ED2020 Caro Meets ED2020 Theatre

Penny Cole: Flying Solo

By | Published on Monday 3 August 2020

One of the venues taking part in the “virtual edfringe” – with around eighty shows to stream online over the next few weeks – is theSpaceUK.

When reading about all the planned digital events in theSpaceUK programme, I noticed that six of the shows came from one producer – the US-based Flying Solo! Presents – and was keen to find out more about this prolific company and its previous work at the Fringe.

I arranged a chat with founder Penny Cole, to talk about the work we’ll be able to access online this month and the artists behind it, as well the aims of her company and her hopes for the future.

CM: Can you start by telling us about Flying Solo? Who are you and what do you do?
PC: I am Penny Cole and I founded Flying Solo! Presents in 2018. Our goal is to introduce new American work by emerging American artists to the international stage.

As a theatre director and maker much of my work involves the development of new plays. As a result, I see lots of new work that is fresh and vibrant and funny and touching that I know will appeal to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe audiences.

I have had the pleasure of bringing several groups of students to the Fringe since 2001 and wanted to find a way to use my knowledge of the Fringe to support professional artists who might not have the opportunity to have their voices heard on the world stage for a variety of reasons.

We are based in Golden, Colorado, USA but draw our company from all over the United States.

CM: You’re taking part in what we are calling the ‘virtual fringe’ via theSpace. It is a venue you have worked with before?
PC: Yes, we presented our first season in 2019 at theSpace@Surgeons’ Hall. ‘Marrow’ and ‘box.’ both had a wonderful response from our audiences and ‘Marrow’ garnered two five-star reviews, which was quite rewarding. We found theSpace to be a welcoming and supportive venue and appreciate the breadth of their programming, especially their emphasis on new work.

CM: If COVID hadn’t happened, would you have been at the ‘real’ Fringe? If so, what will you miss about it?
PC: Oh yes! Flying Solo! Presents was scheduled to present four shows in 2020 in the Haldane Theatre at theSpace@Surgeons’ Hall.

We will miss so much the live audiences, the dynamic atmosphere of the Fringe, the other performers, seeing masses of shows, making new friends and colleagues, Edinburgh and, yes, even flyering – at least a little bit.

Producing and performing at the Fringe is at one and the same time inspiring and utterly exhausting, but immersing yourself in that big vat of creativity and excitement cannot be equalled.

CM: Can you explain the technicalities of the online shows for us? How and where will audiences access the shows?
PC: All the shows can be accessed by going to online.thespaceuk.com. Click on the Programme to choose your show and click on the Watch button to see the show. All shows are free and once uploaded to theSpace website can be accessed 24/7 from any computer or device. The first set of shows will be available from 8 Aug, more will be added on 15 and 22 Aug. Once uploaded most shows will run through to 30 Aug.

CM: Are all your online shows ones that have been created during lockdown? Who are the artists behind them? Have they been involved in edfringe in the past?
PC: Yes, all the online shows have been created, at least in part, during lockdown.

Dennis Elkins, the creator of ‘box.’ – which performed in Edinburgh last year – is back with a portion of part two of his ‘N’ trilogy. Dennis is a professional actor and storyteller based in NYC.

None of the rest of the company, other than myself, has performed or been involved with edfringe previously. Matt Zambrano, actor, comedian and spoken word artist was to perform in this year’s Fringe. We have put his show on hold until next year and he is presenting a brand-new piece called ‘Wake And Sing’.

Jenny Stafford and Justin Maxwell are two playwrights I have had the pleasure of working with in the past. Jenny’s usual medium is musical theatre so her one-woman show is quite a departure for her. Justin has the most amazing aesthetic and style of writing, non-linear and fantastical at times, and I find his work exciting.

We are also thrilled to have our first collaboration with another theatre company. This Is Not A Theatre Company is a site-based, interactive, participatory, dance-theatre based in NYC. Their two shows have been created specifically in response to being in lockdown.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about each show, maybe? A vague idea of what each one is about?
PC: ‘anything to declare, mr. dennis?’ is a video journal of Dennis Elkins’ travels through India, seeking an epiphany at a particularly poignant time in his life. He explores being the “other” and struggles with cultural appropriation, telling the tale with his own brand of humour.

‘Wake And Sing’ is based on Matt Zambrano’s experience as an out of work comedian who is offered work hosting Zoom wakes for the families of deceased COVID-19 victims at the same time as he is leading online sing-alongs for the residents of a nursing home.

‘Some Kind Of Weasel’, written and performed by Jenny Stafford, is an adaptation of a collection of humorous essays she has been writing in quarantine. A very odd bachelorette party frames her musing on women, their roles, and the tortured paths of relationships.

‘Now Maybe Sunbeam’, written by Justin Maxwell and performed by Ron Zank, invites us into the world of a very stressed corporate employee who is taking stock of his life with the help of his “cats”.

‘Play In Your Bathtub’ by This Is Not A Theatre Company is an immersive audio spa for physical distancing; a site-specific immersive experience taking place in your own bathtub. The audio play will guide you through a relaxing experience using poetry and music.

‘Guru Of Touch’, by This Is Not a Theatre Company, is a new play, written for Zoom, telling the story of a faith healer who heals by touch attempting to transition his practice to Zoom.

CM: How was your programme put together? Are the shows connected at all in terms of themes?
PC: We took our cue from the call from theSpace for work created while in lockdown. Four of the shows deal directly with some aspect of life in quarantine and the adaptations we as humans are making to our normal practices. Two of the shows are a result of artists having a lot of unexpected time on their hands and turning to projects that may have been in process but needed time to develop.

The shows really aren’t connected by theme although there is a strong element of humour in all the shows, humour combined with moments of poignancy.

As Elkins and Zambrano were slated to perform this year, I reached out to them first. From there I put out a call to playwrights I admire and like to work with to see who had any work. Erin Mee of This Is Not a Theatre Company and I have talked for the last two years about collaborating and this seemed a perfect time to do so.

CM: Was it hard to bring it all together during lockdown? What challenges do you face? Do you think it’s harder or easier than producing live shows?
PC: It actually wasn’t hard to bring the artists on board. As Jenny put it, this project has filled a “big theatre sized hole” in all our hearts.

Though coordinating six shows is a challenge no matter the medium. In place of travel and housing plans, I had to pay attention to technical demands and learn a whole new vocabulary around digital production. If anything, there are many more production tasks placed on the performers as they are responsible for the filming and therefore the lighting, sound, and visual elements besides the script and performing.

I think each form of production has its own unique challenges and one is not necessarily harder than the other, simply different. One upside is that artists who probably could not have afforded a run in Edinburgh this year are able to take part in the festival for relatively little financial outlay.

That has expanded the number of colleagues and theatre makers I can include in the fun, which is fabulous. Another upside is that our creative teams can be based all over the country and still work together, one team has members in New Orleans, Nebraska and Minnesota.

CM: Over lockdown we’ve seen many companies creating cultural events for online consumption, often in new and innovative ways. Do you think this form of ‘delivery’ might have a life beyond lockdown?
PC: In the world of immersive and site-based theatre we have been seeing a blending of live performance with technology for quite some time. While most of these still require a physical audience to be present or to be travelling through physical space, I think that the techniques these companies and artists have been exploring can inform how theatre moves forward.

It will be interesting to see how we as humans, once we emerge from our cocoons, might be changed in terms of how we interact with one another, which will impact how theatre is delivered in live venues as well as online.

I do think this form of delivery will have a life beyond lockdown. I hope so on one level, I’d love to see a Fringe with a strong physical, live theatre platform AND a virtual platform. As I have noted before, the digital platform opens access to the Fringe by levelling the financial playing field significantly – though not completely – but enough to help some of those who struggle to bring shows to Edinburgh for financial reasons.

CM: Do you have plans for new ventures after the virtual Fringe? Will you be doing any other online accessible things?
PC: Oh yes! Dennis Elkins is working on the completion of his ‘N’ trilogy and we plan to bring all three to Edinburgh for their UK/European premieres over the next two years. The teams working on two of our online shows are quite interested in expanding and reworking the scripts for live performance.

I am currently working with two women in Colorado on two new one-woman shows. One is focusing on identity and perception of female beauty, specifically if you are a woman of colour. The other piece is in the very early stages but we are interested in our use of breath in the theatre and our privileged use of the words “just breathe” or “take a breath” in light of the horrific murders of several black men in the US, not to mention the way COVID-19 attacks the human lungs.

In addition, we are booked in the Haldane at theSpace@Surgeons’ Hall for four shows in 2021, three of which will be the shows we cancelled this year. If there is the opportunity to also participate online, I would love to do that too.

CM: What hopes do you have for a post-COVID future?
PC: Wow, this is a big question for which I don’t have many specific answers at this point. I am hoping that we can emerge from this pandemic with more empathy for and understanding of our fellow humans, and that we all realise that the arts can help us grieve, understand, and even grow and make peace with some of the horrors we are experiencing presently.

I hope that we can have patience when we realise the world truly won’t be the same again, nor will theatre, and embrace the opportunity to make theatre and all the arts much more present and vital in the lives of all people. On a much more personal and selfish scale, I look forward to a big bowl of cullen skink and a pint at the Rose Leaf in Leith after seeing a gloriously exciting performance in Edinburgh in 2021.

The Flying Solo! shows were presented as part of the 2020 Online@theSpaceUK programmewhen the full Edinburgh Festival was cancelled due to COVID-19.

LINKS: online.thespaceuk.com | www.flyingsolopresents.com | twitter.com/theSpaceUK