Five-year-old fest restores the art of storytelling.

Kim Wayans in 'A Handsome Woman Retreats'

Kim Wayans in 'A Handsome Woman Retreats'

For as long as humanity has had language, it has had stories. Before the written word or the printing press, storytellers used myths, legends, history, and imagination to entertain and to explain life. But if you want to see old-fashioned campfire storytelling with some modern twists, the SoloNova Arts Festival is the place.

“We felt there was a missing link in the industry when it comes to the pure art form of storytelling,” says Jennifer Darling, SoloNova’s producing artistic director. “If you think back over history, it’s usually been that one person passing down the stories from generation to generation. So the festival is about telling the stories, but also finding new ways to get them told. And all of the artists that we put into the festival are people that are telling their stories in ways we haven’t heard them told before.”

The fifth annual SoloNova festival runs June 18-July 2 at Performance Space 122 and features eight solo performers. It’s a production of the TerraNova Collective, of which Darling is artistic director.

“SoloNova is a great place for me to put something new out there, and see what it is, and keep working on it,” says Christen Clifford, who is premiering her new show, (What I Know About) My Parents’ Sex Life, at the festival. “Solo work is a long process. It takes over a year, maybe two years, to really find what the show is going to be eventually. You keep finding it as you’re performing it.”

When they launched the first SoloNova festival, Darling and TerraNova associate director James Carter recognized that although there are plenty of one-person shows on New York stages, SoloNova would not be about presenting “people and their problems,” Darling says. The solo form is often criticized as onstage therapy for the performer, she notes, and “that’s not what we’re interested in. We’re really more interested in the story itself.”

To tell their stories, the performers will employ a variety of techniques, including movement and music, painting and poetry — sometimes all in the same show. Because TerraNova also works with writers, SoloNova — in addition to requesting submissions and pursuing other solo productions — serves as a forum for the work developed by the company throughout the year. A selection committee comprising Darling, Carter, and past SoloNova artists chooses the final schedule.

Among the festival’s U.S. premieres is Hamlet (solo), a one-man version of Shakespeare’s play. The stripped-down production, by Canadian actor Raoul Bhaneja and director Robert Ross Parker, has toured Canada and the U.K. for the past seven years, including performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The play’s mission, according to Darling, is “to boil Shakespeare down to its essence, which is really about the words, the audience, and the actor.” She says the 90-minute production is the antithesis of the Public Theater’s Hamlet, the first production of Shakespeare in the Park’s 2008 season in Central Park.

“Maybe someone’s saying, ‘Oh, they’re doing Hamlet at the park! Now they’re not gonna do Hamlet for another five years and I’m never gonna be able to play that role!’ ” says Darling. “And [Bhaneja’s] answer to that is, ‘Yes, you can.’ In fact, you can play them all.”

'Hamlet (solo)'

Raoul Bhaneja in 'Hamlet (solo)'

Other highlights of this year’s festival include the world premiere of Julia May Jonas’ Take Heart, a tale of a child liar told through stories, songs, and autoharp; the New York premiere of Prometheus Bound, Aravind Enrique Adyanthaya’s escritura acto performance blending Spanish and English to essentially create a new language; and the New York premiere of comedienne Kim Wayans’ A Handsome Woman Retreats, her story of attending a 10-day silent meditation retreat.

Finding Her Voice Amid Silence

Perhaps best known for co-starring on the TV series In Living Color with her brothers, Wayans says that trying to find her own voice and “be independent from that machine that is the Wayans brothers” led her to the retreat. After living in complete silence for 10 days, she says, she wanted to share her life-changing experience in a way that was entertaining, funny, and true.

“When you’re able to hide behind wacky characters, it makes what you do pretty easy,” Wayans says of her acting career. “But this is Kim, with her heart and soul just out there. The journey the audience takes is to go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat with me. And in that process, of course, they get into my mind.”

Wayans recognizes that 10 days of uninterrupted silence might seem an odd subject for a 90-minute one-woman show. But while her body is in meditation on stage, she says, she stands up to tell her story, leaving her silhouette sitting in silence on the floor. “Every time I tell this story, I’m on that retreat again. So I’ve been on a 10-day silent meditation retreat now for six months,” she says with a laugh.

'(What I Know About) My Parents' Sex Life'

'(What I Know About) My Parents' Sex Life'

Clifford’s (What I Know About) My Parents’ Sex Life is about sexuality among the elderly, from conjugal visits in nursing homes to discovering her late father’s Viagra prescription and her late mother’s racy correspondence. The second-time SoloNova participant says her nonfiction work tends to be about women’s stories and sexuality, “and that just really got me thinking about my parents’ story, and how that relates to me, and how that relates to what’s going to happen to me in the future, and what’s going to happen to everyone as we grow older. When my parents were senior citizens, I had thought of them as sexless, like I think most people do. And they weren’t.”

Clifford will perform the show concurrently with BabyLove, a show about maternal sexuality, at 45 Bleecker. “I know what BabyLove is,” she says. “I just don’t know what this new show is yet, and that’s scary and exciting. But it will be really interesting to perform two shows that originated with SoloNova, from maternal sexuality to elderly sexuality, in one day.”

As SoloNova continues to grow each year, Darling is excited for its future. “It would be ideal to have more artists come back and develop their work with us,” she says. “It’s absolutely what we would want. We’ve accomplished what we set out to in our first five years, so we’re on track. Now we’re on to the next five.”

SoloNova runs June 18-July 2 at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave. (at East Ninth Street), NYC. For more info and a full schedule, visit www.terranovacollective.org.

This “web exclusive” was published online at BackStage.com.

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