More fringe than Fringe, the SoLow theater festival opens this weekend

(Provided)

(Provided)

The ninth annual SoLow Fest is happening in Philadelphia this weekend through next, with 39 works scheduled for living rooms, grocery stores, bars, and along the Ben Franklin Parkway.

After nine years of being the anti-establishment theater festival, presenting work that is often too fringy for the Fringe Festival, the SoLow has become pretty well established.

The name is a pun: It started out as a few friends who wanted to perform one-(wo)man theater pieces, and they pooled their resources. SoLow began as a low-budget, solo festival.

And then it grew.

“There was a real hunger for things that might have been in the Fringe as it was 20 years ago, but not ready for what the Fringe is now – a little more polished and produced in a traditional setting,” said festival co-coordinator Meredith Sonnen. “All that work that Philadelphia creates just needed a new home. We’re thrilled to be that home.”

SoLow no longer means solo; festival organizers have opened it up to ensembles. It still upholds its mission of keeping a low barrier for entry. Unlike the Fringe Festival — where artists pay hundreds of dollars to participate and the festival also takes a portion of ticket sales — SoLow artists pay nothing, and the festival takes nothing.

The festival administration has zero income. Its coordinators actually lose money every year because they pay for the festival’s website out of pocket.

The pieces in the festival are not chosen by its coordinators; rather, they are simply what the artists were able to pull together in time. This year’s festival tag line, “Stranger Things Have Happened,” is more of a creative prompt than a theme.

One of of the pieces is “The Depression Show,” a fictional late-night TV talk show in the vein of Jimmy Kimmel’s. Normally, celebrities come on to talk about how they overcame depression, but, in this instance of the show, nobody came. The host finds himself alone onstage with an audience but no guests.

“He is trying to entertain the audience the best he can, but he’s seeing the show is falling apart, and it’s not delivering what he feels everyone expects of him,” said Greg Nanni, the show’s creator and performer. “He goes into a weird spiral journey in between talking about his past and his present.”

That host character, also named Greg Nanni, reveals that he once tried to kill himself. Nanni is playing a version of himself, using the TV show as a structure to talk about that time.

Nanni is an emerging writer, about to enter Columbia University in the fall to study playwriting. He has several unproduced scripts, some of which feature characters grappling with depression and suicide. He said this is the first time he has written a piece that describes the details of his experience.

“There’s such a huge stigma about trying to kill yourself, and then people don’t talk about it and pretend it never happened,” he said. “I do this show because I would have loved to have seen a show like this when I was near-suicidal depressed. It would have been helpful to hear someone talk about it.”

Nanni had no hesitation presenting his bout with suicidal depression as a comedy, but he felt uncomfortable performing this show in the wake of two high-profile suicides. He did not want to appear to be piggybacking on the recent news of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. He had started writing “The Depression Show” well before their deaths.

“There were a lot of fears in doing something like this,” he said.

His first performance on Thursday night had a sell-out crowd. At Ortlieb’s bar in Northern Liberties, that means about 40 people.

While an audience of 40 may not seem like much in other theater spaces, it can feel like a thousand when you are confessing your own failed suicide attempt to a roomful of strangers.

“I’m kind of riding high right now,” said Nanni the day after. “I didn’t think it would go that well, but it went very well.”

“The Depression Show” is an example of right-sized art for the SoLow Fest. Tight venue spaces and risky material force artists to cater to small audiences, which Sonnen believes fosters unique forms of creativity.

“We’re just trying to encourage weirder, DIY art that might change the course of where performance art is going,” she said. “Once the scales get too big, to an extent, you can’t make those risky choices anymore.”

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