The Star Wars films are known for their incredible space battles, bizarre aliens and other crazy sci-fi visuals. But underneath all that, the films also tell a classic story, a near-perfect example of what Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey. That iconic story structure is part of what makes a production like One Man Star Wars work, despite the complete lack of special effects. In just one hour, Charlie Ross races through the entire original trilogy, from our introduction to everyman moisture farmer Luke Skywalker through his rise to Jedi knight and his ultimate showdown with his nemeses Darth Vader and the Emperor. It’s a whole new way to enjoy the classic tale, just in time for the release of the newest chapter. Before One Man Star Wars hits the Lone Tree Arts Center on Tuesday, December 29, we sat down to talk with Ross about the show's origins, challenges and enduring legacy.
Westword: How long have you been doing One Man Star Wars?
Charlie Ross: I’ve been touring it for fifteen years in January. I’ve been doing the show for a long time. I wrote this thing back in 2000, but I think the first time I ever really [performed] it was back in 2001. It’s weird. It’s taken over my life in a strange, and good, way. All the time I spent as a kid watching Star Wars, I guess that “waste of time” turned out to be time well wasted.
Sounds like you started it in roughly the middle of the second Star Wars trilogy, right?
That’s right. Weirdly enough, I went to university, I got a bachelor of fine arts studying theater — acting. Just trying to work in my vocation, it was difficult to make ends meet. So I figured I could write some of my own stuff and that would help to pick up the slack. When I tried this, it was in the middle of when the new trilogy came out, and I guess I was able to ride the coattails of that popularity, because everything was Star Wars. Lucasfilm found out about what I was doing pretty quickly and they embraced it. They weren’t angry about it, they were happy that I was doing something weird and very little — it’s just me on stage, no costumes, no set, no props. It was just perfect timing, and I was extremely fortunate.
Has interest in the show waxed and waned since you started doing it, or has there been a constant demand?
You know, One Man Star Wars is honestly my bread and butter. I also do One Man Lord of the Rings and One Man Dark Knight — a Batman show — and those kind of franchises do wax and wane, I guess. Star Wars is a completely different entity. It was not like it was based on a novel — it was the films! For so many people it was a formative period of film and it’s never really run its course. There’s always a new generation of super fans who are inspired and influenced, in some ways even obsessed with the films. I guess what that’s allowed me to continue doing this and ride the coattails of the unending popularity that is Star Wars.
Compared to those other shows, how challenging is doing One Man Star Wars?
I actually find them all challenging. Every one has their own series of challenges. The Batman films, the Dark Knight films. I mean, I have to sort of reeducate people in a way. Star Wars I do not have to reeducate people for the most part, but there are so many things that have been based on Star Wars that everyone has their own imitation of Yoda. It’s more like preaching to the choir in that case. Lord of the Rings is probably the most challenging only that in there are so many battles, so I’m throwing myself around the stage with wild abandon. [Lord of the Rings] is a crippling show, and when I have to do it twice in one day, it sucks some of the life out of me and I don’t think I’ll ever get it back. I definitely feel like I face a challenge with every single franchise and every single audience, with different degrees of success. Because the challenges are different, the result is different.
Do kids come to One Man Star Wars? Is it a kid-friendly show?
Absolutely. Yeah. Of all the shows I do, this is the most family-attended and-family friendly. A lot of kids aren’t necessarily watching the Dark Knight trilogy or the Lord of the Rings. They have a lot of violence. Star Wars, however, aside from having a little bit of strange blood and odd violence, is something that kids from an early age are able to [enjoy], and if they can keep up with the pace of the original trilogy, they can keep up with my show. I’m not using a lot of costumes and sets. I’m really engaging people’s memory and their imagination. It’s fascinating to see what people remember, and how they remember. Especially little kids — kids can imagine in a way I think you sometimes lose as you get older. This, for me, really taps into the inner eight-year-old in all of us.
Has there been a big upswing in interest and attendance this year, with the new film coming out?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s also been a lot of saturation, too. Sometimes, I’m going into theaters where honestly I don’t think they’d ever consider putting me into that space, but because everybody is trying to get involved with Star Wars they’re giving me a chance. I have seen some new avenues being opened, and that’s the power of Disney. I thought the media blitz behind episodes one through three was massive, but this takes the cake. I think it’s been masterful, the way they’ve timed it. We almost reached that point of annoyance, and finally we were able to experience it.
This must present some cool opportunities and challenges for you as an actor, especially in comparison to a full-blown show with a dozen actors, sets and props.
Yeah, absolutely. This sort of draws upon all the skills I’ve ever developed or just naturally had. There’s no one to pick up the slack, at all. It’s just me. I’ve done solo shows previous to this, so I wasn’t necessarily freaked out at the idea of doing a solo show. And knowing that the source material is already popular, it certainly made it easier to approach, [since] I wasn’t working on something brand-spanking new that people were going to go, “What the hell is this?” Some people might be against the idea of a Star Wars solo show because they’ve been to solo shows that are self-indulgent, but this is not self indulgent. It’s celebrating the nerdy love of Star Wars and I think it goes back to when we were kids. It’s me trying to combine the eight-year-old exuberance with the skills I have as a performer. There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s quite like this, other than just playing. It’s the living embodiment of play.
Seems almost the opposite of self-indulgent, since you’re squeezing the three original films into one show, something like six hours worth of Star Wars, and I take it the show doesn’t last quite that long, right?
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No, my show is exactly an hour, give or take a few minutes. It’s one man, three films, sixty minutes, no costumes, no sets, no props. If you extend it much beyond that, you will lose people. I think there’s something fascinating about the almost poetic notion of seeing what you can get done, what can you do, what will you leave in, what will you take out? Star Wars is really full of a lot of fat — in a good way, people like fat! — but it’s not necessary to tell the skeleton of the story.
Is there anything else you want to say before we wrap up?
I have a little girl now, and she’ll grow up in a different world than I did, obviously. I’ve often wondered if this style of show will continue, if theater itself will continue, or if it will become more mechanized, with more audio-visual stuff. It’s kind of like Pixar films, where regular cartoons don’t appeal any more, or they seem quaint. I just hope that this style of show will inspire people to stay in theater, or at least to work in theater when they can, because live performance is … every show is different. Every show is unique. Every group of people is fascinating, because of what people get or what they don’t get. Sometimes that sort of freefall that theater brings you is missing from when we create new pieces of work. I hope my daughter, and new generations, will continue to be courageous and push people to discover a new high low art, if you follow me.