Janina Birtolo's
One Woman Shows

by Julius Morreal

Amelia Earhart, Sarah Bernhardt, Gertrude Bell, and Galileo’s daughter have all been resurrected under the spell of multi-talented Janina Birtolo. Having achieved the pinnacle of success on the ensemble stage, Birtolo is currently surfing the seldom traveled realm of monologues.

With each new heroine, her one woman shows have attracted increasingly larger audiences. It has given her the opportunity to control her performances from their inception. As researcher, writer, and director, the success or failure of her production rests squarely upon her shoulders.

An avid reader of women’s biographies, Birtolo was inspired by the many women who had their moments of celebrity soon entombed in the annals of forgotten history. Finding this treasure trove of feminine archives, Birtolo’s other talents took wing. As a writer and actress, it was inevitable she would once again breathe life into long forgotten women. And what better way to rekindle interest in historical females than on center stage.

Monologues create an intimacy with the audience seldom achieved in the ensemble stage. Standing alone on stage with eye to eye contact creates a living room milieu. As an invited guest, Birtolo, in character, whisks the audience through time and into an era that only historians can evoke.

"I’ve had two passions in life—writing and acting. And monologues have given me the opportunity to harness both," Birtolo says with a gleam in her eye.

When an idea for a monologue strikes her, she is impassioned with the subject. A day or two later, if the embers for the monologue are still alive, she will continue. "At my fingertips, the internet delivers world history with all of its heroines and villains," Birtolo says, "But it can be disappointing." Bringing a subject to life entails extensive research, and at times, it is neither rewarding nor inspiring. Research revealed that myths had shrouded the lives of a number of candidates. She also discovered that characters which appeared ideal for a performance did not always make for a great monologue.

It was Dava Sobel’s biography, Most Affectionate Daughter, that inspired her first monologue—Galileo’s Daughter. After a year's meticulous research Galileo’s illegitimate daughter, Sister Marie Celeste, a cloistered nun, was reborn. Garbed in a nun’s habit, Birtolo sweeps her audience into the 17th century and keeps them enthralled for an entire hour.

Audience discussions follow each of Birtolo’s performances. The extent of her success is measured by the caliber and intellect of audience participation. Well versed in the subject matter, Birtolo assumes the role of teacher and historian. Never disappointed in receiving pointed questions, she encourages a friendly repartee which is certain to follow.

Birtolo continued her research and Amelia Earhart jumped from the collection of candidates. Earhart, to her surprise, was a steadfast feminist. Years before her time, Earhart questioned opposition to a woman’s right to hold a so-called male job. And as an aviator, she flew in the face of her current day attitudes to prove her point. Daring to Dream is Birtolo’s re-creation of a staunch and fascinating woman. Her first encounter with Earhart research was not encouraging. Flying and aircraft did not pique Birtolo’s interest, but further research revealed a fascinating woman and an excellent subject for a monologue. “Earhart was reckless”, Birtolo says, “She flew in planes that needed repair, but she didn’t care.” There was a driving force in her to ‘do it’ attitude and that concept is woven into Birtolo’s monologue. Daring to Dream is a lesson for all, not only for women. Birtolo expounds, “If you have a dream go for it and don’t let anyone stop you.”

Accolades pour in after each performance, but Birtolo’s creative genius drove her to even greater heights. ‘Ghosts of the Desert’ is another Birtolo reincarnation. She tells the saga of Gertrude Bell, "The Female Lawrence of Arabia". History says little about Britain’s long neglected WWI spy. Like all of her characters, Birtolo depicts Bell as a strong willed woman who was a key figure in bringing King Faisal to office and defining the boundaries of present day Iraq.

At curtain's rise, Birtolo, in character, is seated reading a current day newspaper reporting the problems in today’s Iraq. A parallel is drawn with present day Iraq and the British occupation of Iraq during WWI. It is the saga of a British woman in an alien environment, befriending the many tribes in the Ottoman Empire. Dubbed the Queen of Iraq, Bell is swept forward into the 21st century with Birtolo’s portrayal of the woman who diverted the course of history in the Middle East.

On stage, the delivery of a monologue must be interesting, informative and, above all, convincing. Holding the interest of an audience is difficult in a one women show. It must be achieved in the opening moments of the performance. If not, the sixty minute show will trudge along with a fidgety, disinterested audience patiently awaiting curtain. ‘The success of a monologue depends solely upon the delivery of the performer”, says Birtolo. “You have no cues to prompt you”.

Continuing with her long list of one woman shows, Birtolo has captured Sarah Bernhardt’s psyche in ‘La Vie Divine.’ Like all of her characters, she portrays Bernhardt as a stormy headstrong women intent upon self determination.

Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Hamlet and Shylock were all portrayed by Sarah Bernhardt on the French stage. Her slim, boyish figure complemented her thespian talents and stirred a controversy in the title role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Audiences attended her performances out of curiosity and criticism was heaped upon her. Undaunted, she heightened the uproar depicting Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with a full beard. A controversial figure off and on stage, Bernhardt left her benchmark in the theater and Birtolo has successfully recast her on the modern day stage.

Birtolo’s countless stage successes have not sparked illusions of national acclaim. Hollywood may be beckoning, but she has turned her back to it. “I'm not about Hollywood or Broadway”, she says smiling in an affected cockney accent. “I’m about acting, doing what I love doing.” As an actress, she revels in the freedom to be a nun one night, an aviator another and a British spy a week later. It is a labor of love and a metamorphosis that only the stage can offer. •

For information about upcoming performances, visit www.janinabirtolo.com.

from the November-December 2005 issue

Janina Birtolo as Hamlet

"I've had two passions
in my life — writing and acting.
And monologues have
given me the opportunity
to harness both."