07/17/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

After the News, the Solo Show: A Local San Francisco Murder Inspires an Artistic Response

I've been obsessed by my cousin Stephen's death since he was shot and killed in his South of Market apartment in San Francisco in May.


It's become my story.

I'm used to being on the news. All my life, I've been a reporter on TV, radio, newspapers here and around the country since before smart phones.


But now I'm part of the story, as a family member. There's a line. And I'm crossing it. And it's taking me to a place I haven't really been before.

The stage.

I'm developing a solo show, part of which I will perform at Stage Werx in San Francisco this Sunday, July 20 at 7pm

As I worked through the process of trying to piece together the story of Stephen, I've discovered a new form for me, which is really an old form: storytelling.

In some ways, I've done it all my life as a journalist and writer, through local TV in San Francisco, Dallas, Reno. On talk radio in Sacramento, San Francisco, Washington, and Houston.

As an NPR host on "All Things Considered," where I did bits they called "commentaries."

But there is nothing quite like the live intimacy of seeing an audience face-to-face and letting them know exactly how you feel.

I don't know how many people will be there. In the broadcast media world, you want as many people as possible. It's broadcasting.

But the capacity at Stage Werx is around 100.

That's an intimate, special communication. And it will be unique and intense.

I share the stage that night with four other story tellers, all with their special visions.

And I've discovered there is something of a solo performance/story teller boom going on in San Francisco. It's spoken word, TED talk, ideas festival fodder, and more. Did you like the World Cup? Solo performance is like deciding a game on penalty kicks. A kicker, a goalie, a ball. A performer, an audience, a vision.

Very minimal. But with everything on the line.

I admit to having enjoyed the form when I first saw Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian in the '80s. Indeed, they were the sparks of the boom that has continued with theatre artists like Anna Deavere Smith and Mike Daisey.

And though community of solo artists sounds like an oxymoron, it isn't. The Bay Area has had such a stellar community of solo performers for decades.

Much of it has been due to the Bay Area's nurturing of artists at the Marsh, which now has four stages at two locations in Berkeley and San Francisco. For the last 25 years, the Marsh has been the breeding ground for artists like Charlie Varon, who just closed an extended run of "Feisty Old Jew," a satirical jab at the tech crowd that has transformed San Francisco. Along with Dave Ford, Varon has been on the artistic front lines at the Marsh as performer, director, and teacher. (Part of my work was developed in a class given by Varon at the Marsh).

Varon is now preparing to take his show to Washington, D.C. Touring is also the hope for Mark Kenward. This Saturday is closing night at the Marsh in Berkeley for his solo show, "Nantucket." It's about the hometown Kenward shares with Moby Dick, but it's also his own coming of age story that is at once nostalgic and horrifying, as his family go from the Midwest to the island to escape. But they find that problems swim with you.


And like me, there's a headline behind the story, which makes it seem perfect for the solo form.

"Solo theatre excels at a number of things," said Kenward. "It is a very direct form, just the performer and the audience, and there is something about that which I think people find exciting, honest, energizing, and reaffirming. Particularly as our culture gets more and more fractured and frenetic. We are inherently a storytelling species. A lot of that storytelling energy may be going toward YouTube and Twitter. But that doesn't mean live performance is any less thrilling. A lot of people are hungering for a direct, powerful, entertaining experience. And solo performance at its best is all this and more."

Now that I'm in it, I'm also noticing a scene that is far more diverse than the mainstream theatre in both content and the background of the performers. It's a natural place for stories on the margin to come center stage.

For someone like me, a Filipino American, who played the white guy in black theatre in college, the solo form seems ready made--especially for a true story like my cousin's, about an innocent murdered in the South of Market.

Emil Guillermo performs Sunday, July 20th , 7pm at The Vent, the storytelling series at Stage Werx, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA