In theater, solo artists are never really alone.
They share the performance space with an audience, of course, but unseen collaborators — a director, designers, sometimes a playwright — help them shape the story and the world they’re presenting. Still, once the play begins, the actor is the one walking the theatrical tightrope, controlling the journey.
The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse is about to play host to two such high-wire acts.
First up, in a one-night-only premiere on Saturday, is Frida: Unmasked. Commissioned by Next@19th, it’s the work of playwright-performer Deborah L. Sherman, who portrays Mexican painter Frida Kahlo on the day of her 40th birthday.
Then on Thursday, Miami Light Project begins a three-night run of Thaddeus Phillips performing 17 Border Crossings, a play woven from the peripatetic artist’s world travels.
The shows are different, to be sure. Sherman’s was born of a deep interest in and identification with Kahlo, who was twice married to muralist Diego Rivera and lived most of her life in pain. Phillips, who divides his time between Philadelphia and Bogotá, created his work after passing through man-made borders all over the world. But both pieces underscore the collaboration and craft that go into making a one-person play.
Sherman and director Margaret M. Ledford are longtime friends who worked together on productions at Davie’s The Promethean Theatre, where Sherman was producing artistic director and Ledford the resident director. (The company folded in 2011.) After getting her commission and crafting her script, the Carbonell Award-winning Sherman assembled a team — Ledford, costume designer Ellis Tillman, sound designer Matt Corey and photographer George Schiavone — to help her tell a story set in Kahlo’s bedroom as the artist, her pain dulled by morphine, is recovering from yet another spinal surgery.
“I needed Margaret as a director because I needed someone who knows me and knows how to tell a story visually, so that it’s dynamic and not static,” Sherman says. “She’s objective. She’s willing to say, ‘I don’t know the answer,’ so there’s the ability to make a discovery together. ...You need to have an outside person say, ‘Let’s try it this way.’ ”
Ledford delineates some of the challenges of staging a solo show, and speaks of Sherman’s strengths in the form.
“When you’re listening to one voice, you have to make it varied enough that it doesn’t lull you to sleep, but you don’t do variations for variations’ sake. You have to connect with the script and find those opportunities,” she says.
“Deborah has a great ability to keep the audience with her and elicit caring. She’s very personable, open and honest, which allows the audience to be comfortable. She’s a great storyteller.”
Sherman, who grew up in Texas as the daughter of a Colombian mother and a Jewish-American father, discovered Kahlo (1907-1954) when she was 16. The artist had polio at age 6 and was in a horrific bus accident at 18 that fractured multiple bones and left her in severe, chronic pain, unable to sustain a pregnancy. In exploring Kahlo’s life, Sherman felt she had found a kindred soul.
“I had a serious accident at 6 and was supposedly unable to have children. My mother and aunts would whisper about how sad it was that I was broken,” says Sherman, who has two sons.
“I knew that in taking Frida on, I’d be taking on a lot of my own stuff. I suffer from chronic pain — fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue disorder. I wanted to look at her through the lens of chronic pain and ask how an artist takes something so tragic and transform it.”
Physical and emotional pain are evident in Frida: Unmasked, but so are Kahlo’s humor, raw language, fearlessness and disdain for the wealthy women whose patronage she needed. As writer and actor, Sherman has painted Kahlo in many colors.
Phillips, too, has found the variety necessary to make 17 Border Crossings a compelling journey. Wanting to create a play about travel, he discovered “outtakes from other plays” and remembered border-crossing stories from research trips. The play, written in the second person, takes the audience across borders in Tunisia, Bosnia, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Croatia, Bali, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Serbia, Morocco, Angola, Slovenia and Mexico, with Phillips shifting languages and accents along the way.
Though he begins the play seated at a table, in the style of such famed solo artists as Spalding Gray or Mike Daisey, Phillips is soon on his feet, even dancing at one point: “I can’t sit still,” he says by phone from Bogotá, where he lives with his Colombian wife and their 15-month-old son.
“Putting it in second person helps lift it off,” he says. “You wonder, ‘Why is this second-person narrative so detailed?’ ”
Rhythm, he says, is integral to a piece that is tied together more by a theme than a storyline
“One long crossing to Croatia lasts 20 minutes. Then you have three crossings in four minutes. It took forever to find the structure,” says Phillips, who is a director and designer as well as a performer-playwright.
Philadelphia-based director Rebecca Wright helped him find that structure and focus the piece.
“Thaddeus is a very self-directed artist,” she says. “There was a set of ideas, a shape and an aesthetic. When you’re the designer, writer, creator, performer and a lot of the material is autobiographical, some things that make sense to you you forget to explain. I was the stranger in the room, the audience. I could provide honest responses.”
As a solo artist, she adds, Phillips is “enormously playful. He can animate a space and tell an epic story.”
Phillips’ 17 Border Crossings and Sherman’s Frida: Unmasked are certainly different solo shows, the first an expansive piece with Phillips as tour guide, the second intimate and revelatory with Sherman bringing Kahlo to life. But each showcases the skills of its writer-performer. And each is its own kind of tightrope.