Creating My One-Person Show: What I Learned Writing, Producing & Performing Solo Theatre
I recently wrote, produced, and performed my first one-person show, Embrace Yr Weird.
While I'd been on stages plenty of times throughout my life, as a theatre actor, drag performer, and speaker, this experience tested me in a whole new way. Over the past few years I've been pivoting my career towards professional speaking, and I'd spent the past 6 months in an intensive speaker training program at Heroic Public Speaking (HPS), where some of the top keynote speakers worldwide train. As I worked on developing my new diversity & inclusion keynote this past spring, I realized a couple of things:
First, the power of a deadline. Shortly after I attended my first in-person session at HPS, I was asked to do a 25-minute version of my keynote for New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) in March 2019. I'd already written the rough draft of a 60-minute version, but having this immediate deadline looming became immensely valuable, as it forced me to quickly cut down my first draft to the most important elements and to rehearse relentlessly to get it performance-ready.
Second, I started to realize that I was self-censoring as I wrote and rehearsed my script. During January, after I wrote the first draft of my script, I wasn't happy with it. Not AT ALL. I came close to quitting HPS, in part because the perfectionist in me knew that the first draft wasn't the best I could do. But we all have to start somewhere. At my first in-person session in Lambertville, NJ with HPS, I started getting feedback on parts of my script and quickly started to realize that I hadn't dug deep enough. That I was only scratching the surface of what I really wanted to say. And after speaking at NOEW in March, I realized that in order to develop the rest of the script into a 1-hour keynote, I needed to push myself even further. The reason I enrolled in HPS's Grad program in the first place is because I wanted to figure out how to combine elements from my background in theatre, dance, and drag performance into my keynote speaking. But when I first started writing my speech with corporate business audiences in mind, I found myself unnecessarily editing my script.
The previous year, I'd produced a 3-day marketing retreat for creative business owners. After hearing Michelle Villalobos speak at my local chapter of the National Speakers Association, I was inspired by her advice to get something on the books for no further than 90 days away. That advice served me well last year when I was planning my retreat, and as I had these realizations this spring, I knew the 90-day plan would be the kick in the pants I needed to get my vision out of my head and onto the stage.
3 MONTHS FROM SHOWTIME
On April 19, 2019 I reached out to the owner of the AllWays Lounge in New Orleans and put a deposit on a venue. When I graduated the New Orleans Drag Workshop and the New Orleans School of Burlesque, both of my performances were at the AllWays Lounge, so it only seemed fitting that I would premiere my new one-person show there. I booked the back theatre, The Twilight Room, for exactly 90 days out — my show would premiere on Friday, July 19, 2019.
I shared the news on my social media channels, letting people know to save the date and publicly committing myself to creating something from (almost) nothing within the next 3 months.
I started doing a ton of research, reading any article I could find about creating a one-person show (this article and this one were really helpful). I scheduled a video call with Susan Sandler, one of the HPS Teaching Fellows who had already done her own one-person show. And I watched a ton of videos for inspiration, including clips of Lily Tomlin's The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe, John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons on Netflix, and Luisa Omielan's stand-up comedy shows like ‘Am I Right Ladies?!' on YouTube.
2 MONTHS FROM SHOWTIME
Luckily, I had already performed a 25-minute version of my script at NOEW in March, but I still had to write and edit the rest of the script to create a 1-hour show. I had the very early rough draft I'd written in January, and I kept some parts of that script while adding new bits as well. By mid-May, I had a new full-length draft of my script ready for rehearsal. Some parts were more stage-ready and rehearsed than others, while there were still some gaping holes. For example, I knew I wanted to add an interactive dance-party element near the end of the show, but I wasn't sure exactly how to do it.
In late May, I did an invited rehearsal via Zoom video conference with my friends Amanda and Bharat from HPS. I recorded it in my living room, mostly reading from the script but performing it on my feet to give them a sense of how I envisioned the show. I asked for specific feedback from them about the overall flow of the content, and I figured out the sections and ideas that were working really well and what needed to be changed or scrapped.
Around this same time, I reached out to my friend Megan Eileen Kosmoski. I'd met her the previous fall and I knew she had a lot of experience directing theatre productions as well as producing and promoting shows via the organization she co-founded, New Orleans Box Office. I wanted to make sure that she was compensated for her time, so we decided that she would get a cut of the ticket proceeds in exchange for co-producing and directing the show during my final weeks of rehearsal. She also helped me stay organized about what needed to be done, putting together spreadsheets for the costumes and props I needed to gather, the people we'd need help from, as well as other to-dos and things we needed to consider.
During May I also started selling discounted early bird tickets. Early bird ticket sales ended on June 19th, a month before the show. I only sold a handful of early bird tickets, but by starting the ticket sales early it gave me the opportunity to start promoting the show regularly to my email list and via social media.
At this point I also reached out to my former colleague Dave Rotman, who is a super talented graphic designer. I hired him to create the animated videos that would be shown in between the different sections of my script.
1 MONTH FROM SHOWTIME
I was actually out of town for almost the whole month of June. I continued to rehearse and work on refining the script, and luckily I had a few more sessions with Heroic Public Speaking at their headquarters in New Jersey. There, I was able to get feedback and I figured out how to execute the onstage dance party idea I'd had. On my drive to one of those sessions, I also had the crazy idea to use sock puppets to add some levity during one of my stories, and I was able to test out that idea in front of people at HPS.
By the time it was a month out from the show, I had a fairly firm “final” script ready. At that point, I started blocking out my basic movements and stage direction. I also started ordering some of my props (like the Jeff Goldblum cardboard cutout) that might take a little extra time to arrive.
3 WEEKS FROM SHOWTIME
I got home from my trip about 3 weeks before the show. I met with my director Megan and we mapped out our rehearsal schedule for the final 3 weeks. We were lucky that a new theatre venue, Beauborg, allowed us to use their space for free to rehearse in. Having somewhere other than my apartment to rehearse in kept me accountable and made it feel like I was really creating something for the theatre.
During my first full rehearsal with Megan, I was still very much reading from the script and didn't have most of it memorized yet. I'd gotten into the habit (because of HPS) of videotaping the majority of my rehearsals with my phone, which was SUPER helpful. I could go back and watch Megan's notes again, see what I was doing that worked and didn’t, and catch any add-lib moments that I liked and wanted to add to the script. The script was in a perpetual state of evolution — even a few days before the show I was making minor tweaks to it as the rehearsals continued.
During the last week of June, my friend Todd Perley came over and we spent the afternoon at my place filming the intro video. I’d already scripted the lines and mapped out the character & video ideas a couple weeks prior.
At this point, I started finalizing the press release and doing a big push to promote the show. I'm grateful that I have a background in marketing and I had produced and promoted many craft shows and other events over the years. I sent the press release to local news media, and the show was mentioned in a lot of local event listings. I also scored a tv appearance, which aired on WWL-TV's Great Day Louisiana the day before the show.
2 WEEKS FROM SHOWTIME
During early July, I had rehearsals with Megan about 3 times a week, plus I was doing plenty of rehearsing and running lines on my own. There were certain sections of the script that I knew better than others, because I’d already done versions of them at NOEW in March. There were also certain sections of the script that I felt like I would NEVER REMEMBER though. Some of those segments that I just couldn't remember ultimately got cut or tweaked in the final version of the script.
I started rounding up all of the remaining costumes, props, and set dressing that I needed. A few more ticket sales started to periodically trickle in, and I sold out of VIP tickets. (There were only 12 VIP seats available and one amazing friend had claimed 5 of them before I even put them on sale.)
1 WEEK FROM SHOWTIME
I was supposed to have an invited dress rehearsal a week before the show, but Hurricane Barry threw a wrench in everything. Luckily, New Orleans didn't receive any major damage from the storm, but there was also a crazy thunderstorm that caused street flooding that same week. In between all of this weather-induced anxiety and all of the feels about my show being only a week away, I decided to leave town for a few days and head to my mom's house in Mississippi. I rehearsed and ran lines on my mom’s back porch while it was raining. I was freaking out because it was a week until the show and I kept forgetting a ton of lines.
After the storm passed, I headed back into New Orleans and started the final prep for the show. In the final week, online ticket sales started to pick up. People whose names I didn’t recognize started to buy tickets! People who I’d known for years (and hadn’t seen in years) started to buy tickets! I felt like there would actually be people there!
At this point, I confirmed the people who I would need to help run things the night of the show. My best friend Ashley had worked professionally for years in theatre, so I had her handle the box office. Megan had a couple of friends who wanted to see the show and were excited to volunteer. They were ushers and then they released the confetti cannons from either side of the stage at the end of the show.
We ended up doing an invited rehearsal on Tuesday night the week of the show. Even though I’m sure I skipped and changed a few parts, I managed to get through the whole thing without totally blanking or calling “line” to Megan. The 3 people who came to watch it were all friends of Megan and they didn’t really know what to expect, but they all had really good feedback and said they enjoyed it.
On Wednesday and Thursday, I rehearsed on my own at home and I felt really good about the run throughs. I did a rehearsal on Thursday night, the night before the show, with Megan & my videographer. During this rehearsal, I totally drew a blank at 3 different points and had trouble finding my way back to where I was. This TOTALLY FREAKED ME OUT. This was the night before the show. What if the same thing happened during the show?!? I told myself this was the moment where I was just getting all of that out of my system and everything would be fine during the show itself.
THE DAY OF THE SHOW
And everything was fine. On Friday, I did one final full rehearsal at home. It went well. I felt good. I spent the day trying to keep myself in a good place mentally. I did some yoga at home for the first time in months. I got on a video call with a few of my friends from Heroic Public Speaking, who cheered me on.
The doors for the show opened at 9pm and the show was supposed to be at 9:30pm, so I met Megan at the theatre around 6pm to start loading in the props and set dressing. We got the stage all set up, and around 7pm the venue's tech person arrived and we got the lighting, sound, and video tech all set up. The plan was for Megan to sit in the sound & light booth to make sure that all of the video and music cues happened at the correct times. Around 8pm, Ashley showed up to run the box office, my videographer started setting up, and the other volunteers arrived. I headed backstage to finish putting on my makeup, and at 9pm, they opened the doors to the theatre.
I'm so grateful for everyone else who helped make the show happen. I was able to stay focused backstage because I knew that Megan and Ashley and everyone else had things in the front of house handled. I could hear some of my friends chatting in the VIP section, and it was exciting to know that this thing I had been working on for so many months was about to become a reality.
Megan came on stage 5 minutes before we started the show, to let the audience know we'd be starting soon and to ask them to silence their phones and tip the bartenders in the front bar. She came backstage to check on me, and soon we were rolling. The lights went down, the intro video played, and then I came on stage. You can watch a trailer video, plus a full-length video of the "late night" version of my solo performance below:
"Embrace Yr Weird" Trailer:
"Embrace Yr Weird" Full Performance:
Being on stage that night was kind of like those moments when you're driving somewhere, and suddenly you're there. You were so in the zone, fully present in the moment, or caught up in thought, that you don't remember how you got from point A to point B.
There were moments when I had a blip of a conscious thought, feeling like the show was just flying by. Hoping that I hadn't forgotten anything, but trusting in myself that I was blazing through the material and I'd already covered everything I was supposed to at that point. There were a couple of fun moments of unexpected audience interaction too: at one point a phone rang, and I playfully called them out about it, and another time someone sneezed, and I said "Bless you."
I don't know that I could have hoped for anything better for this first performance. The show didn't sell out, but there was a good turnout. I had a lot of people come up to me after the show and tell me how much they enjoyed it. (I also encouraged them to come on stage afterwards and take pictures with the Jeff Goldblum cardboard cutout if they wanted to.) I'm so glad I had my videographer, Sean Woods, and my photographer friend, Lady Robin Walker, there to document the whole thing.
I challenged myself in a big way by writing, producing and performing a one-person show. It was everything my gut was telling me I needed to do, and because I produced this first solo performance myself, I was able to do it exactly the way I envisioned it.
My plan is to continue doing more performances, adapting the one-person show for different audiences as keynote performances. Some of the jokes and stories will definitely change, depending on the audience and venue. But I know that the overall message is one that is sorely needed in the world right now.
Do you have an event or venue that you'd like to see me perform a version of the show at? Contact me!