All By Themselves: Passage Theatre is bringing back its ‘Solo Flights Festival’ of one-performer shows
In the early 1990s, when he was in his mid 20s, living in Pittsburgh, David Lee White went through a severe, suicidal clinical depression. There was a lot going on in his life then, but looking back, he sees a particularly horrifying moment as key.
”I recalled having found a dead body in the woods of my house, which I know just sounds absurd and ridiculous, but it’s absolutely true,” Mr. White says. “It was a guy who hung himself, and I just saw his body hanging there while walking to work one morning.”
There is a legend that says if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if a frog is placed in cool water that is slowly boiled, it won’t realize it, and will stay in the water to its death. Mr. White’s description of his depression sounds analogous. Looking back, he says that he now knows he already was depressed by the time he saw that body, but he didn’t fully understand what was happening to him at the time. The depression developed in a slow, tense way, he says, and seeing the dead body was a trigger moment.
”It was really that which led to me to finally seek help, and find a therapist, a psychiatrist, and talk about the fact that I was obsessively, constantly thinking about suicide,” Mr. White says. “And they helped me. The thing about mental illness is that mentally ill people are so fascinating, and the cure is just so boring.”
Finding humor in the very serious topic of mental illness is the goal of Mr. White’s one-man play, Panther Hollow, which he will perform as part of Passage Theatre’s Solo Flights Festival, March 4, 12, and 18.
Solo Flights will showcase one-performer plays, March 3 through March 17. It was an annual event for the Trenton-based theater company, but was retired a few years and is returnnig as part of Passage’s 30th anniversary year.
”We missed it, and I think the audiences did too. So we’re glad to be able to do it again,” says Mr. White, Passage’s associate artistic director.
”This year, we thought, ‘It’s our 30-year anniversary, Solo Flights was popular, let’s do it again,’” says June Ballinger, Passage’s artistic director. “And this year, David has a show that he’s written and performed, and I have a show that I’ve written performed, so that brings another whole element to it, that the artistic leaders of Passage are writers and performers are well.”
Mr. White has been working on Panther Hollow for the past few years. When he started it, he wasn’t sure if it would be a memoir or performance piece, and it took form when he developed it at Passage’s play writing lab. He debuted the piece at the United Solo Festival in New York in November.
”I actually entered it before it was really finished,” Mr. White says. “They gave me a filler slot on 3:30 on a Wednesday on Veterans’ Day… but it went really well. I found a great director (John Augustine), and he really helped me shape it and craft it.”
He since has performed it at Pittsburgh’s Arcade Comedy Theater and at Point Park College in Pittsburgh. Prior to that he did some private readings of it for friends.
”It’s such a personal piece that I had to do it enough times to where I didn’t have that adrenaline stomach ache when it was over,” Mr. White says. “It took me a while. I did a performance over at Rider college for some students before the first ‘real’ performance, and that was literally the first time that I didn’t want to throw up after it, so I thought, ‘Well OK, I’m ready.’”
Ms. Ballinger will perform a work she has written. Remembrance Day, directed by Janice Goldberg, shares the memories of an 80-year-old British woman who was a code breaker as she attends a Remembrance Day service in England, similar to Memorial Day in the U.S.
Remembrance Day is inspired by the story of Ms. Ballinger’s mother, who was a “Wren,” meaning a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service. She worked as a codebreaker for Britain during World War II, at Bletchley Park, the base for Britain’s codebreakers during the war. Among the people she worked with was Alan Turing, whose story was told in 2014 film, The Imitation Game. As amazing as her mother’s story was, Ms. Ballinger didn’t know much about it.
”She signed the Official Secrets Act, as they all did, and my mother, being a very good British woman, stuck by it,” Ms. Ballinger says. “And even when that information was declassified, and even when there were books about it and it was starting to come out, my mother always stayed mum about a lot of this.”
Her mother did talk about life during the war, her personal life, how people lived day to day, but not about the work. Then after her mother died two years ago, Ms. Ballinger found her letters and diary.
”(They) weren’t about her work but mostly about her day-to-day, during her 20s… I went to Bletchley Park, I read a ton of stuff, and I created the narrative of a woman, like my mother, who had this value of self,” Ms. Ballinger says. “She was 21 and she had an important job. She was with these minds, these men — and some women — who were basically changing the tide of the war, and working with computers. My mother was very good at math, so she was selected to be on this team with (codebreaker) Max Newman, working on the Colossus machine, which was the successor to the Bombe, which is what Turing’s machine was.” After that, she came to America.
”It’s the story of a woman who had that incredible empowerment during the war, and then come the ‘50s,” Ms. Ballinger says. “The war ends and women are relegated back to the kitchen, no more working, it makes the men look bad, and that kind of implosion of self-esteem that women — who had that sense of value — suffered.”
The play also explores stories of Ms. Ballinger’s mother’s personal life, fiancés who were killed in the war, and then her life in America. Ms. Ballinger says she kept the story on universal issues about women, and technology and science, while keeping it historically accurate.
Solo Flights will begin with an adaptation of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land by Joseph Edwards, March 3, 5, 6. Panther Hollow will be performed March 4 and 18, with a performance with limited seating scheduled for March 12. Remembrance Day will be performed March 10 and 20. Playwright and performer Leslie Ayvazian will read from her collection of stories, Mention My Beauty, March 11 and 19. Susan Stein will perform Etty, a show based on the writings of Etty Hillesum during the Holocaust, March 13 and 14. Alex Clothier, and improv performer and storyteller will perform Everything’s Finest, a story of what happened when Grandma was by a train, March 17.
Performances will be at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front St., Trenton. Tickets cost $25. For tickets and information, go to passagetheatre.org or call 60-392-0766.