By Kincaid Walker

In the murky, massive sea called the “solo show,” the waters are choppy and very crowded. One might even take pause at the mention of such a show, a twitchy, anxiety-ridden pause… As in, another one? Oh wow. Do I have to see it ’cause I know the performer? Oh god, will it be good? The answer to that last question is wildly-varied and very much depends on the specific show. However, every once in a while, there is one that really stands out, and makes those who have seen it shout, “Yes! Go see it! Even if you don’t know this performer! Because it is really that good! I promise.”

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In this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, Heather Dowling wrote and acts in one of these noteworthy shows. It is called “Unemployed Finally” — a nod to Heather’s over thirty jobs in thirty years… which finally led her to what she always wanted to be, unemployed. Well, not just unemployed — but YES, temporarily unemployed in order to have the freedom and time to follow her childhood dream of being an actress and a writer.

In the show, we learn these thirty-plus jobs ranged from a less-than-as-promised stint in the Navy (turns out Navy propaganda is NOT totally accurate… surprise, surprise) to her first bar-tending job in a very questionable Arizona bar (cue the bar patrons’ after-hours meth deals) to a whole ‘nother life as an award-winning newspaper reporter. These jobs create the backdrop of the show, over which Heather explores her romantic relationships, multiple cross-country moves, financial freak-outs,  unexpected health issues, and the hard-won, personal epiphanies that sprung up along the way. And she does it all with an enviable sense of humor (the sheer volume of carefully-constructed characters Heather plays is incredible), as well as — and perhaps, most of all — the bravery to expose her own foibles, lessons and eventual triumphs. It is in this last aspect that the audience can hopefully find the ability to laugh and gently reflect on their own “mistakes” and life detours. And isn’t that the point of a great solo show?

“Unemployed. Finally.” got me thinking about a couple of other solo women shows I played over… and over… again, when I was a kid growing up in Iowa. I would watch them, riveted; they were inspiring and funny and original and got me thinking in new ways about character and also the power of telling one’s own story. So here’s a look-back at two solo shows that have earned their rightful place in history:

Back in 1984, Whoopi Goldberg was an up-and-coming comedienne, who was about to explode into the star-verse with her solo show. It was originally called “The Spook Show” and ran off-Broadway, until the legendary Mike Nichols offered to help Whoopi bring it to the Great White Way (and change the name to something mainstream audiences would be more “comfortable” with, simply calling it “Whoopi Goldberg”). Her show ran at the Lyceum Theatre from October 1984 through March 1985 and won Whoopi a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-person Show.

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Check out her fantastic characterizations, including an air-headed but ultimately poignant Valley Girl, and a little black girl struggling with her racial identity — it is no wonder she attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg and earned the starring role in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” later that year. It is a terrific look back at all the reasons Whoopi exploded onto the movie scene in the 1980’s. And in the spirit of coming full-circle, she recently brought an updated version of her show back to Broadway for its thirtieth anniversary in early 2015.

As it turns out, 1985 was a big year for one-woman shows on Broadway. In September of that year, Lily Tomlin brought her special genius to the solo show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” (written by Tomlin’s longtime partner, collaborator, and wife as of 2013, Jane Wagner; and directed by John Bailey). Lily won a 1986 Drama Desk Award and Tony Award for Best Actress for this show, as well as making it into a feature film in 1991.

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In it, Lily plays twelve different characters — some stand-outs from this bunch are Trudy, a bag-lady who claims to counsel extraterrestrials about what it’s like to live on earth; Chrissy, a young, aerobics addict who works out to avoid her feeling of being directionless in life; and two prostitutes, Tina and Brandy, who tell it like it is — check out Lily playing them in this clip from the movie:

Fun fact: The “Grace and Frankie” star… (BTW, have you watched this Netflix show!? If not, do so immediately and bask in the glory of the well-honed comic gold of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin… and then catch them 35 years ago in the 1980 classic, “9 to 5”)… was actually the first woman to have her own solo show on Broadway in 1977 in “Appearing Nitely” at the Biltmore Theatre. She won a Tony Award for this show too.

So here’s to more great solo shows by women!

And in the meantime, remember: You have two more times to treat yourself to “Unemployed. Finally.” It will be at the Elephant Studio (1078 Lillian Way, LA 90038): Saturday, June 20th at 4 PM and Thursday, June 25th at 8:30 PM… Use the code TWEET for $3 off by clicking HERE. But be warned, these shows are nearly sold-out; so here’s hoping for a Fringe extension? Or perhaps giving it a new life at another Los Angeles theatre post-Fringe? One way or another, Heather Dowling is an acting and writing force to be reckoned with.

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