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Is a One-Person Show in Your Future? by Anne Rutherford

We welcome local professional storyteller Anne Rutherford as our guest blogger this week!

Anne Rutherford goes down the Rabbit Hole as Alice in her one-person Alice in Wonderland, premiering in November of 2014. Photo by Keith Buckley.

Developing a one-person show is a great way for storytellers to hone our performance skills and develop material for our ongoing repertoire.The beauty of a one-person shows is: it is all up to you!  You choose the content and how it will be presented. The challenge of one-person shows is: it is all up to you! You’re the one to keep the momentum going in rehearsal and performance. 

Over the past 15 years I have been storytelling professionally, I’ve produced over 35 one-woman shows, combinations of personal stories, vintage fiction and folktales around specific themes. This year, I am developing a one-person Alice in Wonderland, set to debut this November.

There are as many types of one-person shows as there are storytellers to do them; is there one in your future? Here are some tips I am keeping in mind as I work on developing mine.

1. Pick story material you want to spend a lot of time with – now and in the future! 

Typical subject matter for one-person shows are personal life experience, historical people or incidents, or a classic fictional story. Even you have performed chunks of the material before, figuring out a through-line for a longer show will make you experience the stories in new ways, maybe jettison parts you never thought you would let go of and develop scenes that before were only tangential. 

You are going to be spending a lot of time thinking about the subject matter, during initial development but then also (ideally) as a piece you will continue to perform for a long time. I am choosing to work on Alice in Wonderland because it has strong name recognition with an audience, but also because I have loved the dialogue and characters since I was a little girl. In fact, I am using my tattered 95 cent Penguin Copy of Alice (along with a Gutenberg e-reader text!) for rehearsal. The March Hare made me laugh when I was 9 years old and he still does today.

It’s vital to develop a through-line with your show (especially if you are working with personal experience stories) that will engage the audience. The next tip is a way to help with that…

2. Develop a rehearsal schedule and enlist a director or focus group.

Even before you are totally sure of the through-line of your story, start getting individual scenes or stories up and running for feedback from a preview audience you trust. The investment in hiring a professional director is almost always worth it – but for those of us who are cash-strapped, the same function can be served by enlisting colleagues to be a focus audience. Do you have fellow storytellers whose style you respect who are also working on longer pieces? Develop your own support group to meet regularly and workshop the pieces with one another. Inviting colleagues from other disciplines can also be energizing – last January I worked with a group to put on a collaborative show and our rehearsal workshops included perspectives from storytellers, dancers, actors and musicians. Rich feedback indeed! 

Beginning to rehearse scenes will help you develop the through-line of the show and help you stay energized. It will also save you the heartbreak of previewing a 1.5 hour work and realizing you have to completely re-work it – in the week you have before debut. I’ve been there, don’t do that to yourself! 

3. Set a performance date and book the venue. 

I am listing this third but really it should be first. Nothing, repeat, NOTHING will galvanize you into more than this. The only reason I am coming inside from beautiful May weather to work on Alice is I have booked a hall and started publicity for November premier of the show. 

A one-person show is an investment in your future repertoire. Ideally this will be a work that you will be able to perform over and over again. The way you do the premiere can be anything from a house concert in a friend’s house to an affordable theater booked for multiple shows. 

Because you are the sole performer drawing the audience, it also helps to partner with another entity to amp up the publicity. In the past I have also worked with libraries and local historical societies to sponsor my shows by giving me a venue and publicity, I do the performance at no charge to the public (or donation only.) For example, this November I am collaborating with the Portland Storytellers’ Guild to present my Alice in Wonderland shows scheduled for November 22 as a family audience offering for Tellabration.

So let’s see, my one-woman Alice in Wonderland will premiere the last two weeks of November. I’ve got 16+ characters to develop and portray. So far, I’ve debuted 2 scenes with six characters. More than ten to go. Better go work on developing that Caterpillar – anyone got a hookah I can borrow?

Anne Rutherford has been telling stories professionally since 1999. She performs in theaters, libraries, festivals and private venues throughout the Pacific Northwest. Anne is also a teaching artist in the schools with Young Audiences of Oregon & Saturday Academy. She is a two-time first place winner at the NW Folklife Festival Liar’s Contest, but every word of this blog post is true. Find out more about Anne’s storytelling at www.annerutherford.com.

Here are some further helpful links!


Check out Scenes from the Future to get an idea of the range of 5 recent one-person shows in development by PDX artists.


Top Ten One-Woman Shows of All Time (from Carrie Fisher & Tracy Ullman to Lily Tomlin.)

Anne adds Julia Sweeney’s “And God Said Ha!” to the above list.

For more in-depth advice on one-person show development

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