It makes sense that a theatre dedicated to “showcasing and supporting the best new work” would spearhead a festival that situates solo performance and new writing at its core.
This February, the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden is preparing for the third instalment of FIRST 2015, their very own Festival of Solo Performances. With a full to bursting programme, FIRST promises cabaret, magic, immersive performance, physical theatre and even circus among its exciting programme of solo works.
“Solo performances are one of the greatest risks and most exciting challenges for an artist, and offer audiences a strikingly direct and intimate relationship,” say TBT Creative Producers Ben Monks and Will Young. “FIRST celebrates and champions all that’s possible in the form.”
As well as promoting solo performance, the festival also supports new writing. Two such writers are among the festival’s critically acclaimed artists: Dave Florez and Éva Magyar. Though already well established in their own right, this month both artists are premiering new work as part of the festival. Florez presents Angel in the Abattoir, a hero’s tale with a twist; and Magyar offers Marlene — The Competition, an autobiography told through the story of Marlene Dietrich.
Florez can’t remember a time when he didn’t write. After honing his craft at the Edinburgh festival, he collaborated with comedian Phil Nichol on a one-person show called Somewhere Beneath It All, A Small Fire Burns Still. From then on, he has continued writing one-person plays.
“I never really set out to do so but it’s a form that I particularly enjoy writing,” says the Fringe First winner, whose admiration for solo shows is rooted in their unique sense of intimacy.
“It’s a very one-on-one type of experience,” he says. “You feel as if you’re connected to someone else in a way that you might not necessarily have done with a huge cast.”
Angel in the Abattoir, starring William Andrews as Clifford from Islington, tells the story of a man who only ever wanted to be a hero to someone. Skeletons in the closet are unearthed in this tale of love and betrayal, as Clifford finds himself caught between what Florez describes as “an emotional crossroads” — torn between fighting his demons and falling into the abyss.
It’s an archaic form, the hero story, admits Florez, but he has endeavoured to give it a modern twist. He likes to subvert expectations, but he also respects the simplicity of the solo show.
“It’s the purest form of storytelling, you could argue; undiluted,” he says.
Like Florez, Magyar has a deep appreciation for solo shows. And as both the writer and performer of Marlene — The Competition, she has an almost maternal relationship with the work.
“It’s like a child growing up; every age is beautiful in a different way,” she says. “It’s beautiful when they are very small, and then when they start to speak and they go to school — so the same with a show.”
Marlene is equal parts biopic and homage. Growing up in Budapest and emigrating to the UK just five years ago, Magyar sees poignant similarities between her story and that of Marlene Dietrich.
“To be an immigrant, and to be a female of a certain age — which means over 50 — there are barriers,” says actress, gymnast, writer and director Magyar. “Marlene Dietrich left her country and became a star but then they said, ‘She’s too old to make films!’ So she started to make her own shows, and singing and travelling around the world. I thought that it would be nice to use her image and reflect my life on it.”
Marlene is set to be a colourful cacophony of cabaret and circus; storytelling through song, dance and spoken word. To all this, Magyar brings her unique flourish: an Eastern European movement style that recalls Grotowski experimental theatre.
For both writers, bringing their shows from concept to stage is a lengthy growth process. Florez presents Angel in the Abattoir as a work in progress, and Magyar intends to adapt Marlene nightly throughout its run, in response to audience reception.
“I will listen to what people say,” says Magyar. “I will rehearse during the day and change things in the evening to make it better.”
“That’s something that you can do with a one-man show,” says Florez. “We get to gauge audience reaction and use that, and if those little tricks work, then we can ramp that up in the next production. That’s the beauty of live theatre — eventually you’ll come to this crystallised piece of work.”
All that’s left now for both artists is to look forward to opening night.
“This is a very special moment for me,” says Magyar, who presents Marlene as her very own show for the first time in the UK. “I’m introducing myself now as a writer, as a director, a solo artist, and a choreographer. I hope many people will come to see it so I can start a new life creating my own work. I’m very excited.”
Find out more about First Festival 11-28 February on their website.