The 6th Annual United Solo Festival (New York division) launches September 17, 2015 and continues through November 22. Its international roster of one person pieces written by each show’s performer, features drama, comedy, music, singing, puppetry, storytelling, magic, movement, dance, multi-media, and improvisation. Artists presented at this smorgasbord of original theater come from 28 states and 17 countries outside the U.S. Two to eight shows a day are presented all or part in Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Mandarin, Persian, Italian, Russian, and silence as well as English. (Top photo: Sandy Simona, Nick Rafello)
This is a helluva’n opportunity to see intimate theater at a mere $19.25 a pop. The shows can be entertaining, elucidating and often captivatingly personal. One Broadway admission would pay for a cornucopia of these with no one lining their pockets. Shows are given the opportunity for broad exposure generating possible future productions.
(Click to read my piece on the origins of United Solo.)
Each year, we interview a couple of performers to give you the range of what’s to come. This article spotlights Sandy Simona’s He Left in the Middle of the Night , the artist’s third outing with United Solo (Simona performed her first show at U.S. festivals in both in New York and Poland) and Nick Rafello’s first presentation, Yeah, That Happened.
Sandy Simona: He Left in The Middle of the Night
“I want to create Beautiful things out of painful things.”
Sandy Simona is first generation American. She grew up locally with an extended family who immigrated from the former Soviet Union (Ukraine) in the 1970s. Living in a bubble of the old world, the little girl wondered why other kids got peanut butter and jelly while she was given cutlet and pickle for lunch. She smiles now, but it must’ve been puzzling and somewhat uncomfortable. Her parents worked long days, leaving their daughter with one of three remaining grandparents. With a brother nine years older and caregivers who didn’t understand the concept of a playdate, Sandy spent a great deal of time alone, creating imaginary friends or with adults to whom she apparently preternaturally listened.
Her family members were natural story tellers. They missed the homeland and talked about it. As soon as she could write, Sandy started both taking down and inventing tales. Innately curious and doubtless drawn to her relatives’ intensity, she began to ask lots of questions about the past. As to performance roots, Aunt Anna, an amateur actress in Ukraine, regularly put on shows in her basement. Sandy was her assistant. And then there was dance, every kind of dance lessons from childhood to college; dancing in the living room, at gatherings.
Sandy and Her Father, Then
Despite excelling at theater in high school, Sandy was convinced to major in journalism at Rutgers University. Perhaps, she muses, had her parents known one could get an actual degree in theater…Next came California Institute of the Arts, now, in theater. “My parents were not thrilled.” During a hiatus between schools, Sandy earned tuition. Her MFA goal was to become a professor in the arts. (Office Manager for Al Jazeera News, she just secured her first higher education job at Essex County College where she hopes to teach acting and movement through the prism of personal memories.)
Performed here and abroad, Sandy’s first solo piece, Lost in Lvov, plumbs the female side of her immediate heritage in original music, song, movement, poetry, and drama. Its sequel, He Left in The Middle of the Night, explores inherent masculine energy. The piece is named for grandfather Misha Levitan, who at 28 years-old was taken from his home by the KGB. “My grandfather wasn’t political…There’s a history of Jewish men being taken away. Passports didn’t say Russian, they said Jewish.” Apparently to cover their own black market dealings, neighbors told authorities he was selling illicit goods. Levitan was summarily given a ten year sentence of forced labor. He died within 10 years of release.
Sandy’s Grandparents: Lina and Misha Levitan (He left in the middle of the night.)
The show examines “my grandmother losing her husband, my father losing his father; my once distant relationship with my father because of how he was raised and the way that affected my feelings about men…” There are only moments of female portrayal. “It was a challenge for me. I’m a very feminine mover, a very feminine woman.”
Each of these self-contained pieces is based on autobiographical truth with whatever the author hasn’t personally experienced conjectured in accordance with research. Each has a musical backbone. The first utilized gypsy folk dance. This one employs Argentinean tango by which the deeply romantic Sandy was “carried away” in Los Angeles. She compares it with a lover, its absence with being bereft of a lover.
It wasn’t until afterwards that the artist discovered Grandmother Lina met Misha Levitan dancing tango at a social club. Both her attraction to the dance and her grandparent’s meeting was kismet. Lina had hitched to the club on a whim. Misha never danced and just happened to go along with friends. “So there’s a reason.”
The family was skeptical anyone would be interested in their history. “This is going in your show, I know, I know,” her mother often said rolling her eyes. Curiously, when Sandy moved west relations with her father improved. There were emails in the form of letters, telephone calls; visits took on precious meaning. When she finally sat down to interview him, “he was more open with me than he had been with most of the family, offering some very beautiful, enlightening stories.” Vocal impression of him is charming.
Sandy in Warsaw
Between the two family sagas, Sandy created Maria the Artisan, based on the short story “The Russian Club” by Ellen Litman and last year booked the Indie film “Dark Gospels”, written and directed by Robert Diaz LeRoy. She has an east coast agent for acting work and a percolating concept for the next family piece, based on her mother’s first return to the Ukraine in 38 years.
Sandy Simona is articulate, expansive and voraciously curious. Never still, she vibrates with energy and though her hands move, talks with her whole body. The piece promises to be illuminating and passionate.
He Left in The Middle of the Night– The United Solo Festival Sunday October 11, 7:30
Nick Rafello: Yeah, That Happened
“That’s me wearing my grandmother’s high heels,” explains Nick Rafello about the appealing image on the postcard for his show, “I was an only child, a dramatic kid… I believed I could fly. ‘Drove my parents crazy. ‘ Jumped off a footstool at four and injured both my ankles. ‘Ran around the house riding a broom, trying to take off…” Forty years drop away as he describes the incident. When Nick’s mother and father took him to the movies as a distraction from his obsession, the film turned out to be Peter Pan. True story.
“I wanted to be an OBGYN. ‘Always liked babies. I’m the only gay man who knows about the mucus plug…” (He really does.) Nick’s “lame duck” biology teacher slash football coach unfortunately ruined science for him in high school. He never looked back. Imagining the man beside me as a gynecologist, I hear Don McLean’s lighthearted “Wonderful Baby.” (YouTube it.)
About the same time, Nick’s grades plummeted as a result of his parents’ acrimonious divorce. A savvy guidance counselor put the boy in the Speech and Debate Club. “When I talked I made everything funny. That was my survival. Otherwise, I was a little nerd who got slammed against the lockers, a sissy.” He excelled at debate and grew popular.
The adolescent also began dance lessons . “I had no outlet. My father was verbally abusive and at times, physically too. I always feared him. My mother would run around the house to close all the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear. In my show, there’s one very dark section where he beats me-badly-with his fists. I believe he hated my mother because he knew that their marriage was on the outs, which only added more to his anger issues…” The information blindsides me. Everything to which the raconteur alluded up till now was upbeat.
Nick in La Cage aux Folles; With Theodore Bikel in Fiddler on the Roof
Nick took theater at college, acted in children’s theater, worked at an amusement park, sang/danced on a cruise ship. Admission of wide-eyed naïve is candid and vivid. On a three hour layover in New York he was talked into staying. His third day here, the newcomer went to an open audition for a new show called Cats. He had nine callbacks, but didn’t get it.
Instead, there were Regional and National Tours of Evita, Chorus Line, Fiddler on the Roof and Sweet Charity-none on Broadway “always a bridesmaid…” Imagine jubilantly assembling onstage after a successful Washington D.C. opening only to be told by the show’s producer “Bobby died tonight. It was quick. It was fast. He felt nothing.” End of announcement. Bobby was Bob Fosse. Nick did stand-up comedy, “bits” on Conan, and sketch comedy with The Groundlings East.
“In 2013, my father’s third wife (of 31 years) was diagnosed with brain cancer. That was the turning point for me to write the show.” Nick had been through the AIDS crisis and was familiar with much of what his father was experiencing. Suddenly there was an opportunity to bond. “I’m gonna show you how I realized he was a good guy….Would you take the second chance I took?” The narrative is clearly a journey. “You’ll walk out with a laugh,” he assures me.
Nick with His Father, Then and Now
Yeah, That Happened (you really have to hear his tone of voice to “get” the title) is a first play/ monologue. Anyone else might find the art daunting, but the author has always been a storyteller. When not selling real estate with The Corcoran Group, Nick shaped the multiple character piece at Matt Hoverman’s Go Solo Workshop which provided inspiration and tools. His director is Sam Viverito who hired the actor to do a summer stock tour of A Chorus Line in 1986. Nick says they learned how to do this together.
“I feel a responsibility now. It’s not just my story anymore.” Aside from details, the author feels his piece to be universal in its touchstones. If it’s as entertaining as his conversation, we’re in like Flynn.
After two dates for Yeah, That Happened sold out, a third, Monday October 5 at 7:30, has just been added.
The 2014 United Solo New York Family