One of the most theatrical of theatrical genres is the solo show: 90 minutes or so featuring one actor, and one actor alone. They may be playing a character in the playwright's imagination, or a historical person, or, if the actor is skilled enough, a stage full of memorable characters.
A solo show is one of the greatest challenges an actor can face, but two veteran Rochester actors are up to the challenge this fall. One is a veteran of several well-received solo shows, and the other is attempting his first, after playing all kinds of roles in plays and musicals for many years.
Susan Hopkins just finished a run at Blackfriars Theatre in Willy Russell's "Shirley Valentine." And Peter Doyle is playing one of the most celebrated figures in literary history, Oscar Wilde, in John Gay's "Diversions and Delights." Their roles couldn't be more contrasted, but the preparation for their theatrical marathons was surprisingly similar.
Hopkins returned to a role she played 15 years ago for Blackfriars. After the show's initial success, she says, "Jack (director John Haldoupis) kept asking me if we could bring it back as a summer show. I'd say yes, then I'd start looking at those 66 pages of dialogue again and hesitate."
She finally went ahead with it — "Shirley Valentine" was the first production of Haldoupis's last season at Blackfriars. Faced with all those pages of script, Hopkins did what you'd probably think she would do: she divided "Shirley Valentine" into smaller chunks, which she says was easy to do in this case. "The script is so departmentalized: There's a scene leading up to a decision, then the decision is made and acted on, and then you see the change, each one in a different scene."
In the first act of the play, Shirley has to unpack a load of groceries and prepare a complete meal for her husband while talking nonstop— the actress has to work out the lines and movements carefully. "I started by slowly getting the phrasing, the feeling, and the movements back into my muscle memory. And then I did it over and over and over again." (She's an old hand at one-woman shows, having played Ann Landers in "The Lady with All the Answers" and an elderly Jewish concentration camp survivor in "Rose," both at the JCC.)
The character of Shirley Valentine is the creation of a male writer, Willy Russell, who also wrote "Educating Rita" and "Blood Brothers." Shirley is a 40-ish Liverpool housewife feeling trapped in a dull marriage. When a friend wins a vacation for two to Greece and invites Shirley along, the trip transforms her intellectually and emotionally.
"When I encounter the humor and the pathos of this script, it rings so true that I am amazed that it was written by a man," Hopkins says. "It always seems like a good time to hear this particular story: when you think life has escaped you, but you find out it is not too late," says Hopkins. "And fifteen years later, it seems even more poignant to me: a woman saying 'If not now, when?'" She admits that her earlier run in the play convinced her to make a big change in her own life, from working as a college teacher to becoming a nurse."
Director Michael Arve had a longstanding interest in presenting Peter Doyle in "Diversions and Delights." Never having done a solo show before, Doyle took some time to make up his mind, but agreed to it this summer and set to work memorizing the script with Arve's help.
Like many an actor, Doyle's exposure to Oscar Wilde was limited to performing in "The Importance of Being Earnest." There were many gaps in his knowledge of the great writer's life: "For example, I never realized that Oscar Wilde was married and had two sons — one of whom wrote a book about him. I also never realized how broad-minded and open he was for the time. His attitude was 'Let me live; what right do you have to be judging me?'"
"Diversions and Delights" was originally performed by Vincent Price, who took it on a national tour and briefly to Broadway in 1977 (one of the tour stops was Rochester's Nazareth College, where Doyle saw it when he was 16 years old). It is devised in the form of a lecture Wilde gave during the last year of life. After his trial on sodomy charges in 1895 and his spell in Reading Prison, Wilde was persona non grata in England. He traveled to France, eking out a living by giving lectures about his life, opinions, and scandals. He remained haunted by his great love, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as "Bosie."
The title sounds lighthearted, and the play is full of Wilde's bon mots, but it does show Wilde seriously taking stock of his life. "The script really is rich and funny and perfectly written," Doyle says. "That language is like music to an actor. When I fully read it out loud, it relieved me of my initial terror."
He also broke the two-act play down to five sections for study purposes — and when showed up for his first rehearsal, found that Arve had divided the script the exact same way.
Doyle admits that while he read what he could of Wilde's life and work, "I didn't really do a lot of homework. I sometimes think actors can over-research and over-think roles, and I didn't want to do that." He had no recordings of Wilde's voice or film of him to guide him (though during his glory years in literary society he was frequently photographed). Numerous accounts of Wilde's speaking voice have come down to us, generally described as soft and with an Irish inflection, though a cultivated one.
Re-creating Wilde physically, he says, was mostly a matter of feeling comfortable with "conventions of speech that are in the play but nothing like the way we talk now. People's movements, the way they walked and sat, were very different too, and I have to try to make that physicality of another time organic to me."