Hal Brooks cooks up solo shows

Director hits with 'Thom Pain,' 'No Child...'

NEW YORK If you find yourself on a stage all alone, you may want to call Hal Brooks.

The director helmed two hit solo shows in recent seasons: Will Eno’s “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and Nilaja Sun’s “No Child … .” And after well-reviewed berths at 59E59 and the Edinburgh Fringe, Brooks’ latest project, James Braly’s one-hander “Life in a Marital Institution,” began a limited-run transfer July 9 at Soho Playhouse.

Given that track record, Brooks’ name could turn an obscure solo piece into an event, though there are drawbacks to being the go-to guy for one-man theater. For one thing, the genre has a reputation for unleashing self-indulgent disasters: Paging Suzanne Somers.

“I guess it comes from bad experiences of someone telling a dry story, or not engaging with the audience, Brooks says. And if you don’t like the person you’re watching, you’re stuck.”

That’s why Brooks leans toward complex material. For instance, “Life in a Marital Institution” is a comedy, but it also tracks a real-life death in Braly’s family. “No Child …” draws from Sun’s experiences as a teacher in struggling public schools, and “Thom Pain” tackles existential woes.

“To transcend the distaste for the solo, you have to have something important to tell,” Brooks says.

But a good yarn isn’t enough. Some might assume solo shows don’t need a director, but Brooks finds helming them a challenge. “It’s still directing, but it’s a different muscle,” he says. “It can be much harder than working with 18 people. A much more psychological, intimate relationship occurs between the director and the solo actor.”

Part of that relationship means understanding the specific needs of an artist. Brooks says that with James Urbaniak, who starred in “Thom Pain,” he mostly gave acting notes. With Sun, he helped nudge her writing toward fiction instead of straight documentary.

The quest with Braly has been two-pronged. Until now, Braly was primarily a professional storyteller, delivering short anecdotes on a bill with other people. “Marital Institution” is his first full-length piece, and Brooks is his first real director.

Brooks coached Braly as an actor, and he says the Edinburgh run, which prompted the invitation to perform Off Broadway at 59E59 earlier this year, was helpful in training the thesp to engage an audience for one hour-plus.

Brooks also made major dramaturgical suggestions, such as stripping the show of music, photographs and even the handheld microphone Braly used at storytelling gigs.

Of course, Brooks doesn’t only handle solo work. In January, he helmed an Off Broadway production of Ariel Dorfman’s drama “Widows” (with a cast of 18, no less), and he oversaw the recent workshop of Dan LeFranc’s “Origin Story” at the Sundance Institute’s Summer Theater Lab. It’s a coincidence that his biggest hits have been one-handers.

“I’m drawn to material, not cast size,” he says. “But it’s often easier to do the solo work in New York, because it’s cheaper than a larger-scale production. And I’d rather be working than not working.”

The comparatively low cost, along with the material, helped “Thom Pain” and “No Child” spin out extended commercial runs, with the latter touring cities including Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. This exposure has opened the door for Brooks to land further directing assignments on productions of all sizes.

“Marital Institution’s” trajectory implies it could become equally high profile. Its budget at 59E59 was a scant $44,000, but at Soho Playhouse, that number has ballooned to around $150,000 (whichincludes reserve funds and enhancement money). Producer Anna Becker says there are hopes for a commercial production or tour.

Still, if “Marital Institution” is a hit at Soho Playhouse, Brooks could get permanently labeled. Is he concerned?

“I obviously don’t want to be pigeonholed as Mr. One-Man Man,” he confesses. “But I do feel I’m onto something.”

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