In Bill Patton's one-man show, One for the Road, he examines his life while his ghost struggles to decide whether to enter heaven or to stay anchored on earth. The 70-something Charlestonian's soul-searching tale has struck a chord with audiences across the East Coast. When we talk to him, he's in Alaska, preparing for a performance in a Native American tribal house.
"I can feel spirits in this place," he says, mentioning that he is looking at totems and carvings in the house. "I have quite a responsibility to do the right thing." That means being sincere in the way he tells his story, even if some of the facts are embellished or fictionalized. In the play, the central character is in despair. He's an actor considering suicide, deciding whether or not he has fulfilled his destiny. Should he stay or should he go?
In his play, the actor struggles with the conflicts of his life, some personal (love and desire, captivity and freedom), some distinctly Southern (racism). His ghost-self becomes a sounding board and devil's advocate. "Playing the two characters is a real challenge," says Patton. "I try to do it physically — one questioning, the other responding. Hopefully, they're distinguishable all the way through."
As far as the playwright's concerned, his concept is "pretty unique." In some ways, it's similar to Nick Nolte: No Exit, a 2008 documentary in which the movie star interviews himself about his motives and techniques. Patton has seen the film, but he says, "That's different in terms of intent."
Patton has lived a rich and eclectic life. He's worked as a director, teacher, and counselor. He was a Lutheran chaplain at Duke University, the director of New York City's Force 13 Theatre Company, a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and an executive director at a therapeutic facility for at-risk youths. These days he acts and directs at the Firehouse Theatre Company in Richmond, Va., but he says he's most at home on stage communicating with people. "I write as well," he says, "but I'm more comfortable when I'm doing it through some sort of performance."
At an early age, Patton found he had an aptitude for acting. "I keep getting called to direct," he says. "Acting is my preference. I use that to express my opinions."
Some of Patton's attitudes and beliefs were formed growing up in Charleston, where he went to Rivers High School, played football for the Charleston High School Bantams, and later worked as an adjunct theater professor at the College of Charleston. "It's a great feeling coming back to Charleston," he says. "The play had its genesis there and so much of what's in the piece has to do with Charleston."
But the show isn't all specific to the Holy City or Patton's real life. "People want to know if all these things really happened to me," says Patton. "It's obviously based on my life, but I've taken the liberty to fictionalize some of it. Some of it's true. I think the audience can tell when it is actually based on fact. They can't hold me responsible for any of it."
Patton's play continues to evolve as he performs it across the country. The question-response format has proven to be the perfect way to connect with audiences as he contemplates his existence and eventual death. Rarely have confessions been so grippingand inspiring.
"Tennessee Williams said if you're going to do a play, people should go away feeling they've been knocked in the gut and thrown down stairs," says Patton. "I would like my play to affect people and get them thinking about things." He particularly likes the way that his two characters draw the audience in. "If I could make something very different in this format I would do that, but I want to finish One for the Road first."