It’s weird, it’s cheap, it’s DIY and it’s all over the city — SoLow is the next big Philly performing arts festival

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Is SoLow the new Fringe?

ALWAYS PREPPED: Nell Bang-Jensen’s SoLow Festival show, Road May Flood, is about worst-case scenarios. She says she wonders why humans consistently try to prepare for the worst.
Tayarisha Poe

Nell Bang-Jensen chauffeurs her audience in a Zipcar. Laurel Hostak hosts hers in a blanket fort. Daniel Student shares gay porn, while Joy Cutler and Johnny Smith explore the icky truths inside their own bodies. Danielle Lenee and Jeffrey Stingerstein provoke laughs about racism. Cory Kram and Corey Bechelli summon spirits and Eileen Tull waits for Jesus.

A few people will even make you dinner or rearrange your furniture.

All these offbeat experiences — and more, nearly 50 — are performances in the sixth annual SoLow Festival, running June 18-28, all over Philly.

This do-it-yourself festival started in 2010 with five performers presenting solo work in their own apartments. Thomas Choinacky and Amanda Grove’s brainchild has expanded every year since, and is now administered by Lena Barnard, Meredith Sonnen, Lauren Tracy and Chris Davis, to inspire artists to break new ground with the same guiding principles: 1) It shouldn’t cost artists anything to participate in or produce their shows; 2) Every performance is pay-what-you-can, with no one turned away for lack of funds; 3) Artists are accepted without a screening process or fees; 4) The festival should be “low stress and low maintenance”; 5) All donations go directly to the performer, because artists should be financially compensated for their work; 6) A SoLow performance must be 51% solo, and 7) Anything goes: personal narratives, storytelling, music, dance, installations, performance art, puppetry, street theater, webcasts, podcasts, even film.

“Honestly, we haven’t been able to have a single meeting with all of us in the same room since we took over,” jokes Sonnen about the new managerial team. “Amanda, Thomas, and Meghann [Williams, a performer who also helped run SoLow] swear to us that this is normal. The previous team did an amazing job setting up a system.”

It’s easy to notice that SoLow seems a lot like its 18-year-old cousin, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

“They are both Philadelphia performing arts organizations that try and push the boundaries,” Sonnen explains. “I work for both of them [she’s FringeArts’ company manager], which is a great artistic purpose venn diagram for me. I think SoLow is only possible in Philly because of the foundation that FringeArts laid. FringeArts brought this experimental, risky, weird arts energy to Philadelphia.” The kind of work that is accepted in this city is so broad and risky, Sonnen says, and adds that we have FringeArts’ last 18 years to thank for that foundation.

The SoLow Festival, she adds, “is taking that energy and running with it in a different direction,” with the guiding idea that “art can go anywhere.”

SoLow organizers want to “empower the artists we know to put up that idea that is in the back of their head or hidden in a file on their desktop,” Sonnen explains. “SoLow made me realize I could make amazing theater in my friend’s living room with my friends. I don’t need a huge budget or a formal venue. Art can be anywhere and on any scale.”

Lena Barnard concurs. “The great thing about SoLow,” she explains, “is that there is no pressure. We don’t want artists to feel hindered by a production budget or any stress to break even with a show. We hope that this freedom creates an environment where people can try things out and discover what works in a project. There are no formal connections between the two festivals, and if a SoLow show makes its way to Fringe, it is because the creator takes it there.”

One such success story is actor Seth Reichgott’s Stand Back, I’m Gonna Uke: An Evening of Old-Timey Music — his vaudevillian alter ego, Slim Bob Slim, tells stories and plays modern songs on the ukulele — which was first developed in the 2013 SoLow Festival, then played in the 2014 Philly Fringe Festival and New York City’s 2014 United Solo Theatre Festival, and is going to this year’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Cabaret and Performance Conference.

Laurel Hostak says she’s had a lot of good friends participate in SoLow, and wanted to be a part of it. Hostak, who works for 1812 Productions and the Wilma Theater and studied site-specific theater in Prague, has been developing her show Kingfisher since February especially for SoLow.

“I knew I wanted to talk about myth and childhood, and I wanted to explore the idea of looking down on my own experience as if it’s the size of a chessboard, and exploring the past from a different scale. From early on, I wanted to make miniature versions of the locations and events of the story that I could manipulate and, with my director Tommy Butler, developed a paper-made world that’s kind of a mashup of toy theater, shadow puppetry and kids’ arts and crafts. We’re developing it for performance in a blanket fort because it’s the coziest, most reminiscent-of-childhood setting I could imagine, and I want the same excitement of that world to infuse the performance,” she says.

SoLow, Hostak explains, “gives a big presence to small shows — small casts, of course, but also small budgets. So it’s an excellent way to get some exposure for a lo-fi kind of piece, but it also encourages artists to develop projects that can have further incarnations. I could pack this show up in one box and take it to a festival anywhere, or I could do it in my house and friends’ houses every weekend. I would love to show it again as it grows.”

“I think it was the second year of SoLow when people said I should do a show,” says Brett Mapp, director of operations at Old City Special Services District, co-founder of Making a Progressive Philadelphia and a Flashpoint Theatre Company board member. “My first idea was to do Brunch with Brett, where we have brunch and spin a wheel and whatever the pointer landed on is what we talk about. It was too expensive and too much work, so I changed it to Bagels with Brett.”

The popular first-nighter and enthusiastic theater supporter will tell brief stories about growing up in Brooklyn Heights. “Each audience member will reach into a ‘Bag of B’s’ and grab a card that will have something to do with my boyhood: ‘boarding school,’ ‘bi-racial,’ ‘bees’ and so on.”

Mapp created Bagels with Brett for SoLow, doing it himself with assistance from friend Morgan Hugo, who will collect money and help prepare the bagels.

“I have the same fear as any performer in the city: Will people come to my show? My other fear is that people will come to my show, especially people I have seen on stage before and for whom I have a great deal of respect. I have no fear of speaking in public. My fear is, did I block the show properly, did I work long enough on the script?”

He sees his biggest challenge, though, as finding time to see other shows. “People ask me if I ever want to be an actor, and I tell them no. I get to see on average 2.5 shows a week and I would miss it.”

Mapp thinks SoLow “is a great starting point for a performer. You don’t have to pay an entry fee, production costs are usually very small, especially if you’re using your house or a public space as a venue. Run time is short, most shows are under an hour, and you can think of it as a workshop before you decide if you want to do a Fringe show.”

As a fan, he says, “there are so many great shows in both that you can’t see them all.”

While most SoLow projects are created by their performers, theater director Chelsea Sanz conceived The Era Project, which Emily White performs. Loosely taken from her experiences of the late Long Island 1990s-early 2000s underground ska-punk scene, “It has had a long journey that originated with the idea of going back to my roots and a simpler time,” Sanz explains, “where teenagers found freedom in ska shows, house parties and awkward glances filled with sexual tension. It was a time prior to Facebook and the entire social media generation, where we found expression in writing poetry in notebooks, passing notes in class, sweating in ska-punk shows, and a release in driving down suburban roads at night just to drink a cup of coffee in a funky place.”

The installation-style performance features projections by Kathleen Grandos, and includes sculpture-like elements composed of period “found objects” like clothing and shoes.

“I decided to participate,” says Sanz about SoLow, “because I like the idea of gritty, do-it-yourself pieces that really help ground a single story and immerse oneself in an event. It pushes you to take risks, make hard choices and explore things you may not have in a traditional setting.”

Actress Jess Brownell also sees SoLow as a chance to take risks. “I’ve been saying for a couple years now that I want to create and perform a solo show,” says Brownell, who plays Betsy Ross at the Betsy Ross House in Old City, “and I think the SoLow Festival is the perfect place to do it.”

Last year, she worked on her first devised and physical theater piece, No Place Like with Kaleid Theatre in the Fringe Festival’s Neighborhood Fringe, “and in it we shared some personal stories, and that got my wheels turning, so to speak. When I heard the theme for the 2015 SoLow Festival is ‘The Days After Tomorrow,’ I knew exactly what I was going to do.”

Every SoLow Festival has a theme, “but it’s always been a loose concept,” says co-administrator Barnard. “I see the theme as a tool for the people who want to do a show in SoLow, but have no idea what direction they’d like to take. The theme gives them building blocks to play with.”

Brownell felt inspired to share the story of her divorce, which is “a bit of a taboo subject, especially when you’re a young woman, and even more so when you grow up in and/or live in a conservative Christian community. Having the label of ‘divorcee’ feels like a scarlet letter.”

Her 35-minute play, D, is a physical exploration of the emotional journey through divorce, using Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “Each scene has its own distinct physicality and tells its own part of the story,” Brownell explains. “I’ve tried to be as honest and true to my own personal experiences in the creation of D, which has proved challenging at times.”

She’s grateful for Sarah Mitteldorf’s direction, and music by composer Adrian Bridges. “This is a hard, emotional piece, but it’s something I think everyone can relate to on one level or another; we have all experienced grief and loss. And it’s time we learn that it’s okay to talk about it.”

“I’m honestly a little nervous about the unforeseen challenges working in other people’s kitchens,” says Susanne Collins about Give Peas a Chance, which she created for SoLow. “I’ve tried to combat this by creating a questionnaire for participants to answer that gives a better idea about their kitchen situation, but I’m sure something unexpected will come up last minute. As a cook, I tend to be a bit improvisational, which could be a disaster in a kitchen that I’m unfamiliar with.”

She’s been thinking for a while about the concept of cooking for someone else in their home, but the show’s more focused idea — “to give vegetables a grand reprise” — was inspired by this year’s SoLow theme. “My goal is to equip people to make bolder vegetable choices in the days and years to come.”

Collins, “an actor first” and a 2014 University of the Arts graduate, sees food “as a huge part of the human experience — it’s how we relate and connect with each other — and I was frustrated with the fact that (aside from your run-of-the-mill dinner theater) I hadn’t seen very much marriage between food and theater.” She notes, however, that she’s excited to see that several other artists are also experimenting with food and theater this year, too. “I’ve been tossing around grandiose ideas in my head for a while, but realized that I had to start simply,” she says. “SoLow seemed like the perfect outlet.”

See Also: A six-pack of SoLow picks.

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