Beginning tomorrow, May 6, the sixth annual soloNOVA Arts Festival will offer four weeks of solo performance and visual art, including character pieces, storytelling, monologues, painting, music, magic, comedy, and more. Presented by terraNOVA Collective, soloNOVA “celebrates innovative individuals who push the boundaries of what it means to be an artist, aims to redefine the solo form, and reinvigorates the audience through the time-honored tradition of storytelling.”

This year, three of the selected soloNOVA performers are Back Stage readers. Each of these performing artists saw the casting notice published in Back Stage in January, submitted their ideas and materials for their own one-person shows, and will be performing as part of the annual festival. I am honored to preview this year’s soloNOVA by presenting interviews with the three Back Stage readers who will be performing their own solo shows in the festival.

First, read about the upcoming world premiere of Preston Martin’s one-man show, Fun Design with Svelte. According to the festival program: “Make your own Fun with world-renowned Fun Designer, SVELTE! You will master Svelte’s Eight Elements of Fun Designing, including Music! Costumes! Lighting! Specificity! And More! So Neat! So Easy! You won’t believe how FUN this is!” See what Martin has to say about this Fun and unique new character, and how his 50-minute show (Genre: Fun) became part of the 2009 soloNOVA Arts Festival, below.

“When the soloNOVA reading committee first mentioned Preston’s show, they described this completely new and unorthodox art form,” says terraNOVA artistic director Jennifer Conley Darling. “I had to see it with my own eyes. When I watched his video submission, I knew immediately I wanted him in the festival. This show breaks every rule in theater. The character of Svelte I fell in love with. He is giving, awkward, nurturing and most of all, FUN!

“Preston is an up and coming talent, just out of NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing. He recently received great reviews playing the lead in Kaspar Hauser at The Flea. He is certainly one to watch.”

What inspired you want to write and perform your first one-man show, Fun Design with Svelte?

Preston Martin: This is so improv and character-based that really, it’s not even writing. It’s just goofing put into a structure. This guy Svelte is just the most Fun character I’ve ever had the privilege of being. He came to me when I was goofing off with my friends. I put on my friend’s glasses, popped my collar, and all of a sudden this crazy dialect was coming out of my mouth and commenting on everything he was seeing around him, and how he couldn’t believe how Fun this whole world could be. I played as this guy for about an hour on our commute to my apartment in Williamsburg.

Then I performed a chunk of Fun Design With Svelte – which at the time wasn’t even a show, just a fun party trick – for a works-in-progress performance party this past January that my friends were throwing with their new theater company, The Centrifuge.

The first Friday of every month they host “Fresh Ground Pepper” for artists to workshop ideas in front of an audience, but it’s more of a party instead of a formal show, where a bunch of our artist friends get together and share ideas we’ve been working on – scripts, dances, songs we’ve written, characters, designs – for feedback and for the opportunity to share what we love to do. Since the opportunities to present your own work in this city and this industry can be few and far between, we take care of each other by giving each other those opportunities.

I have no clue how the occupation of “Fun Designer” came into play, but the next thing I knew I was “designing” these fun bizarre little party games for an onstage audience. A lot of the Designs are inspired by obscure-ish indie songs that would pop up on my iPod on shuffle. I get so much wild jubilation out of interacting with people while I am playing Svelte.

What prompted you to submit Fun Design with Svelte to this year’s soloNOVA Festival? Had you seen or heard of the festival before seeing the casting notice in Back Stage?

I am a fan of Taylor Mac, and I knew that he had been involved with the festival a few years ago. So when I recognized the name of the festival [in Back Stage], I did feel an urge to think about applying. But it really was a fleeting thought, and it didn’t occur to me immediately to apply with my character Svelte.

But Svelte was a blast at the party and someone happened to be videotaping. A few weeks later, right before the submission deadline, my friend who is a member of The Centrifuge told me, “We’ve got this awesome video of Svelte! You should apply to this soloNOVA Arts Festival!” I had a flashback to sitting in my living room and seeing the Back Stage ad and thought, ‘This has got to be a sign. I’ve got to get my act together and apply.’ And I work best under pressure, so with just three days to get my proposal together, I hammered out a cover letter attempting to morph this party trick character into a real theatrical event.

Describe some of the challenges of creating a one-man show.

The biggest challenge is being my own boss. I’m not working with a director on this piece, so it’s up to me to hound myself to get everything done in time. I have plenty of creative collaborators and everyone is supportive, but when it comes down to it, I have to get my act together – or there isn’t an act.

There’s no one to say, “Hey, did you reshape that new design yet? Did you rethink the ending? Did you fix the cut in that music?” I have to check in with myself to get that done, and that’s a skill I most certainly need to work on. This has given me that opportunity.

What have been the most rewarding moments in the process of creating and performing this solo show?

The biggest reward is when someone meets Svelte for the first time and can’t believe that he’s happening. He’s just so bizarre, but lovable, so people are always like, “Wait, I want to be into this, but I don’t understand what you’re doing, but I’m laughing at you. Who is this guy?!

I’ve been passing out brochures and postcards and it’s so exciting when people see “conceived by” next to my name, and they look up from the postcard and they’re like, “You made this?” I love that even some close friends are shocked that I made something from scratch all by my lonesome. I usually work collaboratively with ensemble casts.

The soloNOVA Festival is all about storytelling. How does Fun Design with Svelte represent classic storytelling techniques, and how does the show go beyond the typical one-man show to present something new and different?

I think that what is classic about the style I’ve created is the character work. My favorite thing about storytelling is falling so deeply in love with a character that you cannot put down the book, or you are on the edge of your seat desperately waiting to find out what is going to happen to this person you have fallen in love with. I have tried to mold this character into a guy who is simple enough that anyone can connect with him, but complex and mysterious enough that you don’t know what he’s going to do next. And though I’m not telling a typical linear story with this piece, there is a very clear arc in unveiling each Element of Fun Design, and each Design can’t exist without the one before and the one after.

This is very much still a work in progress. Beyond just, “Does this character work?” and “Does the story work?,” it’s actually a question of “Does this style of theater work?” I’ve had people say they’ve never experienced anything like this before. I want to test how deeply I can expand the Trust between the character and the audience while delving deeply, but simply, into human emotions and relationships.

The component that I am most eager to continue exploring is giving each audience member his or her own story to undergo and develop. Not only will they come to Fun Design With Svelte and experience a character and the story he brings, but they will also take away the latest plot twist of their personal realities and hopefully be inspired to share this jubilant occurrence.

How do “Trust, Company, Lighting, Costume, Music, Specificity, Surprise, and Risk” come together to create fun designs?

Each of these elements are what creates the arc of the piece. The number one element, Trust, is definitely the crux of it all. Trust is deeply dependent upon the rest of the elements, and the rest of the elements cannot happen without Trust. Because it’s interactive, for the entire show I have to work to gain the audience’s Trust in Svelte and also their trust in themselves.

Svelte is very particular about the lighting in the room, and he loves, loves, loves music, so you’ll be hearing and working with some great “hip” and “smooth” tunes that you might not have heard before.

What was/is the biggest surprise for you when doing a solo show?

The amount of control you have. It’s just you up there, so you can do whatever you want and there’s no one on else on that stage that can distract from every moment you’re trying to create.

But what’s scary is that there is also no one else on that stage that can help you create those moments. There’s no safety net of people to bail you out if you’re going under. But when things are going well, that feeling of “Whoa, this is me and only me doing this to a room of people” is otherworldly. It’s passion, fear, and vulnerability, past, present, and future pressing down on the room. It’s the dream experience of artistic expression.

The sixth annual soloNOVA Arts Festival runs May 6-30 at the DR2 Theatre & D-Lounge near Union Square in NYC. Fun Design with Svelte performs May 7, 9, 11 & 13 at 9 p.m. and May 10 at 4 p.m. For more info, visit www.terranovacollective.org or CanYouBelieveHowFunThisIs.com.

Tomorrow, be sure to check out the next entry in our soloNOVA Preview, featuring Aja Nisenson’s one-woman show Piccola Cosi. And read about last year’s soloNOVA festival on Blog Stage (Week 1 and Week 2) and at BackStage.com.

This Q&A was publish May 5, 2009 online at Blog Stage.

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