The SoLow Festival, Philadelphia's burgeoning, floating-venue, DIY, micro-theater festival, is seven years old. Its expanded schedule starts Thursday, and runs through June 26. This year's theme, "Signs of Life," celebrates the things that enliven artists, excite them, turn them on.
Performance artists-turned-administrators Meredith Sonnen, Chris Davis, Lena Barnard, and Lauren Tracy took over SoLowFest in 2015 from its previous organizers, Thomas Choinacky and Amanda Grove. They added more solo-event showrunners and locations to the party. That does not mean organizers have let success go to their heads - or budget.
"I wish we had offices, but SoLow is still very DIY on every level," says Sonnen, eating brunch while running between conferences for SoLow and her regular job as company manager of FringeArts, where she does everything from writing contracts to applying for artist visas to booking travel lodgings. "SoLow meetings happen online, somewhere like Locust Rendezvous, or if we happen to all be at the same theater show, we will chat there about SoLow business - which is good. We really want the heart of SoLow to stay the same."
FringeArts is, of course, the spiritual godparent of SoLowFest, and it often serves as the closest thing to a festival headquarters. The venue just hosted a Scratch Night teeming with short SoLow shows.
"I don't think Philadelphia would have such a delightfully experimental and brave group of artists if Fringe hadn't laid the groundwork," Sonnen says.
As always, SoLowFest is still bold and built low to the ground, allowing new and/or novice local theater practitioners and performance artists - along with Philadelphia stage vets - to scratch their experimental itch. They put on intimate solo or two-people showcases, stage small oddball ideas, or workshop more elaborate theater pieces within SoLow's tiny theater concept - often the artist's home or the homes of theater patrons and friends.
In the case of interdisciplinary actor Mike Durkin, it could be any corner you wish. Of his show, For a Good Time Call (14th Street), he says he'll be tethered to his phone (267-343-2009) for a week, answer at any hour, and arrive wherever you direct, with a site-specific idea.
"The audience is activating as soon as they call up through the moment we meet," Durkin says.
Once they and Durkin hook up, they'll tour a particular neighborhood and participate in activities related to the themes brought up in the community. In the Italian Market district, Durkin will address new development, cultural diversity, eating at Di Bruno Bros., and such.
"I could potentially be up for seven days in a row," Durkin says, "a performer endurance I am excited and terrified to explore."
Amanda Schoonover, one of Philadelphia's brightest acting lights, tries out directing and writing in The Best of Me, cocreated and acted by Philly famed classical thespian J. Hernandez. SoLow gives them a freedom neither might get working in traditional venues.
"Freedom hits the nail on the head, as SoLow gives performers an opportunity to test out material in a no-stress, nonjudgmental environment," says Schoonover.
At SoLow 2013, she cowrote and acted in a first draft of The It Girl with Brenna Geffers. The show went on to be produced in the spring by Simpatico Theatre Project and will be again in August at the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, N.J.
This year, Hernandez approached Schoonover with a script idea based on video diaries of the late Ricardo Lopez, a convicted stalker who attempted to kill Icelandic singer Björk.
"Because of J's serious classical chops, he's often pigeonholed as a Shakespeare actor," says Schoonover. "J. talked to me about his desire to work on grittier, darker, more naturalistic work. Given my extensive experience in this area, it seemed like a good fit, as I'm always interested in exploring the person behind the monster, figuring out what makes a person tick."
Sonnen likes the working relations SoLow makes possible.
"I'm really proud of some of the collaborations that SoLow brings out," she says. "I love when I see artists that are friends or in a relationship get to work together."
A one-time performance artist who now works mostly as an administrator, Sonnen can send a tiny play into the world on her own terms, controlling time commitments and expense (plus, most SoLow shows are pay-what-you-can, so it's affordable).
" 'Signs of Life,' in many ways, is about looking out into a disheartening world and finding something that's still inspiring," she says. "Let's face it, 2016 has been rough. . . . I think we all need to be reminded that there is still beauty and good people and hope out there. What keeps you going? Everyone needs something good right now, and SoLow has got your back."
Thursday to June 26 at various city venues. $25; many performances are pay-what-you-can. solowfest.wordpress.com/2016-shows.