By Renée Santos
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/7/23 – A lot is stirring in the world of the Artist Unions, and as both a writer and an actor I stand in solidarity with the strikes to protest labor abuses and wage theft after studio heads once again failed to meet the unions with a fair contract for both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. But there is still hope as Hollywood was a buzz this summer when habitants began flooding theaters to engage in the independent showcasing of some of the best stage acting LA has to offer. Its genesis lies in the growing trend of solo performances that have been sweeping the stages of New York, London, and Edinburgh over the past few years. But, what sets the LA iteration apart is its undying commitment to fostering a platform for emerging talents, ensuring that every voice – regardless of background, ethnicity, or genre – is heard. This format is proving no co-star or studio head is needed to captivate the spotlight. The Annual Hollywood Fringe Festival hit arenas this summer and started the hum, and the adjacent Fringe Festival at The Atwater Village Theater was a perfect punctuation to compliment this type of storytelling.
The raw vulnerability transformed the Atwater Theater into a crucible of emotions, where performers and audiences connected on a deeply personal level. In a Solo Show actors bring to the moment little more than their words, a couple of props, and a black box stage, but the 7 women in this showcase brought a common DNA, that truly made this group special. The achingly personal and universally relatable stories gave us a snapshot of how eclectic and beautiful the human experience is as the viewers were intimately drawn into the story by making them a partner in the unfolding of their unique anecdotes. The Hollywood Adjacent Solo Festival presented a portrait of American Women made up of multiplicity, leaving audiences little choice but to lunge after the truth. I had the esteem of being a part of this group of 7 and I felt like I had been nominated for a Tony being among such a group of elite performers. The composition of my fellow Solo Sisters’ stories was a powerful example of how trauma can liberate the spirit. Sometimes we lose sight of each person’s resilience in being in a human incarnation, but this Theatrical experience reminds us of Ian Maclaren’s famous quote that “we are all truly fighting a great battle.” The audience can’t help but see themselves throughout each of these women’s stories. This Festival used the work to really heal, prompting the spectators to remember that specificity equals universality.
The Carnival started off with Amanda Casarella’s BRICK-BY-BRICK. The chronicle unfolds with Casarella bringing us into the world of the classic Wizard of Oz. We all know the story and are immediately wondering if she is bringing us into Dorothy Gale’s world or on her own ride. We are quickly whisked away to the wonderful land of Amanda’s Oz. Casarella cunningly takes one of the most timeless pieces of American literature ever produced, and “Brick by Brick” pulls us on an analogous story of her own. Casarella corresponds to the frenetic energy of Dorothy’s search for purpose in The Wizard of OZ by accomplishing a Solo Show jam-packed with clever ideas and boundless energy. The parallel to The Wizard of Oz keeps the adventure clear and concise. Casarella brilliantly illustrates that none of us is born with a map in our hands to deal with what life sends our way. Creating the parallel to the classic yellow brick road made the human existential crisis of belonging a palatable story, bringing it back to a fable we all vividly remember. While there’s plenty of humanity and levity in this show, there’s deep pain in the brutally self-aware story of living with the unremembered sexual assault by a therapist as a teenager and coping with a misunderstood learning disability.
The audience testimonials of Amanda Casarella’s BRICK BY BRICK, speak to the impact her story had and the stage she set for the rest of the festival.
“Her comic timing made me lean in and want to get closer to Amanda.”
“It was really cool to see a classic film translated into a modern story.”
“She reminds us to take whatever you think is broken in you and make it work.”
The audience grabbed their concessions and bathroom break before settling into the next dramatization coming to the stage that night. Pantea’s Ommi’s PANTEA: Everything in Exile is a Theatrical Autobiography built around the true story of her trek from Iran in 1980 to the cursory detour through Spain, ultimately landing in America. Her set is adorned with a Persian rug when hurriedly a sweet credulous presence enters the stage with a bumbling handful of oranges. We meet young Pantea, and the audience immediately hops on the ride as we see the subtle depictions in her narrative about assimilation. Her father is supposed to join her in America, but the onlooker quickly comes to see the frivolity of that possibility through the innocent refined character work of Pantea’s younger self. With implication, she strips the audience of the hope for his arrival as we simultaneously hold onto the beautiful innocence of her childhood naiveté. Through the simplicity of sharing who she is as she navigates the American Education system, she confronts the internal conflict many Iranian American people have had to overcome in the wake of September 11th. She cleverly breaks the prejudices about what a Middle Eastern story would be about both aesthetically and also tonally. The ignorance of classifying a group of people as one thing is subtly addressed as she breaks the stereotype allocating her experience as a proud Iranian actress in a Children’s theater performance in the rural south. Her visibility holds its place instead of attacking the other person’s perspective. Ommi masterfully creates an interesting conceit for the play, by allowing her characterizations of her parents to communicate their stories in perfect Farsi with no translation juxtaposing her responses in her natural fluid unaccented English illustrating the perfect American immigrant story.
What the audience had to say about her work further underlined my sentiment.
“The realizations Ommi has not only clarified her catharsis on stage but gave us our own.”
“Pantea was a perfect example of how we are being transformed together.”
“Her moments of silence told their own story.”
After an emotional rollercoaster to start off the festival, the audience got a reprieve before returning the next night to launch right back into this staggering platform of storytelling. Tiffany Phillip’s I NEVER MET A JERK I DIDN’T LIKE ignites the opportunity to talk about the things that are taboo. Phillips is a veteran Solo Show presenter, so her well-oiled show is consistently entertaining. She is able to captivate us and never leave her world as she zigs and zags in her portrayal of the “jerks” that have peppered her relationship history and ultimately her return to self-love. The imprint on stage is a small therapy couch and a coat rack but do not let the set be reductive because what unfolds on that simple set is nuanced levels of beautiful enacting. The audience is almost prompted to jump out of their grandstand to retaliate at the troublesome deviations and objectification of these “jerks” onto our protagonist until we are thrust back in our seats acknowledging the ride we have been drawn into, not noticing for just a moment, that this powerful receiver of these digressions in life is simultaneously the artist portraying these antagonists. We are absorbed by Phillips immediately, but it’s not only the portrayal of the “jerks” that keeps us riveted, digesting why she is drawn to these men comes out on the therapy couch as she copes with the loss of both of her parents. Tiffany Phillips wrote this show with a mission- to keep you in stitches without missing the mark. The ability to guffaw at our memoir is what makes her show remarkable. I NEVER MET A JERK I DIDN’T LIKE is a clear illustration that laughter is what prevents our pain from scaring.
As I joined the interviewees on the step and repeat outside the theater, I couldn’t find a testimonial that disagreed with my partiality.
“Tiffany is so funny, dramatic, grounded, and wonderful.”
“She finds a way to juxtapose larger-than-life characters while making them down to earth.”
“I feel like any person who has ever dated should see this show, so they feel a little less alone.”
The festival didn’t stop there, we lofted into a weekend of more feminine fierceness, and for a juncture in the showcase, l took off my journalist hat and joined my sisters with my One Woman Show, CROSSROADS. It would be self-serving to review my own show, so I took to the testimonial footage to see how I participated in bringing the patrons into this Solo Show world. I am beyond humbled to have affected people with my work and grace the stage with this group of magical beings.
Here’s what the audience had to say about CROSSROADS…
“Santos plays her characters with such genuine brilliance; you can’t take your eyes off her.”
“She switches effortlessly between tearing your heart out and making you crack up, it’s fantastic.”
“I hope this show is on the road to a Broadway run.”
Well, if my show is on its way to Broadway, I’m taking my Solo Show sisters with me! Leaning into my story was inspired by these women and the next show was no exception.
Jennifer Lee Weaver’s THE GREAT BRAIN ROBBERY is a nostalgic resonant revisit to the silent movie era, where a close-knit portrayal of all the levels of the human consciousness hit the stage in an Andy Kaufman-like display of second selves and stagecraft. She eloquently details her life recounting her odyssey through her personal cancer, her wife’s passing to Leukemia at the age of 38, and her mother’s death in an incomprehensibly accelerated amount of time. Jennifer infuses her characters with an artful blend of acrimony, edge, and cessation. It is incredible to watch Jennifer with such precision and refinement chronicle her life and make sense of it before our eyes. Her enactment of discharging her trauma liberates others to the deepest place of our subsistence, releasing the hold in herself that has left her unseen and giving permission to her witnesses that they too have the receptivity to the rooted absolution. The caricatures of her psyche within the proximity of the silent movie world were a transformative creative way to personify the dimensions of our awareness and delineate the yin and yang of the human experience. Jennifer parallels her affections of being unseen astutely by performing a derivative parody of Chicago’s “Mister Cellophane,” bringing another classic form of theater storytelling to the stage. Suddenly her alter egos join her solo performance showcasing the paradox of the internal ensemble we all have inside. We are introduced to “Posh” the Jane Austin meets Jersey version of Jennifer that keeps her grounded. “Posh” is quickly interrupted by Weaver’s internal detective counterpart, a Danny Devito-like caricature that investigates the “brain robbery” she has been sprinkling throughout the story’s beginning. The audience is enchanted as she bounces back and forth between these two sides of her personality. The spectators have the privilege of getting to observe several varying vignettes showing many different corners of her remarkable life.
The gallery of testimonials that followed Jennifer’s performance imprinted my view.
“The GREAT BRAIN ROBBERY was revelatory; I feel grateful to have witnessed how her internal operator works.”
“It made me a different person when I left. We’ve all experienced loss but not at that capacity. She is poignant, brave, with an unmeasured amount of bad-ass-ery, to tell this story.”
“I knew her late wife well, it was amazing to get to see Mariah again through her performance.”
The festival never slowed, and after one last night of rest, the theatergoers were right back on the Solo Show emotional rollercoaster for the closing night of the festival.
The night kicked off with Linda L. Michael’s SUCH A PRETTY FACE, her narrative moves past the often-judgmental filled discussion of a person living with obesity and avoids the media-saturated understanding of it by using personal theater to explore her actual experience outside the limitations of real-life conventions. This show is not an exercise intervention it is a proclamation of her value as a worthy full complete human being without having her physicality define who she is. SUCH A PRETTY FACE is not a show inspiring a weight loss regime, but a captivating piece of art that deepens the world’s awareness of the experience of being overweight and explores how that perspective influences an overall comprehension of obesity as a sociocultural problem. Linda L. Michaels shatters the institution by embodying her very personal story of the loss of her abusive father in her 20s and the individual and community perspectives. Her performance drives the desire to provide insight and to interrogate cordial understandings by creating the metaphor of a horse race to how we appraise human worth by remaining still, seated, and poised centerstage for the length of the show.
The last of the standout performances in this Festival came from the dazzling René Peña, a seasoned solo artist who has been performing her show, TRAVELING WITH ANGELS, for over a decade. She captivates audiences with her poignant tale of growing up in the heart of Native American lands, displaying the myriad of tribal cultures in her hometown of Gallup New Mexico. The annual tribal celebration is the culminating pinnacle of her childhood joy and Peña’s outstanding work. René’s performance was a heartrending exploration of identity, travel, belonging, and the nuances of balance with bereavement and pure unsullied cheer. Her ability to switch between the guttural warrior cry she emanates each time she conveys the loss of one her most intimate relationships to the sway of dance with her grandmother, to the discovery of new lands like Russia and Germany through refinement in her depiction makes her a polished example of this kind of artistry. She effortlessly blends all of the places she has been to create a rhythmic narrative, showcasing the innovative ways solo artists are pushing boundaries.
The audience deeply understood why TRAVELING WITH ANGELS had the fortitude to carry out and close this parade of creativity and her testimonials spoke to this.
“Peña has an immeasurably beautiful endurance.”
“This show will open you up. René is why people come to see this kind of theater.”
“The symbolism of the suitcase is a genius physical depiction of the baggage we carry and the potential to heal and release it.”
Women with dreams, misbehaving men, a life-size SORRY game board, a Silent Movie set, a vintage tribally decorated suitcase, a horse race, a yellow brick road, and a bag full of oranges and flamenco dresses mix a bunch of unusual ingredients, but the concoction proves to be a sumptuous one carefully crafted by the incomparable Kimleigh Smith. The distinctively intuitive direction from Smith and the amazing cast of women I got the honor to share the stage with that consistently gave their all, each night of The Hollywood Adjacent Fringe Festival, puts the punch in the impactful potential of the Solo performance.
In a city known for its star-studded ensemble casts and big-budget productions, the Hollywood Adjacent Solo Show Festival is a refreshing reminder that sometimes, all it takes is one voice, one story, and one stage to create magic. The festival promises to return soon, and if its inaugural edition is any indication, it’s set to become an indispensable fixture in Theater’s rich tapestry of arts and culture.
Find the cast on Instagram here!
@jenniferleeweaver @reneesantoscomedy @renpen62 @amanda.casarella @thelindalmichaels @iamtiffanyp @pantea_om
If you are inspired to witness how this all started for this motley crew of feminine force, click on the first interview with this group on The Hollywood Times Official – YouTube
To read all of Renée's Articles Click here https://thehollywoodtimes.today/author/renee/
Come Join the funny for "Embrace Your Cape's" Comedy Fundraiser! ONE NIGHT ONLY at The Comedy Chateau December 3rd, 2023 @7:30pm. All proceeds go to "CHEST OF HOPE "501 (C)3