The sixth annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, celebrating the art of storytelling and solo performance art, kicks off tonight with an opening night keynote address by Mike Daisey, titled “Why Solo Performance Matters–A Manifesto.” Daisey says, “Monologists, performance artists, and solo performers of all kinds are hungry for the kind of opportunities a festival like soloNOVA creates.”

Back Stage reader Aja Nisenson is one of those hungry performance artists participating in this year’s soloNOVA festival, where she will perform her one-woman show Piccola Cosi. Nisenson is one of three Back Stage readers who was selected to perform their one-person shows in the festival after submitting through a Back Stage casting notice.

Piccola Cosi, which in Italian means “small like this,” is an autobiographical piece in which “a sheltered girl gets swept right out of her orthopedic sneakers by a sea of eager Italian men when she follows her dreams of singing jazz in the smoky clubs of Bologna.” Nisenson plays herself and the eight Italian men she encounters as she comes of age pursuing her dream.

The show was conceived as a playwriting thesis during Nisenson’s senior year at Brown University. She has performed Piccola Cosi to sold-out audiences at the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival, and more recently at the Triad Theater in NYC. Time Out New York called it “an engaging portrait of that special time of life when nascent adults go overseas to find themselves, and end up getting into cars with strangers.”

“In watching Aja’s submission video, we knew immediately she was a major talent,” says terraNOVA Collective artistic director Jennifer Conley Darling. “The jazz standards she sings are truly mesmerizing, and the story she tells of her journey in Bologna is one I’d never heard before. Italy is such an amazing backdrop to this piece, and the fact she has a live band on stage with her makes this show even more special.”

I spoke with Nisenson about life, love, and Piccola Cosi before the launch of the 2009 soloNOVA Arts Festival.

Which is more difficult: Playing yourself, or eight different men?

Aja Nisenson: Definitely myself.

Why?

I’m boring. Italian men aren’t.

How does ‘Piccola Cosi’ fit into soloNOVA Arts Festival’s focus on storytelling, and how does the show go beyond the typical one-woman show to present something new and different?

It’s a story about a girl who goes abroad and finds herself. It uses classic storytelling interspersed with jazz standards, and back-and-forth-scenes between characters [all played by me]. I do have a three-piece band on stage, which isn’t your typical one-man show format.

So how did Piccola Cosi become a one-woman show?

Piccola Cosi is my first solo show. I wrote the piece as a way to try to figure out what happened to me during my junior semester abroad in Bologna, Italy.

After studying at the Universita di Bologna, I spent the summer in Bologna, to the chagrin of my parents, pursuing my dream of becoming a jazz singer – which was completely out of my character. I was a shy, perfectionistic, straight-A student in school. I never tried pot, never smoked except once, and it was herbal for a play. So for me to go alone into a jazz club, hardly being able to speak the language, and not knowing any of the songs… I’d studied classical voice, but knew no jazz standards. I just liked to sing along to it in the shower.

So I entered these jazz clubs and sang. I said I was an American jazz singer and they believed me. The trick was believing it myself. That took practice. That, and learning the words to the songs. I’d Googled all the lyrics in a small notebook that I kept in my pocket. So if I ever got stuck, I whipped out the notebook.

Singing jazz also led to men, another thing I wasn’t used to. I’d never had anyone come on to me in the states. I’m not a big bar person, I’m shy, and I wear sneakers, not heels. In Italy, things were different.

After being in Italy eight months I’d changed, and I wasn’t sure where the “old” Aja went and who this “new” Aja was. The new Aja was free, didn’t care if she messed up the lyrics or sang a song perfectly, and was attracting men.

What prompted you to submit ‘Piccola Cosi’ to this year’s soloNOVA Festival?

I heard of the soloNOVA festival from a friend of mine who came to see my show in the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival, and he recommended I apply.

Why did you choose to tell a true-life story on stage, rather than create a fictional story and characters?

‘[The show is autobiographical], but of course there are a few things I exaggerated or left out. The play is based on a true experience, but it’s theatre. A lot is true to life, though.

I felt freer and more able to be myself in Italy. There was something liberating about being in a country where no one knew me, where I couldn’t really understand the native language fluently, where everything was new and exciting. I had the courage to go into jazz clubs and sing –something I would never ever have done in the states. I became involved in relationships and became exposed to people and swept into a jazz subculture – all the while trying to figure out who I was and who I was becoming.

So why turn that story into a nine-character one-woman show, rather than a straight play?

A one woman show is so unique because one person can play all the parts. I can be myself and all of the eight Italian men I meet. How often in life do I get to do that? It also feels like the most intimate way to tell my story. I really like to be able to speak directly to the audience.

What was the most challenging part of creating this piece?

The hardest part is not being able to see myself. I don’t know if what I’m doing is working – if one Italian guy looks different from the next, if that hand movement works with that song, if it looks like I am talking to another person. It’s also hard for me to disconnect myself from being the “writer” to the “actor.” A part of my brain is still connected to that “writer,” who wants to edit and change things.

It’s a lot of technical things that I just can’t do by myself, and I need to rely on another person to tell me how it comes across to the audience. Especially publicity, which I’m awful at. I’m not a good promoter of myself.

What has been the best part of writing and performing Piccola Cosi?

The audience response. I love making people laugh and taking them on a journey. There’s nothing like connecting and affecting an audience.

What advice do you have for other aspiring performers trying to create their own solo shows?

Just do it! Don’t think about it, just do it. Man, I sound like a Nike ad…

The sixth annual soloNOVA Arts Festival runs May 6-30 at the DR2 Theatre & D-Lounge near Union Square in NYC. Piccola Cosi performs May 26-30 at 8:30 p.m. For more info, visit www.terranovacollective.org or www.ajanisenson.com.

Read yesterday’s soloNOVA preview about Back Stage reader Preston Martin’s one-man show Fun Design with Svelte here . Also, read coverage of last year’s soloNOVA festival on Blog Stage (Week 1 and Week 2) and at BackStage.com.

This Q&A was published May 6, 2009 at Blog Stage.

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