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Two Rutgers graduates perform in world’s largest solo show festival

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From plus-size nerd to a slick New York City real estate broker, Rutgers graduate and playwright-performer Alex Mahgoub went through a series of transitions before he performed “Baba” last week at the “United Solo Theatre Festival” in New York City. 

The autobiographical play is about Mahgoub’s relationship with his dad, who died suddenly when he was 10 years old. “Baba,” Arabic for “father,” deals with growing up fatherless and struggling with bullying, sexuality and life transitions.

The climax of the 50-minute play came when Mahgoub, portraying himself, encounters harassment as a bisexual adult and responds differently than he did as a child — he stands up to the bully instead of “accepting it as reality.” 

“A person needs to be proud of who they are and embrace those differences, which I eventually realize by the end of the show,” Mahgoub said. 

In addition to exploring loss and bullying, the play touches on Mahgoub’s ambiguous aspirations to become a real estate broker while struggling to make it as an actor. Often, actors are not paid well and being 100 percent self-sufficient through acting is rare, he admits.

Although real estate is not Mahgoub’s passion, he has been able to successfully exercise his passion for theater. The skills he fostered through acting have helped him sell homes, and the benefits go both ways, he said. 

“Real estate is a people business. A real-estate broker needs to connect with clients on a human level — to listen and be empathetic to their clients’ needs,” Mahgoub said. “Those skills of listening and feeling empathy are also fundamental aspects of acting.”

Mahgoub said his ultimate goal is not to become a superstar in real estate or theater, but to help people. As a broker, he is able to help clients find their dream home. As an actor, he guides the audience to “understand the human experience.”

While attending Rutgers nearly a decade ago as a theater major, he honed his thespian skills by performing in seven Cabaret Theater plays, including “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Fuddy Meers” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” 

“It was the first time I was acting in front of people. I was trying something new,” he said. “That’s the beauty of college.” He found the small, intimate venue allowed him to better transfer energy with the audience. 

While taking acting classes at Rutgers, Mahgoub met friend and fellow Rutgers graduate Sandy Levitan, who is also performing her own one-woman show at the “United Solo” festival on Nov. 10. 

Levitan’s “Lost in Lvov” follows Levitan’s mother, two aunts and grandmother as they relocate to America from the Soviet Union. 

The tale takes place before and after and highlights the women’s efforts to reinvent themselves in the United States. 

The seeds of the play were planted at Rutgers in stories about her childhood she wrote for Expository Writing class, she said. 

Levitan was the first in her family born in America, and growing up she wrestled to understand why she was so different from the rest of her Jewish and Russian family, she said. 

To help gain a better understanding of her family, she compiled the stories her relatives shared about their journey to the U.S to create “Lost in Lvov.” The play portrays how her life would have been if she had been born in Lvov rather than America.

While writing the play, Levitan realized how lucky she is to be able to pursue such a “superficial” dream as an artist. She said if she had been born in the Soviet Union, she would not have been able to dream. 

“When I was younger, I’d ask my mother what her dreams were, and she’d say ‘I didn’t have dreams. That’s only in America,’” she explained.

The traditional Russian music she recalls hating as a child is now incorporated into “Lost in Lvov” and makes her tear up, she said. 

Similar to Mahgoub, Levitan held many jobs to survive while pursuing acting, including personal trainer, Russian translator, underpaid café waitress and sample distributor at Costco.

“I was working at this café, not getting paid tips. One day I looked out the window while color coordinating the sugars and saw Don Draper pull up in a fancy car,” she said. “He gave me this look like, ‘You’re better than this.’ The next day, I quit.”

Currently, Levitan works as box office manager at the Los Angeles Theatre Center while pursing acting.

Both Mahgoub and Levitan agree that solo performances are exciting because the actor does not have to worry about being cast or having someone else write the perfect script. Instead, the playwright is in charge. 

One-person performances are a way to control creativity and tell a personal story in an intimate setting, “Baba” director Armando Merlo said. His solo show “Salamander Starts Over” inspired Mahgoub to develop his own play.

“A problem that many young actors face is finding their ‘voice.’ Solo shows give the opportunity to create your own voice and craft a show that is tailored to your specific strengths,” Merlo said.

While providing freedom, solo shows are also very challenging, Levitan said. They require an actor to play more than one character, and each character must be completely unique and specific so the audience does not get lost, she said. 

Singer-performer plays are a cathartic and soul-searching experience, Merlo said. When an actor is seeking to resolve aspects of their life, a solo show can often be therapeutic, he said.

“I didn’t start [Baba] with the idea of it being therapy,” Mahgoub said. “But when anybody looks at their own story closely, it turns into a meaningful experience.” 

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