Why I’m Like This: Developing my Solo Show Perfect Love at The Dramatists Guild Institute
Linda Manning, Age 5, with her father
Linda Manning, Age 5, with her father

What happened next wasn’t a surprise in some way. He had left a trail of clues that he was itching to step over the line, but her ever-present search for perfect love made those inappropriate clues seem unimportant, unrecognizable even. She liked feeling him edge closer and closer to the dark place in her that ignored danger for the sake of connection. She was ashamed of that place, that need, and how desperate it made her, and here was a man looking right at that need and not turning away. –  from Perfect Love

My solo show Perfect Love is a story I didn’t want to write. I’d put it off for decades. The true story of why I’m like this… I’ve written five full-length plays, three feature-length screenplays, and two short films. I’ve also performed in numerous stage plays and indie films. But a solo show? That I’d never done. I was terrified of it.

The ever-present, relentlessly critical voice inside kept saying: How can I possibly write an entire autobiographical show that anybody would want to watch for an hour?! The secret-but-very-persistent part of me, the part that had faith, had known for a long, long time that telling my own story was a way out for me, possibly the only way out. I needed to stop hiding.

One of my good friends once described me as a tall, exotic bird on stage. I liked that. I’m half sophisticated woman who can take the stage and mean it and half awkward, frightened, unbearably self-conscious twelve-year-old who wants to bolt. This, of course, is all part of the story I have to tell, but it’s also part of the reason this tale proved so difficult to start. For me, there have been two lives that have never intersected: the life that contains the history I actually lived which involved emotional and psychological abuse, a silent mother, and being an object of sexual predation. It was so humiliating to me, from the time I was a young girl, that I tried to simply disown it in my own mind.

The other life that was happening primarily in my head (but in some ways so much more real to me), was the Linda who none of those things had happened to. She wasn’t struggling so much, she was a shiny bright girl, capable, calm, got on with things. She was successful. I would fantasize about her a lot when I was young. But, now, in order to write my solo show and tell my story I had to integrate the idealized me with the me of the past.

Show Biz doesn’t quite know what to do with an exotic bird who can inhabit a moment in one beat with quiet, serious, emotional weight and potency and in the next moment ripple and squirm and fall into herself with vulnerability and fear. It makes for an interesting performance, but confusing -- another theme of my show. And this, of course, was another reason I had to create my own show. My career was at a standstill . . . I couldn’t control that, but I could create my own piece filled with messy contradictions and all. The threads of my past are all still so present and woven together in tight knots, how to untangle them and give them a voice that was coherent and actually made for a good evening of theater was not at all clear to me.

Over the years, I’d built my plays and screenplays always pulling on the themes of female identity and sexuality. But looking back, I believe the idea for my solo show was quietly coalescing inside me as I worked on each project, until it made itself clear, and one day arrived in my consciousness. I want to write a show about why I am like this … how the events of my past continue to live large in my present and cause a tremendous amount of internal conflict. More specifically, how the desire to rid myself of the ugly girl my father left and my stepfather hunted, had resulted in a fantasy of perfect love. Middle-aged Linda knew very well perfect love was not possible or real, but she still craved it to the extent she put the actual life she had built at risk.

In the early fall of 2017, I opened a Dramatist Guild eblast and chanced upon an offering from the DGI on how to create a solo show taught by Gretchen Cryer. Here it was: the opportunity to start this project, with some help from an esteemed professional, in a structured environment with deadlines and hopefully some kindred spirits. At that moment I was not thinking about how exposed I would feel performing the piece, that was a vague future. I just needed to write it! I had finally reached the point in my life where I was eager to get the story down, see it in front of me, outside of me. I had told very few people about my upbringing, it had lived quietly, alone in my head for too long.

I met Gretchen on the first day of class in September. She was lovely, warm, and welcoming. I immediately felt I was in the right place. The other members of the group as I would come to learn as we worked through our pieces were from varying walks of life; some were theater people, a few were not. Everyone had a gripping tale to tell. Gretchen chose Extreme Exposure, an anthology of solo shows for our textbook, and every class she assigned a new piece for us to read. I got reacquainted with Spalding Gray, one of my favorite writer-performers, also Lilly Tomlin, whose solo show I knew quite well. But for the first time I read work by David Cale, John Leguizamo, Ruth Draper, Dael Orlandersmith and many other master solo storytellers.

In every class Gretchen gave us a different ten-minute writing prompt and then we would go around the group and share the work. On the first day, she asked us to list the “worlds we know.” These would be the places from which our stories could spring. Gretchen’s ability to pull out of a raw, fresh piece of writing the golden nugget that made it work and could make it possibly part of our finished pieces was amazing. Her penetrating, thoughtful criticism and guidance gave us each our own strong guideposts to build from. And the writing prompts were enormously freeing. Some of the stories I had thought about for so long, but had a difficult time even talking about, would rush out of me in a quick, low stakes, writing exercise. Gretchen would say, “Just go, get something down, it is all good.”

One of the first writing prompts that ended up as a part of my show was to write a first-person narrative from my childhood that was an actual experience without explanation. I put myself inside a harrowing backpacking trip in the Colorado Rockies when I was eleven years-old. I was the girl telling the story and experiencing it in real time. Another Gretchen prompt, focused on repetition throughout a narrative, also surfaces in my show in a section in which a single phrase takes on greater and greater meaning, resulting in a layered, urgent story. Gretchen asked us to write a piece in Ruth Draper style, i.e., only one side of a conversation. I wrote about a flirtation that turned into a sexual assault, that then morphed into an internal monologue.

I wrote sections for my show in third person. I wrote sections as conversations between my parents playing both roles. I wrote rants, philosophical musings, direct-addresses to the audience, second-person narratives . . . . I learned which forms were best for expressing the different parts of my story. Third person allowed some distance; direct-address was sometimes absolutely necessary and the simple elegance of it was deeply effective. By the end of the 10-week workshop I had started several sections of Perfect Love and was beginning to find a structure. At our last meeting we each got to perform 20 minutes of our work for an invited audience. It was my first taste of what it would feel like to stand in front of close friends and strangers and speak as the woman, and girl, I had kept hidden for so long. Was it perfect? No. But I loved it.

In the next installment, I will share how Perfect Love came together, my road to self producing and marketing, and my experience performing it. Perfect Love opens at the Cherry Lane Theatre on April 28, 2020 as part of a group of solo shows, all directed by Gretchen Cryer, titled True Stories. More information at TrueStoriesPlay.com.

RELATED: Tell Your Story: Performing, Producing and Promoting My Solo Show Perfect Love