Challenge of a One-Woman Show: Distinguishing the Characters

Jul 19, 2012

Helen Jaksch plays a lonely hotel concierge in St. Francisville Transitory Theatre's one-actor drama La Concierge Solitaire. (WRKF)

Imagine having a job as a hotel concierge, but there are no customers to serve. That's what the St. Francisville Transitory Theatre company captures with its one-woman show La Concierge Solitaire.

WRKF's Ashley Westerman spoke with actress and dramaturge of the play, Helen Jaksch. Originally from El Paso, Jaksch attended college at Tulane and got involved with the company in 2007.

La Concierge Solitaire is a company original and first premiered at the New Orleans Fringe Festival last year. The drama is set in an all-but abandoned hotel in the 1930s.

WESTERMAN: Tell me a little bit about the research that went into that, that sounds really fascinating.

JAKSCH: Sure. Yeah, we wanted a time when there was an upswing of prosperity and then a real significant shift and the 1930s just called to us. We really pulled a lot from the film Grand Hotel and we love the archetypes of those characters like the French actress and the man servant and a parlor maid with that very distinct ‘30s accent.

So I went and I looked at when concierges actually became a thing and actually they were really only happening in Europe in the 1930s. And so we made a point of really figuring out what it would mean for a woman to be this desk worker and in the 1930s to be considering herself a concierge and what that would look like. So there was lots of historical research as far as what's happening in the time, who would be in those places and then pulling from kind of the media of the time.

WESTERMAN: How do you go about transitioning between them? Because whenever I got this press release, I immediately - I watch a lot of Family Guy - I immediately thought of that episode where Brian goes to see his friend in a one-person play and this guy does the entire play in the same voice. His grandmother has the same voice as his best friend on the street. How do, how do you become a one-woman show?

JAKSCH: Sure. I think a one-woman show and a one-person show is one of the toughest things you can do in theatre just for that reason. There's one person and you only have so many voices and you've only have one body to, you know, show all of these different characters. And so for me, it's really about building the character from the body out and so every time I transition to a character they inhabit a new body. And so it's about changing where my shoulder is placed or changing how slowly or how quickly I walk and then, of course, the voice helps with that. And so each one of them, each of the characters lives in a different place in my register, each of the characters has a different accent because I really want to make it clear to the audience, you know, the story which is all of these different characters. And then, of course, each of the characters in the show has a prop that they're associated with and so that helps us delineate the characters too. But it's tough, definitely.

WESTERMAN: Do you think you could give us an example of a transition from one character to the next?

JAKSCH: Sure, sure, let me think. There's this one scene where the actress has just come in and she's asked the concierge to help her read lines for this film she's auditioning for. And the parlor maid shows up, who's a she's a big fan and they have this exchange and it's, um, she just finishes the thing the parlor maid comes in and says:

Parlor Maid: "You're French? I didn't know. I should'a guessed it, maybe, because ya name, it just never occurred to me! What's Douglas Fairbanks like?

French Actress: "A scoundrel, a scoundrel you cannot help but love."

Parlor Maid: "Oh, you should bring him with you the next time you stay here! What were you two talking about?"

Concierge: "The guest requested some assistance with the role she is preparing to audition for."

French Actress: "It is a gangster picture, mais (but), with my accent they may not choose me. It is a talkie. My part is the girl of the gangster. Ah, but he falls in love with another girl, a nice girl and he wants to change for her. But my girl, she does not want him to change."

Parlor Maid: "They want you to play some tramp?! With those eyes?! That's not you! You're the girl the hero fights for, the girl who can change a man! You should be the star of that picture, not some bit-part tramp!"

JAKSCH: And so it's something like that between the parlor maid, the concierge and the actress.

WESTERMAN: And what's next for you after this?

JAKSCH: Okay. Well, for me personally, I'm starting my Master's program with the intention of getting my doctorate of Fine Arts at Yale in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism. So come September I will be up again in the frozen north working on that.

WESTERMAN: Well, Helen Jaksch, that's you so much for speaking with me today.

JAKSCH: Thanks so much for having me.