Long before storytelling events bloomed like dandelions across the US, Chicago’s Fillet of Solo Festival was on the scene. Now in its fifteenth year, the festival is, according to Lifeline Theatre artistic director Dorothy Milne “a treasure trove of talent.” This year’s three-week event, running July 21st through August 7th features performers like Jenny Allen, Jimmy Doyle, Julie Ganey and even New York artist James Braly. Our Town spoke with Milne about her work on Fillet of Sole as well as her own storytelling group, The Sweat Girls.
Our Town How has FOS changed over time?
Dorothy Milne It started small and got really big. Live Bait was running the thing all summer in two spaces with twenty-four participating storytellers by the time it closed in 2008. Sharon [Evans, Live Bait's Artistic Director] wanted the Festival to continue and approached me with the idea that Lifeline take over production. As a long-time fan of the festival and a regular storyteller there with my solo collective, Sweat Girls, and with Lifeline being a new work theater, as Live Bait had been, it seemed a perfect fit. After a year of hiatus, Live Bait and Lifeline Theatre co-produced the 2010 Festival and, with that experiment a success, Lifeline has taken over production of the Festival, while Sharon remains a guiding artistic force in the event.
OT To what do you attribute its longevity?
DM If you put together a great storytelling festival, it's only going to grow. The start-up may be challenging -- it's hard to describe to newbies what they're going to see. Just yesterday I heard someone in our box office reading a description of a show to someone, and the caller was like "But it sounds like you're describing the performer rather than their character.” And the box office staffer was explaining that the performer IS the character. This idea often baffles the uninitiated. But anyone who comes to see a good storyteller becomes an immediate convert. They not only return, they bring friends. It's a form you want to share with other people.
OT What goes into coordinating the fest?
DM Sharon and I read dozens of submissions and took several weeks to decide on the eleven shows in the Fest. It’s important to us to bring in established artists who already have a following and to provide opportunities for debut performances by as-yet-unknown artists who excite us. There are twenty-four participating artists; some of the one-hour shows have one performer in them and others have multiple performers, each doing a short piece. And this year, the Fest features four artists with national exposure as well. The logistics are a lot to juggle. And we're producing the Fest in two spaces, so our staff is running back and forth between the venues for these shows that are starting at the same time!
OT You’re a director and a performer. How does each inform the other?
DM Starting as an actor helps me in how I communicate with actors. I speak their language, as much as anyone can speak anyone's language. Figuring out best communication with other humans is a life-long struggle. As far as the reverse, the most important thing is to take the director hat OFF when acting. There's a joke about it being a mistake to cast actors who also direct.
OT Describe Sweat Girls’ origin.
DM I was part of the founding group back in 1993. Before then I'd had my first exposure to storytelling when Amy Sedaris asked me to participate in a show at The Annoyance that Mick Napier would direct. I wrote my first personal monologue [for the show]. After that, Mick challenged me to put together a show for an empty night he had on the calendar. I will owe him and Amy a debt of gratitude forever because these invitations brought me into the storytelling scene and also caused the formation of Sweat Girls. That was the as yet unnamed group I brought to fill the night at the Annoyance.
OT What’s the atmosphere like in Chicago for female performing groups?
DM Very positive. Chicago has an active storytelling scene and you can find performance opportunities. And heck -- you can make your own. That's what we did with Sweat Girls, went around to bar owners and said "hey can we have your back room? We'll charge at the door and people will buy drinks so you'll make money too." That allowed us to do a lot of developing of our work between bigger shows. Look for a bar or coffee shop that could use more business and has a corner you can put a light in and you're off!
OT How is Sweat Girls different than any other story telling performance?
DM For starters, you get multiple storytellers in one evening. We're also all women of a certain age and those that have followed us for the past seventeen years have seen us grow up. But of course you can drop in to any show and not need any back-story. We're good at talking about experiences and ideas that aren't usually spoken aloud but clearly resonate with listeners. We frequently have friends and family say "Wow! You've never told me that! I never even knew that about you!" and here we are telling it on a stage. And I don't know that this makes us different, it's the strength of the best of this form -- but people sometimes come in thinking "Ugh. What am I going to have in common with a bunch of forty and fifty year old women?" and then laugh their asses off.
For more information on Fillet of Solo go here.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Counter Point Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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