The 7th Annual United Solo Festival Preview

The 7th Annual United Solo Festival (New York division) launches September 15, 2016 and continues through November 20. Its international roster of one person pieces written predominantly by each show’s performer, features drama, comedy, music, singing, storytelling, magic, movement, dance, multi-media, and improvisation. Artists presented at this smorgasbord of original theater come from 23 states and 20 countries outside the U.S. Two to eight shows a day are presented all or part in Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese, Polish, and silence as well as English. One show will be ASL interpreted.

This is a great opportunity to see intimate theater at a mere $20.25 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.

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Natasha’s Dream
Written by Yaroslava Pulinovich, translated by John Freedman
Performed by Darya Denisova
Directed by Igor Golyak

Fifteen year-old Natasha was raised in a state run, Russian orphanage which, like a prison system, has its own unique rules for survival. Director Igor Golyak places many of these institutions a step above juvenile jails he calls “so horrific, inmates often don’t survive.” The hyper-sensitive teenager must protect what few possessions she has, defend her ideas, and nurture the little support she garners at whatever cost. Acceptance and love are her highest goals.

When she jumps out a third floor window on a dare, Natasha is wounded and taken to a hospital. There she’s interviewed by a journalist. Never having been treated with kindness and decency, she instantly falls in love and assumes marriage will follow. A succession of hysterical fantasies are played out as the character tells us her story. Life in the outside world doesn’t resemble anything she knows, however. What ensues, Natasha’s black and white perceptions of it, and her shocking response will radically change her life forever.

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Golyak and Denisova were raised in very different culture from ours and tell me they had to learn their own survival skills here. “Russian immigrants seem to fit in, but are still looking for ways to apply the rules they learn,” Golyak comments. “In English, I am Natasha,” Denisova adds. “But in different circumstances.” A fish out of water, nothing seems natural or safe.

I ask to what the actress relates in her role. She unhesitatingly replies that as a teenager, it was all or nothing for her. “If something didn’t go my way, I didn’t want it. I was raised as if I was the center of the universe.” When Denisova was nine, her parents divorced, but the perceptive girl quickly learned to get around each of them, continuing to secure exactly what she desired. Had anything been denied, a tantrum would’ve been the least of her response. Adapting to an unsympathetic world was difficult.

Denisova so inhabits this role that one day in rehearsal, she’d been speaking several minutes before anyone in the theater, pointedly including herself, realized Russian not English was coming out of her mouth. She’s so shredded after each performance, Golyak literally has to talk her down.

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Igor Golyak, Artistic Director of Needham Massachusetts’ Arelekin Players first saw this play in Moscow around 2013. It’s apparently well known author was 20 when she wrote it. Both Golyak and performer Darya Denisova were trained in Moscow as well as the U.S. Both are immigrants.

This is the company’s first English language venture. It’s been performed in Needham and will be seen in both English and Russian at upcoming festivals. An international roster of creative artists, with Golyak at its helm, have manifest something with what sound like powerful visuals and sound not in the script. Golyak hopes for a full New York production one day soon.

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Alive on the Inside
Written and Performed by Richard Eagan

As child in Brooklyn, Richard Eagan was regularly taken to Coney Island, especially by his charismatic grandfather. He continued to visit until the 1960s when he found it heartbreakingly changed. The Tornado Rollercoaster had burned down, The Magic Carpet Funhouse was closed and dismantled…nothing was the same. A carpe diem kind of guy, Eagan has bragging rights as having been one of the last to ride The Parachute Jump, despite acrophobia.

In 1978, the author/performer unusually had ten insistent dreams about the park in its heyday. A woodworker and artist, he created a Victorian-like cabinet that contained a slowly revolving barrel, a take on the traditional “barrel of fun” which was an integral part of any old school funhouse. There was one outside the main doors to the park pavilion of fun. At the barrel’s inside base, was a photo of the old Steeplechase.

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The art was exhibited at “The Coney Island Show” in 1980. There he met artist Philomena Marano (also creating art about the park and with whom he afterward collaborated) and Dick Ziggin, now its self-appointed mayor. All three became involved in preservation and rebuilding of the park. (Alas, something of a glass mountain.)

The enthusiast produced events, painted murals, refurbished merry-go-round horses, became an outside talker (what civilians call a barker), ran a Quarter Pitch Game one season, co-hosts the iconic Mermaid Parade, and even learned banjo, founding a traditional jazz band called The Coney Island Yacht Club that plays music from the 20s and 30s. Eagan began to take his daughters to the park and continued to create and show pieces inspired by it. “As Coney Island changed, my view changed.”

Alive on the Inside is about the writer’s relationship to Coney, but as years pass, it’s become something of a history piece as well. A natural born storyteller, artist Richard Eagan is articulate, wry, and sensitive even in an interview. His hope for the show’s next incarnation is to cast a younger man in the main role while he plays the character parts.

Call Fosse At The Minskoff
Written and Performed by Mimi Quillin
Director: John Thomas Waite

“You remind me of me,” Gwen Verdon commented. “You’re not much up close, but put you on the stage and you light up.”

Mimi Quillin wanted to be a ballerina. Quillin duly studied and danced professionally for The Pittsburgh and Milwaukee Ballets, but found that at 6’3” on point, she was difficult to partner. Hoping musical theater would allow her to follow her bliss, she secured an ensemble job in the Jones Beach production of Damn Yankees with Joe Namath – yes, the athlete – “It was my first Equity contact; I thought they were all going to pay like that”- and embarked on the road of a gypsy.

The young dancer first encountered Gwen Verdon when, with Chita Rivera, the icon co-hosted a series of benefits for American Dance Machine. Having asked for time off, Quillin missed dress rehearsal in order to audition for the revival of Sweet Charity that brought Bob Fosse out of retirement.  As she entered the theater that night, she ran into Gwen Verdon whom she’d never met. “There’s a step in the show you’re gonna hate,” Verdon said, referring, it seems, to the show for which the gypsy had just auditioned Cinematic, yes? “I haven’t got the job yet,” she responded somewhat abashed.  (Lee Theodore of American Dance Machine had told Gwen about Quillin.)

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The next day, Verdon knocked on her dressing room door. “Bob might want to see you again,” she told Quillin, “And this is how you should dress…” Then, the title note arrived: Call Fosse at The Minskoff. She did, of course, and ended up both Dance Captain and a member of the cast. In fact, the role Quillin played was listed as Carmen Morales in the book, but aware she didn’t look like a Carmen, Fosse changed her character’s name to Mimi.

This is the story of Quillin’s three plus years with the show – on the coast, on Broadway, and traveling, through three Charity Hope Valentines and Bob Fosse’s death between final dress and opening night in Washington D.C…of her experiencing the director/choreographer’s sexual magnetism (she herself was married and uninterested) as well as a gentlemanliness heard about less often, and especially about the immutable love between Fosse and Verdon, replete with endearing quotes, despite both having ostensibly moved on. It sounds like an opportunity to be a fly on the wall.

Mimi Quillin now guest teaches at The Verdon/Fosse Legacy and privately. This is the second theater piece she’s authored.

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Harlem Blooms in the Spring
Written and Performed by Jersten Seraile
Director Dr. Zishan Ugurlu

“Artists are the gatekeepers of the truth.” Harry Belafonte

Jersten Seraile was born in Opelousas, Louisiana a still bigoted part of the south. He spent his youth struggling with roots and identity, literally believing that straight hair was better than kinky. Feeling called, the young man started preaching at 12, but took a sharp turn upon discovering theater two years later. He acted throughout school and came to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, College of the Performing Arts. Worlds opened up. Seraile just graduated from The New School to which he’d transferred.

The young man’s thesis assignment was to write a theater piece about a dissident artist. Having been struck by and memorized the Langston Hughes poem “I Too Sing America” in high school, he chose the writer: I am the darker brother./They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes,/But I laugh,/And eat well,/And grow strong… Research was deep and wide, including recorded interviews out of Yale University Library and film on Hughes’ appearance before The House Unamerican Activities Committee. “…for me it’s more about being black than being red,” he’d commented. To many in the arts community, Hughes was insufficiently radical.

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Seraile apparently channels rather than imitates Hughes in this piece, incorporating history, religion, politics, art, Harlem and America up until the 1950s. He sings and recites poetry, relating to his hero in so far as experience of prejudice, slowly acquired pride – “I never understood my father’s strange dislike for his own people” – and determination to change/hopefully benefit the world with his art. Men like Langston Hughes. W.E.B. Dubois, and Malcom X gave him hope.

Before he performed the piece for class, Seraile said a prayer at Hughes’ grave. Every time he inhabits the role, the actor finds himself “shocked” by the power and integrity of his subject. Feeling pours out of him with immense gentleness, but I suspect a fire in his belly.

Jersten Seraile will shortly begin a job in traveling repertory with Chamber Theater Company of Boston. He has several other pieces in mind to write.

Opening Photo-2015 Participants in The United Solo Festival

Natasha’s Dream Photos by Irina Danilova
Alive on the Inside/Richard Eagan Photos by Hazel Hankin
Philomena Marano & Richard Eagan
Mimi Quillin photo by Leslie Hassler
Photos of Jersten Seraile by Azizi Curtis.

About Alix Cohen (1190 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.