Over the last few years, Eileen Tull has carved out a place for herself doing solo performances. In June, she will be a part of the 2016 Dallas Solo Fest with her show Bad Dates, or What Killed That Monkey In Indiana Jones Only Makes Me Stronger.
TSP sits down and asks a few questions. Here we go...
Q: Please give us a brief bio, where you are from and how you started in theatre/performance?
A: I'm originally from Cincinnati, OH, and I've spent the last ten years in Chicago with a brief, but beautiful stint in the Bay Area. From a young age, I was always creating and performing and reenacting my favorite movie scenes or performing holiday plays with my siblings. So I was constantly making and expressing things through art. I moved to Chicago to attend Loyola University, where I focused on directing after failed attempts at being an actor.
Q: What event or desire brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?
A: I hadn't had much success as an actor in college or beyond, and I was finding directing to be less than satisfying. I'd always been funny at parties and had lots of creative ideas, but I wasn't so good at pretending to be other people onstage. I didn't know where I fit in, and I hadn't thought so much about playing myself. On kind of a whim, I applied to the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival, submitting a solo piece with just a title. No script. No plot. Just the idea that I wanted to explore faith and love and I wanted to perform it all by myself. The show (Jesus, Do You Like Me? Please Mark Yes or No.) got picked in the Fringe lottery, so I had a handful of months to write it and learn how to be a solo performer! I've ended up performing Jesus in Cincinnati, Chicago, and New York City since. I fell in love with the art form, especially the opportunity to create such a singular relationship with the audience.
Q: Could you tell us about some of your particular kind of of solo work?
A: My work is radically vulnerable. I talk about my own life and experiences, ranging from religion, body image, relationships, loneliness, movies, and alcoholism. And though I broach serious subjects, I infuse everything with humor and joy.
I wrote Bad Dates, Or What Killed That Monkey In Indiana Jones Only Makes Me Stronger, over the course of last year. It's a show about romantic relationships and how my lifelong obsession with Harrison Ford movies has skewed my perception of human men. It's a sweet and funny piece, choc-ful of movie references. I've been touring it through Chicago and taking it to the Dallas Solo Fest in June.
I enjoy exploring different strands of solo performance as well. I've built exhibitions of performance art that feel like theatre, storytelling that sounds like poetry, and long form shows that are reminiscent of stand-up. The wonderful thing about solo work is that the art forms blend together so well.
Q: What is your favorite thing about doing this work?
A: I love working with the audience as my scene partner. The work I do is mostly autobiographical, so I am essentially having a long, one-sided conversation with the audience. I love the intimacy that this creates. It encourages the audience to be more invested in and connected to the story. And, if the occasion calls for it, it allows us to have a frank and open dialogue in a post-show setting. I've found that people are comfortable enough to share their own stories and secrets with me, because they know so much about me at that point. This kind of scenario lets people unburden themselves of whatever shame they are holding onto. If it's about faith, family, body image, addiction, love, loneliness, what have you, they are able to feel less alone in their experience.
Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?
A: I'm inspired by other artists. When I see great work, especially here in Chicago, I feel a combination of pride, envy, and inspiration. There's a lot of people who push me to keep up! If I'm feeling stuck, I watch something, I go see something, I help somebody create their thing. It's revitalizing.
I'm also continuously inspired by my family. We have stood beside each other through lots of joy and sorrow. They've always supported me. I have a little baby nephew who inspires me to be the best version of myself and try to make the world a better place. I also have a great support system of friends who will let me try jokes and bits and stories on them, with lots of love and patience.
Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting together a new project? Do you create a lot on stage, improvising? More on paper? Tape or video record? Hold readings? Go to a mountain top?
A: I'm still experimenting with the best process. Usually it devolved into writing furiously at the last minute. I do a lot of thinking about each show. I take walks, I run, I try to go to nature and map things out. In the early stages, I record a lot of ideas using an app on my phone. I use index cards to outline the subjects I want to talk about. I scribble down ideas on the train.
When I started doing solo work, I did everything myself, and I've found that to be very lonely and the work is lesser for it. The last few projects I've worked on, I've brought in collaborators. I do a "garbage read," which entails a few friends and colleagues watching me read all the material I've gathered into a big mess. Having this initial audience helps me cut and shape the script into something clear.
For the show I'm working on right now, I enlisted a director and an actress for a second stage of development. We had private rehearsals where the actress played 'me' and I could focus just on the writing part. It was immensely helpful to have that distance.
For me, these shows are never done. Depending on the venue or the audience, something will change and you have to be open to improvisation, unexpected audience participation, and, in one special case, a dog walking in.
Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire you, be they solo performers or just in general as an artist?
A: Anna Deavere Smith has made solo performance familiar to the world. Although I don't perform multiple character shows, she's heavily influenced the genre.
Gilda Radner's Broadway show was basically a one-woman show with friends. Gilda had such a sweet earnestness, and I'm inspired by the rapport she created with audiences.
Mike Birbiglia's shows changed the way I thought about how comedy and storytelling can work together. Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed have had a huge effect on my writing, poetry, and use of imagery. Steve Martin is my absolute idol, with his diverse breadth of work and his absurd comic genius. Tig Notaro is an outstanding and amazing performer and human.
I've been a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda for years. I love "Hamilton," for its sincerity, precision, and its idealism. He's a generous genius and a champion for the arts.
And there are of course, so many people in Chicago that bring the noise every single night on stages all through the city. I'm so grateful to be a part of this incredible community. Some of my favorite movers and shakers in the Chicago solo world are Arlene Malinowski, Lily Be, Bea Cordeila, David Boyle, Laura Scruggs, John Michael Colgin, and Ron Keaton.
Q: How do you bridge the gap between the creative and the business side of solo theatre?
A: I still find it quite difficult. The business side of art is always a little sticky, but in solo performance, your product is yourself. So there's a whole rabbit hole of narcissism and vanity to dive into. But I think it's about being bold and asking for what you want. The power of just asking is a magical thing, and it's how a lot of my relationships with venues have started. However, you have to be prepared when the answer is no. You have to be gracious with rejection, especially on the business end. Because to business owners or potential partners, your art is not a special snowflake. You have to get tougher. You have to believe that your product is worth a certain dollar amount. I'm always learning and always reminding myself that my work has that kind of value.
Q: Any advice for some aspiring artist just starting out in solo performance?
A: Go see things. Look at how much you can stretch this genre. Try new things, weird things. Work on your whole piece, then chop it into bits. Ask for advice. Support other solo artists. Keep writing. Your experiences are not trivial. No one gets to see the world the same way you do.
Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you personally as an artist?
A: With the rise of social media and all the avenues the Internet provides, it seems solo performance output is at an all-time high. This is exciting, but also daunting. I'm looking forward to more voices and more experimentation within the genre. I'm hoping to explore more theatricality in my work, as opposed to the straight storytelling I've been pursuing. I hope to become a mentor to younger folks eventually, and I hope to find solid repeat collaborators. I'd love to take my work all over the world, while making a large impact on the Chicago community.
Q: Shout outs or links?
A: All my upcoming shows can be found on my website www.eileentull.com. If you're in Chicago, I co-curate a monthly performance series featuring female-identifying and non-binary artists exploring gender, feminism, and sexuality in their work called Sappho's Salon. It runs the second Tuesday of every month at Women and Children First bookstore. I'm working on a new solo show about addiction and recovery, with a few other projects in the works.