PREVIEW: SOULO Theatre Festival (Soulo Theatre)

Tracey Erin Smith took the Fringe world by storm in 2006 with her one-woman show The Burning Bush, about a rabbi who finds enlightenment through stripping. Since then, she’s made a name for herself as a solo player and teacher of Soulo classes, in which aspiring artists are encouraged to find their voices and create a personal performance piece. The classes continue, but in addition, Smith runs a five-day theatre festival that includes both performances of finished pieces and workshops for those who are inspired to tell their own stories. Now in its fifth year, the SOULO Theatre Festival runs from May 25-29 2017 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. We asked Smith a few questions about the upcoming event.

Can you briefly describe the SOULO Theatre Festival and how it was inspired?

The SOULO Theatre Festival was formed five years ago when, after teaching Soulo for 10 years, I noticed that there was a community of people growing around the classes who loved meeting each other and seeing the shows created by the latest batch of Soulo grads. So I asked myself, how can I grow this community and reach a wider audience, and the answer was, start a festival! That was five years ago and it has been such an incredible festival built around the idea that people’s stories matter and listening to each others’ stories benefits everyone; the teller feels heard and seen and validated, and the audience learns they are not alone in their struggles, hopes, dreams and fears.

What can the audience expect to see?

At SOULO Festival, 50% of our programming is the best solo shows from across the country and New York City and the other 50% are workshops, panels and talks that help people create a show of their very own based on their lives. You can expect to see some amazing professional theatre, two world premieres (NEWSGIRL & We The Women), and four Soulo grads each doing a 12 minute show. We have amazing shows about parenthood from a straight cis woman perspective (MAMAHOOD – Bursting Into Light) and the perspective of a queer male who adopts a teenage girl of colour (Two Kittens and a Kid).

And you can expect to meet new amazing people! We’re known as The World’s Friendliest Theatre Festival and that’s because SOULO is a community of people who care about stories and the people who tell them. Many of our crowd are SOULO grads so they have a total understanding of what it takes and how amazing it is to look at your life and then tell part of it on stage; it’s exhilarating and many people say it was a highlight for them and that they feel transformed.

The festival combines performances and workshops. Could you tell us a little about the workshops on offer, and the value of combining theory and practice?  

My theory of success is, if I’m going up, you’re coming with me! So I want people to see examples of the best that this art form can be and then while they’re all fired up and inspired they can then take a workshop or listen to a panel or talk that will help them create something like the show that they just saw. Solo theatre is an art form ANYONE can do; all you need is a curiosity to get to understand yourself and your story better, and then a living room, community centre or stage to tell it on. We have amazing teachers and speakers this year. These events happen Saturday and Sunday afternoon and they are only $15! These workshops would cost you five times that out in the real world. Do yourself a favor and get to know yourself and your story and then share it…we need to learn from you!

What do you find especially compelling about solo performances and monologue-based storytelling?

The courage it takes to step out of the safety of sitting with the tribe to then walk alone on stage and share who you are and what you have lived through. And that doing this kind of creative and personal work changes you and changes your life. I have seen this now for 15 years. It has changed my life and helped me survive losing my father to suicide in 2010 by making a show about it that helped others dealing with similar issues. And I’ve also had a blast performing shows that were what I would call spiritual comedies. When done right, this art form is the most mesmerizing transformational experience there is; it’s in our DNA to share and listen to stories of other human beings and we always learn something about ourselves and life.

If you can’t (alas) make it to the whole festival, what’s a good entry point for the curious? 

Every show is chosen because we think it’s amazing and that everyone should see it. Come to opening night world premiere of NEWSGIRL; this will be an incredible night at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Gym written and performed by the founder and head coach of the gym, Savoy Howe. Also to get a feel for what this work is and a behind-the-scenes peek, come to my talk Friday at 5pm, The Story You Tell About Your Life Becomes Your Life; I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned from listening to thousands of life stories and talking about how I got the idea for my five solo shows and sharing part of them on stage.

What’s your number one piece of advice for aspiring solo performers?

Sit somewhere quiet and write down a list of 10 turning points in your life. Now set a timer for 10 minutes and write about them one at a time, capture as much detail as you can, all five senses, the sounds, smells, what you could see, how it felt, what the other person looked like and what they were doing. Tell this all in the present tense, tell it as if it is happening now, right now, not in the past. Do this and you will start to build a show! And…consider coming take a class so you can experience how powerful and helpful it is to do this work with a guide and other people!

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Photo of Soulo cast members provided by Tracey Erin Smith