Philadelphia’s micro-theater festival celebrates 10 years

Philadelphia’s micro-theater festival celebrates 10 years

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The portable, DIY adventure that is SoLow Fest offers pay-what-you-can fare that’s minimalist, raw and as intimately performed as it is staged — i.e., in cars, basements and old phone booths.

Created a decade ago by theater renegades Thomas Choinacky and Amanda Grove, SoLow is going strong as it marks its milestone.

This year’s fest, curated by Chris Davis and Tanaquil Marquez, runs until June 23 and is filled with LGBTQ participants and reference points.

PGN spoke with the out Davis, along with actor-writer Val Dunn, who co-created a humorous SoLow skit called “Johnny Depp: A Retrospective on Late-Stage Capatalism,” and dancer-choreographer Sean Thomas Boyt, who produced an online dance-theater webinar called “Not all leaks are important.”

PGN: What attracts you to the micro DIY theater that SoLow is known for?

CD: I think the best stories can be told very simply. So in some ways the limitations of having no money can benefit your creativity. I think theater, at its core, is someone standing up from the campfire and telling a story. SoLow Fest performers have that type of energy.

STB: Dance sees itself as a precious art form. There are special floors for special shoes and fancy backdrops for fancy galas and blank modern stares for blank modern dances. As a solo artist, I don’t have the funding, support or interest to perpetuate these fairly specific modes of doing things, so working in a more DIY, flexible environment serves me best. So much of dance is done in a vacuum between rehearsals and performances. Often the only people that give themselves a chance to experience dance are the ones dancing and the audience members who often are dancers themselves. By stepping outside of the obvious markers of traditional dance — the dark theater, the company of athletic dancers, the 90-minute-with-one-intermission runtime, etc.— I can better articulate my thoughts in works for dance and non-dance audiences.

VD: I believe theater should be accessible to the community in which you’re performing; otherwise, what is the point? This includes financial accessibility, obviously, for the audience members, but also for the creators. Practically speaking, the smaller the production, the smaller the budget needed to produce the work. My co-creator Jenna Kuerzi and I have begged and borrowed our way into every prop in this scrappy little roast. Our first iteration of the piece didn’t have a budget and premiered in a West Philly living room. Also, a smaller-scale production lowers audience expectations and hopefully prevents creators from becoming pretentious, which means more fun for all involved.

PGN: Capitalism, information dissemination, wealth inequality, game shows — all part of SoLow 2019. How do you see the theme working in this year’s festival?

CD: The theme serves for most people as inspiration, but is by no means mandatory. Most of the shows will be about a wide variety of things. This year we have a lot of “experience” shows where people go to houses, play games, drink beers and so on, and hear stories or have some sort of guided entertainment. A lot of interaction. However, we also have a number of dance pieces and more traditional plays, with two of the shows even going to the Edinburgh Fringe (“Churn” and “Johnny Depp”).

STB: I think the thematic element of SoLow Fest is a powerful tool for both makers and observers. Seeing work through a communal lens adds a sense of unity to the otherwise separate projects that independent artists are working on at the time. The can-do spirit and intentional effort put forth in these personal works serve as the backbone for the festival as a whole and speak as testament to art-making in general. Doing things in the performing arts costs time, money and energy. SoLow Fest is a chance to cut out at least one of those elements.

VD: The grotesque wealth inequality of late-stage capitalism angers me. Johnny Depp made $55 million filming “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” according to Forbes. I’m not suggesting that artists shouldn’t be paid for their work; they absolutely should be paid. But $55 million is a lot of money. To put that number in perspective, it would take me about 3,666 years to earn that much money based on my current annual income. More to the point, if you donated $55 million to Broad Street Ministry, for instance, you could sponsor about 22-million lunches. And celebrities like Johnny Depp are at the lower end of the top 1 percent. No one should be going hungry when a very small percentage of the world’s population has that kind of money. The short answer is: Late-stage capitalism makes me sick, and I’m hoping to point out some of its many absurdities.

PGN: Not that it has to, but does your piece in any way reflect who you are as a member of the LGBTQ community?

STB: “Not all leaks are important” is a danced data breach from an LGTBQ festival. I’m taking a short break from noodling around in a dress to go behind the scenes and undercover to see what other queer dance makers are doing. Creating dance and getting it on stage is a constant struggle, and understanding how other not-so-conforming individuals are marketing themselves to presenters has been a fun treat and very informational. Seeing work samples that wouldn’t otherwise be available to me helps me as an artist learn more about my own tastes and preconceptions, and I hope that by sharing my findings, albeit in a dramatized, coded way, the free information I have come across can bring some sense of normalcy for other queer artists without naming names or leaking data that’s too confidential.

VD: I grew up in a town so small and conservative, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was until the eighth grade. Johnny Depp was sort of the last bastion protecting my supposed straightness. That hair! Those cheekbones! The androgynous swagger! Turns out I’m about 99.9-percent lesbian, and Johnny Depp has been doing some whacked-out shit his whole life. I started writing this piece because I was trying to reconcile my current revulsion for the actor who, in a sense, guided me through puberty.  

SoLow Festival runs through June 23. For lineup, locations and more information, visit solowfest.com.


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