Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Joy of Solo Shows

Why am I learning how to develop a solo show?

A better question might be why aren’t you? Everybody has a story, and with coaching and direction, we all can learn to tell the best parts of our story.

That’s why Gene Gore, 82, developed and performs “Cheesecake and Demerol,” her award-winning solo show, which runs through Oct. 19 at Stage Werx Theatre in San Francisco.

“I like being part of the theater community, I like connecting with the audience, with new people, and I like telling my story,” Gene said over tea Friday at CafĂ© Reverie, one of my favorite places to sit around and hear stories.

“At last Sunday’s performance, I really hit my stride, was in that place where I could tweak some lines to get laughs I hadn’t gotten before.” (See for info on future performances.)

A retired nurse and mother of four, grandmother of three, Gene has been working in theater for about a dozen years. She has appeared in a handful of plays and another handful of movies and done some commercials. Gene has studied acting, voice-over work and improvisation. She also has taken workshops in solo performance with David Ford, where she says she found her voice, and has been directed by David and most recently by Wayne Harris.

Here is one review from her performance at the San Francisco Fringe Festival in 2012: “Attending Gene’s show is like having strong coffee with your gracious, vivacious and very witty grandmother. Documentaries and fiction can’t compare with the rare opportunity to experience history through the eyes of a woman who lived it all and tells it like it is. Plus, she’s funny as hell.”

That she is! Gene has fans of all ages, including a 14-year-old who was inspired to take up acting after seeing “Cheesecake and Demerol.” When I saw it earlier this month, I thought it was funny and profound, a mesmerizing look back at the important choices Gene has made in her life -- and those that were made for her.

At the theater, I also leaned in a little to study how Gene “shows” instead of “tells,” how she uses a few props to flesh out important points and how she paces the stories in the show for maximum impact. All those are things I need to learn as I work on developing a solo show.

In August, I attended an intense three-day workshop conducted by Alicia Dattner, who also has won awards for her solo shows. Alicia has performed in San Francisco, New York, Hollywood, Bombay, Chennai and London. (See I saw her amazing show "The Oy of Sex" last week.

At the workshop, for three days we talked, performed, wrote, did theater exercises, wrote some more and performed some more. By the end of the workshop, I had seven pages of material that included several of my stories about aging, about how older women being underestimated or disregarded, all strung loosely together.

Here’s how I started, and yes, I sang the first line. Of course, as I continue to revise the material, the current beginning may end up deleted, replaced by something else.

“I am 16, going on 17 – I know that I can’t sing. A few lines later in that song comes this: I need someone older and wiser, telling me what to do. That works! I am 66, going on 32 - -the perfect age to tell my 16-year-old self what to do. 

Just so you know, I am not upset that I am old. I have made a point of collecting plenty of experiences that I can use to startle and delight people on the porch at the nursing home as we sit rocking, rocking, rocking.

What I am upset about is how some people perceive me based only on my age and the life they presume I am leading. I am concerned about the disconnect between what I feel inside, who I see in the mirror, and the person others see. When they notice me at all.” 

My work made people in the class laugh, made them think and made them say really nice things about my writing. They also seemed impressed that I’m not afraid to stand up and perform. That said, Alicia pointed out that what I have is more of a narrative than a script, and that I need to pull apart some of the paragraphs so I can develop characters and write dialogue for them so that I show, rather than just tell.

I haven’t done that yet. This has been a busy month – my new book with Eve Batey is just out (see or, where we’re posting great photos!) and some in-depth freelance work came my way. But that’s okay.

Procrastinating is okay because in mid-October, I will begin an eight-week workshop on solo show development with Charlie Varon (see, who has been writing and performing for over 30 years. Since 1991, he has created award-winning solo theater work in collaboration with David Ford at The Marsh (, where I have seen half a dozen wonderful solo shows since I moved to San Francisco.

I was familiar with the genre long before that, of course. For me, solo performance seems like another way to tell stories, something I’ve been doing for over 50 years. “It’s expensive,” cautioned Gene when I told her I was just beginning.

“Often, you pay for the space, you pay for tech and you pay for publicity,” she said. Gene is tackling that problem by researching grants and launching a crowd-funding project on Indiegogo. (Read her amazing story at She’s way ahead of me!

A dear, generous friend did pay my workshop expenses (corporate sponsorship, this early in the game!) but I haven’t looked any farther ahead. Right now, for me this project is about joy, about learning something new, about being determined to live an interesting life while I’m still here.

Stay tuned!