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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER NOTES

'Gambling' Boosts Solo Show Genre

J.P. Allen has created a work with conflict and motivation--devoid of the egocentrism that has become common.

August 01, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It seems that every time you turn around these days, someone is popping up with a one-person show. There's a very logical reason for that. They are inexpensive to produce, and they provide a showcase for a writer-actor's talents.

The downside is that frequently these efforts are egocentric, and audiences find themselves spending an hour and a half listening to the writer-actor's own story of self-discovery, or abuse, or as a working temp while waiting for the big break.

The old saw that everyone has at least one good story to tell is being proven wrong.

Which is fairly consistent with what playwright-actor J.P. Allen thought about the one-person format. That is, until he saw a solo effort that was different.

"About two years ago," he explained, "I saw a one-person piece at the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver. Up to that point I'd been very reluctant about the whole format. I hadn't really been that interested in it. But when I saw this production, I was really taken by how effectively it worked as a play.

"There was a sense of drama, of things moving forward. The show didn't have that one-person stigma, listening to someone tell their therapeutic story. That's what inspired me."

So Allen began work on his own one-man drama, "Gambling," which will have its Southern California premiere at Burbank's Little Victory Theatre tonight. Even though the work has autobiographical elements, it is a completely fictional play about a man's desperate search for his love object--a woman who has disappeared in Las Vegas. It covers nine years and moves from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to the Jasper Mountains.

The drama flowed easily from his pen, he said, and he had the first draft finished in two weeks. The final version was completed within a month.

"The piece focuses on gambling," he said, "but in terms of my own experience, that's peripheral."

Allen was raised in Texas, and gambling, which he calls a "Southern tradition," ran in his family. The first game he remembers playing as a child was poker. He admitted that he's still a gambler, but said that this is not an issue play about gambling.

Rather, he said, the themes threaded into the play concern random chance, taking risks, making sense of chaos and the fine line between winning and losing.

He had the milieu and he had his dramatic story. Now all he needed was a director and he found one in San Francisco, in the person of Laurel Hunter. Hunter has directed several one-man shows over the past year and a half.

The challenge inherent in the form, she said, is to find and sustain the dramatic tension when you have only one actor with whom to work. The creators of one-person shows, she said, often are not aware of action and character, elements that make a drama work. That's what attracted her to "Gambling."

"It's not a going-on about a personal experience," she said. "There's conflict, motivation and objective, all the things you work with as a director when you're directing a play with multiple actors."

The next step on the road to production was to interest a theater. It so happened that Allen was preparing to play the title role in "Macbeth" at Vancouver's Pacific Theater. They liked Allen's solo turn and allowed him to perform it in repertory.

Although both the writer-actor and the director began with a distrust of the form, they have developed a respect for it. But the two had to learn to work through certain differences.

Hunter, who was used to being involved in the original creative process, acknowledged the difficulty of working with someone who has a piece that is ready to go, and a strong idea about what to do with it.

This project, she said, has taught her "how to open up a trusting playground, if you will, trying new ideas without being imposing. The challenge for me was to make them work, for me as a director, because this has my name on it, too."

* "Gambling," Little Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; ends Aug. 22. $15. (213) 782-5596.

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