully staged, but I do have a nice collection of letters from artistic directors asking me to be sure to send them my next play. 

Eventually, I stopped sending out my scripts, and went back to school to get more degrees.  In the early 1990s, I became a professional student paid by the State of Michigan to study theatre.  It was during this period that I first heard of traveling across Canada performing on the Fringe Circuit. 

I knew if I were to attempt the fringe tour, a solo show with little or no set was the way to go. The ticket prices remain the same whether the show has one actor or a dozen, but the production and travel costs multiply.   As a doctoral student, I had already started mocking pompous Shakespeare professors, performing contradictory verbatim quotes snatched from actual college lectures. I wondered if something that entertained college students, could also entertain the general public.  To find out, I applied to the 1999 Montreal Fringe Festival with what was little more than a title, Teaching Shakespeare:  A Parody

I had a few minutes of “killer” material, but I needed 30 to 60 minutes.  So I set to work.  I spent several months in libraries scouring books of Shakespearean analysis, looking for inane or confusing assessments of the Bard.  They were not hard to find.  I found preposterous comments like, “Shakespeare teaches us the meaning of meaning.”  I transcribed and expanded, and then finally began to memorize. As a first time monologist, I was terrified of going blank on stage.  I even woke up in the middle of the night one time hearing someone speaking.  I was reciting my role in my sleep.  By the time I opened at the fringe, my lines were embedded in my DNA.

My fears that only those enrolled in college classes would appreciate a send-up of a blowhard professor were unfounded, Teaching Shakespeare was a hit, winning several awards, and receiving a rave from Gaëtan Charlebois in Hour, “blisteringly funny stuff and sometimes ambitiously and beautifully lyrical...It's a first rate text. Go." 

I now not only had a hit monologue, but also a process for writing a successful solo show.  Find a topic of intellectual interest to me, go into a library and read until something jumps off the page demanding to be lampooned. 

As I tour the fringe circuit each summer, I try out new lines, and adjust old material.  Each monologue is a continual work-in-progress. 

In addition, I am frequently approached by audience members with ideas and comments.  One of the best lines in Teaching Shakespeare came from a Buddhist who saw the show in Toronto.  He told me my play reminded him of the saying in his religion, “Things are not what they seem, nor are they otherwise.” A version of this line has been part of the play ever since.  

I might have continued indefinitely writing fictional pieces loosely based on library texts, but in 2007 something sent me in an entirely different direction.  After performing my lecherous professor play, Teaching As You Like It in Winnipeg, an outraged member of the audience secretly reported me to Child Find Manitoba, an organization assisting in the search for and prevention of missing children.  I only found out what had happened, because the head of the fringe festival was informed and let me know.  

Yes, the subject matter of a teacher pursuing a student is controversial, but I took this letter as an assault on my freedom of speech.  Theatre must always remain a safe place to talk about unsafe things.  Imagine if every time a performer or writer created a role, he or she had to consider whether the actions of an onstage character might be held against them personally.

For several weeks, I remained absolutely enraged by this letter. I have a lifelong problem of going into extended rants.  I was now endlessly repeating various versions of the following, “How can someone go to a theatre play, have a ticket stub in one hand, a program in the other, be sitting in a seat watching an actor on stage, then leave the theatre and go report the performer to Child Find Manitoba?  It makes no sense!”  

Rather than rant myself to death, I decided to write about the letter and the responsibility of audience members.  In just a few days of incessant scribbling I wrote, Teaching the Fringe.  This was my first autobiographical monologue and represented quite a departure for me.  Instead of finding my inspiration in library books, I found it from my own experiences.   

TJ Dawe, my director, was an incredible help here.  We spent weeks working on the script, and most importantly doing readings.  I have found that doing periodic readings for small groups of people is the greatest help in developing a new script.  

TJ Dawe and Cutler
After a successful opening in Montreal, and a run in Ottawa, I took Teaching the Fringe to Winnipeg.   There was enormous pre-fringe press.  I’d never seen anything like it.  CBC/Manitoba did a preview, “Will the woman who wrote the letter confront Keir at his play? Find out Friday when “Teaching the Fringe” opens at the 2008 Winnipeg Fringe Festival.”  Despite having a giant theatre, opening night quickly soldout.  The audience roared with laughter.  There was even a standing ovation.  There was no sign of the letter writer and no one seemed to be taking her side.  I walked off stage transformed and with the most surprising thought.  I realized that without this letter, which had sent me into a horrible six-week rant, I would never have experienced such an incredible night.  I’d never had the subject of a rant turn into a blessing. I decided to continue the story started in Teaching the Fringe, and delve into my problem with going on self-destructive rants.

Rant Demon is my second consecutive autobiographical monologue and a comic look at being a big mouth.  The piece is also the story of my transformational experience with writing and performing solo plays.  Long time Edmonton Sun reviewer Colin MacLean, who saw Rant Demon at the 2010 Edmonton Fringe wrote,  “Keir Cutler has brought us a remarkable and moving story of redemption. His own.”

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