The mission of the festival is “to build a community of artists and theatre-goers who treasure the intimate form of art, in which an individual human voice is acknowledged and cherished.” And a celebration of the individual human voice does indeed seem to be the defining quality of each of the solo shows in the United Solo Theatre Festival. From the deeply personal monologue about what it means to age (Are You Serious?), to a 1950s jump into the mind of Langston Hughes (Harlem Blooms in Spring), to the brilliant, one-woman recounting of Bob Fosse’s revival of Sweet Charity (Call Fosse at the Minskoff), each of these shows are made all the more intimate by the vulnerability of the lone performer.
2016 marks the festival’s seventh season. Since its first year, this “World’s Largest Solo Theatre Festival” has put on over 600 productions from artists all around the world. United Solo is a collection of solo shows by artists of all gender, sexuality, and nationality. These solo shows incorporate storytelling, puppetry, dance, multimedia, improve, stand-up, magic, musicals, and drama. Nestled on the west side of 42nd Street, United Solo is a resident company of Theatre Row.
“As we continue the 7th annual United Solo this season, we couldn’t be more proud to see how the festival evolved with a growing number of viewers attracted to genre of the solo art,” said Omar Sangare, the festival’s founder and artistic director. “We reach out to the culturally diverse audiences and share the unique stories performed by international artists with thousands of patrons.”
If you take a look at the variety of features offered by United Solo, you’ll find solo shows in English, Spanish, French, German, Polish, and more. The solo shows range from local to international, and the festival nurtures both renowned performers as well as emerging talents. “As you take your seat in the theatre and witness the variety of productions at United Solo, you may realize that you begin traveling through the world and have a chance to meet cultures and encounter trends in contemporary theatre. You can travel through the world of theatre by this convenient, inspiring, and inexpensive vehicle we have created,” said Mr. Sangare.
Under Omar Sangare, a Polish actor and director, United Solo came into being in 2010. “Having my experience with producing and directing theatre pieces, I was ready to initiate the idea of having United Solo as an international platform for solo performances.”
If there’s one thing that United Solo proves, it’s that a solo show can be absolutely anything. Theatre Row presents anywhere from two to five shows a night, ranging in length from an hour and a half to a mere fifteen minutes. Some stories are so intense and personal that you almost forget you are watching a performance. HYENA, written and performed by Ukrainian Romana Soutus, blurs every boundary that it stumbles upon. It’s a solo show, yes but it’s also a special kind of art. Advertised as “an interactive and visceral show about the best within,” you can’t know how true this description is until you’re playing Never Have I Ever with a group of strangers, or being fed strawberries in the middle of the audience. For 75 minutes, Romana Soutus entrances and terrifies, relishing in creating art from what most people would rather not think about. But the beauty of the performance is that not only is it utterly personal to Soutus herself, but to anyone who decides to cast off their reservations and join her in “toeing the line between public and private selves.” It’s a celebration of womanhood, even the ugly parts that no one wants to think about. And speaking of “visceral,” there’s a part of me that will always think of this performance when I smell chicken.
And then there is the spectacular Tulis McCall, whose show also dives into the questions that no one wants to talk about: aging, and even worse, death. Are You Serious? (A Woman of a Certain Age Inquires) is built on decades of musing: aren’t we all really just eight-year-olds walking around, pretending like we know how to be adults? Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about death when surely it’s on our minds all the time? Are You Serious? is frank, funny, and refreshingly honest, tackling tough topics and taking the audience on a verbal roller coaster ride that feels both familiar and terrifying.
Another standout is part comedy, part reminiscence, part catering to the diehard Broadway-lovers. Mimi Quillin’s Call Fosse at the Minskoff was an instant crowd-pleaser. Armed with hilarious impressions of director-choreographer Bob Fosse and his Broadway star wife Gwen Verdon, Quillin sets out to recount her own experience of working side-by-side with legends on the 1986 Broadway revival of Sweet Charity. She navigates the curious line between being star-struck and the tumultuous joy of rising professionally in the theater business, letting the colorful, larger-than-life characters tell the story of her own career.
“In the show business spirit, we keep actors acting,” said Sangare. The many actors involved with the United Solo Theatre festival have much to bring to the table. Each solo show has its own flavor. The choices are endless and impossibly varied: there are true stories, fictions, histories, love stories, comedies, dramas, and even an homage to David Bowie. Whether it’s learning how to dance the Charleston or being asked to unlock a performer from her cage, you never know what each show has in store for you. Each is a peek into a different world: one you may already know, one you may want to learn more about, or even one you’ve never heard of. United Solo pushes the envelope in every way, opening the stage to incredibly diverse performers and incredibly diverse performances.