People often ask me how I got started writing one-person shows and Ive never been able to quite, definitively nail down a concrete answer. Oftentimes Ive said, “out of artistic necessity,” and while that is an absolute truth, its only part of the answer.
Although I had been a professional actor in Los Angeles, for many, many, many years, I felt like I wasnt landing the caliber of roles that showcased my unique set of skills. I was an actor who could sing. I had superb comedic timing and I could conjure up such emotional depth in characters that allows me the ability to be totally present, and if need be, authentically cry on a dime. I also possess the rare ability to portray many different walks-of-life from the seediest of characters to the noblest of gentlemen. Why wasnt I working?
Early in my career I had booked a few leads in several independent films, and guest-starred in many television shows, but most of those roles did not lead to more fulfilling parts or a steady acting career. I was at a stalemate and did not know how to dig myself out of the trenches.
It wasnt until a former acting teacher, who knew I was also a writer, asked, “Why arent you writing material for yourself?”
I thought about the question a while, and honestly didnt have a concrete answer. So, I responded by saying, “I dont know.”
I had never really thought about it. I had written a few books, articles and plays for others, but the thought of writing something specifically for me never crossed my mind. In fact, my first thought was that it seemed a little bit egocentric. Then I started thinking about film actor/directors I admired like: Sylvester Stallone, Robert Townsend, Matt Damon, Barbara Streisand, and Spike Lee.
These artists had the tenacity to create film projects for themselves when Hollywood wasnt banging down their doors. But I didnt have any money or the knowledge of how to get a film script made into a movie. However, I did innately understand theatre, so I set out to develop a stage play for myself.
That turned out to be a daunting task as well. It wasnt until I was introduced to the works of Roger Guenveur Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Lilli Tomlin and John Leguizamo that a light bulb went off in my head and I thought, “I could do that.”
However, that “Ah ha,” moment was easier said, then done. First off, who wants to perform an hour and a half long monologue? The thought of trying to memorize pages and pages of dialogue was intimidating enough to make me want to give up before I even started. Especially since, even though I was an actor and trained to memorize lines, I didnt have the best long-term memory.
As I continued to “toy,” with the idea, I relaxed my racing mind and finally got around to, “What would I write about?” What I discovered was; I had a lot to say and even more to write.
I started thinking about the essays and emails I had written and the topics I passionately spoke about with family and friends. Then it became clear that I would write about the plight of urban education. Alas, my first solo show, Did You Do Your Homework? was born. However, crafting it wasnt easy.
I knew I had something important to say and that getting it out of my head onto the page would be vital in developing the story, but I really had no clue how to start. Everything seemed to be jumbled up and every time I sat sit down to begin, I always found myself getting stuck in a “brain freeze.”
Frustrated, because I knew I had a story to tell, I almost allowed myself to give up. Then I thought to myself, “I need to approach writing this piece from a different perspective.” I cant start by simply writing the story from beginning to end. I have to first, alleviate my frustration by purging my head and hashing out all the ideas I have in it. Then I thought, “How do I do that?”
The answer, “brainstorming.”
Once I got all my ideas on paper, I could physically see them and go about organizing and arranging them, piece by piece, into an “outline,” that was cohesive and chronological. It was only then, that I could begin writing my story. But it didnt stop there, because what I found, after my first couple of drafts, was that even though my story had a lot of content and interesting characters, it had no heart. It had no deep, pressing purpose or reason why I was telling the story and what made this story so uniquely personal to me. It had no depth.
What I discovered was that I had not made the story deeply personal to me. It did not contain what made me a uniquely giving and passionate individual and artist. Even though I intellectually knew that by doing so, would make my story stronger and more affable to audiences, I didnt want to be that vulnerable. I didnt want to risk opening up my heart and letting complete strangers in.
I wrote, Did You Do Your Homework? out of a need to talk about urban education. Most importantly I wrote this show so that educators could recognize, that although urban kids sometimes come to school with a myriad of social, economic and physical issues, at their core, many of them want the same things out of life as everyone else. They just may not know how to access their own feelings and ambitions because of the trauma they may be dealing with on a daily basis. They havent been taught to dream.
I was once one of those urban kids who had gone through and survived trauma. I was physically and mentally abused and as a result used drugs and alcohol to numb my pain through middle and high school. In high school, I would go to school all bruised up and sleep through my first period class because I had been up all night, taking extreme blows to my chest, in order to keep my step-father off of my mom. I would then sleep through sixth period because I needed the rest and the strength for the night to come. I suffered in silence.
My ninth-grade teacher would constantly kick me out of class if I showed up late or slept in her first period. It wasnt until I got to tenth grade and had a teacher by the name of Jim Underhill who recognized that there was more to me than just the appearance of defiant behavior. He lifted my spirits by encouraging me to be and do more than what I thought was physically possible. He, along with my mom, constantly reinforced the notion that theres greatness inside me, even when I didnt believe it.
Once I actualized my perspective on why I needed to tell this story and how teachers needed to remove all preconceived notions of who and what urban students are, then I had a way in to the hearts and minds of my audiences. They could relate to the struggles and pains of physical and substance abuse and how a man struggling with his own demons is trying to make a difference in the world.
At first glance Did You Do Your Homework? is a 12-character solo show about the bureaucracy of urban education and one substitute teachers journey through the inner dealings of an urban classroom. However, once you peel back the onion, it becomes a human beings way of recognizing pain and using it as a catalyst to heal and inspire students going through seemingly insurmountable odds.
I wrote this play having been a former teacher. Initially, it was a means to an end. A way to showcase my talents as an actor, singer, and writer. It was also a way for me to use social commentary to perform and talk about issues that were important to me. What I discovered during the writing process was the more it became deeply personal the more authentic and profound my script became.
The result; a show, that was slated for one weekend, ran 9 months at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, making it the longest running show in the history of that organization. It also amassed, national and international, critical acclaim, and garnered several awards, including an International Gala Star from Bacau, Romania, a Roar of the Crowd recognition from Goldstar, and a NAACP Theatre Award.
This came to fruition because I made a conscious decision to open my heart and let the story I had inside me out. By telling my own deeply personal narrative, from my perspective, in a voice that was uniquely mine, I unleashed my own power, motivated others, and authentically moved audiences. I said, “YES!” took a leap of faith and jumped. It is the best decision I have ever made involving the empowered trajectory of my career.
Sometimes you have to get out of your own way and forge your own path in order to fulfill your true passion. Youve got to, “Jump without a net, and let your conscious passion guide your subconscious dreams into figuring out how you are going to fly.”
Everyone has a story. What is yours? Whether you feel your life has been ordinary, extraordinary or somewhere in between, you have a life experience that warrants the probability of connecting with and inspiring others.
Most people think they have nothing to say. They think their lives are boring, monotonous, or mundane. That there is nothing special about them that would warrant people paying attention, let alone paying money, to sit and watch their story unfold.
When I hear people say, “I dont have anything to write about,” “I have nothing to say,” or “My life is boring,” it drives me nuts, because those statements cannot be further from the truth. Theyre unreal and firmly rooted in fear.
Storytelling is an art that encourages personal narrative. How many people think they do not have anything to write about? How many think they have nothing to say? How many think their lives are boring, meaningless or mundane? Millions!
Saying, “I have nothing ,” connects you with a community of folks who feel invisible, isolated, undervalued, and even worthless. How many of us have felt this way at one time or another in our lives? I know I have.
How many people have said, “There, but for the grace of God ,” in recognition that others misfortune could have been our own? That statement alone connects us with the experiences of others.
So, instead, start with, “I have nothing to say.” What you will discover is that you will instantly connect and draw in people who will hear that statement tugging at their heart strings. The reason; so many people feel that way. It is that simple.
What is the story you want to tell and how do you authentically want to create it from your perspective? You are unique. Whatever the topic or subject matter, no one has your life experiences or point of view. No one can tell your story, from your perspective, better than YOU.
The real purpose of your life is to fulfill your dreams. Your only responsibility in this process, is to fully commit to your own joy and challenge yourself to go beyond what is comfortable. The time is “now,” to develop your creative abilities and finally step into your true artistic greatness. Exercise your mind to get out of its own way and turn your “pain,” from “passion,” to “profits.”
Are you ready? Begin.