What’s It Like Being A One-Man War? An Interview With Bruce DuBose

[Originally posted 06.19.2012] 

n Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer’s epic, enters previews a week from today.  Returning to the oral tradition that gave us The Iliad, their version is told from the perspective of a single wandering poet (accompanied by a musician, in Undermain’s production).  I sat down with Bruce DuBose, who plays the role of the Poet, to discuss the play and the particular challenges of performing a one-man show.

Stephen Foglia: If you’re reading a one-man show, does it take something extra in your response to the play to make you want to take it on?
Bruce DuBose: I’m not a big solo show fan usually – there are certain performers that really excel at it, but by and large it doesn’t usually capture my imagination the way a fuller cast production would.  But sometimes when you’ve got a great story, a wild yarn that can be told, [a solo show] seems like a more appealing platform to do it.  One of the exceptions for me was a Conor McPherson piece we did called St. Nicholas.  A great one man piece about a theatre critic and alcoholic in Dublin, who loses his job and goes to London and becomes a pimp to a vampire he meets in the park, and he brings him young people.  Just a wild story, which, I mean, I might be underplaying it, but you could also say that about An Iliad.
In this case, Paul is up there, and we’re doing the music, adding a lot to the world that way, definitely a different take on the piece that I don’t think has quite been done.
SF: What do you find particularly compelling about An Iliad?
BD: You know it’s great to have the opportunity to delve into why something is such an iconic, touchstone piece for all of Western literature.  It’s kind of impenetrable in a way and just endless, the amounts of background and research you can delve into… the poem, the Homer poet…it’s a way to really experience and figure out why it affects us.
It has been reinterpreted by some people trying to make it into an anti-war statement, but it’s really an epic story aboutwar and the horror of that is just part of it.  The anti-war sentiment can exist within it but doesn’t define the symbolic, mythic qualities that are in the piece and transcend time.
SF: You mentioned the text being both impenetrable and endless – does that give you comfort as an actor, knowing when you start work on Monday, you won’t have run out of interest two days later?
BD: It seems inexhaustible.  Much like something like the Old Testament.  There’s always more.  Especially once you start to research the way things might be used symbolically in a text it leads to a whole new interior life of a piece.
What’s really interesting, too, is that the two people who adapted it, they kind of have their own take, elements they’re choosing to draw out, but the story is so potent that every piece you draw out has the elements, the structure, the DNA of the whole myth.
SF: Having performed one-man shows before, how do you deal with practical issues of not having a scene partner?
BD: Well, you’re not gauging something off cues and the end of someone’s lines. Ordinarily these build the plot in a way, you’re each climbing a ladder, where one person’s got the right hand, and the other person’s got the left hand, and [when you’re] alone that becomes a big issue for memorizing.
I also have to become multiple characters, so in a sense that’s in there, but it’s all me in this case.  I can sit down and write the play.  I listen to it on a recording I’ve made.  I just walk around trying to recite it.  It has to be dedicated time, reciting or writing time, I’m sitting there working on it – to the exclusion of everything else.  But the recording I listen to when I’m working out or when I’m taking a nap, I’ll listen to it.
Sometimes I’ll just play the recording and speak it at the same time, just to get my body used to the motorization of the text – I have to get it embedded in my subconscious.  It reminds me of Fahrenheit 451 where they’d each memorize a book so they could recite it as walking living books.
SF: Do you feel a different relationship with the audience?
BD: Yeah, it’s a little more personal.  Even one-on-one, because I’ll be looking at them, so we’ll establish a relationship off of their reactions whether they laugh or cry or get distracted.  A lot of times in a standard play unless you break the so-called 4th wall, you’re not really communicating directly to the audience.  It takes some getting used to.  I’m already starting to do that with people in the rehearsal hall because you kind of have to get used to it.
It seems to draw audiences in because they key in on the story you’re telling, and you key in on their interest, so that kind of propels the performance, like a feedback loop.  Especially in an intimate space like [Undermain].
SF: Is the role of the director different?
BD: Not really.  It becomes more delicate.  The director still has the same task of shaping the show, bringing out what needs to be emphasized, but you become kind of the only tool.  So it’s a delicate situation.  It just becomes more intense.  The performer is bearing the whole show on his or her shoulders, so there’s nobody else.  I get all the notes.
SF: What sorts of vocal and physical techniques do you have to draw on to get across an epic as one actor?
BD: There’s a lot of dialogue between these mythic characters.  Even a couple of battle scenes.  A lot of physical movement that occurs to get across sort of that intense quality of battle.  But at the same time, what Homer has done, and what is nice about this adaptation is that these moments in battle that are sort of Bhagavad-Gita-like, sort of suspended, these characters even as they’re dying can have these huge exchanges of words and oaths.  I can see that the ancient world was very into that method of expanding the moment between the beginning of the battle and its deathly climax – it’s almost frozen, and we can examine that moment from the sword clashing to the death of the victim and the triumph and exultation of the victor.
I just want to get as close to all these characters as I can.  You wanna avoid the cliché of like an actor that’s in love with their own voice or something.  I try to use it to the best of my ability.  In trying to get across this story and these characters who inhabit the story as real and intimately as I can.  Give the voices some suggestion of their qualities.  I do all my vocal warm-up, enunciation drills.  There are sections of pure Homer text that is certainly rhythmic and not unlike Shakespeare.
NOTE: An abbreviated version of this interview is available in Undermain’s September 2011 newsletter.
Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager