Soloists

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Unlike most of the Strangercrombie winners who bought sections of the paper, the one who snagged this column did not want to read about himself. Instead, he wanted me to write about four solo performers who are from or have come through Seattle and, he said, "never receive enough praise and adulation": Troy Mink, Matt Smith, Lauren Weedman, and, er, David Schmader.

In fact, Schmader's 1994 Letter to Axl was the first solo show I ever saw—before Spalding Gray or Dael Orlandersmith or anybody. I was young and don't remember much about it except feeling shocked. It wasn't so much the sex talk or the cultural vivisection of Axl Rose or the final image of Schmader with a big, globby fistful of lube—though those were all surprising. I hadn't realized that theater could be that funny or that vital. After a childhood of mildly interesting plays, Letter to Axl was my graduation into the world of grown-up art.

In the next few years I saw Troy Mink perform an entire town's worth of loonies, haters, and lost souls in The Haint and Matt Smith reminisce about his Catholic Capitol Hill boyhood in My Last Year with the Nuns. Years later, I watched Lauren Weedman electrify her audience with the outrageous (and ridiculously funny) rape-lie/divorce confessional Wreckage and lamented having missed her earlier solo work.

It seems like an absurd sentiment—along with slam poetry and interpretive dance, "autobiographical solo theater" is almost a punch line. Somehow, despite the inevitable adjectives that stick to solo theater ("pretentious," "vacuous," "tortured"), Seattle has been blessed with a pack of artists who launch the form light-years beyond the boring art-as-therapy crowd.

"Give details," said Matt Smith—who, barring an appearance on a Japanese dating game show in 1981, didn't walk onto a stage until he was 31. "If you're telling a story, implicate yourself. Small, intricate brushstrokes that are really about you become more universal than broad strokes."

Storytelling is the oldest kind of performance, but somehow these four artists are more daring and forward-looking than most contemporary playwrights, even the "experimental" ones. Maybe it's because plays are complicated, collaborative machines, routinely smothered by committee. Or maybe because playwrights feel beholden to imaginary audiences, theaters, and The Theatre while soloists, like comedians, don't owe anybody except the audience sitting right in front of them. Nimbler and lower to the ground, soloists can skip a joke, make up new ones, rewrite the script as they perform it—if there ever was a script, which is unlikely.

That isn't to say that soloists are sloppy. Smith, Weedman, Schmader, and Mink all mix on-the-spot inspiration with tight characters and storylines. At their best, they are funny and earnest, risky and entertaining, and often self-deprecating.

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"My first solo performance was autobiographical—about drinking Robitussin," Schmader said. "But I pretended it wasn't about me. I didn't understand there was a market for self-debasement."

brendan@thestranger.com