I’m thrilled that we have Tanya Taylor Rubinstein here today to talk about her path from emerging to established writer. Tanya Taylor Rubinstein has found her niche as a personal storyteller in the genre of solo performance. As a teacher, she is known worldwide as “the solo performance coach,” helping writers to develop their personal narratives into shows produced on stages everywhere. I think writers in every genre of personal narrative can learn so much from the storytelling strategies used in solo performance in general and Tanya in particular, and so I am thrilled that Tanya will be on the faculty of both Bird by Bird & Beyond with Anne Lamott and Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive.
Check out her story below!
Claiming My Path as a Solo Performer
by Tanya Taylor Rubinstein
I remember putting pencil or crayon to paper and the sweet relief I found from my own sense of isolation that seems to have followed me into this lifetime: a deep aloneness that I have never really shaken. For me, writing was about expression and connection right from the start. I would wake up early and write my mom a poem and slip it under the door before breakfast to surprise her.
It was sacred, it was a gift, it was an offering.
Some of my earliest memories are of writing. My mother, who was an elementary school teacher, taught me to read and write before I went to kindergarten.
She always tells me, that as soon as I could string two words together, I was obsessed with writing stories and poems. Forty plus years later, she still has some of my early attempts at storytelling as evidence. She has an upstairs drawer in a guest bedroom filled with little scraps of construction paper with my seven and eight word tales written on them.
By the time I was fifteen, I was ensconced in the world of theater. There was rarely a time when I was not in rehearsal for a show, both in and out of school. Theater became the defining center of who I was. It had already sheltered me through the death of a beloved grandfather. Early on I noted its emotionally transformative powers. It was a lifeline in an otherwise drab suburban landscape.
I went on to study theater professionally in college and at an acting studio in NYC.By the time I was in my twenties, I was becoming disillusioned with the offerings of the conventional American theater. I went to see “The Heidi Chronicles” by Wendy Wasserstein on Broadway. And though the character of Heidi was being touted as an archetype of the contemporary woman, I found very little to relate to in her high strung, over privileged neurosis. Then, I was cast in the second production in the U.S. of The Kentucky Cycle. It was an ensemble piece that explored the coal-mining communities of Kentucky through several generations. All the actors played multiple roles in the six hour production that played over two days for audiences.
Though undeniably brilliant, the play did not resonate with me or the issues I wanted to explore in theater. The female characters were all secondary to the men’s roles and although the play had just won The Pulitzer Prize, it did not speak to my heart and soul. And, as I had just devoted a year of my life to this show; that in and of itself was the beginning of a wake-up call for me.
My heart continued to return to an experience I had, in a small theater, when I was nineteen years old and studying acting in Boston. That was when I had seen Spalding Gray perform one of his early monologues. He sat on a stage and shared parts of his life with us that evening. It was fresh, it was raw; it was simple and it was honest. Above all, it gave me the feeling of connection that I so craved, even as a small child. He offered his humanity, even the embarrassing parts, as a way to create a feeling of intimacy. There was none of the artifice that hangs around most all traditional theater. I had carried the dream since I saw him perform and met him afterwards, that the personal monologue format he shared, was what I wanted to do, more than anything else in my life. And, I had no idea how I could possibly do it.
As I began to seriously contemplate turning the dream into a reality, some very basic questions emerged. How could I write my own shows when I didn’t write? And, how would I find the courage to stand onstage alone and offer myself to an audience? I figured that I would deal with the first issue first.
By this time, I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our small town is a hot-bed of creativity and turned out to be the perfect place for me to find my writing voice. One night, I was invited to a small coffee shop/bookstore for a reading of an author from Taos who had a new book out on creativity. The book was “The Artist’s Way” and the author was Julia Cameron. I bought the book and the journey was formally underway.
The next four years were devoted to daily writing. I wrote morning page. I wrote in my journal. I wrote poetry and read at poetry readings around town and in Taos. And, I began to write monologues.
During this same period of time, a local producer began to bring in solo performers from NYC to Santa Fe for shows (thank you Kol Heggerty!).. I saw John Leguizamo in “Mambo Mouth,” Anna Deavere Smith in “Fires in the Mirror,” Reno, Karen Finley and several more shows by Spalding Gray. It was as if I designed my own graduate studies program in solo performance and I was immersing myself in the curriculum. I might add that this was all happening in the early 90s and there were no official grad programs in solo theater, unlike the ones that are offered now.
I also immersed myself in other experiences that supported this path. I read Anne Lamott and May Sarton. I went to see Ntozake Shange, Simon Ortiz and Judyth Hill read their poetry. All of these people were exploring, in their own ways, intimacy. On the page and on the stage.
The other thing that was important in this mix was going to therapy and dealing with some emotional issues that had haunted me and blocked my full expression for much of my life. These parts of myself wanted to keep me smaller than I am and needed to be addressed if I was ever to realize my dreams of performing my own material. I think, that as creative beings, we all deserve to explore where we come from to truly discover what it is we most essentially need to say. Also, for many of us, therapy or other forms of healing can be critically important when it comes to taking the brave steps required to offer our work to the world.
So, in 1994, between writing my own material and integrating my understanding of various structures, I wrote my first show. I was referred to a director, Wendy Chapin, who had a good instincts about what worked and what did not onstage. She challenged me constantly to write and rewrite for which I am now very thankful.
She understood the parts of the script that needed to be either deleted or transformed. Many of these passages were personally healing for me, but could be potentially seen as self-indulgent to an audience.
This is where the importance of voice and expanding my voice became the next step for me that was necessary in my process. It turned my personal material into something stage-worthy. I now see the same process happen or not happen with all of my coaching clients. And, when it happens, this is when we have a worthy public offering. Before this, it is still essentially a personal process.
Understanding this difference is part of moving from novice to professional is. For me, point of view or voice in its truest sense is where we marry our creativity, imagination, sense of humor and/or wisdom with our personal stories. It is where we have the opportunity to rise, for ourselves and others, to view our humanity with a bit more inspiration and levity.
In this place, we can fully claim ourselves as an artist.
Here’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is that this work of finding our voices, claiming our unique point of view, writing memoir, performing solo shows, facilitating others and all the other wondrous twists and turns our own paths can lead us into deeply satisfying, rich work of a life-time. For me and for many others I know, it is a joy, a devotion and a blessed, beyond dream come true.
And here is the bad news: There are no short-cuts in this work. There are many, many stages we each need to go through to claim ourselves in this intimate and powerful way. Your path may include many classes and workshops; it may include daily writing practice for one year or ten before you are ready to throw your hat into the proverbial ring, it may include acting lessons, it may include meditating and cutting out drinking or sugar. It may include watching every solo performance on Netflix you can get your hands on.
And then, there is the one illusive variable that separates those who end up having a creative career that moves past personal expression to one that is an offering to humanity. It’s called “Your Consciousness.” It cannot be duplicated and cannot be faked. It will show in your writing and in your presence. All the work put together plus your own earnestness and goodness of spirit must be included in this one thing for your life to truly soar. I have no hard and fast rules for you to follow to take ownership of this illusive, yet overarching energy. But I do know that it is absolutely essential to the soup. It is the secret ingredient. Only you can uncover it—and when you do—you will have a sublime and invaluable gift to share with us all.
Theo, thank you for your diligence to expose us to the very best people who have so much to offer. I am looking forward to meeting and working with Tanya at Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive. Her story is amazing.
Tanya is an incredible teacher. A friend of mine who is currently working on her one-person show with Tanya calls the process “the best educational experience of my life.” And, um, she took my class.