Singular sensations

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday January 22, 2019
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Michael Phillis as "Patty from HR." Photo: Courtesy the artist
Michael Phillis as "Patty from HR." Photo: Courtesy the artist

What comes to mind when you think of a one-person show? Maybe it's Lily Tomlin or Whoopi Goldberg deftly switching from character to character in a series of mini-monologues. Perhaps it's the late Spalding Gray, sharing the perfect moments and emotional disasters of his own life story. Maybe you've seen Anna Deveare Smith's assemblages of verbatim interview excerpts. Or maybe you're more familiar with the Hal-Holbrook-as-Mark-Twain approach, in which a performer embodies a single character over the course of an evening.

The versatility of solo theater as a form, and the diversity of the Bay Area artists who explore it, are being showcased between tonight and Feb. 10 in the second annual Solo Performance Festival produced by PlayGround, the Potrero Hill-based theater company, featuring 11 distinctive performers.

"We want to highlight the variety that's out there," explains Annie Stuart, PlayGround's associate director and the festival's co-curator. "Each night is a double bill, so even if you come just once, we've curated it so you'll see two very different approaches to solo performance." (Each evening's program runs between two and two-and-a-half hours, with a break between performers.)

Among the festival's eclectic selections are "Current," a movement-intensive performance in which Nina Wise will incorporate improvisation inspired by events of the prior 48 hours; "The Latin Standards Hour," a punchy, abridged version of Marga Gomez's tribute to her musician father; and "Stop Having Zombie Sex," a humorous grapple with intimacy issues by sometime stand-up comic Malcolm Grissom.

"One of our criteria in curating," says Jim Kleinmann, "is that the performances could definitely not be stand-up comedy. Humor tends to be a common element in a lot of solo work, but we wanted shows that explore individual perspectives with as much depth as possible. When you see Malcolm's show, for instance, he makes you feel like you're sitting alone with him and he's speaking to you personally, not playing to a comedy audience."

Not that such intimate engagement can't have its own pitfalls.

"We've certainly looked at a lot of confessional, autobiographical work," says Kleinmann. "But one of the big challenges for solo performers is understanding that just because it really happened to you doesn't make something inherently interesting onstage. We seek out performers who are able to deliver stories compellingly and theatrically."

Annie Stuart says that in addition to Gomez's piece, there are several other shows with LGBTQ creators or themes that she's particularly pleased to be presenting in this year's festival.

Matthew Martin, a stalwart of San Francisco gay performance, well-known for playing classic Hollywood leading ladies, not to mention Blanche in the locally adored drag "Golden Girls" shows, goes back to his artistic origins with "Matt on Tap," in which he examines a lifelong fascination with tap-dancing.

"Patty from HR Would Like a Word" is a new piece from Michael Phillis, the creative impresario behind Baloney, the all-male revue frequently featured at the Oasis nightclub. "Patty" is a major elaboration on an original character who has made cameo appearances in those variety shows. "She represents corporate culture, political correctness and all the sort of things we're trying to avoid when we go out to drag shows."

Phillis says the character was inspired by two years he spent in corporate tech during the early 2000s. "I was well-paid and completely miserable," he recalls. "It felt like all my interactions were more like transactions. So this show is partly me working through that corporate trauma."

Julie Gieseke will present Borderline Asshole. Photo: Zachary Fineberg  

Julie Gieseke is alchemizing laughs from even deeper trauma with "Borderline Asshole," a harrowing and humorous account of her relationship with a girlfriend who, "as I was dealing with my mother dying, decided that I had borderline personality disorder and convinced me to go into six months of therapy for it."

"Borderline Asshole" is the first full-length show for Gieseke, who never aspired be a performer and still works in the white-collar world. "About eight years ago," she explains, "I thought I wanted to do some more work as a meeting facilitator, but I thought of myself as a very introverted person."

To shore up her confidence, Gieseke enrolled in San Francisco's Solo Performance Workshop, founded in 2005 by W. Kamau Bell ( While Gieseke ultimately decided that meeting facilitation was not for her, she ended up loving the class, and took it a dozen times over the next eight years.

"I originally did it to get through fear," says Gieseke. Now she's won a spot in this significant local showcase, and has applied to present "Borderline Asshole" at the Dublin Gay Theater Festival.

PlayGround Solo Performance Festival, through Feb. 10 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., SF. Single-night tickets from $31, all-festival passes from $93. (415) 992-6677,