Making It Clear (or: How the Pandemic Helped Me Understand Something As a Solo Show Creator)

Hi. It’s been a while. How’ve you been?

Echoing the wishes of so many humans in 2020: I hope you and yours are safe and well. If you’ve been sick I hope you’ve recovered fully or are on that road. If you’ve been in mourning, then I offer my condolences, and hope you’ve been as unconditionally kind to yourself as possible.

I’m so glad you’re here.

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Please allow me to say that if you’ve been creative in any manner, shape, or form since the pandemic was announced, you’re a hero as far as I’m concerned. I hope you’ll reward yourself if you haven’t yet.

I’ve done some play readings via Zoom, but the last time I worked on my new show—the one I started in 2014, so it sure as heck doesn’t feel new now—was in January.

That was also the last time I worked on this blog, on a post that had nothing to do with the pandemic because we didn’t know we were in one yet, so I’ll go back to that post another time.

Right now it seems imperative to write about the current moment and what I’ve learned that might actually help you in your creative work.

So here’s a question: has the pandemic helped you to understand yourself better, whether you liked it or not?

I ask because it has done this for me, which hasn’t been pleasant, but it has helped me to understand how vital it is to make certain truths clear in one’s autobiographical solo show.

Since March 11, I’ve become familiar with my own fear in a way that is new.

We all have fears specific to us, of course. When I was growing up, my fear was usually about being “the new kid,” “the misfit,” and/or “the girl” around bullies inside and outside of school every time we moved to a new country and then settled in. These fears were simply part of my daily life, and even though I knew intellectually that I wasn’t the only one experiencing them, they often made me feel entirely alone.

As an adult, now that the novel coronavirus has taken a deadly toll around the world without an end in sight in the USA (where I live), my general fear revolves around a) the brutal symptoms of the disease, and b) dying in abjectly lonely isolation. I fear this for myself and my loved ones.

So the fears of my youth and of today are actually the same: for me, involuntary total isolation is the thing of nightmares. (This is interesting for a solo (!) performer who frequently traveled alone with her show-in-a-carry-on to unfamiliar places where she performed for strangers…but you and I volunteered to do that despite the challenges. So Yay for our courage!)

I’ve always known involuntary total isolation was my worst fear. “Where Is Everybody?” is the Twilight Zone episode that spooks me the most. Stories in which someone is cruelly abandoned to a solitary doom make me burst into tears. This includes the moment when Noah won’t let Gonzo onto the Arc in a dream sequence in Muppets from Space. (Side note: I cannot recommend that movie highly enough.)

Nevertheless, I didn’t fully grasp this specific terror’s hold over me until we all found ourselves in a global pandemic.

By early April it was a full-on phobia, until I had to get annual physicals and screenings in June and August. When being inside windowless medical facilities among other people with masks on didn’t kill me or even lead to a sore throat, and a COVID-19 test came out negative, the phobia became the more generalized trepidation that many others seem to have. I’m keeping to quarantine, but I think I can handle infrequent masked speed-shopping at Trader Joe’s while keeping six+ (or better yet 12+) feet away from others.

Acknowledging how powerful my fear is and has always been made me think about my first autobiographical solo show, in which various themes emerged under the umbrella of displacement-and-identity.

Yet in that show (which is now a film), I rarely mentioned fear as an emotion I experienced consistently. I thought it was implied…but was it?

Thinking about it now, I wish I had added the line: “I’m always scared. Fear is just…life,” and then made some kind of simple, wry, evocative gesture.

If a certain emotion has colored much of your existence, it’s probably worth mentioning in your show one way or another. Ask your director if it’s implied or if you need to emphasize it. You could make it a laugh line if you want to avoid too much earnestness.

Pondering fear in Alien Citizen has helped me to recognize two other themes that could have been made clearer.

In a scene in which I play myself as a little kid, other characters think I’m adopted when they see me with my mom. I use my own hair to cover my mouth and nose to point out that my eyes and coloring make my Irish-European heritage invisible. Then later in the story, when I play myself as an adult, a character denies my Asian heritage to my face.

I thought it was implied in Alien Citizen that I never wanted to be white or monoracial. Instead, I wanted to be correctly identified, and for neither of my parents to be erased by other people. But I never said this in the show, so it’s not in the film, so some audiences may have walked away thinking “As a kid she wished she were white.” This is both incorrect and depressing.

I wish I had added this line: “I just want people to see all of me and not erase either of my parents!”

One last important truth that may not have been crystal clear in the show: a country’s wealth or lack thereof is irrelevant to your happiness as long as you have real friends there. National wealth equals convenience, which should not be underestimated, but it also cannot replace friendship, which equals love, trust, and belonging. Good luck to anyone looking for happiness without those, no matter how pretty their suburb is.

I thought this was implied when I created the show…but was it? Now I wish I had made it clearer.

I hope these examples help you to pinpoint and clarify all of the important truths in your show.

Is there something you mean to say? Say it. If you have any doubt about its clarity, say it plainly.

Of course, if you can show it clearly in a scene, that’s gold.

My first show was very dense, and I managed to pack it with some very important truths from my life, but I wish I had highlighted the three I’ve mentioned above. My wish is for you to walk away from your final performance knowing you said everything you meant to say.

Let me know if this helps at all. When it’s finally safe to gather, I would love to see your show!

BONUS: This podcast has provided me with great comfort during the pandemic. I hope it helps you, too.


Announcement: 20% of proceeds from individual rentals of Alien Citizen will be donated to Color of Change through the end of 2020. If you’re curious about the show I’ve been blogging about, here’s a way to see it and give to a good cause at the same time.

For monthly updates on the goings-on of my solo shows, film, workshops, acting gigs, and more, subscribe to my newsletter. (It’s different from this blog, which is exclusively about creating and touring a solo show.)

Thank you for reading my thirty-seventh post! I love your comments! Please feel free to leave one below.

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