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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Daredevil Actors In Flight

Audiences know that Trenton’s historic Mill Hill Playhouse,

a converted 19th-century stone church, has special feel to it. And

actors know it too. Particularly New York’s visiting artists who return

to the Mill Hill stage this week for Passage Theater’s Third Annual

Solo Flights Festival.

"We have a small intimate theater where a one-person show works

beautifully," says Passage producing artistic director June Ballinger. "The

actor can reach out and address the audience directly. We have so

many actors tell us, `This place feels so special.’ A lot of it boils

down to the vibe, the communion between the audience and the actors.

It’s a very close exchange."

This year’s Solo Flights Festival opens Thursday, February 6, with

a return engagement of "Manchild in a Promised Land," a show

based on Claude Brown’s autobiographical novel of growing up on the

streets of Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s, adapted and performed by

Joseph Edward. Three other intrepid solo performers join Edward in

the three-week repertory program that runs through Sunday, March 2.

An added festive element this year is a night of stand-up comedy,

Thursday, February 27.

"Audience participation is key to this year’s festival," says

Ballinger, who singles out in particular "High Dive," written

and performed by Leslie Ayvazian, and "Heavy Mettle," written

and performed by Richard Hoehler. She says both actors invite the

audience to take part in their shows, creating an unpredictability

that’s always entertaining.

Leslie Ayvazian doesn’t wait in her dressing room for

curtain time. She spends the half-hour before the show starts in the

lobby, chatting with audience members and recruiting volunteers to

read lines from the script at key points. "She has told me some

wonderful stories about how past audience volunteers have changed

the show," says Ballinger, " — sometimes in surprising

and funny ways, and sometimes in ways that have emphasized the show’s

more poignant themes about getting older and learning to take risks."

Solo Flights began in 2001 as part of Passage’s mission to provide

a place for performers to share cutting-edge work with area audiences.

While theater is usually a group effort, solo shows offer uniquely

individual perspectives on some of the most controversial issues of

the day. This year’s shows touch on getting older, race relations,

and the challenges of urban living, all delivered with a contemporary

sense of humor.

Ballinger says the festival format of "Solo Flights" attracts

audiences of all ages and backgrounds and holds particular appeal

to younger theatergoers.

"Passage is fortunate to have a remarkably diverse audience,"

she notes. "The variety of the Solo Flights shows appeals to all

of our different audience members, regardless of their age or background.

The festival also encourages people to take a chance and attend a

show that’s different from their usual theatergoing habits. It’s a

great opportunity to see new kinds of theater that explores new ideas."

Richard Hoehler’s show, which the New York Times has described as

"thoughtful, rewarding, and on target," has him portraying

a wide range of characters who chat directly with the audience. There’s

an elderly balloon-seller who claims to know people’s personalities

based on the color balloon they choose, and a Cuban coupon distributor

who will do just about anything to get people’s attention — as

well as many other characters who we might consider "marginal"

people if we saw them on the street.

"He creates five distinct characters, all ordinary people with

extraordinary stories. After being invited in to share in the lives

of these people, you realize how much like them we are. People on

the margins who are so easy to dismiss. He allows us to recognize

our common humanity," she says. The show has been a hit with her

teenage son who she considered part of the Passage target audience.

"Our Trenton constituency is so varied. We have urban and suburban

audiences and 20-somethings who are attracted to Trenton. We would

really like to reach the younger generation with the theater-going

habit," she says.

This year’s "No Lie" is another step in that direction. It’s

a hip-hop, spoken word show that Ballinger compares to the current

Broadway hit, "Def Poetry Jam." One actor plays a whole range

of urban characters, performing with the onstage accompaniment of

two jazz musicians. "It’s a hybrid theater piece," says Ballinger,

"that shows the way actors are crossing over to bring a poetry

or jazz club experience into the theater."

Joseph Edward’s "Manchild in a Promised Land" was the hit

of last year’s festival and has been brought back by popular command.

"This is an incredible affirmation of the human spirit," says

Ballinger. "People who heard about it but did not get to see it

last year have been asking for it." The City of Trenton has bought

the house for one performance that will be dedicated to Trenton youth.

Edward, an actor, teacher, and comedian was recently featured in the

Chris Rock movie, "Bad Company." "Joseph is a remarkable

man. He always does a talk back after each show," says Ballinger.

"He takes questions and often talks to the kids about how he,

as an actor, feels he has a mission. He tells them he knows why he

was put on this planet — to do this work and to reach kids through

his gifts as an actor."

— Nicole Plett

Solo Flights III, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse,

Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. Individual tickets

$15 & $20; five shows for $50. Festival runs Thursdays to Sundays,

February 6 to March 2.

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