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No Muss, No Fuss, Just Art: The SoLow Fest

Posted June 14th, 2012

Solo shows at the SoLow Fest

Have you heard of SoLow?

The name means what it sounds like. The festival, now in its third year, is all about solo acts, and the more experimental, the better. It also means what it’s spelled like: so low-tech, low-cost, and low-stress that most of the shows have happened in apartments. Performances also pop up in places like The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater and The Arts Parlor, but more often in donated venues like coffee shops, studios, and even an elevator.

SoLow is the ongoing project of Philly-based artists Thomas Choinacky (Thomas is Titanic, Thomas Choinacky is a Dance Machine), and Amanda Grove (Vainglorious, Playing Leni). Realizing that they had little time, money, or extra energy to hire venues, design elaborate sets, or market their solo work, that first fest was an excuse to combine efforts with their friends, have a bigger presence, and draw in a broader crowd.

It’s become more than that, though. “People who never would have produced new work are now creating new work because they realize you don’t need money to do it,” reflects Amanda.

Image from The Hour, part of SoLow's inaugural fest

“I also didn’t think after the first year that we would ever do it again,” says Thomas, “but then people started asking if it would happen again. We both realized that this was a niche that hadn’t reached its potential in Philadelphia.”

And with high rates of unemployment, and arts funding lower than ever, the low-cost low-stress theme has been a draw. 2011’s fest was themed “At Home With . . .” and encouraged artists to stage work in their living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. Even this year, said Amanda, “All of the artists have found non-traditional venues or venues that were donated.”

Grove continues: “I see both artists and audiences starting to really become excited about solo and experimental work, and about being able to see multiple, original performances in a 10-day period for only five bucks a crack.”

SoLow has grown considerably, attracting wider audiences and performer bases despite “zero-budget” advertising. This year’s fest nearly doubles last year’s in size, and half of the performers, some coming from as far away as California, are complete strangers to Amanda and Thomas. This is quite a change from that intimate group of friends that comprised the inaugural festival.

“I was also surprised about the reach of word of mouth,” Grove told us. “This year, I had a friend from Northern California email me to see if I had heard about this ‘amazing SoLow Festival that was happening in Philadelphia.’ That was a shock! I emailed him back and said, ‘Well, yes. That’s funny you should ask . . . how on earth did you hear about the festival?’”

Following last year’s example, this year’s fest is themed “Down and Dirty.” The ideas approached by the artists are, appropriately, inappropriate. Dramatist David Lawson explores the universality of porn in his VCR Love. Jen Tuder brings us Suicide Punchline, which promises grief and gallows humor alongside dioramas of the afterlife. Ilse Zoerb, who was featured in the Live Arts Jumpstart program, is doing Net., all about the icky decline of real interpersonal relationships in the face of the internet. And Meghann Williams’s Peep Show bills itself as “100% Live, Real Girl! XXX! Dangerous Curves! Voyeurism at its finest! It’s not smut, it’s ART . . . Free Beer and Pretzels!”

Are you here for the peep show?

That said, there are sixteen shows and fifteen performers at this year’s festival, and the range of subjects presents something for everybody. For those interested in horror and/or classics, Josh Hitchens’ touring Stoker’s Dracula (you may remember this from last year’s Fringe) will be making an appearance, and Stirring the Pot: Examining the So-Called War on Women by Carly Bodnar and Kristen Scatton approaches a number of political and social issues. More interested in sitting around, sipping espresso, and telling stories? Hillary Rea’s Tell Me a Story has got you covered, too. There’s even a show about a Drunk Lion by Chris Davis.

Asked what was the most exciting part of curating the festival, Amanda returns to the artists involved. “I talk to artists, and they are really excited and have all of these ideas. Come April and May, they sometimes get cold feet, and I’ll try to persuade them that this festival is an attempt to exercise risk: try anything, risk failure, risk making mistakes and take what you learn from this little festival and apply it to a much bigger project . . . Curating this festival mirrors what it’s like to write and do a solo show. You start with a vague idea. You think, I’m going to take a very blind leap of faith and just do it before I think too much about it. I’m going to make mistakes, and learn from them and strengthen my courage as an artist because I have nothing to lose.”

–Julius Ferraro

Opening Night Party Tonight @ 9pm, Quig’s Pub, 3rd Floor of Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Place.
Festival runs June 14 through June 24.
For full schedule listing visit http://solowfestival.blogspot.com/
Email reservations requests to: solowfestival@gmail.com.
PWYC ($5-$10 suggested) cash only at the door.

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