The Aspen Theater announced the recipients of its first Solo Flight Project Advancement Fund on Monday. Following this year’s Solo Flights Festival – which kicked off September 10-15 at the Hurst Theater – two of the five participating playwrights were selected by a jury to each receive $10,000 grants to support their works in development.
The two plays chosen to receive this first grant are “Avaaz”, written by Michael Shayan, and “Sally: A Solo Play”, by Sandra Seaton. Recipients must use the funding for future production of their winning work.
This year’s judging panel included three big names from different corners of the entertainment industry: Washington Post Chief Theater Critic Peter Marks, award-winning actress and playwright Regina Taylor, and film producer Isaac Klausner, whose the new movie “On the Come Up” has debuted. at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Works by Shayan and Seaton were selected based on distinguished criteria, such as the piece’s ability to engage audiences, the timeliness of the topics covered, and its effective use of individual form – which is the category of accepted new works. as part of the annual Theater Aspen competition. Solo Flights Festival.
“It’s amazing to get this vote of confidence from such distinguished professionals in our industry,” Shayan said. “And I think that helps tell other theaters that these stories matter – there’s room for us on stage.”
Iranian-American playwright and performer, Shayan’s “Avaaz” tells the story of his mother, whose character takes hold of himself. Set in her mother’s house on Persian New Year’s Day, Shayan described her piece as a celebration and one that opens doors to shared experience. As the evening unfolds, his mother comes face to face with a past she is trying to avoid, he continued, and larger questions of identity, belonging and home arise.
“It’s an honor to be able to embody my mother’s story and introduce my culture and community to audiences who may not be familiar with these traditions,” Shayan said. “We rarely see Iranian stories on stage – most Iranians I know haven’t been to the theater, because we’re not represented on stage.”
Shayan plans to change that soon. The playwright mentioned how he has been in contact with different theaters regarding the opportunities, which he says will be announced in the near future.
“My dream is to take this piece across the country and share my story, my history and my culture with audiences around the world,” Shayan said. “I want to welcome people.”
Seaton, an award-winning playwright and librettist, is also looking to advance her storytelling into next steps, and with the help of the Theater Aspen grant. In a highly competitive world of playwrights, she noted the importance of her recognition.
“To have my work singled out as worthy of full production really means a lot,” Seaton said. “As a writer, you can never take anything for granted about whether your work will be appreciated…I’m thrilled that’s happening.”
Seaton’s works have been produced at nationally renowned venues and festivals – Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Atlanta Black Theater Festival and the Glimmerglass Festival, to name a few.
In 2001, composer William Bolcom commissioned Seaton to create a libretto for the solo opera, titled “From the Diary of Sally Hemings”. Seaton recalled the operatic work’s premiere and post-reception, where she said 45 of Hemings’ descendants attended – a handful of whom thanked her for telling their ancestor’s story.
This was the debut of Seaton’s “Sally: A Solo Play”. The playwright said his one-person play on Hemings has seen a number of reincarnations and drafts since it began 20 years ago, and although it has undergone several staged readings, the play did not take shape as a full production.
“I’ve wanted this piece to take the next step for so long,” Seaton said. “So for me to have that kind of validation is meaningful; it means that the play will reach more people – that the story I want to tell will reach more people – and that they will be able to enter this world with me.
Seaton’s “Sally: A Solo Play” immerses audiences in the high-stakes world of Hemings, bringing historical truths to life – from scenes memorized to those in the play’s tumultuous present moment.
The plot follows Hemings, half-sister of Martha, Thomas Jefferson’s deceased wife, as she determines that a dying Jefferson must fulfill his promise to free their children in his will. The play is set on the day of March 17, 1826 – the day after Jefferson wrote his will, which initially did not include the agreed signage that would free his and Hemings’ sons.
Performed on Solo Flights by actress Sabrina Sloan and directed by Hannah Ryan, “Sally: A Solo Play” drew a strong response from audiences, Seaton said, and a standing ovation after the play’s final scene: Hemings at the frame of Jefferson’s bed, his children’s lives destined by a pen and a will. The playwright herself said she was even moved by the moment, praising Sloan’s talented acting skills and Ryan’s shrewd direction.
Similar to Seaton’s Solo Flights experience, Shayan expressed his gratitude for his team (director Moritz von Stuelpnagel) and the growth of his game over the five days of the festival.
“Theatre Aspen has given me the time, space and freedom to continue to develop this play on my terms with my amazing collaborators,” Shayan said. “And I think this award will help us as we continue to take those places to play.”