soloNOVA Festival Gives Solo Performers Center Stage

Theater festivals often require a cast of thousands – in addition to the actors, there are crew members, writers, producers, a director, and wranglers to keep the whole operation moving. terraNOVA Collective, however, has found a way to slim down the body count with its soloNOVA Arts Festival, now in its seventh year.

The solution? Put on a festival spotlighting solo performances. soloNOVA is New York City’s premiere site for solo performance. terraNOVA’s mission is to usher in innovative and original theatrical works; as a result, soloNOVA “celebrates those individuals who push the boundaries of what it means to be an artist, aims to redefine the solo form and uniquely invigorates the audience through the time-honored tradition of storytelling.”

That may sound like a tall order, but terraNOVA knows how to keep it simple. This year’s festival only has eight solo performers appearing in a main stage offering.

“We keep it small consciously,” says Jennifer Conley Darling, Artistic Director of terraNOVA Collective. “We want to bring greater production values, marketing efforts and greater care to each show we present. We want soloNOVA to be a springboard for the shows in the festival to go on to larger venues and festivals in the city, across the country and around the world.” Darling acknowledges that past shows have gone on to win awards at Edinburgh and enjoy successful Off-Broadway runs.

Avery Pearson, who appears this year in the show Monster, concurs that what makes soloNOVA unique is the hands-on attention Darling and co-director James Carter provide for their participants. “Jennifer and James give very specific focus to each production,” he relates. “soloNOVA decreased its productions from twelve to eight this year in order to increase the care given to each one.”

“It sounds cliché,” Pearson adds, “however, the reality is that most theater companies and theaters shy away from the solo form. It is a very challenging art form – one which demands an excellent script to hold the audience's attention. Strong acting, direction and production quality must lift the script off that page without alienating its audience. soloNOVA understands these challenges and continues to push forward to find the finest work, championing the solo art form.”

Darling agrees that it was lack of visibility for solo work that lit a fire for the festival in the first place. However, she didn’t just want to provide a home for run-of-the-mill solo performance. “We decided to reinvigorate this art form by curating a festival that showcased all genres, including dance, magic, clowning, puppetry, storytelling, monologues, comedians, etc.,” she explains, going on to point out that “our objective over the years is to get away from the solo form that only rehashes the performer's life story, and, instead, really focus on the ancient tradition of storytelling.”

But just because Carter and Darling strive to reincorporate the original artistic elements of the solo form doesn’t mean these performances are in any way primitive. Take, for example, Jesse Zaritt’s show, Binding, which fuses popular music, costume and puppet elements with interactive video to represent basic human emotion and tell of one man’s search for love and connection.

“What I examine with this work is not just the way a body responds to the drama of love,” Zaritt explains, “but also the potentially destructive or redemptive experience of being in thrall of a profound faith, spiritual transcendence, fame, or violent coercion.” Binding, according to Zaritt, uses these multimedia elements to portray “the connections and slippage between these volatile states.”

In a similar vein, Jessi Hill, director of entrant It or Her describes the show as “a black comedy about a man who meticulously creates an entire world of relationships with objects, in the absence of personal relationships that he has never experienced.”

Star Brian McManamon recognizes the universality of the show. “To me, the play is a partially veiled look at what it is to be an artist in the world. Andrew is an artist in the process of creating what he believes to be his life’s work and is desperate for his creation to leave an important contribution to the world – not an unfamiliar feeling for any artist, or, for that matter, this actor. He is striving for recognition and appreciation for his work from the world around him and those he loves. He ends up finding what he is looking for in the form of dozens of inanimate objects.”

soloNOVA has selected works that range from those dealing with the human heart to others that are almost shockingly relevant. Take Rootless: La No-Nostalgia, a bilingual cabaret about the emotional life of immigrants, starring Karina Casiano; given the passage of last week’s Arizona immigration bill, such a show couldn’t be more topical.

The show, which includes a diverse mix of songs in English and Spanish (with supertitles) that range from rock to tango, follows a confused immigrant who begins to forget her language, her accent and even her gender after many years away from her land. “While we hear the news about the laws attempting to control the entrance of undocumented people to the U.S,” Casiano states, “ Rootless gives a view of what goes on in the minds and hearts of migrants as we leave our whole lives behind and try to adapt to a new, often hostile country in search of a better life. It ponders the feelings of detachment and fear that our painful escape brings upon us but also proposes a self-critical view of the role our own countries play in pushing us out.”

Casiano also praises terraNOVA’s support. “Solo artists are used to having to work alone and, while we may take all the glory when it comes, we also carry all the responsibility. Counting on the support of a knowledgeable and hard-working company like terraNOVA Collective makes me feel ‘not-so-solo.’”

The multicultural aspect of soloNOVA is another plus. “As a Latina artist, I was especially pleased that the organizers of the festival were interested in my show about immigration,” Casiano says. “It not only brings diversity to their program but also allows me to reach an audience of both English and Spanish speakers who I feel will welcome a cool, fun, sexy approach to this hot topic.”

The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour, starring Bell, shares Rootless’ topicality. “My solo show is a mix of stand-up comedy, personal stories, pop cultural criticism, slides, video clips, and good old-fashioned American freedom of speech,” Bell says. “It's like a tea party... but for the good guys.” Bell also says that anyone who attends Curve with a friend of a different race gets in two-for-one.

If there is harmony of any kind to be found in regard to the festival, it’s among all of the solo participants, who unanimously praise terraNOVA for their unwavering belief and support. In fact, the relationship begins to paint Carter and Darling as the parents of eight super-happy children.

And apparently, they are parents who reserve judgment on subject matter. How else could Erin Markey’s Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail, an autobiographical piece about how her life as a stripper became more complicated after she fell in love with a fellow dancer, make it into the mix?

“There is a lot of assertive nurturing happening,” said Markey. “They really believe in solo work, which is such a niche genre; there really aren't a lot of other organizations that specifically support solo work in the same way. terraNOVA’s investment in live solo work keeps me batting my lashes and making phone calls. They're very hands-on with the artists. We are in contact nearly every day and have been for a long time.”

And while some of the works in soloNOVA look at the world, others reflect inward. Remission chronicles Dan Berkey’s experiences with schizophrenia. “Its primary purpose is to incite curiosity and questions about the condition, which has been maligned by the media and other questionable and outright spurious sources,” Berkey says. Shontina Vernon’s show, Wanted, follows a ten-year-old girl from the West Texas town of Lamesa, who is sent to a juvenile detention center after she forges eight thousand dollars in checks trying to achieve her dream of becoming a singer.

In addition to the eight solo shows, performer Nilaja Sun will receive the soloNOVA Artist of the Year award. “Nilaja's work on No Child… and as an arts educator truly exemplifies the embodiment of a solo performer,” according to Darling. The honor will be bestowed on May 21, and will feature student performances and testimonials on how No Child affected their lives.

“Every year we aim to get new audiences to at least one show in the festival and they are never disappointed,” Darling says. It would be hard for anyone to argue that they haven’t made good on their goal.

soloNOVA runs from May 5 to May 22. For a full list of performances, please visit http://www.terranovacollective.org/.

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