Almost half the shows at the recent Hollywood Fringe Festival were solo shows, and four of those were helmed by Juliette Jeffers: Keeper, Odyssey: Race and Racism, Will the Real Me Please Stand Up and 5150: A Musical. Jeffers, who has herself written and performed multiple solo shows based on her own life, coaches and directs those with stories to tell.
Tell us how you became a guru of creating solo shows.
I’ve always been interested in characters, observing people’s mannerisms, how they carry themselves, walk and talk. I grew up in the ‘70s watching Carol Burnett and always loved the characters in the skits. My brother and I used to play a game where we mimicked each other; I always won. That’s where I think the idea was planted in me to do character work and create my own shows.
How did your first solo show come about?
I created Batman and Robin in the Boogie Down, 20 years ago, in 2003. It happened because I’ve never sat around waiting for the phone to ring. When things are slow, I’m always creating.
I’ve written both solo shows and solo plays. In general, solo shows break the fourth wall: “Let me tell you about what happened when I was a kid…” And then you tell the story, with perspective from who you are today. A solo play is like a regular play, where you don’t break the fourth wall. My shows Batman and Robin and Judgment Day are solo plays and I don’t break the fourth wall. In Chocolate Match, about dating, I do.
Batman and Robin is a play in two acts. I wrote it by hand because I didn’t type very well then. In Act 1, I talk to my brother’s spirit, from growing up in the Bronx to when he died. In Act 2, his spirit comes back, and he talks to me. When I was writing Act 2, I was challenged to step into his shoes and say what he would say. I got emotional and cried but I kept writing. I could feel my tears fall onto the paper, and when I looked down, it was my brother’s handwriting.
Once I had done the show and experienced the enormous healing, the sense of empowerment and all those great things that happen when you create a solo show, I wanted to share that feeling with others. I don’t do fluffy shows, so it ends up being quite a transformational process. Maybe I was a therapist in my former life. When I work with someone, we go deep.
Could you say a little more about the healing process?
When somebody gets to the other side of something difficult, it’s inspirational to witness. As actors, we have to really know and work on ourselves to be able to work on the other characters we play, so developing a solo show is a great acting exercise as well. I can’t think of any actor who hasn’t come out of it as a stronger actor.
When did you start coaching?
In 2008, I went home to New York to care for my mom. For five years I was her sole caregiver. I performed Batman and Robin and got nominated for a Drama Desk Award, all in the midst of taking care of her. During that period I wasn’t working as consistently, so I had to think of other ways to make money. So I probably started coaching around 2009, in New York.
What is the role you play as coach to writer/performers developing their shows?
There has to be a universal theme so an audience can relate to it. I’m conscious when I’m working with others to be that outside eye so the show doesn’t turn into a therapy session onstage.
Sometimes, as with Levy Lee [of Odyssey: Race and Racism], I’ve worked with artists who come with their piece already written. Levy is a wonderful playwright. So I gave him some tweaks to make in terms of it feeling more like a solo show. With him, I was simply a director. But with the majority of artists, we start from scratch. They usually have started to think it through, maybe have a few elements. I do an assessment, just like if you’re going to a new doctor and have to fill out that form about your medical history. I ask things like, “What are your strengths? What special skills do you have?” Maybe they tap dance. Maybe they sing. We want to incorporate what makes them unique.
Then I start with writing prompts. The purpose of the prompts is to begin to dig deep and figure out the story they want to tell, which can change over time. That happened with Keeper. We thought we were going in one direction, and then had that aha moment. And so many times when you switch direction, the writing you’ve done up to that point can still be used. Writing is never a waste of time. You can have a bunch of material that may not make it into the show, but it contributed. I sometimes advise writing by hand, journaling. So many gems can come out of that.
What’s special about the solo show form?
For one thing, you’re the only one on that stage and you have to rely on yourself. When I did Chocolate Match in New York, I had added to the script and wasn’t familiar with it. I basically went on before I was ready. There was a point where I went completely blank. In a play, others can step in and help. But in a solo show you have no one else. I was in the middle of a story and I blanked. So I had to riff: “You’re not going to believe what happened next…Can anyone guess what happened next?”
Solo shows are also a great opportunity for actors to grow, to showcase their talent. If you’re auditioning for a role, you have 3-5 minutes in the room, for a very specific role. The casting director sees you in that limited time in a limited way. Having the resource of a solo show is a great tool in your pocket to say, “I can do 20 different characters. I can hold the audience’s attention for an hour. I can dig deep and explore.” You don’t get that breadth in an ensemble piece.
Has there ever been anyone you’ve refused to work with, or a story you didn’t think should be told?
If you’re dealing with a traumatic situation, and you’re still in it, I don’t recommend doing it yet. You have to be close enough to tap into it, but not so in it that it becomes heavy for the audience. If you’re still bitter, angry, hurt, that’s not the time to perform a solo show.
I wrote Batman and Robin about my brother’s death. He died in 1996 and it took me seven years to get there. Before then, I would have been on the floor.
What are you doing now?