Solo Flights festival opens new doors, supports niche storytelling | Arts & Entertainment

Theater Aspen brings its third annual Solo Flights Festival to Hurst Theater Sept. 10-15. The weeklong developmental festival features a selection of one-person shows presented in the beginning stages of their making — a rare opportunity for both the select playwrights and the people in the audience who get to engage in the storytelling process.

This year’s Solo Flights comprises five very different new works, featuring award-winning writers, directors and actors ready to share and shape their plays with an Aspen audience.

Theater Aspen Producing Director Jed Bernstein said there were around 50 to 60 Solo Flights submissions, and the select five “present a range of stories” — from ancestor visits on the Iranian New Year, to a sidekick actress reclaiming her stardom, to a man drinking alone in a rural Irish pub.

“Because these productions are more low-key and only performed twice, we can afford to take more risks with the material,” Bernstein said. “And we always want to pick writers and performers coming from a range of experiences and diverse backgrounds.”

The titles of the five new works being presented at Solo Flights this year include “Avaaz” (written by Michael Shayan), “Low Expectations” (Michael Gaston), “Sally: A Solo Play” (Sandra Seaton), “Sidekicked” ( Kim Powers) and “Sparrows at the Bar” (Mike DiSalvo).

For the first time, Solo Flights will also feature a music concert, taking place on Sept. 11 at 7 pm, with Broadway actress and singer Beth Malone accompanied by Aspen musician David Dyer.

Throughout the week, each show is scheduled to run twice at Hurst Theater for a public presentation followed by creative panel discussions between the play’s writer, director and actor and the audience members who just experienced the developing show on stage for the first time, Bernstein explained .

“I think writers like this opportunity because Aspen audiences are known to be discerning and interesting and anxious to share their ideas,” Bernstein said. “It’s a great place for a show in its initial stages to receive feedback and for the writer to get to see what works and doesn’t work.”

Following the show’s first presentation and talkback opportunity, the playwright then has a day or two to rewrite and restructure their narrative, considering the feedback and questions from audience members before the show’s second run.

Due to the interactive, workshop-like structure of Solo Flights, Bernstein said people typically get more out of the experience if they attend more than one show. The festival’s “audience-friendly ticket pricing” is one way in which Theater Aspen encourages crowd participation, he added.

The standard single-show ticket costs $35, the premium seating price is $50. Theater Aspen offers two Solo Flights pass options. The Silver Pass is $200 and includes six tickets; the Platinum Pass is $350 and includes 14 tickets. All passholders are able to disperse their tickets how they’d like — whether they choose to attend every performance solo or use two tickets each show and bring a friend.

“For people who love plays and love more varied subject matter than your typical mainstage musical, this is a chance to experience that,” Bernstein said. “And you’re able to see how different writers approach the one-person format.”

Solo Flights’ nature of being only one-person shows distinguishes it from other new works festivals, Bernstein explained, stating that for a theater company to be taken seriously on a national level, it must have a role in helping support the development of new works .

Theater Aspen launched Solo Flights in 2019 partly because of its overarching ambition to have a “solid place in the national theater universe,” Bernstein said, and also to support writers and actors attempting to tackle the realm of one-person narratives.

“We started [Solo Flights] because of the increasing expansion of what one-person shows are all about — the category has gotten so much more interesting,” Bernstein said. “And there isn’t really a festival in the country that focuses on this kind of work.”

Acclaimed actor James Naughton can attest. A two-time Tony Award-winner, Naughton has been seen in numerous Broadway productions and multiple TV shows and movies throughout his 50-year acting career. He’s coming to Aspen for his first time to participate in Solo Flights, starring as the single-man role in DiSalvo’s “Sparrows at the Bar.”

While Naughton recalled performing in a one-person play several years ago — which was produced at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Massachusetts — taking on a one-person role has not been a frequent venture of his acting career. And being able to read and share an in-progress piece of this nature with an audience is pretty rare, Naughton explained.

“I don’t think there are an awful lot more of these kinds of festivals,” Naughton said. “It’s an interesting concept for everybody and also for the audience to have some effect on the outcome of how a piece turns out — the audience is an instrumental part of this creative process.”

Naughton said he plans to arrive in Aspen a couple of days prior to the festival and will spend some of that time working with his fellow creative team on “Sparrows at the Bar” before taking it to the stage for its first-ever reading in front of an audience.

“It’s really a developmental exercise, and hopefully, it’ll be productive for the playwrights,” Naughton said. “At the heart of what we’re doing and talking about, is storytelling.”

Bernstein mentioned that for the first time this year, two of the five new plays shown at Solo Flights will be awarded a $10,000 grant for future productions — an opportunity made possible by Rachel and Rick Klausner, the producing director noted.

“For a writer, having the chance to develop a work at relatively low risk in a beautiful and supportive environment such as Aspen,” Bernstein said, “really is a great gift.”

The third annual Solo Flights Festival will run Sept. 10-15. Single-show tickets and passes are currently available for purchase through the Theater Aspen website.

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