Philly artists face fight or flight for SoLow Fest 2017

Eagle Scout Jimmy Grzelak presents 'Wilderness Survival' at this year's SoLow Fest. (Photo by Alana Walters.)

Reeling from 2017’s political bedlam, the organizers of SoLow Fest asked the arts community one question and one question only: fight or flight?

More than 40 artists responded with a collection of performances unearthing ideas of survival and preservation for the eighth annual SoLow Fest, running June 15 through 25. As per usual (or, rather, unusual) the 11-day festival invites audiences to homes, basements, street corners, parks, social media platforms, and other peculiar performance venues for a one-of-a-kind arts exploration of this year’s theme: "Fight or Flight."

According to organizers, SoLow is a DIY theater/arts festival focusing on new and experimental work from solo performers on a shoestring budget: “giving artists the chance to do art anywhere, on any terms.”

Popular for its pay-what-you-can philosophy, SoLow Fest welcomes everyone to experience “weird art,” says Meredith Sonnen, one of the festival organizers. “It’s really important to us that all people have access to art. Not just art that’s in their neighborhood, but art they can afford.”

But what really makes SoLow Fest stand out among the rest is giving artists the platform to take risks and to stage performances they deeply care about.

Finding the good

This year’s festival includes a wide range of performances, like a tour through the wild with Eagle Scout Jimmy Grzelak in Wilderness Survival; dancing in the park with Sean Thomas Boyt’s RAINDANCE; contemplating the idea of “normal behavior” with Tenara Calem in Me More Normal, as she meditates on growing up with a brother with special needs; and going on “a sonic exploration of baking chocolate-chip cookies followed by eating said cookies” with Andy Thierauf in Kitchen Music.

With an emphasis more on happiness than on politics, many artists have shifted the focus of this year’s theme to fighting for what they believe is good and true in the world, as opposed to fleeing what they feel is not.

“This year’s performances are about doubling down, finding some joy in your life, and celebrating what you have,” Sonnen says. “However, they are also about preparing for the worst, as well as preparing to dig in.”

A real basement brings PTSD to light

Two artists digging deep are actor Amanda Michelle Kearns and director Kristen Bailey in their show A Shoe Full of Wet Sand, written and performed by Kearns. The show follows war veteran Mercy Hayes, who has confined herself to her basement battling post-traumatic stress disorder, which, as Kearns notes, can involve a heightened sense of fight or flight. The performance will be staged in a South Philadelphia row home.

The inspiration for the piece came after Kearns stumbled across Internet images of brain CT scans of people with and without PTSD. As someone who has struggled with mental illness, she found the scans beautiful and inspiring.

“I am interested in addressing the reality of mental illness and making it a subject that is less swept under the rug and ‘scary’ to the masses,” Kearns says. “I am also interested in sending a message about the hindrances society has placed on us. I hope the audience gets to feel. I hope they come in with an open heart and open mind and let themselves be told a story.”

And as Sonnen points out, sometimes the most poignant stories are told in the most unconventional ways.

A portion of the proceeds from A Shoe Full of Wet Sand will benefit Protect Our Defenders, an organization that provides support services to survivors of sexual assault in the military.

SoLow Fest takes place at various locations throughout the city June 15 through 25. Visit online for the full lineup and reservation info