Pulling Off the One-Man Show – The Basics
By Mike Smith
Mike Smith is President, CEO and Co-Founder of Zephyr Entertainment , a LA-based production company dedicated to reinventing classic cinema in the new media era and fostering a community of forward-thinking creatives.
The “One-Man Show” (sometimes referred to as “Solo Performance”) has been a staple in theatre, film and television for generations. Though often associated with sketch comedy in the visual mediums of yesteryear, the one-man show has continued to evolve under the advent of New Media, challenging our preconceptions of what this brand of content can look and feel like.
In these series of posts, I’m going to break down how to create your own one-man series in the New Media Era, from Development through Distribution & Marketing. We will be using Zephyr’s newest one-man web-series, Mr. Shan (available on Prime Video) – the story of a Chinese immigrant in Hollywood on his journey to become America’s greatest actor – as our case study, with a look behind-the-scenes and various clips as examples.
FINDING YOUR TALENT
This is the crux of your one-man show. It is their voice, their style and their talent that will dictate what your show actually is. Too often, content creators in this style will spend a lot of their time on the sketches and just plug in their actor/actress to the situation. While that may work for more established comedians, chances are whoever you’re working with is still building out their following, so you need to be brand-conscious right from the get-go.
The ideal actor/actress for the one-man show is often genuine in intent, unlikely to take themself too seriously, eccentric, daring, passionate in his/her storytelling, and seemingly oblivious to their own comedic genius. It’s not uncommon to find talent that has thought about their own one-man show, so check in with actors and actresses you’ve worked with before to find an ideal collaborator. Kinda like Eddie Shan, creator and star of Mr. Shan , and a dear friend to us at Zephyr. Eddie actually pitched us on the concept for Mr. Shan , so sometimes if you’re patient and you know where to look, talent finds you.
WRITING THE SHOW
Writing can be the most daunting task for any kind of content, especially with the production concerns of a one-man show, such as having two characters played by the same actor talking to each other in the same scene (but we’ll get to that later…). However, to start out, try to forget about the limitations and just write the most ideal version of what’s floating around in your head. Don’t press trying to write characters to your talent’s voice – ideally, your talent has shown an innate ability to play wildly different characters – each character needs to feel unique and fleshed out.
Alternatively, if the talent you’ve chosen also writes, you may want them to take a crack at the first couple of drafts. In Mr. Shan , Eddie was intent on crafting episodes that poked fun at some of his real-life experiences while following his journey to become America’s greatest actor. We encouraged Eddie to trust his sense of humor in those first few drafts so that each episode would, at its core, capture his unique voice and style. This is crucial to helping your series stand out from the rest.
Take your time with the writing process, at least on your first season. No one’s expecting anything yet, so best to be patient to know you’re putting your best foot forward.
A Note on Length and Format: In general, the first two parts of this process will dictate the length and format of your series. But while this can be wide open, chances are there are going to be extrinsic factors (i.e. money, time) that limit how much content you can produce, at least initially. For those seeking more funding after their first season, I recommend producing roughly 30 minutes of content, or the equivalent of a TV Sit-Com Pilot.
Unless you’re making the big bucks, this “F” word is probably terrifying beyond comprehension. But I have good news for you: making a series like this is relatively affordable and you have most of what you need to pitch your idea. Generally speaking, you can make your 30-minute first season for under $5,000 (I will be going over budgeting techniques to keep costs down in my next post in this series). This is a reasonable crowdfunding goal if you want to go the route of Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or Seed and Spark, and I highly recommend it for not only fundraising, but to give your series more exposure as well.
Later in these posts, you’ll hear me talking about generating more content from your content, and a little twist on that idea can certainly be applied here. Create promotional images with different characters from your series and/or produce a short video that simply and creatively illustrates your concept. For example, here are some quick “Inside Shan” interviews we produced for $0:
These materials are essential for effectively communicating the idea for your series when fundraising.
That’s all for now! Tune in to my next post where I will discuss Pre-Production for your next One-Man Web Series, including: Budgeting, Production Planning and Scheduling.
If you’d like to see the first season of Mr. Shan, you can stream it for free with your Amazon Prime Subscription.