Don't make your solo show a trauma dump! | Maggie Crane on the line between self-indulgence and catharsis in 'traumedy'

Don't make your solo show a trauma dump!

Maggie Crane on the line between self-indulgence and catharsis in 'traumedy'

The solo show has always been a staple at Fringe, and it's experiencing a renaissance in America. It's also a messy medium full of trauma dumping. How are performers walking the thin line between tragedy porn and high comedy? 

Often when telling people about my solo show, I have to add the caveat at the end ‘I promise it’s funny!’ ‘It’s about growing up with my brother Aidan who was profoundly disabled and died when he was 14 and left a massive hole in my life....and I PROMISE it’s funny.’

Solo shows fall into the same category as ‘musical comedy’ in that most of us have a preconceived notion of it, and that notion is that it is… not good! It’s easy to associate solo shows with a three-hour black box show in the basement of a karaoke bar that we have been dragged to by our most pretentious co-worker. It’s a term that’s always vaguely Vagina Monologues-tinged, or guy-wearing-different-hats-to-change-characters coded. It’s often an event you have to quickly make up a funeral or family emergency to get out of. 

We’ve been hurt too much by the medium and we no longer trust it. We’ve seen one too many bongo-backed ego trips about modern love. 

The reason we have so many reservations about solo shows is because too often they are just an hour-long trauma dump. A performer mistaking an audience of paying customers for their therapist. 

Something that is true can easily be conflated with something that is interesting. I can watch a show and certainly be aware that what happened to you - that breakup, that death, that sickness - and feel empathy, sure. But, you have to do more than just hash out your trauma. You have to make it palatable and universal. The active word in ‘solo show’ is ‘show’. It’s no longer solo once you let that audience in. 

Of course, a solo show doesn’t have to be about something traumatic, but the overwhelming majority of them are. 

Comedy about tragedy is not just some fad started by Hannah Gadsby. Since the beginning of time comedy has always existed as a means to cope. Modern solo shows are part of that long tradition. UK comedians are the pioneers of the narrative special. Only in the last decade have American comedians embraced the solo show medium after comics like Mike Birbiglia made it popular.

 In America, the traditional stand-up special has very little throughline. British and Irish comedians have always respected the beginning, middle, and end. They weave in the narrative sting that holds the piece together, even if that string is almost invisible. 

A good solo show walks a fragile line between the personal and the universal. The subject matter should be meaningful and original. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and real on stage. An audience can pick up on insincerity a mile away. 

You also have to be able to leave your baggage at the door and turn the traumatic event that happened to you into something palatable to a complete stranger. Sincerity and pin-drop silence have to be earned and can only come after the audience is completely on your side. The best solo shows are cathartic, but so often performers mistake catharsis for mere emotion or sadness when what it really is, is a relief. A cathartic show is one where your audience leaves relieved, the exact opposite of a distressing trauma dump. 

When I started writing my solo show Side By Side, I knew it was going to be a balancing act. My brother Aidan was blind, in a wheelchair, developmentally disabled, nonverbal, and ate mostly through a feeding tube. He died when he was 14. ‘I promise it’s funny!!’

I didn’t fully know what I wanted the show to look like, but I knew what I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want a shiny ‘God works in mysterious ways’ Hallmark-style inspirational story about disability. I didn’t want people to pity my brother or think of his life as sad.

I wanted to describe the chaos, the outrageous highs, and lows that come with navigating a world not built for disability, be that smuggling seizure medications across the Canadian border or seeing Children’s Hospital Boston as a personal playground. 

I wanted to paint my life with Aidan as genuine and to balance the tragedy of losing him with the complexity of his life. As a comedian, I owe it to my audience to make an enjoyable show. More so, I owe it to Aidan to put on a good show. Who the fuck, dead or alive, wants a bad solo show written about them? 

• Maggie Crane’s show about Aiden, Side by Side will be at Underbelly Bristo Square at 5.45pm throughout the Edinburgh Fringe

Published: 12 Jul 2023

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