If you are interested in what’s on the minds of the most experimental theater makers, there’s no question that low and no-budget work is the place to look.
The relatively unpolished work presented is often the most experimental and revealing, exposing raw concepts artists are toying with. FringeArts is always a great place to look for this, but the exceptionally low budget requirements and friendly atmosphere the SoLow Fest puts artists into a particularly daring mindset.
Though every show I saw at SoLow was a unique experiment, there were certain similarities, which followed through many of them. If it is possible to draw conclusions from just six shows, below are three signs of what’s trending in our city’s most experimental theater.
1. Forging a relationship
Every show you see, whether it features Blue Man Group, Madonna, or Pig Iron, creates its own unique relationship with the audience. This year’s SoLow made that abundantly clear. Reading the descriptions of each show on the SoLow schedule, you can see that almost every piece dabbled in audience interaction in a unique way. AT LAST: The Play-At-Home Romance Game Show was actually a game show with prizes (wine, oatmeal cream bars, pizza bites etc.). In My Last Trip to Nowhere-Land, Johnny Smith had audiences wearing superhero masks in his bedroom, and Christina Gesualdi’s experimental dance piece, our nebulous motor, gave every viewer a melting bag of frozen veggies, each with its own instructions on when to leave the room and swap with another bag from the freezer—thus missing part of the dance.
Even the most proscenium-esque shows felt intensely interactive. We were not asked to hold melting broccoli or drink hot sauce with a man in a sombrero, but nearly every line of Guilty But Insane was delivered eye-to-eye with an audience member, and Mottram, in A Man and His Bunker, at one point lurched dangerously towards a specific section of the audience with a sock on his hand, causing localized terror.
Even in these shows, without specific audience-interaction inventions, it proved impossible for the artists to avoid the advantage offered by the close quarters and the low audience-to-actor ratio.
2. It’s all about character
More often than not, it was the characters more than their stories, which enchanted the artists and audiences, so much so that many of the shows revolved around a character’s idiosyncrasies rather than plot.
A Man and His Bunker was hilarious because of the slow deliberation with which Donald Fathumwright performed a series of rituals, from folding underwear to stacking cans—and the clash between this mindfulness and the manic sensualism of the closing moments is what made it a play rather than a scene. The whole story was told in the program—there was next to no “plot” to reveal.
Similarly, several shows, being based in memoir, depended on the character of the artist. AT LAST was dynamic in part because of the interplay between Meghann Williams’ own personality—and her romantic history, which made up the bulk of the show’s material—and the “presenter voice,” which she used when asking questions or otherwise not telling stories about her past. My Last Trip, like AT LAST, was a series of personal stories, which lead up to the artist coming to a specific conclusion about his life and history.
Guilty But Insane was a possible exception, because it was as much the serial killer persona embodied by the performer as the edge-of-the-seat telling of his various crimes—leading up to his eventual arrest—which kept us watching.
3. Around the fire
After seeing three or four shows in artists’ homes around South or West Philly (the less glamorous bits), a person might wonder at how the mainstream theaters, generally clustered within center city, are central to audiences, not performers
That audience member would also notice that the people who were in the audience at the show on Wednesday are also in the audience—or on stage—on Thursday.
Annie Wilson, creator of At Home with the Hipster Shaman, said in an interview with the SoLow Fest, “I am one of many artists who believe performance continues a spiritual tradition from when we all lived on the savanna and performed for each other at night around a fire.” This was realized again and again with SoLow, with audiences sitting arms-length from performers, being offered free beers, and asked for feedback after shows. It is an unusually open and welcoming environment, both for risk-taking artists and their audiences.
But one is left thinking that more could be accomplished here. If a wider, non-artist audience took more interest in this work, or if the artists spent a bit of time publicizing it to the audiences of the Wilma, the Arden, Theatre Exile (or if theaters took it upon themselves to advertise Fest shows free-of-cost—not so far fetched, as the shows themselves are nearly free-of-cost), festivals like SoLow, with 35 experimental productions sitting five to fifteen viewers per showing, could happen more often, and valuable, outsider feedback could be garnered—and more work created.