Theater Aspen announced on Monday the recipients of its inaugural Solo Flights Project Advancement Fund. Following this year’s Solo Flights Festival — which began Sept. 10-15 at Hurst Theater — two of the five participating playwrights were selected by a panel of judges to each receive $10,000 grants in support of their developing works.
The two plays chosen to receive this first-time grant are “Avaaz,” written by Michael Shayan, and “Sally: A Solo Play,” by Sandra Seaton. Grantees are to use the funding towards a future production of their rewarded piece.
This year’s selection panel included three leading names from different corners of the entertainment industry: chief theater critic for the Washington Post Peter Marks, award-winning actress and playwright Regina Taylor and film producer Isaac Klausner, whose new film “On the Come Up” debuted at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Shayan and Seaton’s works were selected based on distinguished criteria, such as the piece’s ability to engage the audience, the timeliness of the topics discussed and its effective use of the one-person form — which is the category of new works accepted into Theater Aspen’s annual Solo Flights Festival.
“It’s amazing to get this vote of confidence from these distinguished professionals in our industry,” Shayan said. “And I think it helps tell other theaters that these stories matter — there is space for us on the stage.”
An Iranian-American playwright and performer, Shayan’s “Avaaz” tells the story of his mother, whose character Shayan takes on himself. Set in his mother’s home on the Persian New Year, Shayan described his play as like a party and one that opens doors to a shared experience. As the evening unfolds, his mother comes face-to-face with a past she’s been trying to avoid, he continued, and larger questions of identity, belonging and home come forth.
“It’s an honor to get to embody my mother’s story and to introduce my culture and community to audiences that might not be familiar with these traditions,” Shayan said. “We rarely see Iranian stories on stages — most Iranians I know haven’t been in a theater, because we’re not represented on the stage.”
Shayan soon plans to change that. The playwright mentioned how he’s been in contact with different theaters in regards to opportunities, which he said will be announced in the near future.
“My dream is to take this play across the country and share my story, history and culture with audiences everywhere,” Shayan said. “I want to welcome people in.”
Seaton, an award-winning playwright and librettist, also looks to advance her storytelling to the next stages, and with the help of Theater Aspen’s grant. In a highly competitive world of playwrights, she noted the significance behind her acknowledgement.
“To have my work be singled out as worthy of a 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 elated this is happening.”
Seaton’s works have been produced across renowned venues and festivals nationwide — Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Atlanta Black Theater Festival and 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 were present — a handful of whom thanked her for telling their ancestor’s story.
This was the beginning of Seaton’s “Sally: A Solo Play.” The playwright said that her one-person theater piece on Hemings has gone through a number of reincarnations and drafts since she started on it 20 years ago, and while it’s undergone multiple staged readings, the play has not taken form as a full production.
“I wanted, for so long, to have this play go onto the next stage,” Seaton said. “So for me to have this kind of validation is meaningful; it means that the play will reach more audiences — that the story I want to tell will go out to more people — and they’ll be able to enter that world with me.”
Seaton’s “Sally: A Solo Play” immerses the audience into Hemings’ high-stakes world, bringing historical truths to the stage — from the scenes set in memory to those of the play’s tumultuous present moment.
The plot follows Hemings, half-sister to Thomas Jefferson’s deceased wife Martha, as she determines a dying Jefferson must keep his promise to free their children in his will. The play takes place on the day of March 17, 1826 — the day directly after Jefferson writes his will, which did not initially include the agreed-upon signage that would free his and Hemings’ sons.
Performed at Solo Flights by actress Sabrina Sloan and directed by Hannah Ryan, “Sally: A Solo Play” stirred a strong audience response, Seaton said, and a standing ovation following the play’s last scene: Hemings at Jefferson’s bed frame, her children’s lives destined by a quill and a will. The playwright herself said she was even moved by the moment, praising Sloan’s gifted acting skills and Ryan’s knowledgeable direction.
Similar to Seaton’s Solo Flights experience, Shayan expressed gratitude for his team (director Moritz von Stuelpnagel) and the growth of his play throughout the festival’s five-day run.
“Theatre Aspen gave me the time, space and freedom to continue developing this play on my terms with my incredible collaborators,” Shayan said. “And I think this award will help as we continue taking these play places.”