International Physical Theater Festival Recap – Part 2

International Physical Theater Festival Recap – Part 2

Mariposa Nocturna (Portmanteau)

Last night, Chicago-based Portmanteau’s Mariposa Nocturna: a Puppet Triptych, performed its first of two shows—the other being tonight.Actor, writer, and puppeteer Stephanie Diaz created Mariposa Nocturna and its brilliant puppets with director Jessica Mondres—both together make up Portmanteau. The triptych has played several times throughout Chicago, including playing the first Chicago International Puppet Festival two-and-a-half years ago, and later that year at 16th Street Theater. Given its production history, several excellent pieces have been written about Diaz, her work, and Mariposa particularly. I would like to discuss it in its Physical Festival context.

At the halfway point this week, I’ve sensed a double question, a tension—maybe not exactly a paradox, per se—from seeing the shows and taking the workshops all in tandem: “How can the familiar startle you? And how can the startling become familiar?” I think the former question floats up from Confetti Maker and the clowning workshops. The latter question grows out of Memory of Dust, and even more assertively from Mariposa Nocturna.

Diaz’s puppets are exquisite and various, ranging from the skeleton king to small, pale butterflies with indefatigable wings. The Portmanteau performers operating them are patient, skilled, present. Credit is especially due to the team—and Mondres in particular—for how quickly this iteration was mounted; for some of the performers, this is their first time doing the show.

But there is a special mischief to how Portmanteau’s puppet movement challenges the other four shows’ human movement. What does it mean for a body to move if a puppet moves just like it? A puppet and a body, in some ways, are pretty similar: they’re mechanical structures that move around on the stage. Yet, there is an unreality to puppets that illuminates an unreality to a silent, moving body. There are moments where the silence makes me nervous. The philosopher Eugene Thacker developed a riff on Kant’s categorical imperative, called the phantom imperative: “Act as if everything real is unreal.” Mariposa pushes us to examine the face-value strangeness and novelty of the physical world around us in a way the other shows can’t exactly (not a criticism, just a difference.)

This isn’t to say that Mariposa is without heart or humor, either! And it holds a mirror up to the “phantom imperative,” by showing us that the unreal can feel super real. Portmanteau combines many disparate, fantastic elements into a heartwarming story. The first panel of the triptych is an episode with San Pascualito Rey reading over innumerable prayers and petitions on behalf of sick loved ones, before finally honoring a little girl’s petition to give her grandmother a peaceful death—which pivots into a backlit puppet sequence on a canvas upstage, depicting a “bawdy Japanese shadow-dream.” The second panel is two skeletal, bird-headed women waking up for the day, before engaging in a ritual that nets them a large egg containing a baby butterfly. The third panel is a short silent film of a ghostly baby carriage trekking from the lakeside to a gravestone, before rolling onto the stage and coughing up a puppet crab and other sea life. All three pieces comment on the shift from life to death, back to life, back to death.

Tonight is your chance to catch Mariposa Nocturna. For me, it was wonderful and reorienting to see something so different—yet somehow not so far—from the kind of plays I normally see. Don’t miss it.

Scratch Night

Scratch Night was a special night that encapsulated the spirit of the community involved with Physical Festival. The festival describes the night as “six short-form physical theater experiments,” which is completely accurate. The pieces ranged from close-to-polished performances, to teasers for fuller performances later in the year, to explorations of in-development projects. They were:

  • Murmurations, created and performed by Semi-Circus, a group of four performers using the tools of circus, clowning, dance, and physical theatre to explore the psychology of human characters during a group therapy session.
  • This Is for You, a short clown piece by Janet Howe (who has one of the kindest clown personas in our classes this week), took a clown’s generosity toward her audience to its logical end: Howe lobbing candy from a bag at whoever wanted some in the audience.
  • Tinder Lover, a clown-mime fusion by Cam Poter, invited an audience member up on stage with him, and immediately thrust them both into the vulnerable, amusing moment you bring a first date back to your apartment. Poter, like Howe, is a delightful, generous clown.
  • Procession, created and performed by Amalia Mathewson, explored a character she’s building: a child of ancient gods comes to earth on gap-year. The piece blended movement to a supercut of thematically relevant audio clips, to Mathewson handing out scraps of paper, containing sections of a single poem, that a handful of audience members read aloud to her.
  • The most fully produced piece was the hilarious Tobes & Sauce Go to the Moon, created and performed by Aileen McGroddy and Isaac Samuelson. On a dark stage, clad in matching white jumpsuits, each wielded a handheld light, constantly shifting the physical scale and bending the rules of their performance, to depict two unlikely-but-charming astronauts bumbling their way to the moon.
  • The evening closed with a slideshow of some of Josiane Keller’s ホテル Hotel, an ongoing project of stark, devastating photographs of clay sculpture-puppets, based on images from the 1970s and ‘80s. It was a quick tonal shift for Scratch Night, but Keller’s work is undeniably powerful. Viewing her explorations, as she puts it, of the difference between a 3-D sculpture and a 2-D image of a 3-D sculpture, was a valuable section of the night, and of the whole festival.

Workshop #1: “The Art of Modern Movement Theatre”

with Theatre de l’Ange Fou (Corinne Soum and Steven Wasson)

Monday morning, 10am. Eleven or so students, including me, file through the doorway into the leftmost theatre at Stage 773. As we pass our two teachers, we shake their hands—first Soum’s, then Wasson’s. We step onstage. Soum quickly reviews the shape of the first four ballet positions with us. Then, she instructs us to move about the space: first walking, then running, sharply changing directions, directing ourselves by first turning our heads, as if racing through “a labyrinth of city streets.” This warms our bodies and puts us in the right imaginative headspace for the class.

Ask other students there and they might answer you slightly differently, but “The Art of Modern Movement Theatre” workshop explored how to expand fluid, routine everyday movements we take for granted into many steps, to locate drama within our bodies. Soum and Wasson build this idea for us in three main segments (at least, as they stand out in my memory) over the course of three hours.

First, we learn several dynamics of movement while doing a simple action—straightening or hunching our back, or shaking a partner’s hand. The dynamics include: sharply doing the whole action at once; bursting to a halfway point, then slowly completing it; vibrating your appendage or trunk as it moves; etc

Second, Soum teaches us a controlled fall. From second or fourth position, you swiftly lift one leg and catch yourself—sort of falling into a shallow lunge—making sure to place your weight entirely over the bent leg. Wasson shows us how to make this a way of walking. We continually shift our weight forward, pushing out over the forward knee, struggling to fall and catch ourselves in a fresh lunge each time. It seemed for many of us to be a difficult move to manage kinesthetically (certainly was for me). I dissociated from my body—how was such a simple thing as stepping so alien, so counterintuitive? It was like the sensation when I struggle to moonwalk at dance parties, but going the regular direction.

Wasson pointed out that the healthy amount of focus moving this way takes tired us. And because it tired us, it created atmosphere. “You become a little tired,” he said, “and then your imagination takes over.” Creating atmosphere in this way, creating drama within the movement of your body, is a central tenet—if not the bedrock idea—of corporeal mime (the form of modern movement the pair has mastered.)

Third, to further show how to expand something small and simple into something beautiful, Wasson and Soum lead us through simple movements—like moving a cup from one table to another, or lifting items off a conveyor belt—and continually divide them into physically challenging steps. The one that will remain with me for a long time was the finale of the class: lifting a glass for a toast in twenty-six movements. After learning the twenty-six parts, we were encouraged to apply the dynamics we learned at the beginning to different sections of the toast. We split into small groups, and watched each other toast, noting the stories and styles that arose as different students specified the toast in their own way.

Wasson quoted their teacher, French mime Étienne Decroux: “There are two things. There’s the technique, that’s neutral, that’s for everyone. Then there is my style, and that’s mine.” These dynamics of movement, these ways of refracting simple gestures into whole episodes, become personalized as you train. They pointed out that while it is useful to conceive of your body as an instrument, it’s more accurate to think of it as an orchestra—the head is not quite the arm is not quite the muscles in the arm is not quite the fingers, and so on—and each piece can dissociate, can split off to play a different rhythm and tone. Indeed, you can complicate and expand anything. Countless stories await.

Workshop #2: “Clown: Play and Presence”

with Frank Wurzinger

Wurzinger did not let his back injury, acquired during the Saturday night performance of Confetti Maker, prevent him from leading his wonderful clowning workshop. (Or from performing his show one final time on Tuesday night.)

We begin sitting in a circle, listening to Wurzinger briefly outline his feelings about clowning. He then asks us to go around and say our name to the group, and to say how we are feeling. We do so. This, it turns out, is a foundation of his clown philosophy: commenting on how the present makes you feel.

He then says: “When I point to you, say your name to the group.” He begins, at random gesturing to each of us in random sequence, and we all call out our name. Then, totally deadpan, he adds: “Now, when I point to you, the group will say your name to you.” Giggles ripple around the ring: we certainly don’t know every other name yet—but we power through. “Now,” Wurzinger asks after that ends, “how did it make you feel to have everyone say your name?”

He transitions us into an exploration of our bodies in the space. The common elements of this movement exercise are there: we are invited to lead with different parts of our body, to explore levels, to vocalize. However, Wurzinger adds an invitation that many of us had never received before: “You are invited to do nothing.”

That invitation further develops Wurzinger’s main ideas about being a clown.

  1. Don’t suffer.
  2. Be honest.
  3. Do what you’re doing for however long you wish—but no longer.

We begin to play simple games, like imitating each other’s movements, or jumping up and down at the same time as our partner. I always rediscover the simplest games offer the purest fun—that finding the game is the heart of clowning. Wurzinger deepens that idea for me. Not only do clowns find the game, but they “declare the game” to the audience, because clowns acknowledge the theatricality of what they’re doing. Because what clowns do always includes their audience.

The closing section of class has groups going up onstage and being present together under Wurzinger’s side-coaching. One group invented a dance. One group performed a new opera. One group struggled to gel, before realizing that they all wanted to push each other over in a fit of clown horseplay. But then Wurzinger begins to pull single clowns down to the front of the stage.

“How do you feel about that?” he asks them, indicating whatever lovely confounding thing is happening on the other side of the stage. This is the heart, the subtext, of the clown’s classic gaze of wonderment toward the audience: “Are you seeing this? This makes feel x or y or z.”

Ultimately, I meditated most on Wurzinger’s perspective on comfort zones. “I play really well when I feel safe,” he says. “If I’m not feeling safe, I’m shit. Right?” This prompted an excellent mini-discussion among the students—was it vulnerable to admit you were bored and change what you were doing? Or was it more vulnerable to stay in boredom (or confusion, or discomfort, etc.) and trust something would come? An answer to this came from Wurzinger at a different point in the class: that a mentor once told him dancing was “moving with awareness,” so any movement could be a dance. And with a clown, there’s the dance of being lost, of wanting to join the fun conversation at the party, of discovering something neat. “The audience will see that and go, ‘I know that dance.’” It was one of the most humanely understanding things I’d ever heard.

Indeed, the implications of the work and discussion of “Clowning: Play and Presence” are still bouncing around inside me. I hope they’re making me a little more playful, a little more generous, and a little less harsh with myself when I need to be comfortable and do nothing.

About author

Kyle Whalen

Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.