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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
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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