In the tiny space at Studio 34 in West Philly, local actor and playwright Chris Davis looks exhausted as he attempts to bring his experimental one-man show, Drunk Lion, to life.
Scrutinizing every inflection and gesture, the 30-year-old morphs seamlessly into an array of bilingual characters—both man and beast—all while periodically breaking the fourth wall to translate bits of Spanish dialogue or deliver a humorously poignant monologue in English.
“Theatrically speaking, this is by far the hardest task I’ve given myself,” the South Philly says of the show, which tells the tale of an unlikely friendship formed between an alcoholic Mexican lion and a foreigner who doesn’t know a lick of Spanish. “I want to match the meaning, feelings and guidance of my own words.”
With the exception of the obvious fictional elements, the show is largely inspired by Davis’ time living in Mexico, where he taught English for three years. “I like to think I’m honoring some sort of memory of it,” says Davis, whose last play, Lion (El Lion), was a surprise hit at 2011’s Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe; it later earned “Most Original Script” at the 2011 Philadelphia Urban Theatre Festival. As for his obsession with lions, it all stems from a snuff video he saw of a man being mauled by a lion, playing on a TV in the middle of a huge Mexico City marketplace.
“No matter what I did, I could not get that particular image of the lion out of my head,” he says. Which is why, after the play was sitting in his drawer for about a year, he decided he needed to bring it to life.
Now, Drunk Lion will be one of more than 15 original solo works debuting over the next 11 days as part of the 3rd Annual SoLow Festival, a grassroots event dedicated to the artistic growth and creation of solo artists.
“A really good solo show, I think, allows you to see inside the performer’s soul, in a sense,” Davis says. “They are entirely vulnerable.”
Created by local performances artists Thomas Choinacky and Amanda Grove, the SoLow Festival allows artists the rare opportunity to conceive work with little to no financial risk. Meanwhile, with admission to most shows ranging from donations of $5-$15, audiences have more to gain than lose.
“Since we have erased money and financial investment from this equation, we can focus on real artistic growth,” says Grove, 36. “I want artists to use the festival as a platform for taking risks and making mistakes.”
There is no application fee or screening process, and 100 percent of revenue goes straight back into the artists’ pockets. Rather than paying to rent a space, the shows will be held at various nontraditional locations and venues around the city—from coffee shops and bars to community centers and a few of the performers’ own homes. For its show, 5th Floor, Bright Light Theater Company will even be taking audiences on a mysterious elevator ride inside the Foremost Building in South Philly.
According to Grove, local businesses have been surprisingly supportive the last three years, opening not only their spaces to artists, but their services as well. “I was shocked when my neighborhood community center said, ‘Sure! Do you need chairs, too?’”
With almost twice as many performances, this year’s festival will be the largest one yet. The diverse lineup of shows include Meghann Williams’ Peep Show, a sound and sculpture experiment at the Viking Mill in Kensington, and Choinacky’s production, Off the Chain, in which he and dancer/choreographer Scott McPheeters examine dance from an entirely new perspective.
Appropriately, all of this year’s SoLow performances have been given the theme “down and dirty,” a term used in the theater community to describe a low-budget show with not enough resources.
“It’s ‘down and dirty theater’ when you have 20 people crammed into a tiny dressing room that is leaking from the ceiling,” Grove jokes.
And while this would normally be perceived as a negative, the participating artists embrace it. “This is the first show I’ve put zero dollars out for,” says Davis, adding that he also doesn’t expect to make much in return. Yet, having become recently unemployed, he’d probably never get to play a drunk Mexican lion if not for this festival.
“I have to memorize my play and I don’t have anyone telling me to, so it’s important to stay motivated,” Davis says following his rehearsal.
“That’s also the reason I like doing it, though—I have almost complete independence.” And despite the difficulty of playing both a man and a lion, he manages to pull off an incredibly entertaining performance.
June 14-June 24. Various times and locations. solowfestival.blogspot.com